Gravesend air base had developed prior to World War Two as a subsidiary airport to Croydon. Bought by Airports Ltd, the airport proved to be a financial liability and it does seem that it was the fear of an approaching war that saved Gravesend airbase as the Air Ministry purchased the airport and used it as a training centre with the training provided by Airports Ltd. In late September 1937, Gravesend became a training school for both the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm. However, two years on the base was requisitioned by the military and became a satellite airfield to Biggin Hill. Gravesend was under the command of No 11 Group Fighter Command.
The first squadron to use RAF Gravesend was No 32 – a Hurricane squadron that was based at Biggin Hill. Major building works at Biggin Hill meant that 32 needed a temporary base and Gravesend fitted the bill perfectly. During the Dunkirk evacuation the Spitfires of No 610 Squadron joined them.
In July 1940, Bristol Blenheims arrived at Gravesend for the month. They were fitted out to be night fighters.
During the Battle of Britain, it was the Hurricanes from No 501 Squadron that primarily used Gravesend. Hawkinge was used as a forward base for these Hurricanes and many took off at dawn for Hawkinge to await the expected arrival of the Luftwaffe off of Folkestone and Dover. Though the flying time from Gravesend to Hawkinge was relatively small, any time lost to the Luftwaffe was considered vital – hence the pre-emptive forward base outside of Dover. Also Channel convoys and Dover itself were common targets and they both needed as much help as Fighter Command could give them.
No 501 made numerous kills during the Battle of Britain but it also sustained a high number of casualties. 501 was moved to Kenley and replaced by the Spitfires of No 66 Squadron.
By the end of the Battle of Britain, Gravesend had proved its worth and it was seen as being less of a satellite for Biggin Hill and more as an air base for Fighter Command in its own right. Construction at the base greatly extended its size. Fourteen pilots flying out of Gravesend had been killed during the battle.
Boulton Paul Defiants from No 264 Squadron were moved to Gravesend to act as night fighters during the Blitz.
After the Battle of Britain both Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons based at Gravesend took part in offensive raids on German held positions in Northern France. They were also used to escort allied bombers on raids to Germany.
Briefly in the summer of 1942, two Eagle squadrons were based at Gravesend. These were RAF squadrons piloted by American pilots.
In 1943, an extension to the runways was finished. This allowed more powerful aeroplanes to use Gravesend including the Hawker Typhoon and the Mustang.
In the build-up to D-Day, Mosquitoes also used Gravesend.
With D-Day a success, all the signs were that Gravesend would be downgraded. Its commanding officer had been a Group Captain but after D-Day, it was a Squadron Leader. Ironically, it was a German weapon that signalled the end of Gravesend as a RAF base. V1 rockets, targeting London, frequently fell short of the capital. It soon became clear that Gravesend air base was near enough on the V1’s flight path and any that fell short could fall on the base. Balloons were used to protect the air base but it was soon put under Care and Maintenance.
Gravesend air base formally closed in June 1956