How RAF West Malling Became The Home of Night Fighter Operations

Anthony J. Moor

6 mins

12 Nov 2019

By the end of the night blitz of 1941, Britain’s defences were just starting to get to grips with the German night raiders. With the coming of the shorter nights, the Luftwaffe’s effort eased off, combined with the assault upon Russia.

However, the Bristol Beaufighter with airborne radar had now become established. Training and expansion continued over the summer of 1941 in readiness for the winter, when the next round of night attacks was expected. At RAF West Malling the station began to specialise in night-fighter operations, with resident squadrons operating Defiant, Beaufighter and Havoc aircraft.

The airfield established at West Malling, set in the Kent countryside, amidst the orchards and hop gardens in 1937. The clubhouse and two hangars are located in the far left corner of the airfield. Image source: Aerofilms Ltd.

Wing Commander Guy Gibson DSO.DFC was initially based at RAF West Malling, with No.29 Squadron flying the Beaufighter as a Night-Fighter in 1941. This was long before he would be forever remembered for the Dam Buster raids of 1943.

Experience with the Beaufighter in the night-fighter role since the autumn of 1940 had been slow to render significant results and it is now known that British night fighters inflicted less than 2% casualties during the German night blitz between September 1940 and May 1941.

Mixed results

The appearance of the Mosquito night-fighter, with a performance greatly superior to that of the Beaufighter, Defiant and Boston/Havoc, promised much improved results. The prototype, W4052, was first flown by Geoffrey de Havilland on 15 May 1941 and differed from the bomber in having an optically flat bullet-proof windscreen for better vision, and AI (Air Interception) Mk. IV radar.

An excellent view of post-war RAF West Malling, showing most of the buildings and hangars constructed on the site, including some married quarters and blast pens. Image source: Skyfotos Ltd.

While this training was in progress, there were several novel schemes devised to augment the night fighter force. One was the Turbinlite idea by Wing Commander W. Helmore. Like many schemes, it was long on theory but short on practical results.

The principle was that a twin-engine aeroplane fitted with AI (Air Interception) Radar would be vectored towards a hostile radar plot from the ground, and when the crew located the raider, it would close in and then switch on a huge airborne searchlight.

The searching aircraft would be accompanied by a Hawker Hurricane, whose pilot, seeing the illuminated ‘hostile’ in the searchlight beam would attack and destroy it. At least, that was the theory, but this experiment produced negative results and was abandoned in 1943.

Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIB Z3263 of No. 402 Sqn at West Malling during 1942, flown by Sergeant E.W. Rolfe. This aircraft was gifted by the native chiefs of various tribes in Kenya and christened Mau Molo Ruri. It later went to Russia. (IWM CH 7676)

Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIB Z3263 of No. 402 Sqn at West Malling during 1942, flown by Sergeant E.W. Rolfe. This aircraft was gifted by the native chiefs of various tribes in Kenya and christened Mau Molo Ruri. It later went to Russia. Image source: IWM CH 7676.

Mosquito variants

Production of the Mosquito N.F. II amounted to 488 aircraft and first deliveries were made in January 1942 to Nos. 23 Squadron at Ford and No. 157 at Castle Camps.

Towards the end of the variant’s life, aircraft were used for a wide variety of duties, and there can be few RAF light bomber pilots of the 1948-53 period who did not spend several months learning their trade on Mosquito VI trainers. A direct development of the Mosquito VI was the F.B. Mk. XVIII, armed with a 57 mm. Molins quick-firing gun mounted offset in the nose.

A Mark VI was so modified and first flown on 25 August 1943.  The next version to achieve operational status was the Mark XII Night Fighter and, equipped with low-looking AI Mk. VIII radar, largely replaced the initial Mark Us with the night squadrons.

The Mosquito N.F. XIII, of which 270 were newly-built, was similar in most respects to the earlier Mark, but carried its AI VIII radar in a universal nose mounting of a design which retained the four 20 mm. guns and was to remain virtually unchanged throughout the adaptation of all subsequent night-fighter variants.

No. 29 Squadron at Ford and No. 488 at Bradwell Bay were the first to equip with Mark XIIIs, and were followed by Nos. 96, 108 (in Malta), 151, 256, 264, 409, 410 and 604. It was a RAF West Malling that the newly equipped squadrons with Mosquito Night Fighters, were to achieve many successful interceptions under the cover of darkness.

Mosquito NF.36 MT487 ‘ZK-Y’ of No. 25 Sqn, gets a major service. Note the flame-damping exhaust on the engine and the Mk. X Air Interception (AI) radar in the transparent nose.

