In April 1913 a Royal Naval Pilot, Flying Officer Hubert Poyntz-Gaynor Leigh landed a 80hp Naval bi-plane No34 (short type) on high ground next to the southern boundary of Walmer Castle, Kent having flown from the Royal Naval Air Station Aerodrome at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey. The pilot was invited to lunch at a nearby house and after allowing curious spectators to look over the plane, he took off flying in a north westerly direction back to Eastchurch. He could not have imagined that the following year he was to be involved in World War One and the field he landed in was, in due course, to become a Royal Naval Air Service Aerodrome from which the sound of the guns on the Western Front could be heard.
World War 1
The flat grassy plateau in Walmer known as Hawkshill (sometimes referred to as the Freedown, Hawkshill Common or Hawkshill Down) along with adjacent acreage was requisitioned in April 1917 by the War Office for use as a Royal Naval Air Service Aerodrome to increase capability for the defence of shipping in the English Channel. The plans for a new aerodrome were already underway in March 1917 according to the diary of Flight Sub Lieutenant Arthur Treloar Whealy, when newly promoted Flight Commander Douglas John Bell went to Dunkirk to try and find enough planes and pilots to form a squadron at Walmer. This proved impossible and so Walmer was opened on a smaller scale than planned. The first planes at Walmer were known as the Walmer Defence Flight.
Wing Captain C. L. Lambe, Officer Commanding Royal Naval Air Service Dover and Dunkirk posted six pilots from different squadrons who had been involved in intense fighting on the Western Front to Walmer.
The chosen six were:
• Flight Sub Lieutenant Arthur. R. Brown
• Flight Sub Lieutenant Harry Chisam.
• Flight Lieutenant Stanley Kemball
• Flight Sub Lieutenant William Lusby
• Flight Sub Lieutenant J.A. Shaw
• Flight Lieutenant Theo Vernon who became Flight Commander
Pic 1. Flight Commander Theo Vernon, front row, third from left, in France before leaving for Walmer, Spring 1917
The Aerodrome opened with six planes and a support staff of almost 70 housed in temporary accommodation of huts and tents, although once set up Officers were often billeted in local houses. Once operational the airmen were kept busy fighting German bomber offensives with many victories recorded. Pilots from the Royal Flying Corps were also stationed at the Aerodrome as the RNAS and RFC often flew together on operations over the Western Front and Squadrons came under both RNAS and RFC control at various times during the war. Close by the Aerodrome near St. Mary Church was a WW1 Hospital. One of the nurses (Edith Cecily Evans) stationed there through WW1 commented ’We never had a full night’s sleep; the aerodrome was so busy day and night’ (Ref IWM). Many of the pilots who were stationed at Walmer were from abroad, indeed of the 16 names listed on the Commemorative Stand placed on the site of the Aerodrome after WW1, most were Canadian, one was Australian, one born in Hong Kong and one born in South Africa.
Pic 2. Nissan Hut Accommodation
Pic 3. Flt. Sub Lieut ‘Ally’ Shaw and Flt. Sub Lieut Harry Chisam, Walmer Aerodrome, Summer 1917
Major-General Edward Bailey Ashmore known as ‘Splash’ was Commander of the new London Air Defence area. This included fixed and mobile AA guns and searchlights between Harwich and Dover, Home Defence Squadrons numbers 37,39,50,51,75,78 and anti-aircraft squadrons including Walmer east of the Portsmouth-Harwich line. During August 1917 there were numerous changes to the Brigade and Squadron responsibilities, with designated day and night fighter squadrons This led to some confusion particularly on the 12th August 1917 as Ashmore thought German planes were heading for London and he deployed planes accordingly. Walmer pilots though, spotted that the enemy was actually heading towards Southend and successfully engaged with them.
Walmer planes were scrambled on a regular basis.
Walmer Aerodrome 1917
In August 1917 because of the increase in the number of aeroplane manoeuvres Major General J.H. Salmond, commanding the training Division of the RFC issued orders issued orders relating to rules in the air including which side to pass an aircraft primarily for the avoidance of collisions. There were also rules whilst taxiing. Pilots approaching an airfield had to observe the colour of the flag. Red for right hand circuits or blue for left hand.
By Autumn 1917 numbers of planes at Walmer had reached Squadron level. The Walmer Defence Flight was re-designated as a new No 6 (Naval) Squadron RNAS which had been originally disbanded in August 1917(Ref RAF Museum In 1916 as No 6 Squadron RNAS served as a fighter unit, accounting for 49 enemy aircraft. In 1917/8 it was a Bomber Squadron, dropping 116 tons of bombs in 156 raids, and was also a Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron.
