The History of RAF Kenley

The Kenley Common had for a few years been a golf course. That was until June 1917 when the area was commandeered under the 'Defence of The Realm Act'. The first most people knew of it, including the head keeper, was when a group of Canadian Forestry Corps began to clear the ground to make way for the airfield construction.

Understandably, this caused quite a fair amount of commotion, with questions being asked in the House of Commons about the violation of public access and destruction of trees that were protected by the City of London. Public opinion changed fairly quickly however when German bombers began attacks on London, causing 160 deaths. Bombs from Zeppelins caused another 15 deaths in Croydon and Purley, and the existence of an airfield at Kenley became of some comfort in defence.

Quite quickly, 7 double hangars were constructed, as this was to be No. 7 Aircraft Acceptance Park to where the country's pioneering aviation manufacturers would send their aircraft to be assembled from parts. The peace and tranquillity that existed at the time was shattered by the roar of these early aircraft, including 300 Sopwith Camels, that were either being tested or flown out to France for duty with the Royal Flying Corps. Resident RFC Squadrons that had a variety of aircraft began to appear in 1918. No. 1 (Communications) Squadron was an important resident as it regularly conveyed officials to and from the peace talks in Paris.

Four years of war were over and hopes were raised that peace would go hand in hand with peace at Kenley. Mr Winston Churchill responded in the House of Commons that Kenley was too important to London to be given up. Cynics say it was maintained as an operational flying unit because Mr Churchill was learning to fly there. Further developments to the airfield took place in the early 1920s and through the period a healthy turnover of squadrons was maintained. One of these squadrons was No. 23 , arriving early 1927 and stayed until late 1932. 23 Squadron was equipped with Gloster Gamecocks and was joined in 1930 by Douglas Bader, who was involved the following year in the tragic accident that caused him to lose his legs. The station closed for further reconstruction, re-opening again in 1934 with the arrival of Nos. 3 and 17 Squadrons both flying Bristol Bulldogs.

Of further significance in this period was the formation of No. 615 Squadron at Kenley. The Squadron was later to be adopted by the County of Surrey, although in reality it was Kenley's home Squadron. Our gliding squadron is numbered 615 in honour of this famous Squadron.

The ominous noises coming from the continent in 1939 resulted in the closure of the station in May for the construction of runways, perimeter tracks and blast pens. This resulted in the demolition of three pairs of the original 1917 hangars, but Kenley was getting ready for war. It now had 35,000 gallons of aviation fuel storage, 8,000 gallons of petrol and 2,500 oil storage. The armoury had space for 1.25 million rounds of ammunition. Defending an airfield in those days was not an exact science in those days, and it was left to the army. Various units manned four 40mm Bofors emplacements, two 3-inch guns and some Lewis guns. A slab of concrete on one of the remaining blast pens indicates a Lewis gun emplacement; sometimes an odd shell can be found in the surrounding area. A parachute/cable installation was constructed on the north side of the airfield, and it was responsible for bringing down a Dornier on the 18th August as the cable it had fired caught the bombers wing.

Gauntlets in line
Image - 46 Sqn Gauntlets in line at RAF Kenley. Source - Wikipedia

Over six months into the war Kenley was reactivated, we were on the retreat from the continent and squadrons were returning. 615 Squadron, although now equipped with Hurricanes had a particularly tough time in Belgium, and, with the withdrawal of No. 3 Squadron, the Station Commander was faced with a huge logistical problem of where to accommodate these and other returning squadrons prior to their dispersal to other airfields. Kenley's Squadron's played a great part in providing cover for the evacuation of Dunkerque; it was becoming clear, however, that operating from home reduced the dominance that the Luftwaffe clearly had when the Squadrons were operating from forward and in the main inferior bases on the continent.

Kenley grew in status as it took on the role of Sector HQ in 11 Group. Shoreham, Gatwick, Redhill and Croydon airfields were earliest under its control. The Germans now had the run of mainland Europe and were increasingly turning their attention to Britain and particularly RAF Kenley. In the years leading up to war, Lufthansa airliners were regularly flown over Kenley en route to Croydon airport as part of familiarisation training for their passengers - trainee bomber and fighter aircrew.

