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Manston through the years - we take a look at Kent's controversial airport

When David Steed was a schoolboy, he'd often take an unusual route home.

Getting off his bus from Canterbury on the main road at the edge of Cliffsend, the shortest route back was across the runway of what, at the time, was RAF Manston.

RAF firefighters at Manston Airport in 1973
RAF firefighters at Manston Airport in 1973

Today, aged 77, the retired farmer, who still lives on land neighbouring the airfield, remembers the fence around the site as "waist-height and rickety".

"It was during the time when the Americans were there and I noticed there were mushrooms growing at the end of the runway," he says.

"They used to take a helicopter and fly out there to pick them. I thought if I could get there first, I could beat them to it.

"So at 4am I'd cut the mushrooms, and my father, who used to have a market round in the town, would sell them."

It's a sign of how very different things were back then. But also a fascinating glimpse into the history of a site today mired in the ongoing saga of its future, and where its remarkable history is so often obscured.

A view of Manston in 1939, as taken by a German Luftwaffe. Picture: RAF Manston History Museum
A view of Manston in 1939, as taken by a German Luftwaffe. Picture: RAF Manston History Museum

Yet over the years Manston - in its various guises - has had an important role to play. Stretching through both world wars and into the height of Cold War tensions during the 1950s, it was not only a strategically significant site, but also one which played a key role in the life of those who lived in the villages surrounding it.

None more so than during the US Air Force's period of occupying the site, from 1950 to 1958.

"There was a presence in the town when they were here," explains Mr Steed, whose family have farmed in the area for generations.

"They had money to spend.

"It was the same with the RAF - the officers would eat and have meals out locally, so money was coming into the local economy. But when the Americans came it trebled."

Bi-planes at Manston in its early days. Picture: RAF Manston History Museum
Bi-planes at Manston in its early days. Picture: RAF Manston History Museum

Doug Smith, from the RAF Manston History Museum, adds: "When the USAF was at Manston there would have been thousands stationed there.

"They had a lot of bases in East Anglia - Suffolk and Norfolk - but this was their main fighter base in the south east of England. As the squadrons were based here they were on alert to go wherever they needed to."

This was during the peak of tensions between the US and what was then the USSR; a clash of ideologies which so nearly resulted in the deployment of nuclear weapons as a consequence of the Cuban missile crisis.

The USAF used RAF Manston as a Strategic Air Command base for its fighter-bomber units.

An RAF Anson plane from Manston was forced to ditch into the sea during an experimental flight in 1936 at Whitstable
An RAF Anson plane from Manston was forced to ditch into the sea during an experimental flight in 1936 at Whitstable

Not that everything was smooth for those living nearby during the American occupation of the site.

"The noise of some of their jets was very, very loud," recalls Mr Steed. "It did create a little local opposition.

"Towards the end of the Americans being here their jets needed a longer runway, so they extended it on the Ramsgate end by a couple of hundred yards. But I can remember one plane landed and over-ran into the mud where they were extending it. But they just pulled it to one side. I remember having a photograph of me sitting in it. They eventually burnt it."

Manston Airport's origins can be traced back to 1916 - the middle of the First World War.

Initially there was a seaplane and landing strip on the cliffs at nearby Westgate. But after one too many planes overshot the runway and ended up crashing into the sea, plans were put in place to create a runway on farmland near the village of Manston.

David Steed remembers picking mushrooms from the runway during the 1950s
David Steed remembers picking mushrooms from the runway during the 1950s

Fields once used as grazing for sheep were subject to compulsory purchase orders and an Admiralty Aerodrome was built.

The original, reinforced, grass runway was built where an immigration detention centre now stands - just across the road from what is now the RAF Manston History and Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial museums.

An Operational War Flight Command and the Handley Page Training School established themselves soon after. By 1917 the Royal Flying Corps moved in and its base as a key strategic military site was established. Planes positioned there played a key part in warding off German attacks.

By the time the Second World War arrived, the airfield was brought into significant use. Something which Adolf Hitler became aware of.

