In what will be a regular new feature, we will focus on a particular airfield that became home to Mosquito operations during WWII. Some are particularly famous, and still operate as airfields, while others have been changed significantly, while others have completely disappeared. One constant remains though, that even in the latter case, a few clues remain to their past glories, if only in street names or a few preserved buildings.
There might be one of these sites right nearby to where you live and yet, you never realised their significance. This series will give you pointers to the past associations and what remains of the Mosquito connection today.
Do make sure you open our forthcoming newsletters as we will focus on a different location every few weeks.
There are plenty of Mosquito Airfields to explore!
West Malling, now part of the Kings Hill Garden Village.
Originally established as a relief landing ground known as Kings Hill during the First World War, West Malling covered an area of just under 50 acres of flat field with wooded surroundings, a few miles west of Maidstone. Kent Aeronautical Services began to operate from the field in the 30s and by 1932, it became known as Maidstone Airport. With war looming, the RAF took over West Malling as a satellite to RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Kenley, with facilities being built to support a variety of aircraft. Aircraft arrived like the Bouton Paul Defiant fighter and Westland Lysanders, the latter flying reconnaissance and photographic missions. Sadly, the Defiant proved ineffective against the much faster German fighters of the time.
Being on the approach to London, the airfield came under heavy attack during ‘The Battle of Britain’ as Spitfires and Hurricanes from bases all over the south-east battled to keep the enemy at bay. The aircraft based at West Malling played little part in the dogfights, with many lost on the ground, despite anti-aircraft and searchlight batteries.
In the Spring of 1941, Defiants and Beaufighters arrived to begin night fighter operations from the airfield, with one notable pilot being Guy Gibson, who would later gain fame as the leader of the Dambusters of 617 Squadron.
By the autumn of 1941, RAF West Malling was beginning to specialise in night-fighter operations. The introduction of a Mosquito night-fighting variant, with a flat bullet-proof windscreen and the latest radar installations, saw operational success improve, but it was against the V1 ‘Doodlebugs’ in which Mosquitoes excelled. In fact, a dedicated air zone was established in which only fast fighters could operate, therefore improving the ‘kill rate’ as they approached London.
During the latter stages of the war, as the Allies prepared for the invasion of Europe, ever improving variants of Mosquito would launch operations from the airfield.
After the war, Mosquito aircraft remained at West Malling until the mid-50s, when Squadrons re-equipped with Meteors and Vampires, and eventually, Gloster Javelins became resident. With enforced Care and Maintenance status, the station changed in the early 60s when the United States Navy based communication and transport aircraft there for a few years, but it was clear, like many other surplus wartime airfields, time was nearly up for West Malling as an operational base, with only an active ATC gliding club and small scale civil aviation operations taking place alongside a growing commercial sector.
One claim to fame during 1967 was that West Malling’s facilities were used as the filming location for the Beatles ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ film, whose management team, in the haste of their hectic schedule, had found all the usual film studios fully booked.
By 1970, Kent County Council had bought the airfield, converting many of the buildings into Civic offices although the airfield itself remained in a good state of preservation, being used throughout the 80s for many Great Warbird Air Shows that became a huge draw with the public. These were organised by Elly Sallingboe, she of B-17 ‘Sally B’ fame, with help from our very own, Ross Sharp.
By 1989, a major ‘Garden Village’ concept was in planning, which after many planning battles came to fruition, seeing a huge number of houses built in a new community, complete with supporting shops, sports facilities that included a golf course and a cricket ground, schools, a medical centre and large supermarket.
With residential and commercial developments gradually engulfing what remained of the airfield, flying activities finally ceased in 1995 to allow full-scale development to continue.
Today, little remains of such an illustrious past, other than the legacy of a few original buildings, street names such as Mosquito Road and Gibson Drive, together with memorials as featured further down this feature, together with others inside West Malling church.
Critically, as part of the scheme, the Grade II protected Control Tower remains as a centrepiece, completely refurbished as a Coffee shop and community centre.
Fitting, younger residents can discover the rich aviation heritage on which their homes are built.
Do you have any memories of West Malling?
We would love to hear from anyone with memories of West Malling, either, as service personnel, pilots, ground crew, former employees of local businesses or spectators at the many Air Shows held there in the past.
We can always update this article with some of your stories and photographs.
Please write to: email@example.com
Sources used in compiling this feature include:
Action Stations 8 – Bruce Barrymore Halpenny. (PSL)
History Hit – Anthony J. Moor (link)
MKA Architects (link)
kings-hill.com and other online resources, for which we are grateful.