In 1940, Hitler knew he had to destroy the RAF’s Fighter Command to gain air superiority and make the invasion of Britain possible. This had to be achieved before Winter set in.
Six days of attacks by the Luftwaffe, with substantial losses on both sides, had been followed by an ominous silence on Saturday,17th August, 1940, but it wasn’t to last. On Sunday 18th August, the peace was shattered by three major assaults intended to knock out Fighter Command for good.
18th August, 1940, was christened “The Hardest Day”, because it was the day of The Battle of Britain that saw the highest losses of aircraft on both sides. 100 German and 136 British aircraft are believed to have been destroyed or damaged. You can read more about the aircraft involved here.
The targets were the airfields at Kenley, Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and North Weald, Gosport, Ford, Thorney Island, and the radar station at Poling. Fighter Command’s defending Spitfires and Hurricanes would either be destroyed on the ground by bombing, or in the air by large numbers of escorting Messerschmitts.
RAF Kenley was singled out for a complicated pincer attack, by Bomber Geshwader 76, which, if successful, would destroy the airfield for good.
- First, a dozen Junkers 88’s of the 2nd Gruppe, would carry out a precision dive-bombing attack on Kenley’s buildings and hangars.
- Five minutes later, this would be followed by 27 Dornier 17’s bombing from high altitude to knock out the landing ground and airfield defences.
- Finally, the 9th Staffel would come in at low altitude in their Dornier 17’s, and finish off anything that was left standing. War reporter Georg Hinze and photographer Rolf Von Pebal would be on board to record their triumph.
However, the operation did not go according to plan. Poor weather conditions made it difficult for the bombers to get into formation near Calais.
The Dorniers of the 1st and 3rd Gruppen were only six minutes late, but they had already overtaken the Junkers 88’s of the 2nd Gruppe. This had ominous consequences for the low-flying 9th Staffel, who arrived at Kenley first and found the airfield unexpectedly intact and fore-warned of their arrival. You can read more about Fighter Command’s efforts to counter the raid here.
Only a few minutes after the 9th Staffel’s devastating low-level raid, the onslaught began again as the main group of 27 Dornier 17’s arrived over Kenley and began to drop their bombs from high altitude. Over 150 bombs missed the airfield and caused a great deal of damage in the surrounding areas. Railway lines were hit and Valley Rd was impassable. A number of houses in Whyteleafe and Caterham were destroyed, while many more were extensively damaged.
Finally, the Junkers 88 dive bombers arrived. Seeing the smoke rising over Kenley, it was obvious that the timing of the raid had gone awry, so they headed for their alternative target – West Malling.
Kenley Service Personnel killed as a result of enemy action on The Hardest Day:
In the air:
On the Ground:
One Private of the 12(HD) Queen’s Royal Regt. was severely wounded and died on 20th August. He was:
Killed in action at Kenley Waterworks:
Kenley Service Personnel Injured on The Hardest Day:
In the Air:
Pilot Officer D. Looker – No.615 Squadron, severe shock. Hurricane L1592 (now on display in the Science Museum, London) damaged by Messerschmitt 109 of Fighter Geshwader 3 near Kenley at 1.23pm. Looker force-landed at Croydon and received further damage from their anti-aircraft gunners.
Pilot Officer Petrus “Dutch” Hugo – No.615 Squadron, wounded. Shot down by Messerschmitt 109 of Fighter Geshwader 3, near Kenley at 1.23pm. Hurricane R4221, KW*M, crash landed to the north of Orpington, damaged beyond repair.
Flight Lieutenant L. M. Gaunce – No.615 Squadron, slightly wounded. Shot down by Messerschmitt 109 of Fighter Geshwader 3, near Kenley, at 1.23pm. Gaunce baled out. Hurricane P2969 crashed at Robsacks Wood, Scab Harbour Rd, south of Sevenoaks Weald.
On the Ground:
Aircraftman Second Class Leslie Maw
Leading Aircraftman James Abbott Atkinson
Aircraftman Second Class W. A. S. Wenham
Aircraftman Second Class Royston Guy Kingham
Leading Aircraftman James Nichol Snowden
Aircraftman Second Class Victor Arnold
Aircraftman David Ralph Kirby
WAAF Mary Coulthard
Two men of the 43rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.
