In part 2 of the Kent trails, we visit three historic sites each featuring small museums. Having an abundance of airfields, Kent was the at the forefront of the Battle of Britain and supplied the air cover for the invasion of Normandy and Allied offensive across Europe.
We start off at what was an Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) in the southern fringes of Kent just outside of Ashford.
RAF Brenzett (AAF-438)
In the later parts of the war, particularly that preceding and following the Normandy invasion, fighter cover and ground attack aircraft would be needed at very short notice to support advancing troops as they met enemy resistance. To meet this new requirement, Advance Landing Grounds (ALGs) were built as temporary sites housing units on a short-term basis and as a result, their design, numbering system and construction was as varied and complex as any building or airfield of that same time. They were designed to be built quickly using a range of materials that could be easily lifted, moved on and relaid elsewhere. As they were temporary, little or no permanent buildings were ever made and so most, if not all of these sites, have now long disappeared.
Brenzett was one of many Advanced Landing Grounds built-in this area, others include: RAF Ashford (AAF-417), RAF Headcorn (AAF-412), RAF High Halden (AAF-411), RAF Kingsnorth (AAF-418), RAF Lashenden (AAF-410), RAF Staplehurst (AAF-413) and RAF Woodchurch (AAF-419), all used between August 1943 and December 1944.
During its short life, (September 1943 – October 1944), Brenzett housed a total of four squadrons (122, 129, and 306 and 315 of the Polish fighter wing) consisting of either Spitfires IXs or Mustang IIIs. Whilst it never saw action on D-Day itself, Brenzett was used to defend against the Nazis new terror weapon, the V1.
During its construction, Brenzett had two runways both made of Sommerfeld Tracking and a total of 5 aircraft Blister hangers. Crews and staff were housed in tents (two to a tent) and there were no major permanent buildings constructed on site. During the V1 raids, staff would take shelter in concrete drainage tubes and often used these as their bedding during the night.
The first V1 for 315 sqn was shot down by Flt Sgt Jankowski at 13:10 on July 11th. There were three more the following day and several others would meet similar fates. Shooting down a V1 was dangerous, many aircraft being caught in the subsequent blast. Other, less conventional methods would include tipping the wing of the V1 destabilising the gyroscopic guidance system within, sending it tumbling to the ground. On one occasion, WO Tadeusz Szymanski managed to completely turn a V1 onto its back using such a method.
The withdrawal of the Polish squadrons in October 1944, left the site empty and it finally closed on December that year, being returned to agriculture by its owners.
As these ALGs were designed as temporary sites, much of the materials were reused in other ALGs in Europe and as a result there is nothing left of the original site to see. However, the Women’s Land Army were stationed close by and their original huts do remain. These have since been opened as a Museum (the website seems to have since been moved or deleted, I don’t know about the museum’s status) housing a range of memorabilia, photographs and aircraft parts dug from the Kent soil.
The museum itself, does not permit the taking of photographs inside, presumably because of the increase in theft of artefacts that have sadly dogged the area. From the outside it does look rundown, and uninviting, but inside it houses a wealth of information and the exhibits are wide in their variety.
A Vampire trainer sits outside the museum as does the nose section of a Canberra. An array of bombs, diffusing equipment, engines from different aircraft and uniforms can all be seen inside. Personal photographs, artefacts, models and vehicles are also on display and perhaps the pride and joy is a second nose section of a further BAE Canberra.
It is not the best museum in the world and has very limited opening times, but if you remember it is run by volunteers and is cheap, then it is well worth a visit if you are in the area. Brenzett does give you an insight in the actions of both Brenzett crews and other ALGs in the area and provides a fascinating view onto the lives of the women who worked so hard back home, whilst the ‘boys’ were out defending the skies.
Further, rare photographs of Brenzett aircraft and crews can be found on the polish Squadrons Remembered website.
After we leave Brenzett, we travel the short distance to Lashenden (Headcorn).
RAF Lashenden (AAF-410) USAAF Station 410
Lashenden has the honour of being the prototype ALG and is often referred to as Headcorn (Station 412) Egerton or Coldharbour. In fact, Lashenden and Headcorn are two separate ALGs a few miles apart.