Pic 4. Officers of 3 Naval at Walmer November 1917 including Flight Lieutenant H.S. Kerby And Captain E.T.Hayne
In November 1917, 3 Naval Squadron was relocated to Walmer from the Western Front, Commanding Officer was Sqn Cdr Lloyd Breadner a Canadian. After the war he returned to Canada and became Chief of the Air Staff in 1940. November was quiet, there were no German aircraft or Zeppelin attacks due to the terrible weather.
5th and 6th December German strikes resumed. 19 Gothas and 2 Giants flew over with the majority crossing between Walmer and North Foreland between 02.00 and 0.430 hours. The RFC launched 34 sorties alone.
6th December Flight Lieutenant Leonard (Tich)Rochford took off early morning 05.00 hours with other pilots. Hayne, Beamish and Armstrong from Walmer
It was quiet again until 18/19th December when London was targeted and 15 Gothas and 1 Giant came over. This time Walmer was not scrambled to intercept.
4 Naval Squadron arrived 2 January 1918 to take over the Aerodrome, although they found many planes from 3 Squadron still on the ground. Due to a bureaucratic blunder the aircraft mechanics had been sent back to France leaving planes and pilots stranded. The weather was exceptionally cold but with the help of the fitters of 4 Squadron all planes left by the next day. Commanding Officer was Sqn Cdr B.L. Huskinsson
15th February 1918 German destroyer raid in the Strait of Dover
16th February Dover was shelled by German submarines.
At the end of January 1918, Walmer pilots were caught up in a row. Along with other stations planes were often in the air without much control from the authorities. Flt. Cdr A.M.Shook of No 4 (RNAS) Squadron based at Walmer took to the air to engage the enemy the evening of 29th January 1918 upon reports that four German Giants were heading for London. Shook was in the air at 22.12 in Camel N6364 followed very quickly by Sqn Cdr B.L. Huskisson from Walmer, but a row ensued after they landed and Major A.A.A.B. Thomson, commanding 53 Wing complained that Walmer taking to the air had confused the Dover gunners. He was known to have previously made comments that’ the air around Dover seemed crowed with naval Sopwiths not keeping to their patrol lines’.
In March 1918 Walmer became the home station of 8 Naval Squadron with ‘The Mad Major’ Christopher Draper as Commanding Officer and Flight Commanders G A Cox, TFN Gerrard and R McDonald. Whilst at Walmer the Squadron changed from Camels with 130-hp Clerget-engine to the more powerful 150hp Bentley BR1 engine.
21st March 1918 the Germany Army launched a massive offensive on the Western Front and all available aircraft were needed and Walmer was stripped of all planes by the 30th March. 8 squadron were ordered to return to the Western Front early which presented problems as two thirds of the squadron had taken leave. They flew from Walmer to Tetegham for 2 nights to prepare for a major offensive then to La Gorgue. RFC took control of 8 squadron.
The Mad Major had already released helpful tips for running Rotary engines
Pic 5. Aircraft Fitters/Mechanics WW1
1st April 1918 RNAS and RFC were amalgamated into the newly formed RAF. There was an anticipation of a big German push and efforts were made to improve reconnaissance and shipping cover. A very short period of reduced activity on base ended quickly with the arrival of a new Fighter Defence Flight. Three new small Airplane sheds were placed on site and records show 41 personnel at the Aerodrome. Six Camel planes arrived at Walmer as fighter escorts for the Short 184 float planes based at Dover and DH9 land plane bombers at Guston.
Pic 6. Australian Air Ace, Flight Commander Robert Little, Walmer March 1918
May 1918 saw the arrival of WW1 Ace Captain W. M. Alexander who took command of now Flight 471 at Walmer with a primary mission to engage enemy fighters originating from Belgium by shutting off the Strait of Dover from U boats.
On the 23rd August 1918, the Brigadier Commanding No 5 Group RAF recommended Alexander for promotion to Major.(Public Record Office)
By 20 October 1918, the Belgium Coast was completely re-occupied by Allied Forces. After Armistice Day there was still thought to be a need to maintain anti-submarine patrols in the Straits of Dover. 471 flight at Walmer, had become part of 233 squadron under No 5 group control at the end of August 1918.
On 31 August 1918, Major Ronald Graham a WW1 ace with 5 strikes took command of the newly formed No.233 Squadron RAF into which Flight 471 at Walmer had been incorporated. Major Graham had been named a number of times in official reports of the Zeebrugge raid (April 1918) as he was part of the spotter and photography unit flying out of Guston which almost certainly used available pilots and planes from local aerodromes on reconnaissance missions during the Zeebrugge raid planning. It was from these flights that plans and models were drawn up. Major Graham was part of the 61st Wing of the RAF who escorted the main force across the sea for this raid and was also airborne after the first raid in a spotter plane noting the results after the raid. There are reports of the Dover seaplanes also flying on the night of the Zeebrugge raid, to provide diversionary cover for the main sea attack. (The report of 30th April 1918 of HUBERT LYNES, Commodore to the Vice Admiral-Dover Patrol on the Zeebrugge raid specifically names, then Captain, Ronald Graham).
