RAF West Malling
Royal Air Force Station West Malling near West Malling in Kent, England Type Airfield Coordinates 51° 16′ 16.4″ N, 0° 24′ 9.48″ E Coordinates: Location code VG Built 1917 In use 1917–1918
Closed Occupants Royal Flying Corps
Royal Air Force
Battles/wars First World War
Second World War
Originally used as a landing area during the first World War, the site opened as a private landing ground and in 1930, then known as Kingshill, home to the Maidstone School of Flying, before being renamed West Malling Airfield, and, in 1932, Maidstone Airport.
As war approached, the airfield was taken over by the military, to become RAF West Malling in 1940, serving in the front line against the Luftwaffe.
The station saw further service after the war, first with some of the RAFs first jet squadrons, and later as a US Naval Air Station.
After closure as an operational air station in 1969, West Malling acquired a more civilian guise, hosting several major Great Warbirds Air Displays during the 70s and 80s, until eventually closing completely as an airfield. The site is now developing into a new village community of mixed residential, commercial, and civic amenities, but still retains several features of its military aviation heritage.
RAF West Malling was not fully operational during the Battle of Britain, suffering from several damaging bombing raids, but did play an active part in the later stages of the air campaign, becoming a premier night-fighter base.
Maidstone Airport was taken over in the prelude to World War II, and the RAF station was formed in June 1940, now with a concrete runway. Designated as one of two RAF Fighter Command stations assigned to ‘’C Sector’’, and designated as an advanced aerodrome for RAF Kenley and RAF Biggin Hill. The first aircraft arrived on 8 June 1940. These were Lysanders of No. 26 (Army Cooperation) Squadron, used for photo-reconnaissance sorties over occupied Europe. No. 51 Wing arrived at the same time, and the airfield was provided with anti-aircraft and searchlight batteries for airfield defence.
Tally Ho! July 1940
On 12 July, No. 141 Squadron arrived from RAF Turnhouse, Scotland, equipped with Defiant Mk.1 turret-fighters. The squadron’s first engagement with the enemy occurred a week later, when 6 out of 9 Defiants were destroyed by a superior force of Me.Bf 109s over the Channel. The three surviving aircraft were rescued only when the fight was joined by Hurricanes from No. 111 Squadron. The remainder of the unit returned north to RAF Prestwick on 25 July due to the ineffectiveness of the Defiant against single-seat fighters.
Dambuster, April 1941
No. 29 Squadron flying Bristol Beaufighters arrived for its first tour of duty on 27 April 1941. One of the Squadron's pilots, Guy Gibson VC, later officer commanding 617 Squadron on the Dambusters Raid, said of the station "Of all the airfields in Great Britain ... we have the most pleasant".
A regular and long-standing inhabitant, 29 Sqn. left for the last time on 25 November 1950.
In September 1942 Squadron Leader Cathcart Wight-Boycott was promoted to Acting Wing Commander and posted to RAF West Malling as Officer Commanding 29 Squadron who were still flying Bristol Beaufighters. Between December 1942 and January 1943 Wight-Boycott took the additional temporary role of Station Commander at West Malling.
Emergency Landing, April 1943
On 16 April 1943 a single-engined aircraft was heard approaching the airfield. The plane circled twice, then landed. Station staff, assuming it was a Defiant low on fuel, sent a crash crew to meet the pilot, but on arriving, they discovered a German Focke-Wulf FW-190. The pilot, Feldwebel Otto Bechtold, immediately gave himself up to the ground crew. A second aircraft landed but realising his mistake, the pilot attempted to take off, under fire, and was injured as the plane crashed on the airfield. A third FW-190 undershot the runway, crashing into an orchard.
The serviceable aircraft was flown to Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough the next day for detailed examination, and was eventually repainted in RAF livery, designated as a prototype or experimental aircraft.
The German pilots revealed that they had become lost in thick fog, thought they were over France, and had been directed to the airstrip by a searchlight at Detling
From 20 June to 21 July 1944, No. 322 Squadron, equipped with Spitfire Mk XIVs was stationed at West Malling, tasked with intercepting VI "doodlebug" flying bombs launched from the Dutch and French coasts towards London.
After the war
In use throughout the 1950s and early 1960s as Britain's premier night fighter station, RAF West Malling then became home to several squadrons of the US Navy, until 1967. It was then placed on Care & Maintenance, used by several air-industry related business.
In March 1965, Air Cadet 618 VGS (Volunteer Gliding School) moved to West Malling from RAF Manston, setting up its headquarters in the old dispersal area near the runway threshold. Its aircraft (cable-launched Vanguard TX1 gliders) and equipment were stored into one of the large T4 Hangars where they remained until 1992.
Following the issue by Idi Amin of Uganda 4 August 1972, of a decree ordering the expulsion of the 60,000 Asians who were not Ugandan citizens, around 30,000 of those with British passports emigrated to Britain. The unused accommodation blocks at the airfield were converted for use as temporary homes throughout 1973 until the refugees were resettled around the country.
Several films and TV programmes, including The Beatles' 1967 experimental film Magical Mystery Tour, the 1972 television series Pathfinders and the 1982 television drama series We'll Meet Again, all used the airfield as a location during production.
