Kenley Common was annexed for the Royal Flying Corps in 1917. It became No 7 Aircraft Acceptance Park and received aeroplanes from industry for assembly before they were ferried across the English Channel to the Western Front. Thus Kenley was at the forefront of British aviation history only eight years after Bleriot had made the first flight across the Channel.
Immediately after the war, officials were flown to and from the peace conference at Versailles via RAF Kenley using converted bombers as passenger aircraft. Although the local people sought to have the airfield returned to the Common, the Government deemed Kenley too important to the air defence of London for it to be closed.
1939 saw the runways and perimeter tracks as well as the blast pens being constructed; three of the original seven hangars were removed. Although RAF Kenley was not fully operational at the start of WW2, its squadrons were deployed to France until the Dunkirk evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force between 26 May and 4 June 1940.
In March 1940, RAF Kenley reopened as the Headquarters Station of B Sector 11 Group of Fighter Command. Hard on the heels of the Battle for France came the Battle of Britain, mainly fought in the skies over southeast England between 10 July and 31 October 1940; the bravery and heroics of the young airmen were to prove a turning point in the war. Winston Churchill famously said ‘Never in the field of conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few’.
18 August 1940 was Kenley’s worst day of the war. Nine airmen were killed and ten wounded during a Luftwaffe bombing raid on the airfield during which three of its four hangars were demolished. The station headquarters was wrecked and several aircraft were destroyed. A pillar of smoke rising from the airfield could be seen in Brighton 34 miles to the south.
Many squadrons were based at Kenley at various times during the course of the war. They represented a cross-section of the British Empire and her allies – as well as the British, airmen from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Belgium, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the United States operated from the airfield.
After the war, the new jet fighters needed longer runways to operate from and RAF Kenley’s importance declined, resulting in its operational closure in 1959.