The RAF at 100: Exploring Surrey’s airfields
PUBLISHED: 09:56 07 May 2018 | UPDATED: 10:05 23 June 2020
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
What to see?
One of the highlights for anyone wanting to view Surrey’s aviation past is the excellent Brooklands Museum. 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: