Dover’s Great War Air-stations

A feature of the First World War in the Dover district was the development of a series of air-stations. Brian Flood gave a fascinating presentation on our Big History Day about their history.

Overlooking the Channel through which shipping, friend and foe, must pass, and designated a ‘special military zone’, Dover was a vital base for military aviation.  The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) protected the port, attacked German ports and dock facilities and defended convoys.  The expansion of Dover air-stations was largely to meet the Navy’s requirements. The Royal Flying Corps’ (RFC), primary role was air support to the army abroad although from 1916 it too played an “inland” role in Home Defence against the Zeppelin and Gotha bomber raids. The Gothas appeared in 1917, first in daylight and then by moonlight. A new era in warfare opened and the people of Dover, Folkestone and Thanet were emphatically in the front line. 

From 1910 the long gone Whitfield Flying Grounds, once described as, “The first air station in England”, provided a rest and refuelling stop for RNAS flyers from Eastchurch but, as war approached, the Government developed Swingate Down for the RFC and Whitfield faded.  In 1914 there were 14 hangars at Dover (St. Margaret’s), as Swingate was known, and in August the entire operational RFC took off from there to join the BEF.  By 1918 Swingate covered 219 acres and housed over 500 servicemen. 

The Royal Navy proposed building an airfield for the defence of Dover Harbour at Guston, between Fort Burgoyne and the Duke of York’s Military School.  Completed in December 1914 Dover (Guston Road) became the home of the “Dover Defence Flight”. Day and night defence patrols were flown from there and Guston planes took part in RNAS attacks on Zeebrugge and Ostend. 

In November 1914 the skating rink on Marine Parade was requisitioned for the RNAS Dover Seaplane Base and a slipway built. In time 15 seaplanes were based in Dover, mainly the Short 184 “Dover Type” torpedo plane. Two large hangars were built adjacent to the skating rink. In 1918 the Dover seaplanes supported the Zeebrugge Raid. 

The RNAS Capel airship station was opened in 1915 to counter the German submarine menace in the Channel. It was one of the most important stations in the Country. Capel designed the SSZ convoy escort airship and by 1918 there were 9 airships on station for the protection of trade and troop transports. The site is now mostly occupied by a caravan park.  

In 1917 the Admiralty established “The Walmer Defence Flight” on a 57 acre airfield at RNAS Hawkshill Down Walmer for the protection of The Downs anchorage.   RNAS pilots were rotated between France and Walmer and were heavily, and successfully, engaged in the Gotha bomber battles of 1917-18.