Used for reconnaissance flights during World War Two, Detling air base had first been used in World War One. As war loomed, Detling was reopened and expanded in 1938 and became operational on September 14th 1938 as No 6 (Auxiliary) Group of Bomber Command. Detling was home to No 500 (County of Kent) Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. On March 19th 1939, Detling was handed over to Coastal Command and No 500 Squadron took delivery of new Avro Ansons.
After war was declared on September 3rd, 1939, No 500 Squadron’s primary task was reconnaissance missions over the English Channel and the Dover Straits. The squadron also took part in protecting convoys in the Channel.
The station commander in late 1939 was Squadron Leader LeMay. He ordered that all the Ansons at Detling should be more heavily armed as the ones that the squadron received only had two .303 guns – one facing forward and one facing back.
Though part of the RAF, No 500 Squadron was placed under the command of the Admiralty – the result of the work it did protecting shipping. Other than being under-armed, the Anson also had a reasonably short flying time and had to return to base to refuel all too often. This meant that patrols over the Channel had to be organised so that at any one time of a convoy being in the vicinity, there was always air cover.
Based at the top of Detling Hill that runs along the North Downs, Detling base itself was subject to the vagaries of the weather. In the winter months of 1939/1940, fog was a major problem for the pilots of 500 Squadron. Unable to see the landing strip during such weather, the Ansons became very low on fuel. Three Ansons were lost as a result of not finding the landing strip and running put of fuel in this period.
Ansons from Detling played their part in the evacuation from Dunkirk in May 1940. To assist operations, Detling played host to a number of Lysanders, Fairey Swordfish and Fairey Albacores. The primary tasks of all three planes were reconnaissance and attacking German submarines and E-boats found in the English Channel. Blenheim bombers were also based at Detling. Their task was to bomb German troop positions as they advanced on Dunkirk.
The first George Cross ever awarded to a WAAF was awarded to Corporal (later Section Officer) Daphne Pearson who served in the medical section at Detling. Pearson entered a crashed burning Anson in May 1940, still fully loaded with 120 lbs bombs, and freed an unconscious pilot and dragged him to safety before the Anson exploded.
Detling was not a fighter base and as such did not consider itself important enough to concern the Luftwafffe. However, on August 13th 1940, the base was attacked and severely damaged. The base commander, Group Captain Edward Davis, was killed and the operations room was completely destroyed by a direct hit. 22 aeroplanes were destroyed, as were fuel supplies. 67 station personnel were killed and 94 were injured. Later inspections of the base’s perimeter found many men in the Army dead. These men had manned AA and machine gun posts.
All survivors did what they could to repair the runway and Ansons were taking off again on Channel patrols the next day. Two WAAF’s (Corporal Josie Robins and Sergeant Youle) were awarded the Military Medal for courage shown during the attack. Despite a hit on the telephone exchange at the base, Youle remained at her post to keep communications open.
German intelligence later reported that a major Fighter Command base had been destroyed.
During the Battle of Britain, Ansons from Detling continued with their patrol of the English Channel. However, they were also given a new night-time role – flying over London to ensure that blackout regulations were being kept.
The base was attacked again on August 30th and August 31st. On these occasions, the base had received warnings so there were no casualties but the runway was out of action of 15 hours. Another attack on September 1st once again damaged the runway so that it could not be used.
From September 1940 to August 1941, Detling continued with its coastal patrols. However, on August 4th, 1941, 500 Squadron moved to Bircham Newton in Norfolk. Detling now became the very temporary home to No 26 Squadron equipped with Curtiss Tomahawks. 26 stayed for just four days.
In February 1942, Detling became the home for No 280 Air Sea Rescue. No 280 stayed until July when Detling became the temporary base for Mustang fighter escorts.
In March 1943, Detling was put under the control of Fighter Command. No 318 Squadron came to Detling. This was a Polish squadron and Detling was used as a training base for Hurricane fighters. The Hurricane was the first true fighter plane to be based at Detling. In August 1943, the squadron left for the Middle East.
As the war turned against the Nazis and their allies, Detling air base took on another role. The idea of the ‘big wing’ had been adopted – several squadrons flying together and Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mustangs were all based at some time at Detling. Minutes from mainland Europe in flying time, Detling was perfectly placed for large fighter units to attack enemy positions in Europe. No 125 Airfield was established at Detling led by Wing Commander R D Rule, DSO, DFC. 125 comprised of Nos 132, 184 and 602 squadrons. The three squadrons had two main tasks – escorting bombers to their targets and attacking known V1 launch sites. In November 1943, No 125 Airfield was absorbed into the 2nd Tactical Air Force. At its peak, over 5,000 aeroplanes were attached to 2TAF.
The build-up to D-Day led to major changes at Detling air base. Squadrons 80 229 and 274 were based at Detling. They were tasked with attacking the forward bases in Normandy to support the landings. Trains and railways were considered to be major targets though the pilots were effectively told to attack anything they saw moving. The success of the D-Day landings did not lead to the collapse of the German military.
In fact, after D-Day, the squadrons based at Detling were given another role as ‘divers’. V1 attacks on London and the southeast were causing much anxiety and damage. Pilots based at Detling were ordered to intercept V1 rockets before they got to their targets. The pilots nicknamed this task ‘divers’.
Diving from on high behind and then along side a V1 was sufficient to cause turbulence and such a move frequently caused a V1 to tilt over and crash to the ground before reaching London. It was very dangerous work as there was little guarantee that the V1 itself would not explode mid-air. As the Allies advance din Europe, the threat from V1’s became less and less.
The next major military operation that concerned Detling was Arnhem in September 1944. Planes from Detling escorted gliders and Dakotas carrying paratroopers to Arnhem – the famous ‘bridge too far’.
On December 18th 1944 Detling was placed under Care and Maintenance. It was used for demonstrations and instruction. The air base finally closed on April 1st 1956.