RAF West Malling is now the site of Kings Hill, a mixed development of residential and business developments, including over 2,000 homes, two schools, local retail units and 18-hole golf course.
Now The Gibson Building, and used as Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council offices, the former Officers Mess, built in 1939, is now a Grade II listed building, the Officers' Mess itself is used as the Council Chamber. A common layout was used at all RAF stations, so that visiting officers were able to find their way around easily.
The brick-built building still shows remnants of the painted camouflage pattern used during the war.
A number of H-block accommodation buildings are also in use as offices.
The control tower - also listed - is largely complete in the form it was in 1942, now surrounded by modern housing, and waiting restoration and eventual new use.
Situated near the site of the old guard house, a memorial to the personnel stationed at RAF West Malling was unveiled on 9 June 2002. Otto Bechtold, the FW-190 pilot, was a guest of honour at the ceremony.
RAF units and aircraft
Unit Dates Aircraft Variant Notes 3 Sqn 1943 Hawker Tempest 1B 14 Sqn 1947 & 1948 de Havilland Mosquito B16 & B35 Based twice 19 Sqn 1941 Supermarine Spitfire IIA Detachments from Fowlmere 25 Sqn 1947–1951 de Havilland Mosquito NF10 1951–1954 de Havilland Vampire NF10 1954–1957 Gloster Meteor NF12 & NF14 26 Sqn 1940 Westland Lysander III 1942 North American Mustang II Based twice to/from Gatwick 29 Sqn 1941–1943 Bristol Beaufighter IF and VIF 1944–1950 de Havilland Mosquito XIII, XX and later NF36 Based on 11 separate periods 32 Sqn 1942 Hawker Hurricane I, IIB and IIC Based three times 41 Sqn 1944 Supermarine Spitfire XII Based for one week 64 Sqn 1943 Supermarine Spitfire VC 66 Sqn 1940 Supermarine Spitfire I & IIA 80 Sqn 1944 Supermarine Spitfire IX 85 Sqn 1943, 1944, 1947, 1948 de Havilland Mosquito XII, XVII, NF36 Based four times 1948–1957 Gloster Meteor NF11, NF12 & NF13 91 Sqn 1944 Supermarine Spitfire XIV 1946 Supermarine Spitfire XXI 96 Sqn 1943–1944 de Havilland Mosquito XIII 124 Sqn 1943 & 1944 Supermarine Spitfire VII 130 Sqn 1943 Supermarine Spitfire VB 133 Sqn 1942 Supermarine Spitfire VA and VB Detachments from Kirton-in-Lindsey 141 Sqn 1940 Boulton Paul Defiant I 153 Sqn 1955–1957 Gloster Meteor NF12 & NF14 157 Sqn 1944 de Havilland Mosquito XIX 234 Sqn 1943 Supermarine Spitfire VI 247 Sqn 1946 de Havilland Vampire F1 Based twice 255 Sqn 1941 Bristol Beaufighter VIF Detachments from Coltishall 264 Sqn 1941–1942 Boulton Paul Defiant I & II 274 Sqn 1944 Supermarine Spitfire IX 287 Sqn 1945–1946 Supermarine Spitfire XVI 316 Sqn 1944 North American Mustang III 322 Sqn 1944 Supermarine Spitfire XIV 350 Sqn 1943 Supermarine Spitfire VC 409 Sqn 1944 de Havilland Mosquito XIII 410 Sqn 1943 de Havilland Mosquito VI 485 Sqn 1942 Supermarine Spitfire VB 486 Sqn 1942 Hawker Typhoon IB 500 Sqn 1947–1948 de Havilland Mosquito NF19 & NF30 1948 Supermarine Spitfire F22 1948–1951 Gloster Meteor F3 1951–1952 Gloster Meteor F4 1951–1957 Gloster Meteor F8 531 Sqn 1942–1943 Douglas Havoc I (Turbinlite) Douglas Boston III (Turbinlite) Hawker Hurricane IIC 567 Sqn 1946 Supermarine Spitfire XVI 610 Sqn 1942 Supermarine Spitfire VB 616 Sqn 1944 Supermarine Spitfire VII
Notes and references
- ^ a b RAF West Malling Memorial Group From memorial plinth Retrieved 11 July 2007
- ^ Murray, Dave. "A Short History of Kings Hill". Kingshill Parish Council. Archived from the original on 2007-09-29. http://web.archive.org/web/20070929081631/http://kingshillparish.gov.uk/historic_kings_hill.htm. Retrieved 2007-09-29.
- ^ a b Battle of Britain Campaign Diary Official MoD Records, Retrieved 14 July 2007
- ^ The Turret Fighters, Brew, 2002, p.65-66.
- ^ Rafweb Retrieved 10 July 2007
- ^ SubBrittannia retrieved 10 July 2007
- ^ Kent Messenger regional weekly newspaper, edition of 6 July 2007
- ^ Jefford 1988, page 176
- Jefford, C.G. (1988). RAF Squadrons. Airlife Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1 85310 053 6.
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