Kenley is well known for the presence of its Canadian Wing formed in September 1942, later becoming 127 Wing, under Wing Commander “Johnnie” Johnson in the early summer of 1943 and also led by Wing Commander Hugh Constant Godefroy from autumn 1943 through to April 1944. What is perhaps less well known is the Wing was led by Wing Commander Denis Smallwood; later Air Chief Marshal Sir Denis Smallwood GBE, KCB, DSO, DFC, FRAeS, FRSA, in August and September 1943 during a gap in Canadian residence.
Denis Smallwood was born on 13 August 1918, educated at King Edward VI school in Birmingham and joined the RAF on a short service commission on 26 March 1938. After training at 10 Flying Training School and attending an Instructor’s Course at the Central Flying School, Smallwood was appointed Assistant Adjutant/Qualified Flying Instructor with 605 Squadron in December 1938.
In November 1940, he joined 249 Squadron at North Weald before being given command of 87 Squadron a year later. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his actions covering Operation Jubilee on 19 August 1942. Promoted to Acting Wing Commander in April 1943, he arrived to take over the Kenley Wing on 14 August 1943.
The Wing at this time comprised two Spitfire squadrons, 165 which had moved from Exeter on 8 August and 66 who arrived after spending 3 days at Redhill.
66 Squadron complained about having to clear up the dispersals after the Canadians for the second time in a matter of days. The return of 66 Squadron also saw the return of a Kenley Old Boy in the form of their commanding officer, Squadron Leader Keith T Lofts DFC, who had flown with 615 Squadron during the Battle of Britain.
The bread and butter work of the Wing during this period was the provision of fighter cover to various Ramrod operations attacking targets in northern France and Belgium, amounting to 32 missions under Wing Commander Smallwood. The exception occurred on the morning of 9 September when the Wing was tasked with part of the fighter cover for Exercise Starkey in the English Channel. The exercise was timed to coincide with Operation Avalanche, the Allied invasion at Salerno and was designed to mislead the Germans into believing a raid on Boulogne, similar to Operation Jubilee on Dieppe, was underway. Principally, it was hoped the Luftwaffe would come up and fight as they had the year before, however, this expectation turned out to be misplaced. The 66 Squadron Diary commented:
Much to our surprise, even though we could see the invasion barges on their way out and even though continuous waves of medium bombers pounded the harbour, no e/a (enemy aircraft) came up. We landed from this patrol at 0845 feeling rather disappointed.
The Wing was back on Ramrod escort duty in the afternoon, however, there was a chance for some relaxation the following day as the 165 Squadron Diary recalls:
After release a number of recreational sorties were made to places of pleasure and amusement and were much appreciated after the hard work of the last few days.
One can only wonder what the “…places of pleasure and amusement…” were.
Whilst on 11 September, with 66 Squadron:
During the afternoon the pilots got down to a little aeroplane cleaning.
Ramrod escort duty at this stage of the war was fairly routine with only occasional encounters with the Luftwaffe. However, this did not mean the Wing did not suffer any losses. On 22 August, whilst on the run in to the target, the Ramrod was attacked by 15+ FW.190s. In the ensuing engagement, Pilot Officer W Furniss-Roe was shot down. Evading capture he made his way back to Britain via Spain and Gibraltar. Shortly after returning to operations he was shot down again on 26 January 1944 and once again evaded capture to return to Britain.
On 28 August, 66 Squadron got their revenge when Flight Lieutenant Elcombe downed a FW.190, the squadron diary commenting:
This was our first confirmed victory for many months and the ground-crews and everyone else were considerably heartened thereby.
Tragedy struck on 2 September during Ramrod 24 Pt.II:
There was little enemy activity, but the flak from the Dunkirk area on the way out was heavy and accurate. F/Sgt. J Harries was hit and last seen losing height and going inland.
Flight Sergeant Harries is commemorated on Panel 137 of the Runnymede Memorial.
The final loss for the Smallwood Wing occurred on 4 September, when Flight Lieutenant Tony Gaze was shot down by Heinz-Gerhard Vogt of II/JG26 in a FW.190. Fortunately, Gaze was able to evade capture and returned to Britain via Spain. In February 1945, he shot down an Me.262 in February 1945, the first Australian to do so, and was awarded his 3rd DFC as a result.
Changes were in the offing in the middle of the month when both 165 and 66 squadrons moved out on 17 September. 165 Squadron headed to Church Stanton in Somerset and 66 Squadron went further west to Perranporth. There was, however, time for a farewell on 16 September, as the 66 Squadron Diary records:
In the evening the Redhill Wing led by W/Cmdr Malfroy made rendezvous according to plan with the Kenley Wing in the bar of the Officer’s Mess at Kenley. A very pleasant evening was spent. Nothing was destroyed and there were very few casualties.
Kenley was a popular posting with the squadrons and 165 commented:
All personnel regret having to leave Kenley not only for its general convenience, but also because there was plenty of interesting work to do.
Their Wing Commander also moved to Church Stanton with 165 Squadron. After the war, he remained in the RAF and moved progressively through higher commands, culminating as Commander-in-Chief UK Air Forces in 1975. He passed away on 26 July 1997.
After the departure of 165 and 66 Squadrons, a period of quiet descended on the Kenley Sector with 131 and 504 squadrons leaving Redhill on 17 and 18 September respectively. This left only 306 (Polish) Squadron operating from the satellite at Friston.
The Canadian hiatus ended on 14 October when 127 Wing returned, with 403 and 421 Squadrons, under the leadership of Wing Commander Hugh C. Godefroy. They would remain until they left for the final time in April 1944.
The National Archives