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Headcorn Airfield. Part One: Construction in 1942

by medwaylibraries

Contributed by 
medwaylibraries
People in story: 
Alan Palmer, Colonel Dean Black,
Location of story: 
Headcorn, Kent
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3098450
Contributed on: 
07 October 2004

Have you ever wondered why Bedlam Lane, an ordinary country lane with nothing more remarkable than several farms along it is so much wider than the surrounding lanes? Up until 1942 it was a quiet, narrow country lane whose residents went about their lives as generations of their families had done beforehand. Their lives, governed by the cycle of raising animals sowing seed and harvesting had scarcely been touched by the world events that began in 1939.

All around them the world was caught up in the drama of war. The swarms of planes they saw overhead fired the imagination of many young lads. They recognised the different aircraft by their engine noises, and spent their spare time making models of them. Who would have guessed that for one young man his hobby would fill not only his imagination, but also the view from his bedroom window!

This recollection of experiences and activities of the world war two Headcorn airfield is the result of many requests that I should record my memories for history. Living right on the edge of the airfield enabled me to see first -hand and share the excitement of all the activities during 1943 and 1944. The airmen came and went but as a young teenager I was there to witness it all - thus , as a civilian, my memories are recorded here. Copies have been dispersed all over Canada and America (the latter due to the 362 fighter group secretary, Fern Mann, staying here with us and requesting a copy to take back to the States with her .and later publishing it in the 362 Fighter Group Association's newsletter ...and so was sent all over the States ). Also to many other countries, due to the interest shown by airmen who have since revisited the airfield and reliving their experiences. Lieutenant Colonel Dean Black, CD ,commanding officer 403 `Wolf' Squadron, Canadian forces base Gagetown Oromocto NB also stayed with us and he returned to Canada with a copy. Since, he has written to say that there has been a map of an airfield hanging in his office .....but until he had browsed through my memorabilia it was not known which airfield it was or where.....yes, it was Headcorn!!!. It is now adorned with a copy of a photo Dean took of Sheila and me before leaving us .

The first the local farmers knew that an airstrip was to be constructed in the Egerton, Smarden, Boughton Malherbe area, was the arrival of important letters from the government informing owners that parts of their land and some buildings were to be requisitioned;

KINGSDEN FARM, Bedlam Lane. Owned by my parents, Les and Hilda Palmer, my two brothers Frank and Sydney and myself.

GOODWIN HOUSE land. Owned by my grandfather. The total land requisitioned from the Palmer family was 100 acres, for which we received a rent of £I per acre.

WEEKS FARM, including the house, then owned by Major Noble, became the Air Force Headquarters.

LILY VILLA was used to house military personnel.

CLARKE HILL FARM Owned and farmed by Tom Weeks. This farm has since been renamed Amhurst Court by its present owner Godfrey Palmer.

BOX FARM farmed by Charlie Roberts.

POTTERS FORSTAL FARM owned by Tilden Hales.
BARHAM MILL FARM owned by Reg Harding.

WALLETT COURT farmed by Edward Chantler.

The Palmer family were given the option of leaving their home at Kingsden, but decided to stay and farm the remaining 35 acres, which fortunately included 4 acres of hops and a half built cowshed! The completed shed can still be seen along the road at Kingsden Farm, now the home of my nephew John Palmer and his wife Sue. The RAF Construction Unit moved in during October 1942, with only picks and shovels. The men had little idea of what to do or how to do it. With the help of a little local knowledge, "the powers that be" decided they would need machines to help pull out the hedges to make a clearing for two runways.

They hired tractors and their drivers from local farmers. These tractors were mostly Fordsons, with the exception of one Field Marshall from John La Trobe. My brother Sid drove our Fordsons, Cyril (Dick) Weeks drove the one owned by Mr Gordon (from where Rene Weeks now lives) and another was driven by its owner Ginger Nichols. After draining the water from the many ponds by pumping them into the ditches they were filled with quarry waste - rock and dust, but mostly dust! This was delivered by Hookers from a Chart Sutton quarry. The men were unable to consolidate it as the mud oozed through, so all was abandoned. The RAF left the site for the winter.

All requisitioned land was to be used as an advanced landing area. During the winter of 1942 Bedlam Lane was straightened and widened from Headcorn as far the caravans, then known as Brook Gates. All the work, all the digging was done by hand. The only mechanical item used was a concrete mixer! The rough edges and joins remain to be seen today - with grass growing up through the joins.

By the spring of 1943, the ground had dried out in parts. In March and April great numbers of the Royal Engineers and the Pioneer Corps moved in bringing with them the plant and machinery to carry out the job properly. Diggers and dumpers dug out the quarry waste and mud that had been put in the previous autumn, plus loads of soil which was dumped along the side of one of our fields. This was bulldozed over the fields, complete with thistles, docks and stones- giving us enormous problems after the war, thistles and docks being a sign of poor farming! For years after we spent hours picking out the stones by hand.

