Visiting

Interactive Visitors’ Guide

Interactive Visitors’ Guide

This guide shows all the major points of interest on the airfield that survive today. For more detailed information on each point please select the corresponding link below:

  • The Battle of Britain
  • The Brains Behind the Teeth
  • Growth of an Airfield
  • Between the Wars
  • Kenley Tribute
  • A Living Airfield
  • Local Voices
  • Rifle Range

Today , all that remains are in the main structures, which were completed when Kenley was modernised to meet the renewed threat of war. Two crossing concrete runways, a perimeter track and 3 blast pens were built, in which aircraft were dispersed around the airfield.

In 1939, at the start of the Second World War, Kenley was still being rebuilt. By spring 1940, the preparations were complete and Kenley became a fully operational sector of Fighter Command.

Kenley Airfield today

None of the original hangars survive today, as three were destroyed in 1940 and the last burnt down in 1978. Other buildings have also gone, but most of the blast pens,  the NAAFI and the Officers’ Mess are still here. These important features are protected as scheduled monuments and listed buildings.

Kenley Common

Surrounding the airfield site is 138 acres of woodland known as Kenley Common. Some features of the historic common land survive in the form of boundaries and old trees. The common today consists of chalk grassland and ancient woodland, with fine views over the Caterham valley and North Downs. For more information click on the Kenley Common link above.

 

 

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The Battle of Britain

By August 1940, Germany occupied much of mainland Europe, from the Scandinavian countries in the north to France in the south, leaving Britain isolated against the Nazis. Only the English Channel prevented the expected invasion. Hitler knew that if he were to get his troops safely across the water, he would first have to defeat the Royal Air Force (RAF).

The British had lost about half their fighter aircraft during the retreat from France and were greatly outnumbered by the German air force, the Luftwaffe. Hitler had planned to invade Britain on the 13th August 1940 but the RAF was still to strong a fighting force.

The attack on 18th August 1940

On this day, the Germans launched a powerful air offensive on bases and communication networks in southern England.

About 100 enemy aircraft headed towards Kenley and neighbouring Biggin Hill airfields on a high level raid. Meanwhile, nine Dornier Do17 bombers came in low and attacked Kenley, destroying three hangars, the medical quarters and ten planes on the ground. One officer and eight RAF men were killed, with eight others injured. Fortunately, the operations room was left standing.

Ground defences

The Germans had studied aerial photographs of Kenley and knew their targets. Their Dornier aircraft were equipped with cannons and bombs, specially designed for low level attack.

Kenley was defended by anti-aircraft guns positioned around the airfield's perimeter track. The most effective of these was the Bofors gun.

Another innovative defence measure was the parachute and cable system. Rockets were fired into the sky, trailing behind them a steel cable, which was suspended for a few seconds from a parachute. The drag of the parachute would bring down any aircraft that came into contact with the cable. On the 18th August, the system was fired, but just one Dornier was brought down. The burning plane was found by Air Warden Reid, who witnessed the crew die in the flames.

Aftermath

Of all the German bombs dropped that day, only a few actually reached their target. Many fell on the surrounding towns. For both Kenley Airfield and the country this series of attacks became known as 'the hardest day'.

After the raids, civilians and military personnel struggled frantically to put the airfield back into working order. In testimony to their dedication, it was serviceable the following day.

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The Brains Behind the Teeth

Before the Second World War, the Royal Air Force was organised into 'Fighter' and 'Bomber' Commands. Fighter Command was further split into Groups, of which the south-east was 11 Group. These Groups were divided into Sectors, each with a principal aerodrome. Kenley sector was responsible for protecting the capital from attacks.

"The fighters were the teeth of the Fighter Command. But scarcely less important were the 'eye' and 'brain' organisations and the 'nervous system' which carried the information between them, to position the 'teeth' so they could snap at the enemy with greatest effect." (Alfred Price in The Hardest Day)

The leader of Fighter Command was Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding.

"an exceptionally far-sighted innovator and a very capable administrator, an aloof complex figure. To the fighter pilots, Dowding was like a character in a play who exerts a continual influence on events, but who seldom appears on stage." (Alfred Price in The Hardest Day)

The stars of the show at the fighter stations were the pilots, but their successes depended on the teams of support staff, who operated at ground level.

