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Gravesend

 

Photographs of the squadrons two-month stay at Gravesend, at which they arrived on the 28th July 1941. Cobham Hall, the Tudor seat of the Earls of Darnley, was to become their residence - making up somewhat for the previous winters billet of Warmwell. A stately home of Tudor vintage, it was most enjoyed by William de Goat, who thought nothing of wandering around at will, or curling up to sleep in one of the armchairs. Whilst here, 609 was placed on standby for night patrols,reducing their commitment during the day. It was at this time that the current CO, George "Sheep" Gilroy, organised small offensive sweeps over the European mainland to keep the squadron occupied.

Gravesend Airport  was established in 1932 as a small regional airport, and the home of Gravesend Aviation. It consisted of grass runways, two small hangars and a control tower. In 1937 Gravesend was taken over by Essex Aero, and the RAF occupied part of the airfield for use as a  Flying Training School - before requisitioning the entire aerodrome in 1939 when war came and making it a sector airfield for Biggin Hill, as one of the airfields of 11 Group. The first squadron to occupy Gravesend was 32 Squadron, arriving on 3rd January 1940 with their Hawker Hurricane fighters, being replaced by 610 Squadron on 27th May. These were followed by another Auxiliary Squadron, 604, who operated Bristol Blenheims as night fighters from 3rd July. 501 and 66 Squadrons also flew from here during the 1940 Battle of Britain, arriving on the 25th July and 10th September respectively. Many other units also occupied the station during the war years, such as 71 Squadron, who arrived 14th August 1942 for the Dieppe raid, 92 Squadron (24th September 1941). 306 (Polish) Squadron, arriving 11th August 1943 and 65 Squadron, who arrived 29th July 1943, and were the first Squadron to be issued with the Mustang III in December - making Gravesend the first RAF base to operate it.

Accomodation was split between Cobham Hall (officers mess), the control tower (some pilots), and the 'Laughing Waters' restaurant (groundcrews), while aircraft were dispersed around the perimeter. Air defence was supplied by the army, and the airfield was only attacked a few times - on 2nd September 1940 two soldiers were killed when a pair of bombs were dropped, and on the 4th an attack was mounted by a force of Heinkels, but was aborted. Two more attacks came, but neither managed to hit the airfield itself.

The airfield was extended later in the war to accommodate three squadrons of American Fighters, and it was also used as an emergency runway for bomber aircraft returning from sorties over the continent. After the war, Gravesend Aerodrome largely returned to civilian use, with the RAF finally leaving in 1956, whereupon Gravesend airfield became a housing estate. All that there is to see now is a plaque in a local sports centre - listing the names of  fifteen pilots killed in action whilst flying from this small field.

Cobham Hall dates back to the 12th century when a manor house stood on what is now a landscaped 150 acre site. The current red-brick Hall was built in the 1580's, and is is one of largest and most important houses in Kent. It remained the property of the Earls of Darnley until 1961, when it was sold to the Ministry of Works, who in turn sold Cobham Hall a year later to be turned into an independent public school for girls.      

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Copyright 2002 609 (West Riding) Archives
Last modified: April 11, 2003