The 233 squadron incorporated the Fighter Defence Flight (471) of Camels at RAF Walmer, the Flight 407 Seaplane Unit at Dover and Flight 491 at Guston. Flight 491 flying DH9s moved to RAF Walmer in January 1919 and in March 1919 the Squadron moved its headquarters to RAF Walmer. 233 Squadron RAF was disbanded in May 1919 but service records show it took a few months for all planes and pilots to leave and the service records of Harry Chisam show him still at Walmer in June 1919 waiting to fly the last planes out of Walmer Aerodrome. Walmer remained on the emergency landing list of aerodromes.
World War Two
RAF Walmer (also known as Hawkshill Down) was reopened during the Second World War as a strategic location for the defence of the UK. It was not used operationally for aircraft, but for some of the most important radar tracking and jamming systems used in the Second World War. By the time that WW2 started the runway requirements for planes had changed considerably and ‘fields’ such as at Walmer were unsuitable for modern planes.
In 1941 Chain Home Low was installed at Walmer by the Army to increase the coverage of coastal radar systems in the South East. During 1942 an outstation of No. 80 (Signals) Wing RAF was opened which operated under the control of Bomber Command. In December 1942 A.M.E. type 9000 radar (Oboe) became fully operational which allowed precision bombing using Mosquito aircraft of 109 Squadron RAF. The Oboe system at Walmer worked jointly with a sister station in Norfolk, RAF Trimingham. They were known as cat and mouse stations. Target-finding aircraft controlled by Walmer were used extensively during the Battle of the Ruhr in March 1943. Oboe was one of the most precise navigational systems employed by any Air Force in the Second World War.
Large numbers of personnel were based at Walmer during this period including many from the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force). In October 1943 a detachment from 2752 Squadron RAF Regiment (anti-aircraft) was deployed to Walmer followed by the full squadron in June 1944. Servicemen from both 2852 and 2844 Squadrons RAF Regiments were recorded as serving at Walmer. From December 1943 until October 1944 Walmer was the site for the second station for an RAF jammer system (Grocer) which was used against German Air Force airborne interception radar (Lichtenstein). The transmitters and monitor were placed strategically at Walmer and further south at Kingsdown so as to not interfere with the work of Oboe. Twin Browning machine guns were used for the defence of the site throughout this period.
From June 1942 until 31 December 1944 Walmer was also used by M Balloon unit of the RAF for propaganda flights with the HQ at a house in St Clare Road (now Generals Meadow) which was used during the First World War as a military hospital. During February 1944 over 5,000,000 leaflets were dropped over Germany and France by 2,478 balloons released from Walmer.
In 1945 RAF Walmer/Hawkshill Down was closed and it returned to agricultural use.
A wooden memorial had been placed on the site of the airfield in 1920 under the direction of the Countess of Beauchamp, wife of the then Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. The location of the memorial has been changed a number of times, with the last site being on private land. There is very little of the original remaining.
On 12th August 2017 a new commemorative stand was placed on the Freedown on a site looking out over the English Channel. The stand was unveiled by the current Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports Admiral of the Fleet The Lord Boyce KG GCB OBE DL at a service led by the Vicar of Walmer, The Rev’d Canon Seth Cooper and supported by the Chaplain of the Fleet, The Venerable Ian Wheatley CB QHC RN and the Deputy Chaplain in Chief of the RAF The Reverend (Group Captain) John R Ellis QHC RAF The new stand lists sixteen officers stationed at Walmer during the First World War and who lost their lives on active service. It also gives the history of the site during two World Wars. The stand was unveiled as the afternoon sun was fading exactly one hundred years to the hour and day that Flt. Lieutenant Harold Spencer Kerby flew out of the Aerodrome to engage German planes for which he was awarded the DSC, ‘For the great courage and initiative shown by him’
In 2019, Walmer Town Council tried to organise the landing, at Walmer of the only WW1 Airco De Havilland 9 still flying. The Airco DH9 was one of the the last planes to fly out in 1919 and it was probably piloted by Harry Chisam, one of the original six Pilots who opened the Aerodrome in 1917, whose service records show he was still stationed at Walmer in June 1919. Due to the height of trees now surrounding the area this was found to be impossible.
Pic 7. The site of the Walmer Aerodrome/RAF Walmer looking South. Total acreage during WW1 approximately 52 acres.