If Lincoln is known as ‘Bomber Country’ then Kent must be ‘Fighter Country’. During the second World War there were numerous fighter stations here, prepared ready to defend London and the South East, all forming part of 11 Group.
Kent is Synonymous with the Battle of Britain. The summer and Autumn of 1940 saw extensive action in the skies over Kent and many an aircrew met their fate in the fields of southern England. Airfields such as Biggin Hill, Manston and Hawkinge were at the forefront of the war. Like so many of their counterparts, many of these have now gone and so we endeavour to find the remaining traces of their existence that were home to the gallant ‘few’.
This tour, visits two airfields and a museum. The first, Biggin Hill, is still an active and thriving airfield. No longer in the hands of the military, it is now a ‘international airport’ with commercial, business and pleasure flights frequenting the runways. Extensive development has taken over a large part of the airfield, although there are remnants of the original to be seen.
RAF Biggin Hill.
Initially as you arrive at Biggin Hill, you are greeted with the new more commercial part of the airfield. Here are the business and customer blocks along with the control tower. Further along, next to the main road through Biggin Hill and along one side of the airfield, are some of the original buildings and office blocks. Many have been utilised by the Metropolitan Police, but some have been cordoned off and remain ‘as they were’ in those dark days. Even the ‘Royal Air Force Biggin Hill’ sign is still there, serving as a reminder of its past use; these are now believed to be used by 2427 Squadron of the Air Training Corps. Continue a little further and you have the Airfield Chapel. Here stand, as two guardians, a replica Spitfire and Hurricane aloft two poles. This building replaced the original one which burnt down and the two replicas replacing two original aircraft now gone from here. There are other buildings around the site, used for different purposes and information about them is freely available elsewhere.
On leaving Biggin Hill, wind your way back to the M25, and into the Garden of England. Just a few miles, into the Darent Valley, only 5 miles or so from Biggin Hill, is the beautiful village of Shoreham. A typical Kent chocolate box, village surrounded by super walks and fantastic scenery; it hides a little museum sitting at the back of a small tea room. Founded in 1978, the tea room is filled with local art work, depicting scenes from the time. An airfield bell and stained glass windows also tell of links to the Battle. Serving teas and refreshments (have the bacon doorstep!) it’s a delightful place to sit before, or after, heading into the museum. Inside the museum is an enormous collection of crashed aircraft parts, all telling their own stories. This is not just a collection of bits and pieces though, each tells a story linked with pictures of the pilots who flew the stricken aircraft, both British and German. Several aircraft engines lay thoroughly cleaned and superbly displayed along with information sheets, plaques and stories that add a very personal touch to each and every one. Inside the small shop, is the cockpit of a Junkers 88 shot down and now in the process of restoration. It’s two Junkers Jumo engines displayed inside and details of digs and with photo’s adorn the walls. The museum extends its influence, by aiming to erect a memorial to each and every pilot who fell within 10 miles of the museum, and many can be found through the museum leaflet. Like many smaller museums, it does not permit the use of photography, but it is a super little museum, run by dedicated people, located in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.
After leaving Shroreham, return to the M25 and head south toward Maidstone, here we find RAF West Malling.
RAF West Malling.
Leave the motorway and follow signs for RAF West Malling and in particular the ‘Council Offices’. On entering the site, you can see evidence of the Fighter Station, RAF West Malling. To your right are the original buildings, now used by the local Council. The names of those were served here (Peter Townsend, John Cunningham and Bob Braham) are immortalised in roads and some of the buildings, in particular Guy Gibson, ‘Gibson Road’ and ‘Gibson House’.
To the left are the more modern ‘industrial’ units. Proceed along Gibson Road towards the centre of the new housing development, and you come across a bronze statue of an airman running to his aircraft. Around him stand four marble panels, with different inscriptions including; the insignia of both RAF West Malling and the RAF. Also, the first and last aircraft to be stationed here, a Lysander and Gloster Javelin. A moving centre piece, opened on 9th June 2002. Just a short distance away is another reminder of the history, the ‘Spitfire’ Public house, offering Shepherd Neames ales. Although this is possibly more to do with the ‘product’ rather than the history! Navigating your way round the myriad of roundabouts and new roads, you will see, in amongst the houses and supermarkets, the original control tower (a listed building) that now been renovated. Standing surrounded by houses, it is a coffee shop, engulfed by modern buildings and overshadowed by the supermarket, how much renovation can preserve its historical importance? Sitting looking at the building, you wonder how many of the residents of this new ‘town’ will be aware of its original importance and use?
There are a wide range of places worth visiting in this part of the world. Manston and its Spitfire Museum, Hawkinge museum, Lashenden (Headcorn) to name a few (Trail 18), but West Malling and Biggin Hill seem to be two ends of the spectrum in terms of flying. One is thriving and ‘active’ whilst the other is given an almost cursory glance, yet both, very deserving, were at the front in Britain’s bid to stop the Nazi Tyranny during the Second World War.
Update – Manston airport closed sadly mid 2014. An ongoing battle continues to reinstate the airport but its future looks sealed for now. More housing and a great loss of the once welcoming site for inbound bombers and fighters damaged and limping home.
I revisited West Malling in May 2015 to see what had become of the Control Tower. The redevelopments are pretty much finished and there was a rather nice surprise for me which can be read about here.