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"Battle of Britain" Front Line Fighter Base: Operating From Gravesend Airfield
It never ceases to surprise me how aviation has expanded exponentially since its first inception in 1903 with the Wright Brothers aircraft at Kitty Hawk USA. We have gone from flimsy wood, wire and canvas with spluttering petrol engines to sleek high performance aircraft incorporating carbon fibre and powered by awesome jet engines giving previously unimaginable speeds and manoeuvrability in little more than one generation. Like the USA the UK and Germany has always been at the forefront of aviation technology but sadly the cost of this has been driven by several world wars. Kent has been involved in aircraft production and flying since the very beginning and this article explores the part played by modest Gravesend in its development and as a front line fighter base during WW2.
In June 1932 a company aptly named Gravesend Aviation Ltd, was formed to establish an airport at Thong lane, Chalk, for the rapidly expanding passenger and general civil aviation industry. It proudly displayed the name board of “Gravesend LONDON East” and to initially encourage trade they hoped to persuade major airlines to consider the site as an emergency landing ground for any of their airliners In difficulties.
Sited to the north-east of a minor road known as Thong Lane it overlooked a superb view of the Thames Estuary and was some 250 feet above sea level, covering 148 acres of pasture. Only a small part of this area was grassed and this part had been used as an unofficial landing strip by the light aircraft of the day.
Now, since Gravesend Aviation took over the airfield on a commercial footing, a greater area was put to grass and two small hangers and a control tower were built.
Its first taste of the future came a little over a year later in July 1933, when three Hawker Audaux aircraft together with an Armstrong Whitworth Atlas from the RAF used the airport for army co-operation exercises with the Royal Marines.
The well-established amphibious aircraft company Short Brothers of Rochester used the airport regularly as for the first time they had designed and built a non-amphibious aircraft which obviously could not land on the waters of the River Medway. Rochester Airport was still unfinished at this time so the Short Scion twin engine monoplane (G ACJI) completed its test flying programme from Gravesend. During 1933 the Percival Aircraft Works used the two hangars and before finally moving to Luton in 1936, 22 Gulls and Mew Gulls were constructed in their Gravesend workshops.
Customs facilities were made available in December 1933 and as envisaged many European airlines made use of Gravesend as a diversionary airport when Croydon was habitually fogged-in. The most notable diversion included a massive shipment of gold bullion which finished its journey by truck. The airlines seen regularly included Imperial Airways, KLM, Sabena and Deutsche Lufthansa.
Immediately the Percival Company left Gravesend in December 1936, their workshops were snapped up by Essex Aero Limited. Apart from normal aircraft maintenance, Essex Aero became famous as specialist aero engine tuners and preparation of aircraft for racing and record breaking. Some of their notable aircraft were the de Havilland DH-88 Comet, (G ACSS) for Alec Clouston and Victor Ricketts and their record breaking flight to Australia and New Zealand in March 1938, and the Percival Mew Gull (G AEXF) flown by Alex Henshaw during his Cape of Good Hope record in February 1939.
In October 1937, with the threat of war looming on the horizon, the Air Ministry decreed that Gravesend was to be used as a training school under the rearmament programme. It was established as No.20 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School and Tiger Moths and Hawker Harts were sent to Gravesend to train as many pilots as possible. In addition they started teaching Royal Navy pupils to fly which allowed the airport to fly the White Ensign.
When the Second World War was declared in September 1939, they closed the training squadron and Gravesend Airport was requisitioned by the Air Ministry to become a satellite station of RAF Biggin Hill.
Despite being just a grass airfield, the Air Ministry considered the position of Gravesend so important they built two decoy airfield sites (one at Cliffe Marshes, the other at Luddesdown) in order to deceive German intelligence. The decoy airfields were equipped with dummy aircraft and buildings and Luddesdown was even fitted with false runway lighting
Anti aircraft gun emplacements were concealed all around the airfield and were manned by the Army. Aircraft, when not in use were distributed and hidden at the perimeter of the flat grassed area of the airfield. In general, with the aircraft tucked away, during the Battle of Britain period Gravesend always looked like a field of pasture. Because from the air it was effectively covert it may have been one of the reasons that the airfield escaped any substantial German attack during the Battle of Britain.