Radar (Radio Directional Finding) detected approaching aircraft out to sea, then the Observer Corps following them overland. This information was filtered and passed to the Operations Room, where the picture of the developing raid was plotted. The fighters were then scrambled and directed to intercept the enemy.

Arthur Owens, an electrician living in Kingston, secretly passed on intelligence to the Germans about the existence of radar and the number of aircraft station at Kenley. Despite having this information, and much to British surprise, the radar stations were not often bombed. This was later found to be due to a German administrative error.

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Growth of an Airfield

Construction of the airfield began in 1917 because Britain needed more aircraft to fight in Europe during the First World War. It was built on farmland and on Kenley Common, which was owned by the City of London and being used as a golf course.

During the First World War the airfield was on 'Aircraft Acceptance Park' whose role was to prepare aircraft for service abroad. To house the planes, seven large hangars were built at the southern end of the airfield.

The years of peace

After the war ended in 1918, Kenley was kept as a permanent Royal Air Force (RAF) station and used by training and fighter squadrons as well as for leisure and cargo flights.

Preparations for war

When Germany re-armed and expanded its forces in the 1930s, Kenley was modernised to meet the renewed threat. Two crossing concrete runways and a perimeter track were built, so that aircraft could take off and land in all weathers. The new, faster monoplane fighters needed a longer take off run so three redundant hangars were removed to lengthen one of the runways. The airfield was enlarged by closing the old Hayes Lane, which had formerly split the airfield in two. 13 blast pens were also added, in which aircraft were dispersed around the airfield.

Fighter station

In 1939, at the start of the Second World War, Kenley was still being rebuilt. By spring 1940, the preparations were complete and Kenley became a fully operational sector of Fighter Command.

Kenley Airfield today

None of the original hangars survive today, as three were destroyed in 1940 and the last burnt down in 1978. Other buildings have also gone, but most of the blast pens, the NA AFI and the Officers' Mess are still here. These important features are protected as scheduled monuments and listed buildings.

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Between the Wars

Peace conference shuttle

Kenley had an important role ferrying Cabinet Ministers (including Winston Churchill), dignitaries and mail to the Paris Peace Conference that took place in 1919. Some of the planes used were converted bombers painted silver to look less war like.

On the first night service on of the crew left the emergency hatch in the floor of the bomber open and, in putting on his lifejacket, accidentally inflated it. He moved up forward to ask the pilot what he should do and fell through the open hatch but was caught by his inflated jacket. He stayed there for the rest of the flight – cold from the waist down but alive!

Life on station

In the 1920s life was relatively care free and enjoyable for the young airmen. They flew the latest fighters, practice formation flying and showed their skills in aerial acrobatics.

But it was dangerous too as aircraft technology was in its infancy, engines occasionally seized or parts broke. Your life depended on where this happened.

Sports, theatre and music groups helped forge team building and provided entertainment. Pranks were tolerated until they got out of hand – such as flying beneath Tower Bridge on Christmas Day in 1926!

Fear for the future

The station was rebuilt in the early 30s and, with worries about German military strength after Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Fighter Command was born in 1936.

The first monoplane fighter, the Hawker Hurricane, on which effective national defence depended, reached No 3 Squadron at Kenley in March 1938. This version needed more take off space than later ones highlighting the need to cut down trees nearby and provide the permanent concrete runways planned.

Annual Empire Air Days organised at British bases in 1934-39 provided entertainment and reassurance for the public and helped RAF recruitment.

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Kenley Tribute

Remembering those who served at RAF Kenley

The Kenley Tribute commemorates all who served here between 1917 and 1959 both on the ground and in the air.

The white Portland stone was sculpted by Bridget Powell and takes the form of an open book whose pages list the number of each squadron stationed here. The figures on the central panel represent the ground staff, aircrew and women personnel who played such an important role in the defence of Britain.

Keeping them safe, keeping them flying, the ground crew at work.

When visiting the Kenley Tribute, you are standing in front of a Second World War blast pen designed to protect fighter aircraft from the effects of bombs exploding nearby. Built into the back wall is an air raid shelter that couldn't withstand a direct hit and which doubled as a store. Ground crew had to hurry to rearm, refuel and overhaul the aircraft so they were ready for their next combat sortie.

Imagine you are one of the essential staff who keep the Spitfires and Hurricanes airworthy in August 1940. Your fighter aircraft have already taken off when the siren walls signalling that the airfield is under German attack.