Initially Headcorn (as it was known) was requisitioned by the Airfields Board in 1942, two Sommerfeld Track runways were laid, the main one some 1,600 yards in length, with a secondary runway of around 1,400 yards in length. It opened in August 1943 with the arrival of 403 and 421 (RCAF) squadrons with Spitfire IXBs. The commanding officer was the famous Wing Commander ‘Johnny Johnson’. They were to stay for only twelve days before the site was handed over to the Americans and upgraded. Later, on April 17th 1944, the US Ninth Air Force moved in with their P-51 Mustangs of the 354th FG*1. Comprising of the 353rd (code FT), 355th (GQ), and 356th (AJ) Fighter Squadrons. They flew their Merlin powered ‘B’ Models on escort missions as far into Europe as the Polish borders. Ground attack missions began later in May in an attempt to disrupt enemy communication lines and help the advancing allied forces.
It was at this point with the arrival of the USAAF that the confusion begins. The Nearby airfield at Egerton was renamed Headcorn and because there couldn’t be two of the same name, this airfield became known as Lashenden. So up until April 1944 it was Headcorn and since then it has been known as Lashenden. Headcorn being some six or seven miles to the north-east.
During their time at Lashenden, the 354th FG earned themselves the coveted DUC (Distinguished Unit Citation) for action over occupied Europe, whilst protecting the heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force. A further prestigious award was to be won on April 11th 1944 by Major James H. Howard who single-handed attacked a large formation of German fighters attacking the bomber force.
The 354th then went on to complete ground attack operations in support of the Normandy invasion, the Battle of Bulge and then moved to France in June to support the Rhine crossing. This move signified not only the departure of the Ninth Air Force but the end of Lashenden as an active military airfield.
It was during this time, on July 4th 1944, that General Eisenhower stopped off at Lashenden following one of his many flights over the German lines in Normandy. His pilot, Brig. Gen. Elwood R. Quesada*2, veteran of 90 sorties, was berated by his superiors for such a ‘foolish’ act. In response he said, “When a five-star general says ‘Go,’ you go!”
With the departure of the 354th, the airfield was closed and handed back to the owners. It was initially used for agricultural purposes, however, during the 1960s flying started again when a group of friends began civil flying. Over time, smaller business have moved in and there is now a thriving parachute club, flying training schools, a helicopter school, model flying clubs, the Air Training Corp and a balloon flight company. You can also fly in a Spitfire from here.
A smaller section of the airfield has been taken over by the Lashenden Air Warfare Museum and they house a variety of artefacts that include engines, remnants of crashed aircraft, a working Pickett Hamilton fort and a Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg, the piloted version of the V-1 flying bomb. Two aircraft belonging to other museums stand outside; a French Mystere IV and American F100 Super Sabre. They also hold small displays and their ‘combined ops’ day, shows reenactments with original uniforms and vehicles.
A small plaque is built into the museum wall as a memorial to the crews who served from here during the war. A small but significant ALG, Lashenden now serves as a thriving airfield and a memorial to those brave young men who served from here.
Upon leaving Lashenden, we travel south toward the coast, Folkestone and the small but significant village of Hawkinge.
Hawkinge is located high above the town of Folkestone. It has a history that extends beyond the First World War. Being just a couple of miles from the coast, it was at the forefront of the Battle of Britain and unlike other airfields in Kent (Biggin Hill and until recently Manston), it died quickly.
Yet its existence was more to good fortune than clever planning.
It was thanks to a young Dutchman, W.B. Megone, who delved into the possibility of aviation, experimenting with a flying machine he called the ‘Mayfly’. His contraption, more likely to cause death than fly, never became successful, but it led to the site being identified mid World War One as a landing ground for aircraft on their way to and from France. Designated ‘Barnhoue Flying Field’ it was used as a port to ferry aircraft across the English Channel, repair those damaged and acted as a maintenance station repairing and maintaining the old biplanes of that time.
Toward the end of the war, more permanent buildings were erected and it became known as ‘Aeroplane Dispatch Section Hawkinge’ and its hosts were to grace the skies over Kent and Folkestone much to the amazement of the local people. A number of changes occurred over the years, including the creation of different squadrons, the introduction of ‘branding’ for squadrons and as war approached, the development of Hawkinge as a viable fighter airfield.