Kenley's finest hour was the day of its greatest bombardment by the Luftwaffe on the 18th August 1940. This was three days after Croydon had been bombed, surprisingly in error for Kenley. Sixty-three factory workers were killed in that raid. The early warning radar had picked up a lot of enemy activity across the channel at about 12.45. 615 and 64 Squadrons were scrambled but the precise target of the raid was still unclear. At 13.00 some sixty aircraft crossed the coast and all local air raid sirens were activated. 15 minutes later the onslaught on Kenley began; some pilots still on the ground strapping themselves into their aircraft. Damage to the airfield and its facilities is well-documented - three of the 1917 hangar, built mainly of wood were well alight, the equipment stores was a write off as were four parked Hurricanes and a Blenheim destroyed on the ground. Damage was sustained to another four parked aircraft and the station's medical facilities. No communications now existed, nine were killed and a further ten injured. 64 and 615 Squadron's pilots claimed kills on a mix of fighters and bombers.


Image - Line up of 485 Sqn. 'Subscription' Spitfire Mk. Vbs at RAF Kenley in 1941. Source - Wikipedia

Apart from these deaths and injuries, the Germans paid a far higher price than Kenley suffered. The hangars were mainly surplus to requirements, and the equipment stores was mainly dispersed to the squadrons. The sick bay was relocated and such was aircraft output that there were more planes than people to fly them. Runway craters were filled in from mounds of rubble located around the airfield and, most of all, the Operations block remained intact. It was a lesson learnt about vulnerability and soon the Operations block was moved to a vacant butcher's shop in Caterham while alternative arrangements could be made. Alterations were being made to 'The Grange' in Old Coulsdon which would accommodate an Ops room that would have more up-to-date equipment as well as space.

The Battle of Britain was well and truly begun, a battle that was entrusted to many young twenty and twenty-one year olds whose experience was limited to training only. Nevertheless Squadron's operations from Kenley claimed pro-rata success as an increasing number of Bf109s arrived over the south-east. After the Battle was won, the course of war changed but it was still five years before the war came to an end. By 1941 Kenley was on the offensive, operating against large enemy targets on the continent or by escorting Blenheims to their targets. The influx of Allied and Commonwealth airmen started in 1941 with two Polish Squadrons, a Czech, Australian, and New Zealand Squadron arriving. After a Belgian Squadron arrived in 1942, six Canadian Squadrons who were on rotation through to 1944 swiftly followed it.

As the war moved further away from Kenley, restructuring was taking place and as 421 Squadron left for Tangmere in 1944 the 'era of glory' was ended and sector control was taken over by Biggin Hill. By 1945 the war was over and Kenley had "done it's bit". What Kenley had borne witness to during this war was the rapid development of aviation. At the start of the war, bi-planes were still flying operationally out of Kenley. By the end, jet engine Meteors were being introduced. As there was little scope for the extension of the runway that jet fighters needed, it was perhaps another nail in the coffin as far as Kenley remaining a front-line station was concerned.

Apart from some low key aerial activity since the war, the station was placed in care and maintenance for the most part. The airfield closed operationally in 1959 but the station itself closed finally in 1974 leaving only 615 VGS there to represent the RAF. There was to be another spectacular event however. This occurred in October 1978 when the last remaining 1917 hangar went up in flames, with it the entire stock of gliders and ground equipment. No flying was possible the following year, but in 1980, using a Bessoneaux portable hangar, training was able to resume. The hangar is the same type as that first erected in 1917, and so the circle is drawn.

The area surrounding RAF Kenley has changed greatly since the airfield was built. The airfield is now situated in the middle of some of the busiest airspace in the country. To the north is London Heathrow, to the south London Gatwick, and to the east Biggin Hill. These airports have significant effects on the operation at RAF Kenley. Directly above the airfield is a Heathrow inbound airway and this restricts 615 VGS operations to 1900ft above airfield height.

Image - Viking TMk1 Glider launching from Runway 13 at RAF Kenley on 24 Jul 08. Source - 615VGS


Another important consideration is that the airspace below 1900ft above airfield height is heavily used by General Aviation (GA) traffic in and out of Biggin Hill. The existence of the Heathrow and Gatwick control zones to the north and south respectively, effectively creates a corridor for GA traffic straight over the top of Kenley. Although all pilots should keep a good lookout, this is particularly the case when flying at RAF Kenley.


RAF Kenley has also changed somewhat on the ground in recent times. On 19th August 2000, the Kenley Memorial was unveiled. Situated in a renovated original blast pen, it serves as a constant reminder of the history behind the station. The memorial has had another knock-on effect also. It has attracted more pedestrians to the airfield.

The land outside the perimeter track is Common Land and is popular with walkers. The Ministry of Defence has painted a yellow line 1 to 2 metres in from the common land on the perimeter track so that pedestrians may use a portion of the perimeter track for walking. The general public may use this footpath but are not allowed past it onto the rest of the perimeter track or onto the grass and runways of the airfield either.