Mosquito NF.36 MT487 ‘ZK-Y’ of No. 25 Sqn, gets a major service. Note the flame-damping exhaust on the engine and the Mk. X Air Interception (AI) radar in the transparent nose.

Though scarcely a true night-fighter, the NF XV was an interesting exercise in hurried yet efficient adaptation.

Some consternation had been evinced by the supposed threat of the high-flying Junkers Ju 86P, and in much the same context as the development of the Spitfire VI and VII had taken place, a Mosquito IV, MP469, was prepared for high altitude interception duties by extending the wings, fitting small landing wheels and removal of 2,300 pounds of armour.

Armament was confined to four .303 in. machine guns – considered to be perfectly adequate to puncture the pressure cabin of the enemy aircraft. John Cunningham took this Mosquito to a height of 43,500 feet. Five other Mark IVs were converted (with the four machine guns carried in a ventral tray) and some of these were issued to No. 85 Squadron in March 1943.

Hitherto all night interceptions using AI  radar had been performed with the early Mark IV, the pilot interpreted Mark V and the low-looking Mark VIII radars, but it was in mid-1943 that the first American AI  Mark X was introduced into Britain.

In the summer of 1940, Britain battled for survival against Hitler’s war machine; the result would define the course of the Second World War. It is known simply as The Battle of Britain.Watch Now

The first operational Mosquito night-fighter to be so equipped was the Merlin 23-powered Mark XVII, one hundred of which were converted from Mark IIs already delivered to maintenance units early in 1943.

Equipped with either AI Mark VIII or X the first entered service with No. 157 Squadron in May 1944, based at RAF Swannington. With the massive build-up of Allied air power for the invasion of Northern Europe and the growth of pressure in the Mediterranean and Far Eastern theatres, deliveries of Mosquito night-fighters increased considerably during 1944.

The principal wartime night-fighter/intruder variant was the Mark 30, first delivered in July 1944 to the Canadian squadron, No. 406 (Lynx) Squadron. It possessed a maximum speed of 407 m.p.h. and could operate up to an altitude of 38,500 feet. A total of 506 Mark 30s was taken on charge by the RAF, of which about half were built at de Havilland’s Leavesden factory.

The doodlebug campaigns

The V1 bombs caused huge amounts of damage in British towns

The V1 bombs caused huge amounts of damage in British towns. Image source: Bundesarchiv/ CC BY-SA 3.0 de.

When the V1 flying bomb or Doodlebug campaign began in June 1944, squadrons at RAF West Malling were heavily involved in destroying the new menace with great success.

Alongside Nos.91, and 322 (Dutch), No.316 (Warsaw) flying Spitfires and the Mustang Mk.3, the Mosquito proved a deadly weapon against the V1.

Later on after the war, they made RAF West Malling there home until it was disbanded in March 1956. During the Cold War years, the base continued to be a Night Fighter base, and later was used for gliding and civil aviation. The Warbirds Air Shows of the 1980s helped to keep the airfield alive.

Apart from a small number of NF 38s the NF 36 remained in service as the RAF’s only Night- Fighter until the early nineteen-fifties when it was replaced by jet-powered Vampire NF 10s and Meteor NF 11, 12, &14s. They flew with Nos. 23, 25, 29, 85, 141,153 and 264 Squadrons.

A classic line-up of aircraft at West Malling. The nearest is Meteor NF.11 WD620 of No. 85 Sqn. Behind is a row of Vampire NF.10s of No. 25 Sqn, WP233, WP245, WP239 and WP240.

A classic line-up of aircraft at West Malling. The nearest is Meteor NF.11 WD620 of No. 85 Sqn. Behind is a row of Vampire NF.10s of No. 25 Sqn, WP233, WP245, WP239 and WP240.

The airfield at West Malling, which sprang from its early days in the 1930s, as a Municipal Airport and Flying Club, survived until the 1990s, when as with many Airfields was sold for development as a Business Park and is better known as Kings Hill.

There is however a magnificent memorial on the site and many of the original buildings have survived, it is hoped that this new book RAF West Malling – The RAF’s first Night Fighter Airfield, will help keep the airfields history alive.

RAF West Malling by Anthony J Moor tells the story of the airfield from its early days, through its role in the Second World War – when several dramatic and tragic events occurred – and beyond into the Cold War. It is available now, and published by Pen & Sword Books.

RAF West Malling

Featured Image: D.G. Collye.