The first Hurricanes arrived in the winter of 1939-40 and belonged to No 3 Squadron, D Flight, RAF. However, even though they performed important coastal patrols, they were soon moved and Hawkinge saw a remarkable twist. All flying was stopped and large number of aircraft parts, metal structures and electrical equipment secretly arrived, along with personnel who began assembling these bizarre structures. These turned out to be ‘pilot-less’ aircraft and transmitting devices, the drones of yesteryear, and before long, unmanned Queen Wasp and Queen Bees were flying around the skies of Kent.
As the might of the German army moved ever closer and the forces of the BEF were pushed back to Dunkirk, Hawkinge began to fill with fighters and small bombers once more. Hurricanes, Spitfires Lysanders and Blenheims began operating to give fighter cover, drop supplies and to slow down the advancing Germans, to give the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) sufficient time to withdraw. This would eventually lead to preparations for the inevitable Battle of Britain that would follow.
Hawkinge would become extremely busy, 32, 64, 72, 79, 501, 520, 616 and 245 squadrons being those first to find that out. As the closest airfield to the battle, it would see many aircraft returning torn to shreds and belching smoke. Crashes were frequent and the crews of the fire and ambulance services were to be some of the busiest of any airfield. Anti-aircraft crews would, understandably, become trigger happy, shooting at anything and everything in the vain hope of downing an enemy aircraft. Many reports would end ‘hit by our own guns’ testament to the challenging conditions they operated under.
Further disasters would befall Hawkinge. The first, Defiants of 141 Squadron RAF were stationed here and thrown into battle on 19th July 1940. A small patrol of nine aircraft were sent out, bounced by the ‘hun in the sun’, and were it not for the intervention of the Hurricanes of 111 squadron, all would have been shot down rather than the seven that were. It was also at this time, on July 25th, 1940 that Squadron Leader Andrew T. Smith of 610 Sqn RAF, was killed, crashing his Hurricane into a disused engine shed located on the airfield – the fatalities had started.
Hawkinge would go on to bear the brunt of Goering’s Luftwaffe in the preparation for ‘Adler Tag’ the invasion of Britain. Bombing and strafing missions would cause extensive damage and casualties. Dover and Folkestone would be severely damaged and this corner of Kent became fittingly known as ‘Hellfire Corner’ for this very reason. Being the closet, warnings of attacks were short and crews often left without the proper preparations being made. Other remarkable events would occur here too. On Friday 6th September 1940, the BF109 of Feldwebel Werner Gottschalk, would land here following an attack from an RAF aircraft. Landing safely, he was captured trying to run from his aircraft and subsequently detained.
Even though the Battle of Britain would officially end in the final days of 1940, Hawkinge would still see further attacks from the Luftwaffe. But the tide had turned, and now Hawkinge would become the jump-off point for attacks on airfields in France and Belgium. 1941 saw the first dedicated Spitfire Squadron which would gain many kills and decorations. 91 Flight became 91 Squadron (Nigerian) RAF, and Air Marshal Leigh-Mallory visited presenting 91 Squadron its official badge ‘We Seek Alone‘ in November 1942. Hawkinge soon became a very multi-national airfield, seeing pilots from France, South Africa, America, Belgium, Norway and New Zealand grace its accommodation.
The Spitfires were soon upgraded to the new Griffon engined MK. XII and eventually 91 Sqn would move out permanently. By the time they left, they had achieved: 77 aircraft destroyed, 27 probables, 78 damaged, a DSO, (Distinguished Service Order) eleven DFCs, (Distinguished Flying Cross) four bars and five DFMs (Distinguished Flying Medal).
As the war progressed, the role of Hawkinge changed too. Amongst the Spitfires, Hawkinge would see lone bombers using it as an emergency field, the Fleet Air arm would bring Grumman Avengers in, and Coastal Command used it as a forward base for anti-shipping attacks in the preparation for the D-Day landings. Post Normandy, 402 (Canadian) Squadron arrived with their Spitfire IXs converting shortly afterwards to the Spitfire XVIVE in an aim to combat the new threat from Hitler’s V1. Later, as the V1 threat diminished, Spitfires were used in the ground attack role with rockets fitted beneath the wings of the MK. XVIs of 451 (Australian) Squadron.
