Airport type Military Owner Ministry of Defence
Operator Royal Air Force Location West Malling Kent Built 1917
In use 1917–1918 and 1930-1969
Elevation AMSL 308 ft / 94 m Coordinates 51°16′16″N 000°24′09″E
Royal Air Force West Malling or RAF West Malling was a former Royal Air Force station located 1.6 miles (2.6 km) south of West Malling, Kent and 5.2 miles (8.4 km) west of Maidstone, Kent, England.
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 Kinghill, home to the Maidstone School of Flying, before being renamed West Malling Airfield, and, in 1932, Maidstone Airport.
During the 1930s many airshows and displays were held by aviators such as Amy Johnson and Alan Cobham, flying from a grass runway.
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. The station saw further service after the war, first with some of the RAFs first jet squadrons, and later as a US Naval Air Station.
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.
First World War
The airfield was as a landing area during the First World War.
Second World War
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 the Second World War, and the RAF station was formed in June 1940, now with a concrete runway. Designated as one of two RAF 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.
Douces Manor was the Headquarters and Mess for officers flying from RAF West Malling (now Kings Hill). The cellar bar was frequented by many brave young fighter pilots and, typical of the dry sense of humour of the time, became colloquially known as the ‘Twitch Inn’, due to the nervous affliction that affected many pilots. This noticeable twitch that many displayed was a result of the immense stress, strain and fatigue they experienced whilst forever looking over their shoulders to see if an enemy was on their tail.
Tally Ho! July 1940
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.
Dambuster, April 1941
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 VC, later officer commanding 617 Squadron on the Dambusters Raid, 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.
In September 1942 Squadron Leader Cathcart Wight-Boycott was promoted to Acting Wing Commander and posted to RAF West Malling as Officer Commanding 29 Squadron who were still flying Bristol Beaufighters. Between December 1942 and January 1943 Wight-Boycott took the additional temporary role of Station Commander at West Malling.
Emergency Landing, April 1943
On 16 April 1943 a single-engine aircraft was heard approaching the airfield by the crew of a Beaverette Mk III armoured car of 2769 Field Squadron RAF Regiment, which was on routine patrol. The plane circled twice, then landed. The driver of the vehicle, AC Wilding immediately swung his vehicle into the path of the aircraft to prevent it from taking off again. The pilot, Feldwebel Otto Bechtold, immediately gave himself up. Driving back to the airfield from the Guardroom, they saw a second Focke-Wulf Fw 190 land, but before the armoured car could reach it, the pilot realised his mistake and turned his aircraft round to begin a take-off run. The car commander, LAC Sharback, at once opened fire with his twin Vickers machine guns and the aircraft slewed off the runway and caught fire. The pilot, wounded in the shoulder and leg and with his flying suit in flames, was thrown clear of the aircraft as it overturned. The two gunners ran to the pilot’s rescue, extinguished his burning clothing and dragged him clear of the aircraft. Unfortunately, when one of the Station’s fire trucks was attempting to extinguish the flames, the aircraft exploded in a ball of fire, scattering debris over a radius of 300 yards and seriously injuring several of the RAF Firemen. Within a few minutes, another Fw 190 crashed on the approach to the runway and a fourth aircraft ploughed into a nearby orchard and burst into flames.
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.
After the war
Night fighters, 1950s and 1960s
In use throughout the 1950s and early 1960s as Britain’s premier night fighter station.
United States Navy until 1967
RAF West Malling then became home to several squadrons of the US Navy, until 1967.
Care & Maintenance
It was then placed on Care & Maintenance, used by several air-industry related businesses.
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 T.2 Type hangars where they remained until 1992.
From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, new build SAAB 340 were sent to an aircraft finishing company established here, routing via London Southend Airport, in order to be sprayed into the colour schemes of customer airlines.
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. Other RAF stations involved in this exercise were RAF Honington and RAF Stradishall, both in Suffolk.
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.
The former Officers Mess (now the Gibson Building, and used as Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council offices) was built in 1939, and is now a Grade II listed building. The Officers’ Mess itself is used as the Council Chamber. 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 has been restored for use as a coffee shop.
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.