No.111 Squadron, RAF Croydon, were scrambled to counter the attack by the 9th Staffel, KG76, over Kenley.
Flight Lieutenant Stanley Dudley Pierce Connors, DFC and Bar – killed in action by return fire from 9th Staffel (or ground fire),Blackness Lane, Leaves Green at 1.30pm. Hurricane R4187 destroyed.
Sergeant Harry Newton – shot down by Uffz. F. Bergmann, gunner on the Guenther Unger’s Dornier Do. 17. Newton baled out wounded, at 1.30pm. Hurricane P3943 crashed at Tatsfield, destroyed.
Sergeant H. Deacon – Rolf Von Pebal mentions a Hurricane being hit by the gunner aboard Reichel’s Dornier. This is believed to be Deacon’s aircraft, N2340, which crashed on the edge of woods near ‘The Bull’ pub, Chelsham Green. Deacon baled out wounded around 1.30pm and came down near ‘The Harrow,’ Warlingham.
Pilot Officer P. Simpson – damaged by return fire from Dornier Do.17, 9th Staffel. Force-landed on Woodcote Park golf course near Epsom, 1.40pm. Hurricane P3399 damaged.
Damage to Aircraft on the Ground at Kenley
Four No.615 squadron Hurricanes were destroyed on the ground at Kenley including P3158, P3487 and R4186. Two more were damaged, one of which was P3161, as well as one of No.64 squadron’s Spitfires. Other aircraft destroyed or damaged on the ground at Kenley include 1 Miles Master, 3 Miles Magisters, 1 Bristol Blenheim and a Percival Proctor.
Damage to Kenley’s Buildings and Facilities
- Three hangars, the station headquarters and the station hospital were destroyed.
- Barrack blocks and the Sergeants’ Mess were also damaged. Personnel billeted in the undamaged barrack blocks stayed there for a couple of days after the raid, until they could be moved into vacant private houses in the local area.
- A water main was fractured during the raid, which made fire-fighting difficult.
- The Officers’ Mess sustained superficial damage.
- Communications to the Operations room were damaged. As a result, the Operations room was moved to a butcher’s shop in Caterham, which was already used for training op’s room personnel. This remained in use until a new operations room at ‘The Grange,’ Old Coulsdon, was ready in December 1940.
Civilian Casualties in the Surrounding Area
Roughly 150 bombs fell in the area around RAF Kenley. Alfred Price mentions six people were killed and twenty-one seriously injured, in his book “The Hardest Day.”
So far, we have identified five civilian casualties in Caterham, Kenley and Coulsdon.
Ellen Phoebe Venables of 161 Godstone Rd, died at Cleansing Station, Kenley, aged 91. (Croydon Archives Register of deaths due to War Operations gives place of death as 161 Godstone Rd). Buried at Bandon Hill, Plot P19a.
Robina Elizabeth Hatch of 52 Malcolm Rd, Coulsdon, aged 79. Killed by a bomb splinter while in an air raid shelter at 50 Malcolm Rd. She was the widow of Alfred James Hatch. Buried at Bandon Hill Cemetery, Plot P19a.
Joseph Walter Williams of 159 Godstone Road, Kenley. Son of Tom Williams, of 206 Mottingham Road, Mottingham, Kent; husband of Jane Williams (nee Reick). Injured at Kenley Water Works, where he was employed as a stoker. He died the same day at Purley Cottage Hospital, aged 42.
John Joseph Whelan of Borough Green Farm, Lingfield. Son of Joseph and Mary Whelan, of Lettergullion, Drumlish, Co. Longford, Irish Republic. Killed by a bomb splinter at Red Lion Hotel, Brighton Road, Coulsdon, aged 24. Buried at Bandon Hill Cemetery, Plot B17a.
Winifred May Charlton (nee Atkins) died at her home, 22 Oak Rd, Caterham, aged 41. She was the wife of Harry James Charlton and worked as a shop assistant prior to getting married. Peter Allam’s family remember that a child was killed in Oak Rd, but so far we have failed to find supporting records.
Kenley Revival has been privileged to collect several eye-witness accounts of the raids. Here are some of the most notable.
Despite the severity of the raids which took place on the 18th August, 1940, RAF Kenley stood firm. The airfield was back in use the following day.