I won’t be satisfied until I uncover all Medway’s war secrets. It all started when Ron Harfleet, of St Edmunds Way, Rainham, asked about a dummy fighter aerodrome in Medway that was designed to fool the Luftwaffe.
Mr Harfleet wrote: “It was at the top of Hempstead Road near Lidsing Road on the right hand side, the site of what is now a garden centre. The site was built to confuse German bombers and divert them from Detling and Rochester airports.” He added: “I have never seen any newspaper reports about the site but observed it often when cycling to Boxley from Gillingham in the war.”
Medway was of crucial military importance in the Second World War and Shorts Brothers, based on Rochester Esplanade and at the airport, were a particular target of the Luftwaffe.
Yvonne Lane was first to give a clue: “When I was a small child in Hempstead during the war my grandmother owned property adjoining Capstone Banks opposite the decoy aerodrome,” she wrote. “We often walked the banks and could see quite clearly the rows of old cars and motorbikes (often without wheels etc) that from the air would give the impression of workers parking on the site.
“We always understood the idea was to fool the German planes into thinking this was the site of Shorts Brothers’ factory where the airport is now. “Further up the road there were heavy guns at Gibraltar Farm, in Ham Lane. When they were fired, windows in Hempstead often shattered and ceilings came down. I remember the soldiers there giving us children a wonderful Christmas party at Gibraltar farm one year, giving up their sweet rations and taking us by lorry.”
The Nazi raiders wasted plenty of bombs on it
Donald Phillips then recalled a boyhood encounter with a soldier at the Hempstead airfield.
“It was 1942 or 1943 and I went up there with my friends to have a look at what was going on,” says Mr Phillips, of Carlton Crescent, Luton. “As we crept through the brambles and brushwood, we saw a soldier who came to check if here were intruders. I don’t think he saw us though — or if he did, he didn’t make anything of it. We could see a number of dummy planes made out of cardboard and plywood. There was also a shack made to look like a more sophisticated building.”
Mr Phillips, who went to Luton School — through infants, juniors and seniors — can even recall the friends who were with him: Harry Nye, Bob Wright and Freddy Hartree.
And the Luftwaffe paid this aerodrome the greatest compliment: They bombed it. “I could take you up there now to show your three craters. It was certainly bombed several times,” Mr Phillips said.
Mr L Martin, of Whitegate Court, Parkwood, confirmed the success. “I, too, remember the airfield well,” he wrote. “I was in the fire service at Gillingham until 1943 and recall that in 1940 the Luftwaffe pilots were indeed fooled – and wasted quite a number of bombs on it in the Battle of Britain.”
It was not the only decoy airfield. Mr Phillips, who is a volunteer at Capstone Country Park, has learnt that another one was built on top of what was called Drow Hill, now known as the Long Glade in the country park. The area has been using for training Army officers in the First World War, but by the second conflict it was made to resemble a secret airfield, on farmland between two wooded areas.
Mr TP Walker, of Prince Charles Avenue, Walderslade, even recalls details of the fake planes. “There were dummy twin-engine aircraft — probably Blenheims — around the hedges of the ‘airfield’,” he said. “There was also a dummy hangar made out of canvas.
“The best place to see the airfield is North Dane Way just beyond the turn-off to Kingston Crescent where the road is straight, then look east across the valley to a large flat area. That is it. The only real aeroplane I saw on the dummy airfield was a Spitfire which I saw circle down from a great height during the Battle of Britain with an engine problem. It force-landed on the airfield and was there for some weeks.”
Historian Frank Wright, of May Road, Rochester — whose great aunt lived nearby, confirmed: “Yes — the planes were made out of plywood, and the ack-ack site nearby was operator by crack shots.”
Dummy planes moved to complete the trick
The airfield also served as emergency landing place for damaged planes, according to A Apps, who wrote in without disclosing his address. There was also, he says, a hush-hush radio station about a quarter of a mile away; the cables from the mast ran underground to a control centre disguised as sheep huts and pens.
Mr Cyril Dovey, from Plymouth, lived in Hempstead during the war and recalls the airfield well. “The last time I was at the garden centre you could still see some of the old accommodation, although looking derelict,” he said. “I believe that some individuals had the job of repositioning the dummy aircraft daily so that the enemy would think they were real.
“I left Hempstead in 1945 for a tour of duty in Ceylon and did not return until 1947, by which time the drome and the anti-aircraft battery nearby had gone and the site had reverted to farmland. Nothing was ever published about the place that I can remember: presumably a war secret.” And one uncovered with your help. Thank you.
Mystery of U-boat surrender
Ron Harfleet, fresh from his success at helping uncover one mystery, asks about another.
He writes: “The correspondence about secrets reminded me of an incident in Chatham Dockyard. Although I worked there from 1943-84, I never heard it mentioned. I have read in a book about Kent that a German U-boat surrendered to the Royal Navy in August, 1941, and sailed up the River Medway to the dockyard, escorted by a Sunderland flying boat. Can any reader confirm having seen or worked on it? I have been told its number might have been U570.”
Any ideas, anyone? Please comment here.