THE STARTLED SAINT
The house at the corner of Teston Road and St Leonards Street was formerly “The Startled Saint” Pub. It was the local pub used by airmen and ground crews stationed at close by RAF West Malling (now the Kings Hill estate) during the second World War.
Under a recent ‘Planning Application’ approved by Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council, it will be “bulldozed”, and replaced by 5 Houses. Thus, suffering exactly the same fate as its identical sister pub “The Duke Without a Head” at Wateringbury.
The original “Pub Landlady” Alice Baker, claimed it was opened on the day WW2 started in 1939. Other reports suggest it was built later in early 1940. Whatever its origins the pub with its unique sign “a portrait of Saint Leonard being buzzed (or startled) by a Halo of Spitﬁres” was a haven to countless RAF fighter pilots flying from the airﬁeld 1940-45.
ln his book ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’ , Guy Gibson (later a VC for his Dam Buster raid) says of West Malling ‘that night we stood by, but the weather was bad, and the Group released the squadron at about nine. Down to the Startled Saint we went, complete with ground crews, to sample the beer, it was good and everyone was happy’.
Guy Gibson after ﬂying over Kent also wrote – ‘the Garden of England, with its green trees and green ﬁelds was cratered with thousands of white chalk bomb holes, in the area known as ‘Bomb Alley’.
Other famous pilots and crew who flew from the airﬁeld, and possibly leant against Saint’s bar, included John “Cats Eyes.” Cunningham, who supposedly ate carrots to improve his night time vision. His staunch navigator / radar operator ‘Jimmy Ranwsley’ co-authored the book ‘Night Fighter‘.
By the time he came to West Mailing as Station Commander in 1943 Group Captain Peter Townsend was already a ‘Battle of Britain’ fighter ace. Later becoming equerry to King George 6th, he said ‘I was a professional airman with an irregularity of conduct and character which doomed me from high office’. Unfortunately, he became better known for his relationship with HRH Princes Margaret the Queens sister in 1950s.
Not just Fighter Pilots were successful! In early 1943 the West Malling duty controllers managed to lure 3 brand new German Focke-wulf 190 Aircraft to land by error, on the airﬁeld in thick fog. Thus, capturing one of these new fighters completely intact!
In June 1944 the ‘Doodlebug Flying Bomb’ was launched against Britain. West Mailing became the main base for coping with the menace. Its’ Fighter Pilots, learnt the dangerous tactic, discovered by Roland Beaumont (later a famous test pilot) of flying within inches of the bomb’s wing to disrupt its ﬂight and send it crashing to the ground.
Maybe the “the new developers” can ﬁnd some way of creating a memorial here, not just Pilots, but also RAF Ground Crews; and all other Forces Personnel who used the Pub as a refuge, from the heavy demands of active duty in World War II, 1939 to 1945.