Another trip along the North Kent coast in Trail 44, brings us from Herne Bay past Allhallows to the former RAF Gravesend. Another of Britain’s airfields that has since disappeared under housing, it has a history going back to the heydays of aviation and the 1920s. It was, during the war, a fighter airfield and was home to many famous names including James “Ginger” Lacey DFM and Squadron Leader Peter Townsend. A number of RAF squadrons used the site, as did American units in the build up to D-day. A wide range of aircraft from single engined biplanes to multi-engined fighters and even air-sea rescue aircraft could have been seen here during those war years. Gravesend was certainly a major player in Britain’s war time history and thanks to Mitch Peeke, we can visit the site once more.
Gravesend aerodrome was born during the heyday of public interest in aviation in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The original site was nothing more than two fields off Thong Lane in Chalk, which was used by some aviators of the day as an unofficial landing ground. One such pilot was the Australian aviator Captain Edgar Percival, who often landed his own light aircraft there when visiting his brother, a well-known Doctor in Gravesend. It is widely thought that it was Percival, who was after all a frequent user of those fields, who first suggested the actual building of an airport there.
Whether he did or whether he didn’t, the two men who founded the airport’s holding company, Gravesend Aviation Ltd., in June of 1932, were Mr. T. A. B. Turnan and Mr. W. A. C. Kingham. A local builder, Mr. Herbert Gooding, was engaged to build the Control Tower/Clubhouse building. In September of that year, with the construction work well advanced, Herbert Gooding and a man named Jim Mollison (the husband of the British aviatrix Amy Johnson), joined the Board of Directors of Gravesend Aviation Ltd.
The Mayor of Gravesend, Councillor E. Aldridge JP, officially opened the newly constructed airport as “Gravesend-London East”, on Wednesday 12th October 1932. To mark this Gala occasion, the National Aviation Air Days Display Team, led by Sir Alan Cobham, visited the new airport and gave flying demonstrations to thrill those people present. Also on display for visitors was a curious flying machine called the Autogiro, a sort of cross between a helicopter and a small aircraft, that had been built for a Spanish aviator by the name of Senor Cierva.
At the time of its opening, Gravesend airport covered 148 acres. Its two 933 yard-long runways were grass and the airfield buildings comprised the combined Control Tower/Clubhouse, two smallish barn-style hangars and some other, small ancillary workshop and stores buildings. Located in open countryside on the high, relatively flat ground on the western side of Thong Lane, between the Gravesend-Rochester road and what is now the A2 (Watling Street), Gravesend airport boasted an Air-Taxi service and a flying school among its amenities.
In November of 1932, just one month after the airport’s opening, Herbert Gooding took over as Managing Director of Gravesend Aviation Ltd. It seems likely that Mr. Gooding had effectively been “saddled” with the airport that he’d largely built. The original Directors, Messrs. Turnan and Kingham, possibly had run out of cash with which to pay Mr. Gooding for his construction work. They disappeared at this time, probably having paid Mr. Gooding with their own company shares. Jim Mollison, though married to Amy Johnson, had never been anything more than a “sleeping” director anyway, so it fell solely to Gooding to try to recoup his investment by making the airport a commercial success.
The original idea behind the airport had been to encourage the rapidly expanding European airlines to use Gravesend as an alternative London terminal to the often-fogbound Croydon airport, and this, Gooding now set out to accomplish. Although a number of airlines such as KLM, Swissair, Imperial Airways and even Deutsche Lufthansa did indeed make use of Gravesend, they didn’t utilise it on anything like the scale that had been hoped for. Perhaps it was thought at the time that Gravesend just wasn’t quite close enough to London, geographically.
Then in 1933, a year after the airport had been officially opened; Captain Edgar Percival established his aeroplane works in the small hangar next to the flying school. It was from here that he started to turn out the Percival Gull and Mew Gull aircraft. These were possibly the finest light and sports aeroplanes respectively, of their day, and in fact pilots flying these aircraft set many inter-war aviation records. Such pilots, for example, as Alex Henshaw, (who later became a Spitfire test pilot), Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, Amy Johnson, and another well-known aviatrix, Jean Batten, as well as Edgar Percival himself.
In December of 1936, Captain Percival moved his business to Luton. This may have seemed like a disaster for Gooding and his airport at the time, but as luck would have it, a company called Essex Aero Ltd., moved into Percival’s vacated premises almost immediately and stayed at Gravesend, building a thriving business from aircraft overhaul and maintenance, though their real forte was the preparation of racing aircraft and the manufacture of specialist aircraft parts.