Mr Steed recalls: "During the Second World War, my father was in the auxiliary units - known as Churchill's 'secret army'. One of the things he and his pals devised, as they were independent of everybody, was that there was a chalk tunnel which ran under the airport. They started packing explosives in there because then, if Hitler wanted to land, they could blow the runway up.

Post-war, the base remained strategically important. Picture: RAF Manston History Museum
Post-war, the base remained strategically important. Picture: RAF Manston History Museum

"But then it was bombed and the tunnel collapsed and they couldn't complete. To this day we don't know if there are any mouldering munitions down there."

The worst German attacks came during the Battle of Britain - the aerial joust as Hitler attempted to secure air superiority ahead of a planned ground invasion in 1944.

The airfield was hit hard with many buildings destroyed. But it played its part in repelling the aerial attack.

Over the years, the main runway switched to the other side of the airport to where it is today - a site which was concreted in 1945; a massive job which required thousands of workers to help complete.

Chalk from the nearby Monkton pits - today a nature reserve - was used to help fill in the undulations.

However, claims made by some that damaged Spitfires were concreted over where they sat have been dismissed. Given Manston's position, it was often used as the final touchdown spot for aircraft in trouble, limping back across the Channel with damage, which meant it became something of a graveyard for many.

The museum's Mr Smith said: "In 1945 they wouldn't have been as thorough as they are these days. But there would have been checks for live ammunition, which would have been removed. There used to be a rumour there were whole aircraft buried over there - but that is utterly untrue."

Inside the control tower as it looks today
Inside the control tower as it looks today

Post-war, there was an unexpected tragedy when Manston held a Battle of Britain air display in 1948. A Mosquito aircraft crashed into a road crowded with people and cars - 12 people were killed, including three children.

In the new political era which dawned after the Second World War, the West faced the East in a clash of ideologies and mounting tensions.

It saw the USAF's 20th Fighter Bomber Wing arrive in 1950.

After the US left the base in 1958, questions were raised as to its future. That prompted the Air Ministry to announce it was to open it up to civil, as well as military, flights.

A new chapter was dawning at the airport.

Among the first commercial flights were those from Silver City Airways, which had also operated out of Lydd. In 1959 it flew its inaugural Silver Arrow service from London to Paris. Passengers travelled by rail to Manston (one assumes Ramsgate) before jetting out to Le Touquet and taking the rails down to the French capital.

The passenger terminal building had a shelf life of 25 years when it was built in 1986
The passenger terminal building had a shelf life of 25 years when it was built in 1986

Other early operators included the likes of Invicta International Airlines - owned by former RAF pilot Hugh Kennard. He started the company in 1964, before selling it to British Midland by the end of the decade. However, it continued to operate at the site for several years.

But demand at the airport was not as it was hoped, in what would become a recurring theme at the site over the coming decades.

In 1979, Thanet District Council was talking to the Ministry of Defence about ways of boosting business at the site.

It wanted to see others join the likes of Air Kent, which was operating daily commercial flights to Brussels and Rotterdam, and Invicta, which was flying occasional flights to Germany, Gibraltar and Africa.

As the years progressed, cargo and commercial flights continued to take off with varying degrees of success.

Mr Steed recalls: "My daughter used to work there and we'd booked up to go to Yugoslavia.

Looking out across the runway
Looking out across the runway

"The manager told us to say hello when we checked in, but when we arrived the plane hadn't got there. He told us to go home and that he'd give us a ring. So we popped home, watched Wimbledon and then got the call to return. It was that sort of relaxed place.

"Lots of us thought 'this is great, we can go on holiday without having to go to Gatwick or Heathrow'. So there was a strong feeling it was our airport and we used it."

However, as the 1990s dawned, concerns were being raised about its future.

Despite charter services to the likes of Mallorca and Cyprus - both of which were relatively short-lived - question marks over the MoD's continued commitment to the site during a period of peace and a very different approach to how wars were likely to be fought left Manston at a crossroads.

