Wednesday, 29 August 2012

From the Black Orchid to Defiants - West Malling airfield 1932-41

West Malling airport had been a civilian site in the interwar years. After obtaining a licence as a permanent airfield in 1932, it had officially opened in 1933 as Maidstone Airport, with a speech by the Marquis of Douglas and Clydesdale and a flypast by three Vickers Virginias and two Hawker Audaxes from RAF Manston. The airport offered flying classes with a Puss Moth, Fox Moth and Gypsy Moth.

 Vickers Virginia bomber. Although it's huge size made an impression on the crowd at West Malling, it wasn't terribly effective, and was very unnreliable. Nonetheless, it remained in active service until 1940, when the suggestion was made that it be mounted with cannon as a gunship against invdaing tanks. Fortuntely that was never tried.

Unfortunately, in 1934 the managing director, "Count" Johnston-Noad was jailed for a month for non-payment of rates. Johnston-Noad was an adventurer - in the good and bad senses of the word. In the 1920s and early 30s, he was famous as a speed boat racer, but he later turned to scams and crime.  He was eventually jailed for 10 years for fraud, which he served, improbably, with the atom spy, Klaus Fuchs, later giving a newspaper article describing his jail mate ( Meanwhile, his beautiful 2nd wife, Thelma, was known in the underworld as the "Black Orchid" and was involved in a number of frauds and thefts, most famously an £8,000 diamond robbery in Hatton Garden in the 1950s. She committed suicide in 1955 with her lover whilst on the run from the police. Unfortuantely, we haven't managed to find any photos of the Johnston-Noads.

In 1935 the airfield was taken over by Mallling Aviation, and perhaps to avoid association, the name was changed to the Malling Aero Club. Despite this inauspicious start, Maidstone Airport went on to play host to various airshows, and even saw the famous Amy Johnson. Another Gypsy Moth was purchased in 1939, only to crash in nearby Borough Green shortly after.

With war approaching the airfield was taken over by the RAF and set up as an advanced landing field for Biggin Hill. It was upgraded with a concrete runway, and anti-aircraft guns and searchlights. The first aircraft were Lysanders, photo reconnaissance planes, on June 8th 1940.

 Boulton Paul Defiant with turret behind, but unfortunately, no guns in front. Usless against modern fighters, but actually quite good against bombers

On 12th July 141 squadron arrived equipped with Defiant fighters, only for tragedy to strike a week later with 6 of the 9 planes shot down over the Channel, exposing the Defiant as almost useless against modern fighters. On July 25th the 3 surviving planes were evacuated to Scotland.

This disaster was followed by heavy air raids. On August 10th a single bomber took the defences by surprise and 17 builders were injured, one dying. Heavier raids on the 15th, 16th and 17th of August and on September 10th, caused so much damage that it was only on October 30th that Spitfires of 66 Squadron could be stationed there, soon joined by Hurricanes of 421 Flight, though both were soon stationed elsewhere, to Biggen Hill and Hawkinge.

For a while, West Malling was mostly used to receive damaged fighters or bombers. Of both sides. At one point in 1940 a flight of German FW109s, believing that by crossing the Thames estuary they had crossed the Channel, started coming into land! The first crash landed in a nearby orchard, the 2nd taxied right up to the control tower before either side realised he was in the the wrong country! Fortunately, a Beaverette armoured car was nearby and held him prisoner. Then yet another FW190 came in. He realised his mistake and tried to take off, but the same Beaverette chased him and shot up the plane, even then the pilot tried to run away and in a brief punchup was laid out by the station commander.


On Aprils 27th 1941 the Beaufighters of No.29 squadron were stationed in West Malling (a road nearby was later called Beaufighter Road). The Beaufighters were used as night fighters against bombing raids, with considerable success.  One of the pilots, the famous Guy Gibson, said "Of all the airfields in Great Britain ... we have the most pleasant".

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