Most people remember RAF Kenley for the crucial role it played in the defence of London during the Battle of Britain in 1940, but by VE Day in May 1945, the situation had changed dramatically, and so had Kenley.
The last Canadian Spitfire squadron had flown out in April 1944, bringing to a close Kenley’s days as a fighter station. It became home to various Service Wings as Kenley’s airspace became crowded out by the balloon barrage which had been extended to counter the deadly threat posed by the V-1 “doodlebugs”.
However, a new purpose was found for the facilities at Kenley. In the Autumn of 1944, when the end of the European war appeared inevitable, plans were made for the disarmament of the Luftwaffe and No.8302 Wing was formed at Kenley as a Disarmament School. By the end of the year, 300 officers and 1,200 men had been given technical training and equipped to operate as self-sufficient units, dismantling the German war-machine, as they followed the advancing Allied forces through France into Belgium and beyond. Disarmament Units continued to be trained at Kenley until August 1945, so it was these personnel who celebrated VE Day at Kenley, as they prepared to be called forward into Europe.
Beyond the RAF station, there were street parties – one was a mile long, running from the parade of shops in Whyteleafe to Wapses Lodge roundabout. For some time, locals had been building an enormous bonfire in the chalk pits by the side of Godstone Rd, throwing in scrap wood and old furniture. This was lit and the local air raid wardens handed out rounds of live .303 ammunition, which had been stockpiled in case of invasion. These were thrown into the flames, along with thunderflashes. One local lad remembered the explosions were violent enough to lift him off the ground! Miraculously, nobody was hurt.
For the Canadians who had flown the last Spitfires out of Kenley, the fall of Germany brought a time of profound change and re-adjustment. Some of those who had battled through the offensive sorties of 1942 and ’43 were already back in Canada, having been repatriated after completing multiple tours of operations in Europe. Their memoirs barely mention the victory that they had fought so desperately to achieve – being more concerned with the struggle to find a new purpose and set up home. Some of them also felt a profound guilt for not being with their squadrons right up to the end of hostilities.
Kenley’s most famous Wing Leader, Johnnie Johnson, was still on the frontline, and flew his last operational sortie of WW2 on 26th April, 1945. He finished the war as a highly decorated Group Captain and the RAF’s top-scoring fighter ace, but, like everyone else, he was just, “bloody glad to have survived the war.”