When the government said, in 1993, that Manston was unsuitable for development into a major airport - due to its proximity to Ramsgate - the writing was perhaps on the wall.

In 1999, the MoD announced it was to sell the site - RAF Manston would be no more.

EUjet takes off from Manston in 2004
EUjet takes off from Manston in 2004

In its place rose Kent International Airport under new owners the Wiggins Group - its first private owners. One of its leading lights, coincidentally, was Tony Freudmann - the man now behind the RiverOak Strategic Partners project to get it reopened.

Wiggins' PlaneStation operation looked to muscle in on the boom in cheap flights, while Irish operator EUjet started operating regular passenger flights. But when PlaneStation over extended and bought EUjet it ran into financial problems. After collapsing, it dragged the flights and airport down with it.

Sold to New Zealand firm Infratil - which also owned Prestwick Airport near Glasgow - hopes were raised when it was announced flights to the US would be taking place. But demand failed to match expectation and they were cancelled.

Manston's limited offering of flights, and lack of transport infrastructure compared to the concrete jungles of the likes of Gatwick and Heathrow, left it struggling to make a stand in a hugely competitive, and expensive, commercial flights sector.

Yet it played a key part in humanitarian efforts - and would also sometimes take passenger flights diverted from other airports - before ferrying the passengers, by coach, to their end point.

The Kent International Airport terminal in 2005
The Kent International Airport terminal in 2005

Flights by KLM started in 2013, with daily shuttle services to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. They proved popular by linking into the European airport hub, which offered connecting flights to the rest of the world. But it was stopped in its tracks when Infratil sold up to the owner who would later wield the biggest axe the airport had seen yet.

Ann Gloag - who along with her brother had started the Stagecoach travel empire - snapped the site up for £1 and vowed to turn it into a hub for the Ryanairs and EasyJets of this world. Within six months, she shut the place down, laid everyone off and auctioned off everything inside.

Which brings us to the present day.

Manston Airport remains back at the crossroads.

After Ann Gloag's axe was wielded in 2014, she sold her majority stake in the site later that same year to commercial property developers Trevor Cartner and Chris Musgrave, former owners of the Discovery Park in Sandwich.

They then unveiled proposals to transform the site into space for 2,500 homes, leisure facilities and commercial space. It claimed Stone Hill Park, as it was called, would create 4,000 new jobs.

The last flight from Manston with KLM in 2014. Picture: Tony Flashman
The last flight from Manston with KLM in 2014. Picture: Tony Flashman

But such proposals were met with fury by many in Thanet who insisted it should remain as an airport - citing it as one of the few industries with the potential to create aspirational jobs in the district.

Such were the political ramifications, parties on Thanet District Council came and went due to their stance on the airfield. Ukip, most famously, vowed to reopen it and took control of their first council as a consequence, before then pulling back amid concerns of investing public money into a compulsory purchase order. The party fractured and they lost control.

In the face of such opposition, hush-hush negotiations began between Stone Hill Park bosses and RiverOak Strategic Partners - which had bid to buy the airport from Ann Gloag but been rejected - and remained vocal in its plans to revive the airport.

Eventually, RSP paid £16.5m to purchase the site in 2019 - a move which torpedoed the controversial housing plans, but relied on it getting government permission to reopen.

It wants to focus on turning it into a cargo hub. If, and only if, it proves a success, then it says it will entertain the idea of bringing commercial flights in.

Protesters in 2014, fighting to save the airport. Picture: Alan Langley
Protesters in 2014, fighting to save the airport. Picture: Alan Langley

However, despite being given the nod by the Department for Transport in 2020, a judicial review was launched, resulting, eventually, in permission being quashed.

Resubmitting its plans, permission was granted, again, earlier this year. However, another judicial review has been threatened. All of which leaves the airport in limbo.

RSP insists it has backers ready to plough hundreds of millions of pounds into the site to make it a success.

It remains to be seen if it can, finally, deliver the prosperous future Manston deserves.

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