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Wartime in St Mary's Bay

Jesson Airfield

The development of Jesson did not begin in earnest until the 1914-1918 War when the War Department built a camp. This was to house the Royal Flying Corps No.1 (Auxiliary) School of Gunnery amalgamated with No.1 (Observers) School of Aerial Gunnery. The camp was intended to accommodate 1000 men, 300 NCOs, 400 officers and 400 women. It was estimated that from each intake 400 trained pilots would receive their wings.

Initially they used the landing strip on Romney Warren and part of the Littlestone Golf Course but soon moved to a proper aerodrome in Jesson Lane. This occupied 75 acres of land bounded by Jesson Lane and the Jefferstone and Cobsden Sewers.

Jesson Airfield
Littlestone (Jesson) Airfield. The chalk cricle identified the airfield and provided an aid to direction. At the
time this photo was taken (post 1927) what is now Jefferstone Lane was called Jesson Lane.
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Jesson Airfield was erected as transport garages to house lorries during the 1st World War. The main building ran parallel with the A259 road at the top of Jesson Lane (now known as Jefferstone Lane). A local builder acquired the buildings after 1st World War and converted both ends into living accommodation.

When in 1925 the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway (RH&DR) was laid it cut across the top of the aerodrome leaving a rectangular flying field.

The Airfield

Administration and living quarters were located on the western side of Jesson Lane close to where it meets the main coast road. The field on the Dymchurch side was used to build sheds for transport and engineering. The main transport garages were close to the main road and were used for servicing large lorries and planes.  In later years the end of the building facing into Jesson Lane was converted to a shop and became Jesson Post Office.

Further down the lane on the eastern side was the carpenters’ shop. With most of the aircraft being build with wooden frames and carpenters’ skills were much in demand. Tears and holes in the aircrafts’ linen-covered fuselages and wings were repaired in the adjacent sailmakers’ shop. In the adjoining dope shop shellac was applied to stiffen up and waterproof the linen, giving it great strength. The planes were then ready to return to service.

One of the airfield workshops later became Marshland Bakery. In its heyday during the three decades after the Second World War the bakery was an important local employer. There were shops in Dymchurch, New Romney and Greatstone as well as in St. Marys Bay itself. As many as seven vans delivered door to door all over the Marsh and two bakers worked all night to meet the demand. Special large loaves were baked for the children’s holiday camp.

While the Flying Corps were at here Jesson Farm was used as offices and the large barn as a cinema and theatre complete with stage. The highlight of passing out was a party and concert held in the barn.

Near the flying field and where the RH&DR line now runs stand four long brick-built sheds. Two of them were used for photographic laboratories and dark rooms.  All the film taken by the air crews of the mock dog fights, aerial gunnery and target practice were processed there. Edith Nesbit, the author owned two sheds that were later turned into bungalows. In fact she lived there for some two years and most of the time was in ill health.  Her husband Captain Tucker named the bungalows Longboat and Jollyboat. Both still stand today and can be seen at the bottom of Nesbit Road.

The last building belonging to the Flying Corps’ camp was the power station on the right of Jesson Lane just past the RH&DR station. This brick building housed two large single cylinder paraffin engines with enormous flywheels. The engines were started by using blowlamps and would generate enough electricity to meet the demands of the camp as well as some of the properties nearby.

Royal Flying Corps personnel at Jesson Aerodrome
Royal Flying Corps personnel at Jesson Aerodrome

After the 1st World War the engineer in charge was Mr. Charles Colmer who later started his own electrical business and used one room at the end of this bungalow as a shop. The shop today is Foord Electrical Centre. The Guardroom was at the top of Jefferstone Lane in the corner on the left opposite the transport garages. All the camp accommodation was on this side of the road. The first building block was the officers’ mess and dining hall.

A third group of buildings were the airmen’s billets, cookhouse and a hospital. After the war Lt. Chapman was left in charge of the camp with a care and maintenance party. He lived in and later purchased the hospital. He built a plane out of parts that had been left by the Flying Corps and flew it regularly.

The last building near the railway line was the mortuary. With a lot of student pilots flying and practising combat manoeuvres and dog fights, casualties must have been quite high. When the airforce left the aerodrome became a holiday camp and the mortuary was used as a meat store.

After the armistice in 1919, when the School for Aerial Gunnery was moved to Manston, the flying field was kept open to provide emergency landing facilities for the newly-established civil air services flying from Croydon to Paris and Brussels.

Although Lympne was the south coast customs airport it was particularly susceptible to fog. On occasions when fog enveloped Lympne planes were diverted to Littlestone (Jesson).
The airfield was known as the Littlestone Emergency Landing Ground probably because the first airstrip was on part of the Littlestone golf links.

Bi-plane at Jesson Aerodrome
Oxford University Squadron Jesson Aerodrome 1930s 

In the centre of the field was a large white circle made from blocks of whitewashed chalk. (see picture above) The name Littlestone was painted across the centre of the circle. Set at intervals around the circumference were tallish beacons, which at night constantly blinked and showed a red light. They were operated by gas and serviced by the round crews from Lympne. When planes landed taxis would arrive to collect the passengers and their luggage and take them on to their destinations or another airfield.

During the late twenties and the thirties the field was the venue of some spectacular air displays. One famous airman was Sir Alan Cobham with his flying circus. His team performed wing walking, parachuting and dare devil low flying. (Website Icon more information). On some weekends in the summer it was possible for the public to take pleasure flights.

As air travel became more reliable with larger aircraft being used demand for the emergency landing facilities and Littlestone diminished. Just before the Second World War the landing lights were switched off for the last time and removed. The land reverted back to farmland and has remained so to this day. The old Jesson Aerodrome, situated near the edge of the flying field used to operate pleasure flights between the 1st and 2nd World Wars.