The ponds that had been dug out were so deep and wide they could have accommodated a large house. They were filled with chalk from a quarry at Charing. A crane was used to load the chalk onto the Army lorries at Charing, which then deposited their loads as frequently as aircraft now leave Heathrow - every few minutes! They descended ramps on one side of the hole, tipped their load and left by a ramp on the other side. This continued until all the ponds were filled, and then they were topped with soil, levelled and repeatedly compacted with a bulldozer. Once the job was finished and the crane was being transported back to the airfield on a low loader, the brakes failed on Egerton Hill. The crane driver realised what was happening and jumped for it, while the driver of the low loader remained with it. On reaching Little Houses (Pleasant Valley) there was a lorry belonging to Laura Turk parked outside Oak Tree Villas. The loader collided with the lorry, the lorry ended up in Bill Packs orchard (next to Oak Tree Villas) and the crane left the trailer!

In the centre of the north/south runway stood quite a few useful buildings belonging to my family. One oast house was in use as we were growing hops further down Bedlam Lane, and another oast, not being used for hops housed a World War I veteran, Albert Alfred Beard, known as "Darkie". We also had a Kent barn carrying 18,000 Kent Peg Tiles and three cattle yards. All of these buildings were bulldozed to the ground, and the rubble used to fill low places on the airfield.

Large oak trees had to be cut down and cleared by cross cut saw and a lot of sweat, there were no chain saws in 1943! The remaining trunks and roots were detonated with explosives and blown sky high. This went on for several weeks. There were no complaints then about the noise or the destruction of these beautiful old trees, I suppose the people who complain now were not around then, when young people were risking their lives for us!
Days and weeks were spent by a caterpillar towing a scraper - a large piece of equipment in those days, removing any uneven ground and dumping it in one of our fields forming a huge mound. The same happened in a nine-acre field at Clarke Hill Farm, which was later used as a firing range. The Spitfires and Thunderbolts would be set up to test their guns there.
When this levelling was completed an American grader was used for the final levelling of the runway. Each evening, army officers would drive a staff car ( a Humber Snipe ) up and down the runway testing for bumps. The grader would then be used the following day to level any bumps that had been found. This routine went on for what seemed like weeks, until the runway was finally smooth and safe for aircraft to take off and land.

The next stage was to lay the one mile long and fifty yard wide runway, consisting of Somerfeld track, a heavy gauge wire netting, ten feet wide with 3/8th inch iron rods threaded across eight inches apart, with eyelets on both sides of the tracking. These eyelets were then used to connect the next strip by threading lacing irons through them, about twenty feet long and one and a half inches wide. They were slid along either side of the tracking to hold it together. This was stretched taut by the caterpillar and then fixed down by angle iron pegs two to three feet long. Where extra strength was required at the end of the runway for planes awaiting take off, extra metal tracking was used fitted together to reinforce it.
A blister hangar was erected close to Clarke Hill Farm house. Another opposite Watersheet Farm was started but never completed.

Soldiers building the airstrip were billeted with local families. My mother at Kingsden coped with food rationing, our family, plus four soldiers taking over one room. Lieutenant Ian McDougal, a medical officer, also stayed with us and the friendship made during that time lasted until my parents death. While he was staying with us the Doctor's wife, a Scottish Police Officer, joined him as she recuperated from an operation. On her second visit, later that summer, she photographed the Spitfires on the airfield from her bedroom window at Kingsden. It was a very small photograph, 2x2, but because she knew she should never have taken it, we did not receive a copy until after the war! The photograph has since been enlarged and copies of it can be found in many publications, at home and abroad.

At that time we grew strawberries at the end of the runway opposite Watersheet Farm. The Royal Engineers and Pioneer Corps were preparing the airfield and of course took a fancy to the strawberries! One evening my father accosted a soldier whose arm was in a sling, helping himself to the fruit. Father chased him to the end of the field, only to be halted by the soldier wielding a spile (stake) above his head and threatening to " bash his brains in". Father left well alone, but mentioned the soldier with the sling to the Medical Officer who was billeted with us. Needless to say, no soldier with his arm in a sling reported to the M.O. the next day!

The airfield was named Headcorn, and the field 412. This caused many mix-ups for writers as the airfield sited in Headcorn was known as Lashenden. The other airfields in the vicinity were Staplehurst, High Halden, Woodchurch, Chilmington, St Mary in the Marsh, Brenzett, Kingsnorth, and Newchurch.

Four very large fuel tanks, each containing 24,000 gallons of 100-octane aircraft fuel were installed. Two were above the ground to the left of the entrance to Clarke Hill Farm, two underground at Kingsden. A pumping station was also installed at the entrance to Clarke Hill Farm.

Alan Palmer 2004

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