Business at Gravesend airport was positively booming when Gooding sold the place to Airports Ltd., the owners of the recently built Gatwick airport. It was felt that if anyone could make a proper commercial success out of using Gravesend for its originally intended purpose, these people could. They certainly tried, but in the end sadly, even they couldn’t; and they quickly offered the site to Gravesend Borough Council, for use as a municipal airport. There followed protracted negotiations over terms, price, etc., all of which were suspended when, because of the increasingly ominous rumblings from Adolf Hitler’s Germany, the Air Ministry stepped in.
It was the expansion of the Royal Air Force that ultimately saved Gravesend. In 1937, No 20 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School was established at Gravesend to train pilots for the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm.
The training of service pilots began in October of 1937. The school operated the De Havilland Tiger Moth and the Hawker Hart at that time. Accommodation for the instructors and the student pilots wasn’t exactly salubrious. For the most part, they used the clubhouse, together with rooms in some of the local houses.
Meanwhile, as the trainee service pilots learned their craft daily, (and not without accident!) the civil aviation side of Gravesend continued, with record attempts to the fore. In 1938, the twin-engined De Havilland Comet, G-ACSS that was used to set a record for the flight to New Zealand and back, was fully prepared for its successful record attempt by Essex Aero, as was Alex Henshaw’s Percival Mew Gull, which he used the following year to make a record-breaking flight from England to Capetown and back. Both of these record flights departed from Gravesend and were well publicised at the time.
When war indeed came that September, No 20 E&RFTS was relocated, Airports Ltd surrendered their lease to the Air Ministry and the RAF duly took over Gravesend airport as a satellite fighter station in the Hornchurch sector. Essex Aero however, stayed; taking on a vast amount of contract work for the Air Ministry. Among the items they soon found themselves making, were fuel tanks for Spitfires.
The first fighter squadron to be based at what was now RAF Gravesend was 32 Squadron, who moved in with their Hurricanes in January of 1940. They were followed by 610 (County of Chester) Squadron with their Spitfires, who helped cover the Dunkerque evacuation. Following the deaths in action of two successive commanding officers within a short space of time, 610 Squadron was moved to Biggin Hill in July and 604 Squadron moved into RAF Gravesend temporarily with their Bristol Blenheims, whilst training as a night fighter unit. Also on temporary detachment at this time from their usual base at Biggin Hill, were the Spitfires of 72 Squadron.
It was during this period that the two decoy airfields at Luddesdown and Cliffe were completed, to help protect Gravesend. It was thought to have been an obvious matter to the Germans that the RAF would take over the airport at the commencement of hostilities. After all, the Germans certainly knew that Croydon airport was now a fighter station.
Accommodation was always to remain something of a problem at Gravesend. The clubhouse of course had some rooms, but nowhere near enough to house an operational fighter squadron’s complement of pilots, let alone the ground crews, station maintenance crews, or even the administration staff. In the end, most pilots were billeted either in the Control Tower/Clubhouse accommodation, or at nearby Cobham Hall, the ancestral home of Lord Darnley. (In fact, Lord Darnley nearly lost his home during the Battle of Britain. Not to German bombs, but to the hi-jinks of some of 501 Squadron’s pilots, who nearly burned the place down letting off steam on one drunken evening!).
The station’s Ground crews were billeted at either the Laughing Waters Roadhouse (the original site of which is now occupied by The Inn on the Lake) about one mile up Thong Lane, or just the other side of Watling Street in somewhat spartan accommodation encampments, where “home” was a village of Nissen huts hidden in Ashenbank Woods. (Nothing remains of these encampments today save for three of the large underground Air Raid Shelters). Those who could not be accommodated in the huts were billeted in Bell tents pitched around the airfield perimeter. No doubt this was fine during the spring and summer, but not so good during the winter.
On 27th July 1940, 604 and 72 Squadrons moved out and 501 Squadron took up residence, being based there throughout the greater part of the Battle of Britain period, during which time the sector boundary was changed, so that Gravesend then came under the aegis of Biggin Hill. 66(F) Squadron arrived to relieve 501 in September, but as the Battle of Britain raged and German bombs mercilessly pounded Fighter Command’s other airfields, Gravesend got off lightly, especially compared to the sector command station at Biggin Hill.