During the “Battle of Britain” period RAF Gravesend was home to the following Squadrons:
32 Squadron from February 1940.equipped with Hawker Hurricanes
610 Squadron from 26th May 1940 equipped with Supermarine Spitfires Mk 1
604 Squadron from 3rd July 1940 equipped with Bristol Blenheim night fighters with early radar.
501 Squadron from 25th July 1940 equipped with Hawker Hurricanes.
66(F) Squadron from 11th September 1940 equipped with Supermarine Spitfires Mk 1
Squadrons 501 and 66(F) were the most heavily involved in the fighting during the Battle of Britain and their losses and casualties were severe. These were amongst the brave pilots Churchill referred to as "The Few" in his famous speech.
At this point I would like to mention the Americans and other nationalities that also fought in the RAF during the crucial “Battle of Britain” period of July to Oct 1940.
Even though they were not at war with Germany, ten American pilots flew with various units under the direction of RAF Fighter Command between 10 July and 31 October 1940, thereby qualifying them for the Battle of Britain clasp to the 1939-45 British campaign star. Special arrangements with the British Government were made so that they did not have to give up their US Citizenship to fly for the RAF. Sadly the first American to die in the Battle of Britain was Pilot Officer William M.L. Fiske of No. 601 Squadron. Fiske's record showed that he was a graduate of Cambridge University and a leading personality in the American bob sleigh teams that won the Olympic championships in 1928 and 1932. He died peacefully in hospital on 17 August 1940 after nursing his damaged Hurricane back to Tangmere. Flying Officer Carl R. Davis, also of 601 squadron was one of a small number of Americans who had joined the RAF before the Battle of Britain. He had already been in action during the attack on the German seaplane base at Borkum on 28 November 1939. Three American pilots heavily involved in the action also included Pilot Officers Vernon C. Keough, Andrew Mamedoff and Eugene Q. Tobin of No. 609 Squadron. This intrepid group had travelled to Europe with the intention of joining the French Air Force, but finding they no longer existed applied to the RAF. A notable American volunteer was Pilot Officer Phillip H. Leckrone from Salem, Illinois. He was a member of No. 616 Squadron and fought together with the British, Commonwealth, Czech and Polish pilots of the Duxford Wing in the late stages of the Battle of Britain. The other Americans fighting in the Battle of Britain were Pilot Officers Arthur G. Donahue, John K. Haviland, Hugh W. Reilley (64 and 66 Sqds), De Peyster Brown flew with No. 1 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force which arrived in Britain in June 1940. Some of the original members preferred not to transfer into the US Forces and continued as part of the RAF throughout the war. Their attrition rate was high, of all the 244 Americans who flew in the Eagle Squadrons over 50% were wounded in action, killed in action or prisoners of war by the time the 4th FG was established in the US 8th Air Force.
Other Nations - Polish Fighter Squadron No. 303 ("Kościuszko") was one of 16 Polish squadrons in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. These were experienced pilots and was the highest scoring RAF squadron of the Battle of Britain. The squadron was named after the Polish and American Revolution hero General Tadeusz Kościuszko, and the eponymous Polish 7th Air Escadrille founded by Merian C. Cooper, that served Poland in the 1919–1921 Polish-Soviet War. Squadron 303 was a welcome addition and was formed in Britain as part of an agreement between the Polish Government and the United Kingdom. It had an honourable, distinguished and courageous combat record until finally disbanded in December 1946.
Of the 18 Indian pilots that flew as RAF, two in particular deserve special note.
Squadron Leader Prithipal Singh joined 1940
Squadron Leader Mohinder Singh Pujji 1918-2010 awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross later in the war. Pujji had an impeccable record for bravery and saved a 300 strong battalion of lost American soldiers that were given up for dead in the dense Burmese forests.
There was 1 each from Ceylon, Jamaica and Rhodesia, 10 Irish, 13 French, 18 Indian, 25 South Africans, 32 Australians, 28 Belgians, 88 Czechoslovakians, 112 Canadians, 135 new Zealanders, and 145 Poles that fought, as RAF, in the Battle of Britain.
