The 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, which took place from July to October 1940, is particularly meaningful for the Kenley Airfield Friends Group (KAFG).
One of three strategically important airfields tasked with defending London during World War II (the others being Croydon and Biggin Hill), RAF Kenley played a vital role in protecting the south-east of England from German Luftwaffe attacks.
The KAFG have spent the last few years restoring the airfield, through their Kenley Revival Project. Despite being the best-preserved Battle of Britain fighter station in the UK, lack of attention over the decades had left it at great risk of dilapidation. The KAFG are determined to protect this important space and ensure that its future can tell the story of its past.
Originally a golf course and common, Kenley was transformed into a military airfield in 1917 by the Royal Flying Corps, the air arm of the British Army, under the ‘Defence of the Realm Act’. It was used as No. 7 Aircraft Acceptance Park, where aircraft parts would be delivered, assembled and tested, before being flown out to France by the Royal Flying Corps. In 1918 the RFC merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the Royal Air Force, remaining on site at Kenley.
Future Prime Minister Winston Churchill took flying lessons at RAF Kenley in 1918, although he never gained his pilot’s licence after an air accident caused his wife to demand he stayed on the ground. His time there, however, meant he realised the importance of Kenley’s location and successfully argued in the House of Commons that it should remain in service.
When war broke out again in 1939, Kenley was still a grass airfield. Work began on two concrete runways towards the end of the year and continued throughout the coldest winter for 45 years. 12 E-shaped blast pens were also built, which would help protect the Hurricanes and Spitfires based there from bomb damage, as well as providing storage and shelter for ground crew.
In 1940, Kenley became Sector Station headquarters for B Sector, under orders from the first RAF Fighter Command group, No. 11 Group, responsible for the air defence of the southeast. Kenley controlled a specific area of airspace, plus Croydon, Redhill, Gatwick and Shoreham airfields, scrambling aircraft from each as necessary.
The Hardest Day
18th August 1940 became known as ‘the hardest day’ of the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe made a determined effort to destroy all RAF airfields, flying 850 sorties over the country and bombing key targets. Kenley was badly hit: a lunchtime raid by nine Dornier Do 17 planes killed nine people, and destroyed much of the airfield, including ten aircraft and two hangars, plus other buildings. The Sector Operations Room had to move from the airfield to an emergency location: a converted butcher’s shop in Caterham.
Restoring the Airfield
In 1959, the RAF closed Kenley as an operational base and, although it remained an active glider airfield, many of its original military features began to fall into disrepair. In 2003, the Kenley & Caterham branch of the Royal Air Force Association (RAFA), housed in the site’s oldest remaining RAF building, the Portcullis Club, decided that Kenley needed to be protected. English Heritage (now Historic England) agreed, calling it ‘the most complete fighter airfield associated with the Battle of Britain to have survived’, pointing to the fact that Kenley’s original runways were still intact.
English Heritage also classified the blast pens as ‘Scheduled Monuments’, marking them as nationally important sites. It was now clear that this was a place of real historic interest, and English Heritage historians and archaeologists were invited to conduct further surveys.
Around this time the Friends of Kenley Airfield group was created (later to be reformed as the more official KAFG), which focused on raising money to protect the site from redevelopment. This included attempting to save the Grade II listed Officer’s Mess building, sold earlier by the Ministry of Defence, but they were unable to better the bid put forward by Comer, a luxury homes developer. Fifteen years later, no work has started on the site, but KAFG are hopeful that Comer will honour the history of the Officer’s Mess when it does.
2005 also brought English Heritage’s recommendation that the airfield be classed as a Conservation Area, something which the London Borough of Croydon and Tandridge District Council quickly put in place, offering the site a level of protection from future works.
The Kenley Revival Project
In 2012, worried by the rate at which the blast pens were decaying, KAFG, together with the City of London and English Heritage, started working on an application to secure a Heritage Lottery Fund grant. Three years of hard graft later, they were awarded £880,000 which, when added to other monies raised, gave them a total amount of just over £1.1m. The Kenley Revival Project could begin.
The project is multi-faceted, although the most pressing aspect is site restoration, including the blast pens and rifle range. The rear safety wall of the range, built in 1928 and which is the only one still in existence on a UK airfield, has a plethora of holes where it was hit by straying bullets. The old information boards are being replaced by new ones, including several in the shape of Spitfire and Hurricane wings. These will form part of a heritage trail which inform visitors about key Kenley Airfield features and past events.
KAFG is creating an online archive of Kenley documents and pictures, as well as an oral history section, where people are encouraged to record their memories of Kenley Airfield, with the aim of becoming a significant heritage resource.
The team behind the project also hold regular inspirational events and learning festivals, which create educational opportunities as well as the chance to soak up the site’s historic atmosphere. KAFG often host guided tours for school, Scout and history groups to learn more about the airfield.
Alan Morgan, the Chairman of the Friends Group said:
“A lot of hard work is going into restoring RAF Kenley. It’s important for existing and future generations that we preserve both its physical appearance and accounts of its history, and it’s great to see positive changes to the site.”
Bringing Kenley back to Life
The Friends Group use their annual Heritage Days to bring the history of Kenley Airfield to life, featuring re-enactments, replica planes and the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight flypast. They had been planning a bigger than usual event in 2020, to mark the Battle of Britain anniversary, but the lockdown has meant that it has had to be postponed until 2021.
“It’s a huge shame that we can’t go ahead with our Heritage Day this year, especially as it’s such a major anniversary, but we will be back, better than ever next year.”
As well as its military history, Kenley also contributed to Britain’s film industry. 1952’s Angels One Five’ was filmed there, as well as 1956’s ‘Reach for the Sky’. The latter tells the story of Douglas Bader, who joined No. 23 Squadron at Kenley in 1930, and became an RAF fighter pilot during WWII, despite losing both his legs in a flying accident in 1931.
For more information on Kenley Airfield’s history, as well as the work that the Kenley Revival Project is currently doing, see their website at www.kenleyrevival.org.