Squadrons and aircraft
|No. 3 Squadron RAF||1943||Hawker Tempest||1B|
|No. 14 Squadron RAF||1947 & 1948||de Havilland Mosquito||B16 & B35||Based twice|
|No. 19 Squadron RAF||1941||Supermarine Spitfire||IIA||Detachments from Fowlmere|
|No. 25 Squadron RAF||1947–1951||de Havilland Mosquito||NF10|
|1951–1954||de Havilland Vampire||NF10|
|1954–1957||Gloster Meteor||NF12 & NF14|
|No. 26 Squadron RAF||1940||Westland Lysander||III|
|1942||North American Mustang||II||Based twice to/from Gatwick|
|No. 29 Squadron RAF||1941–1943||Bristol Beaufighter||IF and VIF|
|1944–1950||de Havilland Mosquito||XIII, XX and later NF36||Based on 11 separate periods|
|No. 32 Squadron RAF||1942||Hawker Hurricane||I, IIB and IIC||Based three times.|
|No. 41 Squadron RAF||1944||Supermarine Spitfire||XII||Based for one week.|
|No. 64 Squadron RAF||1943||Supermarine Spitfire||VC|
|No. 66 Squadron RAF||1940||Supermarine Spitfire||I & IIA|
|No. 80 Squadron RAF||1944||Supermarine Spitfire||IX|
|No. 85 Squadron RAF||1943, 1944, 1947, 1948||de Havilland Mosquito||XII, XVII, NF36||Based four times.|
|1948–1957||Gloster Meteor||NF11, NF12 & NF13|
|1959-1960||Gloster Javelin||FAW2, FAW6, FAW8, T3|
|No. 91 Squadron RAF||1944||Supermarine Spitfire||XIV|
|No. 96 Squadron RAF||1943–1944||de Havilland Mosquito||XIII|
|No. 124 Squadron RAF||1943 & 1944||Supermarine Spitfire||VII|
|No. 130 Squadron RAF||1943||Supermarine Spitfire||VB|
|No. 133 Squadron RAF||1942||Supermarine Spitfire||VA and VB||Detachments from Kirton-in-Lindsey.|
|No. 141 Squadron RAF||1940||Boulton Paul Defiant||I|
|No. 153 Squadron RAF||1955–1957||Gloster Meteor||NF12 & NF14|
|No. 157 Squadron RAF||1944||de Havilland Mosquito||XIX|
|No. 234 Squadron RAF||1943||Supermarine Spitfire||VI|
|No. 247 Squadron RAF||1946||de Havilland Vampire||F1||Based twice.|
|No. 255 Squadron RAF||1941||Bristol Beaufighter||VIF||Detachments from Coltishall.|
|No. 264 Squadron RAF||1941–1942||Boulton Paul Defiant||I & II|
|No. 274 Squadron RAF||1944||Supermarine Spitfire||IX|
|No. 287 Squadron RAF||1945–1946||Supermarine Spitfire||XVI|
|No. 316 Squadron RAF||1944||North American Mustang||III|
|No. 322 Squadron RAF||1944||Supermarine Spitfire||XIV|
|No. 350 Squadron RAF||1943||Supermarine Spitfire||VC|
|No. 409 Squadron RAF||1944||de Havilland Mosquito||XIII|
|No. 410 Squadron RAF||1943||de Havilland Mosquito||VI|
|No. 485 Squadron RAF||1942||Supermarine Spitfire||VB|
|No. 486 Squadron RAF||1942||Hawker Typhoon||IB|
|No. 500 Squadron RAF||1947–1948||de Havilland Mosquito||NF19 & NF30|
|No. 531 Squadron RAF||1942–1943||Douglas Havoc||I (Turbinlite)|
|Douglas Boston||III (Turbinlite)|
|No. 567 Squadron RAF||1946||Supermarine Spitfire||XVI|
|No. 610 Squadron RAF||1942||Supermarine Spitfire||VB|
|No. 616 Squadron RAF||1944||Supermarine Spitfire||VII|
In popular culture
- Several films and TV programmes, including The Beatles’ 1967 experimental film Magical Mystery Tour, the 1972 television series Pathfinders and the 1982 television drama series We’ll Meet Again, used the airfield as a location during production.
- Aerial sequences for an episode of the British police TV series Dempsey and Makepeace were filmed here in 1984, involving some spirited flying by a Topflite de Havilland Heron G-ANUO.
- West Malling airfield served as a backdrop for the opening sequences of the 1989 “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” episode “The Incredible Theft”, where the T hangar formerly located behind the airfield’s watch tower (today the site of the Kings Hill Asda store) was emblazoned with the name “Mayfield” and a secret prototype fighter plane, the “Mayfield Kestrel” was revealed and the demonstrated by the aircraft’s builder to a government minister. Filmed with the famous Spitfire IXb MH434 flown by the legendary display pilot Ray Hanna, the sequence is one of the most-memorable of the television drama’s 70 broadcast episodes.
- More recently, the 2007 TV series Cape Wrath includes scenes shot at Kings Hill and other local areas.