A retired pharmaceutical and industrial chemist, author and historian specialising in military events.
It never ceases to surprise me how aviation has expanded exponentially since its first inception in 1903 with the Wright Brothers aircraft at Kitty Hawk USA. We have gone from flimsy wood, wire and canvas with spluttering petrol engines to sleek high performance aircraft incorporating carbon fibre and powered by awesome jet engines giving previously unimaginable speeds and manoeuvrability in little more than one generation. Like the USA the UK and Germany has always been at the forefront of aviation technology but sadly the cost of this has been driven by several world wars. Kent has been involved in aircraft production and flying since the very beginning and this article explores the part played by modest Gravesend in its development and as a front line fighter base during WW2.
In June 1932 a company aptly named Gravesend Aviation Ltd, was formed to establish an airport at Thong lane, Chalk, for the rapidly expanding passenger and general civil aviation industry. It proudly displayed the name board of “Gravesend LONDON East” and to initially encourage trade they hoped to persuade major airlines to consider the site as an emergency landing ground for any of their airliners In difficulties.
Sited to the north-east of a minor road known as Thong Lane it overlooked a superb view of the Thames Estuary and was some 250 feet above sea level, covering 148 acres of pasture. Only a small part of this area was grassed and this part had been used as an unofficial landing strip by the light aircraft of the day.
Now, since Gravesend Aviation took over the airfield on a commercial footing, a greater area was put to grass and two small hangers and a control tower were built.
Its first taste of the future came a little over a year later in July 1933, when three Hawker Audaux aircraft together with an Armstrong Whitworth Atlas from the RAF used the airport for army co-operation exercises with the Royal Marines.
The well-established amphibious aircraft company Short Brothers of Rochester used the airport regularly as for the first time they had designed and built a non-amphibious aircraft which obviously could not land on the waters of the River Medway. Rochester Airport was still unfinished at this time so the Short Scion twin engine monoplane (G ACJI) completed its test flying programme from Gravesend. During 1933 the Percival Aircraft Works used the two hangars and before finally moving to Luton in 1936, 22 Gulls and Mew Gulls were constructed in their Gravesend workshops.
Customs facilities were made available in December 1933 and as envisaged many European airlines made use of Gravesend as a diversionary airport when Croydon was habitually fogged-in. The most notable diversion included a massive shipment of gold bullion which finished its journey by truck. The airlines seen regularly included Imperial Airways, KLM, Sabena and Deutsche Lufthansa.
Immediately the Percival Company left Gravesend in December 1936, their workshops were snapped up by Essex Aero Limited. Apart from normal aircraft maintenance, Essex Aero became famous as specialist aero engine tuners and preparation of aircraft for racing and record breaking. Some of their notable aircraft were the de Havilland DH-88 Comet, (G ACSS) for Alec Clouston and Victor Ricketts and their record breaking flight to Australia and New Zealand in March 1938, and the Percival Mew Gull (G AEXF) flown by Alex Henshaw during his Cape of Good Hope record in February 1939.
In October 1937, with the threat of war looming on the horizon, the Air Ministry decreed that Gravesend was to be used as a training school under the rearmament programme. It was established as No.20 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School and Tiger Moths and Hawker Harts were sent to Gravesend to train as many pilots as possible. In addition they started teaching Royal Navy pupils to fly which allowed the airport to fly the White Ensign.
When the Second World War was declared in September 1939, they closed the training squadron and Gravesend Airport was requisitioned by the Air Ministry to become a satellite station of RAF Biggin Hill.
Despite being just a grass airfield, the Air Ministry considered the position of Gravesend so important they built two decoy airfield sites (one at Cliffe Marshes, the other at Luddesdown) in order to deceive German intelligence. The decoy airfields were equipped with dummy aircraft and buildings and Luddesdown was even fitted with false runway lighting
Anti aircraft gun emplacements were concealed all around the airfield and were manned by the Army. Aircraft, when not in use were distributed and hidden at the perimeter of the flat grassed area of the airfield. In general, with the aircraft tucked away, during the Battle of Britain period Gravesend always looked like a field of pasture. Because from the air it was effectively covert it may have been one of the reasons that the airfield escaped any substantial German attack during the Battle of Britain.
During the “Battle of Britain” period RAF Gravesend was home to the following Squadrons:
32 Squadron from February 1940.equipped with Hawker Hurricanes
610 Squadron from 26th May 1940 equipped with Supermarine Spitfires Mk 1
604 Squadron from 3rd July 1940 equipped with Bristol Blenheim night fighters with early radar.
501 Squadron from 25th July 1940 equipped with Hawker Hurricanes.
66(F) Squadron from 11th September 1940 equipped with Supermarine Spitfires Mk 1
Squadrons 501 and 66(F) were the most heavily involved in the fighting during the Battle of Britain and their losses and casualties were severe. These were amongst the brave pilots Churchill referred to as "The Few" in his famous speech.
At this point I would like to mention the Americans and other nationalities that also fought in the RAF during the crucial “Battle of Britain” period of July to Oct 1940.
Even though they were not at war with Germany, ten American pilots flew with various units under the direction of RAF Fighter Command between 10 July and 31 October 1940, thereby qualifying them for the Battle of Britain clasp to the 1939-45 British campaign star. Special arrangements with the British Government were made so that they did not have to give up their US Citizenship to fly for the RAF. Sadly the first American to die in the Battle of Britain was Pilot Officer William M.L. Fiske of No. 601 Squadron. Fiske's record showed that he was a graduate of Cambridge University and a leading personality in the American bob sleigh teams that won the Olympic championships in 1928 and 1932. He died peacefully in hospital on 17 August 1940 after nursing his damaged Hurricane back to Tangmere. Flying Officer Carl R. Davis, also of 601 squadron was one of a small number of Americans who had joined the RAF before the Battle of Britain. He had already been in action during the attack on the German seaplane base at Borkum on 28 November 1939. Three American pilots heavily involved in the action also included Pilot Officers Vernon C. Keough, Andrew Mamedoff and Eugene Q. Tobin of No. 609 Squadron. This intrepid group had travelled to Europe with the intention of joining the French Air Force, but finding they no longer existed applied to the RAF. A notable American volunteer was Pilot Officer Phillip H. Leckrone from Salem, Illinois. He was a member of No. 616 Squadron and fought together with the British, Commonwealth, Czech and Polish pilots of the Duxford Wing in the late stages of the Battle of Britain. The other Americans fighting in the Battle of Britain were Pilot Officers Arthur G. Donahue, John K. Haviland, Hugh W. Reilley (64 and 66 Sqds), De Peyster Brown flew with No. 1 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force which arrived in Britain in June 1940. Some of the original members preferred not to transfer into the US Forces and continued as part of the RAF throughout the war. Their attrition rate was high, of all the 244 Americans who flew in the Eagle Squadrons over 50% were wounded in action, killed in action or prisoners of war by the time the 4th FG was established in the US 8th Air Force.