Numerous squadrons passed through Hawkinge performing a variety of different duties including reconnaissance, recovering downed pilots and air intercept roles. But, this was the beginning of the end for Hawkinge, its role as an RAF station started to diminish and finally after a period of inactivity, care and maintenance and WAAF training, the flag was eventually lowered for the last time on Friday 8th December 1961 and the site returned to Agriculture.
A small reprieve resulted in a hive of activity around Hawkinge in 1968, when Guy Hamilton directed the famous Battle of Britain film. The cast, a major lineup, included: Edward Fox, Susannah York, Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Kenneth More to name but a few, brought the sound and sights of the Second World War back to this small corner of Kent.
As stated, following its closure, Hawkinge returned to agriculture, but in the last 20 years, it has gradually been developed and bit-by-bit, small sections have been sold to developers and turned into housing estates. Any remnant of the airfield itself has now sadly gone, what the Luftwaffe failed to do, the local council has successfully managed, burying it beneath the never-ending demand for housing, shops and schools. But, small reminders of its existence can still be found in the form of the road names. A museum which has existed here since the 1970s, and continues to fight the battle. It has developed into a remarkable collection of personal artefacts and full-scale replicas of a number of Battle of Britain aircraft. It utilises original buildings on the site of the former airfield and contains a huge range of memorabilia and artefacts many that have been recovered during the development of the site.
Nearby, a memorial has been erected to honour the fallen and the cemetery at Hawkinge, opposite the airfield, has a small section dedicated to those British and German aircrews who fell over the airfield. Fifty-nine Germans lay alongside British personnel, the youngest of whom is only eighteen years old. In the shape of an aircraft, it is the final restful place of many brave young people who gave the ultimate sacrifice in this small corner of Kent.
Kent Battle of Britain Museum
The museum is housed in a small area on the corner of the former airfield. It is housed in some of the original buildings some of which still bear the scars the war.
Sadly, following a series of break-ins, photography is not allowed inside, an all too common feature nowadays, and a sad reflection of today’s society. However, the museum itself is well laid out, taking you on a tour through 5 buildings, around a display of three aircraft, a Picket Hamilton fort and pill-box. Many of the artefacts have been recovered from crash sites, they have letters, stories and photographs telling the personal story behind each part.
In the first building, a number of replica aircraft showcase the RAF’s main fighting forces. Original vehicles and a range of Rolls Royce Merlins are also on display. The second building, The Dowding Memorial Hangar, is dedicated to Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding and shows Luftwaffe aircraft, again some of which are replicas. A book identifying all those killed in the Battle of Britain along with their grave locations, can also be found in this building. The majority of the replicas in the museum, in both rooms, are originals from the Battle of Britain Film made on the site in the 1960s. Bofors and other airfield equipment can also be seen in this room. Other buildings on site include the original Dispersal Hut, housing a V1, the operations block and armoury containing a range of original uniforms and personal belongings donated by the families of the owners. These include: Air Chief marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Group Captain Douglas Bader and Wing Commander ‘Bob’ Stanford-Tuck.
This is a terrific museum run by volunteers, who like many, are in need of funds to repair the buildings and protect the many exhibits inside.
Kent is filled with history, every corner holds a story and these museums hold many treasures that need protecting for ever more.
The official website for the Kent battle of Britain Museum has opening times and further details.
*1 – Lashenden – During the period November 1944 – February 1945 the 354th operated P-47 Thunderbolts before reverting back to the P-51
*2 – Elwood R Quesada became a Brigadier General commanding the 12th Fighter Command in North Africa and later commanded the 9th Tactical Air Command in England, providing air support for the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6th 1944.
He flew a total 90 combat missions as a fighter pilot during the war, including piloting Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower over France on a number of occasions. Post-war, Quesada supervised atomic bomb testing on the Pacific atoll of Eniwetok, served as head of the Tactical Air Command and went on to head the FAA (Federal Aviation Agency). He died early February 1993 at the age of 88. His obituary can be found here.