Fields at the end of Dunstall Lane, and by the former Golden Sands Holiday Camp (more recently known as the Reunion Leisure Club) were worked by the land army and local ladies during 2nd World War. One of the popular crops to be cultivated was the turnip.

Long poles were erected in fields across the Marsh to cause damage to any German gliders attempting to land.

World War Two

On 3 September, 1939 at 11am, 2nd World War was declared. Almost 1000 children were at St. Marys Bay Holiday Camp at the time. St. Marys Bay Holiday Camp was originally used in the 1st World War by the Royal Flying Corps. see above

Two large naval guns were located in front of the Sands Motel, pointed out to sea. They were disguised to appear like two adjoining houses having false roofs and wooden chimney pots.

St Mary's Bay Battery c1940
St Mary's Bay Battery, also known as Dymchurch Battery (not to be confused with Grand Redoubt Battery).  2 x 6 inch  Mk XII guns on Mk IX mountings were installed at St Mary's Bay in June 1940. The guns were put into care and maintenance in December 1941. No date of removal. The Battery Headquarters was in the Sands Hotel.  War Grids 52854549 and 52894555. The Battery started off as 358 Battery and then 355 Battery. The Regiment was 551 Regiment and later while in c & m became under 549 in 1944.
[ack 8.]

Movement outside St. Marys Bay was controlled by issue of personal identity cards which were inspected at road blocks patrolled by the army.

Bungalow known as Blue Sky’s, Seaway Gardens was commandeered by the army, the Somerset Light Infantry who turned it into a pillbox.

The army dug out tank traps in fields at the back of Seaway Gardens. These were designed to stop the movement of enemy armoured and logistic vehicles. The army was detailed to build a small bridge across the tank trap. It was manufactured from twenty foot steel scaffold poles with bracing struts. A walkway of about eighteen inches was fixed to the bridge. This provided a short cut by way of a small road that routed past the Levin Club, which was used as the NAFFI during wartime.

Defences along the sea wall were reinforced as iron scaffolding was erected and mines fixed to it.  On the land side, fences were constructed with barbed wire coils fixed to the top. Only army and maintenance engineers were allowed over the sea wall.

St. Marys Bay was a victim of bombing raids. The Sands Motel sustained a direct hit, killing the boilerman. There was bomb damage to Children’s Holiday Camp and the house near the bridge owned by Capt. Allnat was demolished. Crater damage  was evident along Jesson Lane and an unexploded bomb landed at the intersection of Jesson Lane and the A259. The army tried to excavate the bomb, but had to chutter the hole with scaffold boards when they reached running sand. It has never been retrieved to this day.!

The Sands Hotel during the War
The Sands Hotel During the War

The Sands Hotel was repaired and again it became a popular holiday venue for many years after the War.

German bombers over the marsh was a common sight. The German aircraft would travel across the English Channel, just skimming the tops of the waves and at the last possible moment they would pull-up to clear the sea wall, and therefore be undetected by our radar system.

Travelling towards St. Mary in the Marsh was where the aerodrome runway terminated. It extended from the road in the direction of Hope-All-Saints and continued past the rear of the Romney Marsh Potato Company. If the Typhoons returned from a successful combat mission, the pilots would fly low over the field and perform a victory roll. However, on one occasion when this manoeuvre was being practised, two Typhoons collided and both pilots were killed.

There was a Land Army Hostel near Brodnex Corner.
1944 saw the arrival of the United States Army who took up residence in bungalows previously occupied by the British Army near the Golden Sands Holiday Camp.

A bungalow called ‘Moonfleet’ in Seaway Road was occupied by the US Army and locals would get their hair cut by the Army barber free of charge.

All the buildings on the left hand side of Jesson Lane were part of the aerodrome accommodation and later became St. Marys Bay Holiday Camp.
On the seawall, just in front of the Sands Hotel, is a slab of concrete which was the site of one of the big naval guns and other guns were placed along the seawall.

Pill Box
Pillbox just on the outskirts of St Mary's Bay today. These bunkers, built c1940  were used for the defense of the  UK. 

The American Army sited a number of olive green mobile port-a-cabins by the Cobsden Café (now the Chippey) which were fully enclosed with the exception of a door at one end, and a revolving radar scanner fitter to the roof. This helped to improve the gunners shooting.

The 150 Wing Station at Newchurch were credited with the most kills shot down. More flying bombs than any other Unit in the Royal Air Force  The commanding officer was Wing Commander Roly Beamount.

The Tempest and the Typhoon flew from our local airfield in Jesson Lane, to attack enemy trains, tanks, blow-up bridges and generally help the Army to make headway across Europe.

At the time of the D Day Landings B17 Flying Fortress and B24 Liberators of the American 8th Air Force came in support. On flying home, from Europe several crashed in this area.

Typhoon Fighter Aircraft
The Hawker Typhoon Fighter Aircraft

A Liberator came down on the beach at Dungeness, another landed in the sea at Littlestone and another in the sea at Greatstone. Itwas very near the low tide mark and for many years after, you could see the remains sticking out of the sand. (Website Icon more information). A Flying Fortress also crashed in Lydhurst Road, Dymchurch.

An incident at the Rugby Club involved an officer who was instructing a group of soldiers in the use of hand grenades. Unfortunately, he accidentally set one off which in turn caused others in the box to explode killing several soldiers and injuring others.  This accident was the worst incident to occur in St. Marys Bay causing more casualties than any other local event in the war.

May 1945 saw the end of nearly five years of food rationing, barricaded beaches, blackouts, bombs, roadblocks and no bananas. A Victory Party was arranged for the local children at the old Jesson Club.

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