CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Surrey Life today CLICK HERE

The RAF at 100: Exploring Surrey’s airfields

PUBLISHED: 10:56 24 April 2018 | UPDATED: 10:56 24 April 2018

Hurricanes of 3 Squadron, Kenley May 1938 (Photo: Aviation History Research Centre)

Hurricanes of 3 Squadron, Kenley May 1938 (Photo: Aviation History Research Centre)

Archant

The RAF is 100 years old this month. Ken Delve, who served with the RAF for 20 years, explores Surrey’s airfields and the parts they have played in the history of aviation over the past century

On April 1 1918 the Royal Flying Corps – the aviation element of the British Army – became the Royal Air Force (RAF). Surrey did not have many airfields, but it had some highly important ones, in both wars, from the great fighter airfield at Kenley to the aircraft production of Brooklands.

Brooklands was one of Britain’s earliest airfields; A V Roe made a successful flight in 1908, and in some respects, this was the origin of British aviation. Other early pioneers established themselves here, boosted by the demands of the First World War, and by the end of which had produced more than 4,600 aircraft. The airfield also housed a flying training school that turned out numerous pilots. Brooklands continued to produce aircraft, mainly by Vickers.

One of Bomber Command’s stalwarts, the Wellington, first flew here on June 15, 1936. Brooklands attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe; one attack on September 4, 1939 caused 89 fatalities. Vickers stayed on site but Hawkers, producing Hurricanes, moved out. Vickers was so busy it took on a satellite airfield at Wisley, which opened in 1943 and was developed as the main Vickers flying field. Like its parent, it continued in the same role post-war, but despite having a 7,500ft runway laid in 1952, its location made it unsuitable as Gatwick and Heathrow expanded.

By 1937 Gatwick, which until 1974 was in Surrey, was training pilots for the RAF; training ended on the outbreak of war and Gatwick became home to 26 Squadron, one of the development units for the new Army Cooperation role. Waterlogging continued to plague Gatwick and by autumn 1941 two Army Track runways had been laid to ease the problem, although much of the airfield remained a quagmire after heavy rain. Having been used by Lysanders and Tomahawks, the based units soon equipped with the Mustang. By spring 1944 it was usual for Gatwick to have three squadrons in residence and during the D-Day period the airfield played a major role in photographic reconnaissance.

Gatwick was also used by several fighter squadrons, for short detachments, but by late summer 1944 operational flying had stopped, and Gatwick’s last war months were spent with support duties. The war over, it was handed to the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

In terms of fighter operations, Kenley, in Caterham, was a key location in the Battle of Britain. However, it too had a First World War origin, opening in mid-1917 as an Aircraft Acceptance Park to take on new aircraft from local manufacturers and prepare them for issue to operational units. In the latter war months, it also housed operational squadrons on pre-deployment work-up. By the 1920s it was host to various units, including the Snipe fighters of 32 Squadron. Biplane fighters gave way to Hurricanes – just in time, as Kenley was about to become heavily involved in the defence of London, as a Sector Station of No.11 Group.

As the pattern of the war changed, Fighter Command increased its offensive operations and by 1943, Kenley was home to a Canadian Fighter Wing. Defensive ops returned to counter the V-weapon threat. Flying continued until 1959 when Kenley closed, but before that it had starred in two films - Angels One Five and Reach for the Sky.

Dunsfold was another Army Cooperation airfield, constructed by Canadian engineers and opened in late 1942, with the two Canadian Mustang squadrons arriving in December. The site was used to test rapid construction of landing strips, as part of the planning for the invasion of Europe. It was in connection with the invasion that Dunsfold joined the new Tactical Air Force, becoming home to two Mitchell squadrons. Post-war the RAF had no further use for Dunsfold, but it had a future with aircraft production for another 50 years.

Redhill spent the first part of the war as a fighter base, Spitfires being the commonest type, but then became involved in Army Cooperation, although by 1944 its role was primarily operational training and support.

