Originally used as a landing area during the first World War, the site opened as a private landing ground and in 1930, then known as Kingshill, home to the Maidstone School of Flying, before being renamed West Malling Airfield, and, in 1932, Maidstone Airport.
As war approached, the airfield was taken over by the military, to become RAF West Malling in 1940, serving in the front line against the Luftwaffe.
After closure as an operational air station in 1969, West Malling acquired a more civilian guise, hosting several major Great Warbirds Air Displays during the 70s and 80s, until eventually closing completely as an airfield. The site is now developing into a new village community of mixed residential, commercial, and civic amenities, but still retains several features of its military aviation heritage.
RAF West Malling was not fully operational during the Battle of Britain, suffering from several damaging bombing raids, but did play an active part in the later stages of the air campaign, becoming a premier night-fighter base.
Maidstone Airport was taken over in the prelude to World War II, and the RAF station was formed in June 1940, now with a concrete runway. Designated as one of two Fighter Command stations assigned to ‘’C Sector’’, and designated as an advanced aerodrome for RAF Kenley and RAF Biggin Hill. The first aircraft arrived on 8 June 1940. These were Lysanders of No. 26 (Army Cooperation) Squadron, used for photo-reconnaissance sorties over occupied Europe. No. 51 Wing arrived at the same time, and the airfield was provided with anti-aircraft and searchlight batteries for airfield defence.
On 12 July, No. 141 Squadron arrived from RAF Turnhouse, Scotland, equipped with Defiant Mk.1 turret-fighters. The squadron’s first engagement with the enemy occurred a week later, when 6 out of 9 Defiants were destroyed by a superior force of Me.Bf 109s over the Channel. The three surviving aircraft were rescued only when the fight was joined by Hurricanes from No. 111 Squadron. The remainder of the unit returned north to RAF Prestwick on 25 July due to the ineffectiveness of the Defiant against single-seat fighters.
No. 29 Squadron flying Bristol Beaufighters arrived for its first tour of duty on 27 April 1941. One of the Squadron's pilots, Guy Gibson, V.C. later led 617 Squadron on the Dambusters Raid. Gibson said of the station, "Of all the airfields in Great Britain ... we have the most Pleasant".
A regular and long-standing inhabitant, 29 Sqn. left for the last time on 25 November 1950.
On 16 April 1943 a single-engined aircraft was heard approaching the airfield. The plane circled twice, then landed. Station staff, assuming it was a Defiant low on fuel, sent a crash crew to meet the pilot, but on arriving, they discovered a German Focke-Wulf FW-190. The pilot, Feldwebel Otto Bechtold, immediately gave himself up to the ground crew. A second aircraft landed but realising his mistake, the pilot attempted to take off, under fire, and was injured as the plane crashed on the airfield. A third FW-190 undershot the runway, crashing into an orchard.
The serviceable aircraft was flown to Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough the next day for detailed examination, and was eventually repainted in RAF livery, designated as a prototype or experimental aircraft.
The German pilots revealed that they had become lost in thick fog, thought they were over France, and had been directed to the airstrip by a searchlight at Detling
From 20 June to 21 July 1944, No. 322 Squadron, equipped with Spitfire Mk XIVs was stationed at West Malling, tasked with intercepting VI "doodlebug" flying bombs launched from the Dutch and French coasts towards London.
In use throughout the 1950s and early 1960s as Britain's premier night fighter station, RAF West Malling then became home to several squadrons of the US Navy, until 1967. It was then placed on Care & Maintenance, used by several air-industry related business.
In March 1965, Air Cadet 618 VGS (Volunteer Gliding School) moved to West Malling from RAF Manston, setting up its headquarters in the old dispersal area near the runway threshold. Its aircraft (cable-launched Vanguard TX1 gliders) and equipment were stored into one of the large T4 Hangars where they remained until 1992.
Following the issue by Idi Amin of Uganda 4 August 1972, of a decree ordering the expulsion of the 60,000 Asians who were not Ugandan citizens, around 30,000 of those with British passports emigrated to Britain. The unused accommodation blocks at the airfield were converted for use as temporary homes throughout 1973 until the refugees were resettled around the country.
Several films and TV programmes, including:
used the airfield during production.
Aerial sequences for an episode of the British police TV series Dempsey and Makepiece were filmed here in 1984, involving some spirited flying by a Topflite DeHavilland Heron G-ANUO.
More recently, the 2007 TV series Cape Wrath (Meadowlands, in the USA) includes scenes shot at Kings Hill and other local areas.
RAF West Malling is now the site of Kings Hill, a mixed development of residential and business developments, including over 2,000 homes, two schools, local retail units and 18-hole golf course.
Now The Gibson Building, and used as Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council offices, the former Officers Mess, built in 1939, is now a Grade II listed building. A common layout was used at all RAF stations, so that visiting officers were able to find their way around easily.
The brick-built building still shows remnants of the painted camouflage pattern used during the war.
A number of H-block accommodation buildings are also in use as offices.
The control tower - also listed - is largely complete in the form it was in 1942, now surrounded by modern housing, and waiting restoration and eventual new use.
Situated near the site of the old guard house, a memorial to the personnel stationed at RAF West Malling was unveiled on 9 June 2002. Otto Bechtold, the FW-190 pilot, was a guest of honour at the ceremony.
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