By the end of October 1940 66(F) squadron transferred from Gravesend and replaced by Squadron 141 flying Boulton Paul Defiant I night fighters. These 2 man turreted aircraft were a disaster when used during the day, only scoring kills when mistaken for a Hurricane and attacked from behind. They were more successful when used as a night fighter. Squadron 85 with Hurricanes under S/Ldr. Peter Townsend (of Royal Princess Margaret notoriety) joined Gravesend briefly but were replaced by Squadron 264 flying more Defiants.
In November 1940 following its distinguished record RAF Gravesend became an independent station and more suitable buildings were provided. Previously the personnel used the clubrooms in the control tower, the Laughing Waters hotel on the nearby A2 Dover to London road, various Nissen huts, requisitioned houses and Cobham Hall, the home of Lord Darnley, for the lucky few.
In April 1941 the Defiant Squadrons 141 and 264 left and various Spitfire 11a and Vb Squadrons took over at Gravesend giving the fighter station a considerable sting against the continuing stream of German bombers heading for London.
In June/July and Aug/Sept 1942 Gravesend was assigned Eagle squadrons 71, 121 and 133 flying Spitfire VB. These squadrons comprised of American volunteer pilots flying as RAF with British ranks. On 29th Sept 1942 these three Eagle squadrons were turned over to the USAAF and renamed 334 (71), 335 (121) and 336 (133). They continued to fly their Spitfires until April 1943 when they converted to P-47 Thunderbolts. In the early years of the war literally thousands of Americans volunteered to join the RAF and fight the Nazis, out of which just 244 were chosen with 16 British Squadron and Flight commanders. By the end of September 1942 and conversion to the USAAF the three squadrons claimed to have destroyed 73½ German planes for the cost of 77 American and 5 British members killed. 71 Squadron claimed 41 kills, 121 Squadron 18 kills, and 133 squadron 14½ kills. The three squadrons established a high reputation and Britain was grateful for their selfless contribution.
In 1943 to accommodate the Hawker Typhoon aircraft the runways were extended to give this heavy powerful fighter more room. August 1944 saw the first of three fabulous Mosquito squadrons arrive at Gravesend; their flights mainly being specialist selective night sorties in preparation for the invasion to come.
As mentioned in 1942/3 the area of the airfield was increased to enable both the North South and the East West grass runways to be considerably lengthened. Special Summerfield track was laid on the grass to take the extra weight without rutting and excellent Drem runway lighting was installed at the same time. Bomber squadrons did not operate from Gravesend, but the airfield was often used for RAF and USAAF bomber aircraft returning from European sorties that were low on fuel or damaged.
On 7 December 1942 277 Squadron (Air Sea Rescue) commanded by Squadron Leader Linney arrived at Gravesend and this squadron remained until mid-1944. They flew a real assortment of aircraft including Westland Lysanders (often covert for SOE operations) and Supermarine Walruses 1 and 2 for the entire period covering the Thames estuary and English Channel but also operated Defiants, Spitfires VB and llA, and Supermarine Sea Otters also in the air/sea rescue role. This fantastic squadron may sound dull, but you could write a whole book on their exploits.
This same period brought about the change to offensive operations and the Squadrons at Gravesend often joined with the Biggin Hill wing carrying out combined sweeps across Northern occupied Europe. With the increased size of the airfield, a third squadron was stationed at Gravesend bringing the strength up to 245, 174, 247, 193, 266 and 257 squadrons flying Typhoon Ib's. On 29th July 1943, 19, 65 and 122 Squadrons arrived flying Mustang Ill's with 65 squadron being the first to fly this iconic aircraft from Gravesend. They spent time at Gravesend before being replaced in April, 1944 by three Squadrons flying Mosquito FBVI'S. These were Nos. 21, 464, (Australian) and 487, (New Zealand) comprising 140 Wing. These versatile and powerful aircraft were used as night raiders to soften up German defences in Northern France for the approaching invasion, incredibly sometimes flying as many as three sorties in a night. Many other units also occupied the station on and off during the war years, such as 71 Squadron, who arrived 14th August 1942 specially for the Dieppe raid, 92 Squadron (24th September 1941). 306 (Polish) Squadron, arriving 11th August 1943.
