The RAF fighter base at Kenley, Surrey, played a vital part in the Battle of Britain. RAF Kenley was not that far south of London in flying-time and the defence of the city was the primary task for the pilots that were based at Kenley. As with many other Fighter Command bases dotted throughout southeast England, RAF Kenley was attacked by the Luftwaffe.
RAF Kenley was built during World War One when under the Defence of the Realm Act land that served as a golf course was requisitioned by the War Office and developed into a fully-fledged air base that served the Royal Flying Corps.
The land at Kenley was never returned to its previous use and throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s served as a RAF base. One of its most famous pilots pre-World War Two was Douglas Bader who flew Gloucester Gamecocks from the base.
As war approached in September 1939, RAF Kenley went onto a war footing. The runway had been lengthened and improved to accommodate the new fighter airplanes that Fighter Command was being provided with. In terms of take-off, a Mark I Hawker Hurricane proved to be underpowered for the length of the original runway and to compensate for this, the runway was lengthened. However, by the time of the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane had much greater engine power and the length of Kenley’s runway more than sufficed.
Units from the army defended Kenley and by the time of the Battle of Britain, Kenley had its own supply of 35,000 gallons of aviation fuel, 8,000 gallons of petrol, 2,500 gallons of oil and 1.25 million rounds of ammunition. Four Bofors guns protected the base.
The squadron most associated with Kenley was 615. It had helped protect soldiers being evacuated at Dunkirk. However, it soon became clear after this withdrawal that Britain faced the danger of being attacked itself. As Churchill said: “The Battle of Britain is about to begin.” For a seaborne assault on the south coast of England, the German war machine needed complete mastery of the air. Therefore, Fighter Command had to be taken on.
Kenley became sector headquarters of No. 11 Group, Fighter Command. Based just a few miles south of Croydon, many foreign pilots would have been familiar with the siting of Kenley as it was not too far from the course required to land at Croydon Airport – then the premier airport for the city.
It was to be expected that Kenley would have been a target for Luftwaffe bombers. The worst attack against the base came on August 18th 1940. The attack started at 13.15 and resulted in four Hawker Hurricanes and one Blenheim being destroyed with four other aircraft damaged. Nine people at the base were killed and ten were wounded. Three hangars were destroyed and the base was without a communication system for hours. The runway was damaged but the craters were quickly filled in. RAF Kenley was ready for action within hours of the raid ending – except with one glaring issue. The raid had identified how vulnerable Kenley was to having its communication system destroyed – and the same was true for other Fighter Command bases. With no contact with Bentley Prior, headquarters for Fighter Command, RAF Kenley was effectively blind to what was going on across southeast England. To rectify this and ensure that there was never a re-occurrence a new communications centre was found away from the base at an empty butcher’s shop in Kenley village where it was assumed that it would be safe from attack.
After the end of the Battle of Britain, Kenley provided fighter support for bombers heading for occupied Europe. However, the escort role was limited in terms of range because of the amount of fuel each fighter carried. As the Allies became more offensive in terms of capability, the command role of Kenley was changed. RAF Biggin Hill took charge of No 11 Group.