The Battle of Britain and Penshurst Airfield
In the month when there have been so many memories of the Battle of Britain, it was fortuitous that Michael Robinson has just provided some facts about the airfield that lay within the Parish. Michael had a close friend, Barry Gardiner, who was an expert on Second World War planes, particularly in Kent. The following notes were compiled by Barry Gardiner about the Penshurst Airfield which was situated, as everyone probably knows, between Chiddingstone Causeway and Charcott (rather than anywhere near Penshurst).
The airfield, which measured 800 x 500 yards and covered 73 acres, was originally used during the First World War and housed No 2 Wireless School, formed at Penshurst on 8 November 1917. The courses which were run there lasted one week for scout pilots and one week for wireless personnel. Two aeroplane sheds, each 130’ x 60’ were erected, along with other buildings, for Penshurst was also the depot for wireless stores and repair and testing apparatus. No 2 Wireless School disbanded on 23 March 1919, the airfield closed and the buildings dismantled.
During the 1930s Penshurst was used as a civil landing ground and one hangar was erected on the south side. However, there were no repair facilities. It now covered an area of 550 yds x 320 yds.
Michael Robinson was told that in the 1920s, Winston Churchill used to use the airfield when he rented Lullenden Manor, near Dormansland, a house which the Robinson family bought in 1936.
The airfield was re-activated during the Second World War. Initially, it was no more than an emergency landing strip but in 1940, during the Battle of Britain, there were a number of incidents on or near the airfield. On 23 February a Fairey Battle L5005 on route from Manston to Brize Norton was forced to use the airfield in particularly bad weather. However, in September and October 1940 – the height of the Battle of Britain – there were several forced landings. On 2 September two Aero Ansons had to use Penshurst because the Detling runway had been badly damaged by German bombing. Two days later a German Messerschmitt based at Abbeville in France crashed at Smarts Hill after it had been in combat with a Spitfire. Both German pilots were killed. On 27 September a Junker bomber, probably from a Squadron based at Asche, crashed at Vexor Farm, at Chiddingstone, probably hit by both Allied planes and anti-aircraft fire. Three of the crew were killed but one survived and was made a prisoner of war.
A month later on 25 October a Spitfire had to use the airstrip. Pilot officer J.Mansell-Lewis (flying a Spitfire Mk1 from 92 Squadron based at Biggin Hill) had been hit by an Me109 and had to crash land – but he was unhurt. On the same day Sgt H F Shead in a Hurricane from 257 Squadron was in a battle with an Me109 over the Channel. He limped back to West Kent and made a forced landing at the Penshurst airfield. He landed successfully but his brakes had been damaged. He ran off the end of the airstrip but was unhurt. Two days later – it was a busy time not only for the airfield but in the Battle of Britain – a Messerschmitt (a 109E4 3525 of 3/JG52 squadron based at Coqvilles) had to force land after combat with some Spitfires from 74 squadron. The German pilot was not hurt and became another p.o.w.
However, it was another two years before the Penshurst airfield was formally reactivated. It opened in 1942 with 35 Wing Army Co-operation Command for the accommodation of air observation post squadrons. The first unit to arrive was No.653 Squadron whose Austers moved in during September 1942. The following year the airfield was transferred to No. 83 Group. In October 1942 the resident unit was joined by a detachment from 658 Squadron who remained here until the following February. June 1944 saw the departure of the 653 Squadron and the airfield does not appear to have had any more units until the arrival of No.664 Squadron with Auster AOP Ns and Vs in February 1945. But this unit was only here for a few weeks and moved out again the following month. With its departure the airfield closed.
Parish Magazine Article: October 2010: by (late) Barry Gardiner and Michael Robinson