Detling airbase near to Maidstone was wrongly considered to be a major air base by Luftwaffe Intelligence. While it was an airbase for Coastal Command, it was not an official base constantly used by Fighter Command on the same level as Hawkinge and Biggin Hill. However, aircraft from Fighter Command did use Detling air base as and when they needed to, if only to re-fuel. Photographic reconnaissance by the Luftwaffe identified British fighters on the ground and assumed that Detling must be a Fighter Command airfield. Hence a decision was made to attack it.
The attack on Detling air base took place on August 13th, 1940. Sixty-seven personnel were killed and ninety-four injured. The base had no warning that it was about to be attacked. However, it was known that a large Luftwaffe force was flying over Kent.
The Observer Corps had tracked the incoming force as it crossed the Kent coastline. This information was passed to the local Observer Corps post based in a valley near to Detling. However, they had to pass the information they received on to the Observer Corps headquarters in Maidstone, who in turn contacted Anti-Aircraft Command headquarters.
By following this procedure, the Observer Corps base nearest to Detling – that knew which aircraft were approaching and how many – could not actually inform Detling airbase itself. In fact, they had no direct line to Detling airbase.
Anti-Aircraft Command decided that the Luftwaffe raiding party was heading for Rochester – the Shorts-Pobjoys factory was seen as a specific target – but it was wrong. Detling was attacked and devastated.
The damage to Detling was so extensive that any bus that passed near to the base had police on board who made passengers look away as the bus passed the airbase. Smoke from the bomb damage done to Detling Air Base could be seen miles away.
The one benefit that came from the raid was a wholesale review of how the Observer Corps operated. The local base had the information Detling airbase needed. While damage to the base could not have been prevented, casualties could have much reduced if the airbase had received an early warning. After the attack on Detling, Observer Corps bases were allowed to contact their local airbase directly rather than going through the convoluted process that had previously existed.
One member of the Observer Corps based near to Detling later stated:
“You cannot imagine our feelings as we stood in our posts, helpless and watched the bombing and strafing. It (contacting Detling direct) would not have stopped the raid but a phone call to them before the Luftwaffe was into the areas might have saved some.”
A man delivering bread at the nearby village of Bredhurst watched the raid and saw the ammunition and bomb store blow up and compared it to a “huge firework display”.