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A Living Airfield

In 1959, Kenley was closed as an operational base of the Royal Air Force (RAF), bringing an end to its many years of service for powered aircraft. However, it remains an active airfield and is now used to train the pilots of the future, using gliders.

English Heritage identified Kenley as "the most complete fighter airfield associated with the Battle of Britain to have survived". Unlike other fighter stations that were modernised, Kenley has retained its original runways, giving visitors a true flavour of its historic purpose.

Nowadays, several organisations are custodians of the land on and around Kenley airfield, working to protect and conserve its important features.

Royal Air Force

The Ministry of Defence owns the airfield, including the runways and the remaining buildings. The RAF uses it at weekends to train the 615 Volunteer Gliding Squadron Air Cades, who come from London and the south-east region. www.615vgs.com

Surrey Hills Gliding Club

This private club leases the airfield on weekdays. They provide ‘experience’ flights and training for civilian glider pilots. www.southlondongliding.co.uk

The Kenley Airfield Friends Group

This group represents the local community and those with an interest in or historic tie to the airfield. The Friends are working to secure the long-term preservation of Kenley and to inform people of its historic use. www.kafg.org.uk

The City of London Corporation

The City owns and manages the open space surrounding the airfield, known as Kenley Commons. www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/openspaces

English Heritage

As the government advisor on England's historic environment, English Heritage protects and promotes Scheduled Monuments, such as the blast pens on Kenley Common. www.english-heritage.org.uk

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Local Voices

On this embankment, during the Battle of Britain, stood anti-aircraft guns, pointing skyward, ready to shoot down enemy aircraft flying over the village of Whyteleafe. Some of the men and women who fought in this conflict lie buried in the cemetery of St. Luke's Church.

Cost of War

The two World Wars had different impacts on the local community. Many men left the area during the First World War, to fight and die abroad. In contrast, allied pilots arrived here during the Second World War, to fight against Hitler.

Some of those who gave their lives are buried in the airman's corner of the churchyard. Roads around the airfield are named after famous Kenley airmen, including the approach road – 'Victor Beamish Avenue'.

Home front

As the Second World War progressed, people joined their local Observer Corps, watching out for enemy activity in the air and relaying this information to the Operations Room.

At Kenley, local people constructed the airfield and also worked in the kitchens and hospitals. Some took service-related roles, such as air raid wardens and fire crews

The presence of the airfield resulted in the area being a major target for enemy attacks, putting civilian lives and property at risk. Despite the pressure on the local communities, war time accounts are full of a sense of camaraderie, and of people 'pulling together' towards a common goal.

New friends

The rising prominence of Kenley as a fighter station caused influxes of Allied service men and women. The structure of the community changed as foreign and Commonwealth pilots, particularly from Poland, Canada and New Zealand, made their homes here.

A boy's own Kenley

Kenley aerodrome was a magnet to the boys living locally. The aircraft were often parked so close to the edge of the field that every detail of the design could be seen:

"I once had the pleasure of helping to prevent a Hawker Hart from colliding with a hedge. Some airmen playing football nearby realised he was not going to be able to pull up in the ground he had left to him. We brought the machine to a stop not within 6 inches to spare from the hedge which separated the field from a house. The pilot looked decidedly shocked." (H. I. Martin: Courtesy of the Bourne Society)

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Rifle Range

At the rifle range, airmen and infantry, who defended the airfield, practiced their shooting skills.

If you visit the airfield, you will see the impressive brick wall of the rifle range in the southern part of the grounds. The brick wall is an essential safety feature designed to catch stray bullets that completely miss their target.

Those shooting here fired from this end, beneath a tin covered wooden awning, towards targets fixed to two parallel concrete walls in front of the brick wall that forms the back of the firing range. These two concrete walls and the hollow that once lay between them are now largely buried by sand, but you can still see some metal fixings on their inside faces where the targets were attached.

The brick wall has two surviving revetments, or supporting walls, at right angles to it which also help enclose sand placed here to catch bullets fired at the targets. Originally a small brick building stood on the left where people could shelter close to the back of the range protected from bullet ricochets by an angled concrete wall (now demolished).

The date the range was completed was scratched in wet mortar "29-6-28" but this is now buried. The brick wall at the far end of the firing range is in good condition for its age although the bricks facing you have suffered some damage from weathering and bullets.

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