Shortly after mainland Europe was invaded normal flying operations were disrupted when in the early hours of 13 June 1944, the first V1 flying bombs exploded nearby at Swanscombe, just a few miles away. In the following 5½ months 2400 of these devices exploded or were brought down in Kent alone and the constant barrage of these missiles rendered normal flying operations too hazardous from Gravesend. Almost immediately the three Squadrons of Mosquitos were moved to Thorney Island leaving Gravesend to become the command station for the massive balloon barrage for the surrounding area. This heavy balloon barrage was put up to help stop an additional 2600 flying bombs targeted at London. The daring stories of Spitfires, Mustangs, Mosquitos and Typhoons physically tipping the V1s over were rather exaggerated. Originally 12 V1s were destroyed by direct wing to wing contact but the pilots soon realised this endangered themselves or their aircraft in this way. What they did was almost as astonishing, they would fly with their wingtip just ahead of the V1s stubby wings which created a turbulence causing the gyros of the V1 to malfunction and spin the missile into the ground. You needed a very steady hand and nerves of steel to carry out this manoeuvre literally inches from 850kgs of high explosive at 360mph.
A story circulates that towards the end of the war a consignment of Mustang engines and spares arrived at the airfield. The advance in Europe was so rapid that the aircraft to match the spares were re-allocated elsewhere. Apparently, to satisfy paperwork,these spares and engines were buried in their crates on the airfield perimeter and that’s where we assume they are today Although their exact location is unknown.
Following VE Day 1945, the airfield ceased to be an operational fighter station and was put on a care and maintenance basis. All through the war years Essex Aero Limited had carried out additional business on the airfield site, producing self-sealing petrol tanks for aircraft. It had also had several factories in Gravesend and Northfleet for its other activities. By this time the Company's main work was in magnesium alloy but some work on aircraft continued to be undertaken. They acquired Two Walrus and Sea Otter amphibians and either resold or broke them down for spare parts. In1949 work was also carried out to convert two Avro York aircraft for use as VIP transport, one being used for Earl Mountbatten of Burma. They were a problem handling them at Gravesend as these large heavy aircraft needed every last foot of runway on which to land and take off. Sadly and in spite of their contribution to the war effort and its expertise in magnesium, Essex Aero went into liquidation in March 1956 due to cash flow problems.
Starting in 1958 a large private housing estate (River View Park) was built on the area of the pre-war airport gradually expanding over the years to include schools and various recreation facilities. Soon all traces of the fighter station disappeared.
During the war years a series of pipe-mines were laid to deny the enemy the use of both the hard surface and grass runways, in the event of invasion. Hard runways had steel pipes driven hydraulically under them using the Canadian Pipe-Mine system. They could then be filled with explosives from chambers at both ends and detonated remotely as required. An alternative system was to use a mole plough drawn behind a tractor with the resulting 'slot' charged with flexible prefabricated sausages of explosive in lengths around 50 feet each. Following the war everyone seemed to forget about this massive destructive power and, it seemed that all maps were lost. In April 1990 the penny dropped and much of the housing estate population had to be evacuated under operation “Crabstick” as the Royal Engineers located and disarmed the remaining pipe-mines that had laid in readiness for some 55 years.
Between 1948 and 1956 a potential use was found for the hard surface runways and perimeter tracks. Motor racing was pretty much non-existent in the UK before the war except for specialist tracks like Brooklands with its famous banked track. John Cooper devised the Cooper 500 mid-engine race car driven by a single cylinder 500cc motorcycle engine and using pre-war Fiat Topolino suspension back and front. They were surprisingly potent, great fun and eminently suitable for using the multitude of war-time airfields that were now surplus. Gravesend was used for a short while but eventually Silverstone became the main venue leaving the iconic old airfield and all its memories to be destroyed and the rubble turned into faceless housing.
Even today you can stand on the roadside and look down across the unchanged fields and marshes towards the great old river and almost swear you can hear the howling echoes’ of the Merlin and Daimler-Benz engines as the adversaries twist and turn in the skies scribed with contrails and burning aircraft. With the bland housing estate to your back the ghosts of too many sacrificed lives still look down from the clouds and gently weep.
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© 2013 Peter Geekie