Horne was an Advanced Landing Ground built to house a Fighter Wing, the only such in Surrey. The site was selected in 1942; minor roads were closed, and the usual hedge removal and culverting of ditches produced a reasonably efficient temporary airfield. The grazing animals were removed in spring 1944 and a three-squadron Spitfire Wing operated from here for six weeks, between May and June 1944, after which the cows returned.

By 1941 Fairoaks was an A-Class flying training airfield, training large numbers of pilots, and using Wisley as one of its satellites.

Ken Delve served in the RAF as aircrew from 1975 to 1994; he is an aviation researcher and author and is a trustee of the RAF Heraldry Trust, a registered charity which aims to create a permanent artwork record of all RAF unit badges. For more information, visit rafht.co.uk. Ken can be contacted at historian@rafht.co.uk.


What to see?

One of the highlights for anyone wanting to view Surrey’s aviation past is the excellent Brooklands Museum, while the Wings and Wheels show at Dunsfold each August is an opportunity to see historic aircraft in flight. The most impressive of the airfield memorials is that at Kenley.


The Region’s airfields

The list of airfields is taken from Military Airfields of Britain series of books by Ken Delve and only shows flying locations:

• Brooklands

• Dunsfold

• Fairoaks

• Gatwick

• Horne

• Kenley

• Redhill

• Wisley

More from Surrey Life

Yesterday, 16:06

Education expert Dr Ryan Hinchey, Coordinator of College Counselling at ACS International School, with campuses in Cobham, Egham and Hillingdon, answers your questions

Read more
Yesterday, 11:34

Surrounded by reservoirs and located on the banks of the famous river from which it takes its name, Staines-upon-Thames (as it is now called) is a town working to reshape its future and celebrate its picturesque riverside setting

Read more
Mon, 16:30

She may have recently moved to the seaside, but Surrey still holds a uniquely “precious” place in the heart of legendary children’s author Dame Jacqueline Wilson – not to mention the crucial role the county played in bringing everyone’s favourite and newly-returning feisty foster-kid to life

Read more
Mon, 11:59

Great things to do in Surrey this weekend (23, 24 and 25 November): art exhibitions, walks, concerts, theatre, places to visit and other events and ideas.

Read more
Thursday, November 15, 2018

Surrey is full of secret hideaways and hidden gems. Slades Farm on the Wintershall Estate is definitely one of them

Read more
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The new hotel is set to open in spring 2019 and will be located in the heart of the vineyard, offering sweeping views over the North Downs Way.

Read more
Tuesday, November 13, 2018

From Santa’s Grottos, to Victorian Christmas markets and late-night shopping, we’ve covered what’s on in Surrey this season

Read more
Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Whether you're looking for fine dining, pub grub or exotic dishes, eating out in Surrey has something for everyone. Here's our guide to the best local restaurants and pubs

Read more
Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Having bloomed in Brighton’s restaurant scene over the past decade, The Chilli Pickle opened its second site in Guildford this summer

Read more
Monday, November 12, 2018

Historic Royal Palaces and IMG have announced that Kylie Minogue is the first headliner confirmed for Hampton Court Palace Festival 2019. These will be her only London shows of summer 2019. Here’s how you can get tickets

Read more
Monday, November 12, 2018

Enjoy this linear rail to ramble section of the Thames Down Link route taking the short train-ride from Box Hill & Westhumble to Ashtead before walking back

Read more
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

It’s that time of year when our beautiful countryside is alight with the colours of autumn. Here, we pick out some of her favourite spots to enjoy the seasonal splendour – as well as some perfect places for a post-walk refresher

Read more
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Found on the stretch of the River Thames between Weybridge and East Molesey, Sunbury-on-Thames is blessed with a village feel where it meets the water. From antique hunts to the joys of river life, here are a few of our favourite reasons to visit

Read more
Monday, November 5, 2018

Verity & Violet are Loui and Jess – a singing duo from Surrey who specialise in blending vintage classics with modern favourites. The two have achieved success in the capital, but are now hoping to attract an audience closer to home

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest


Follow us on Twitter


Like us on Facebook

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search