The airfield at Kai Tak was established in 1924 on reclaimed land in Kowloon bay, known as “Kai Tak Bund” the site was intended as a housing development that did not materialise. The name Kai Tak did not exist before 1924, the site is named after the two local businessman Sir Ho Kai and Mr Au Tak, who were the backers of the abandoned housing project. The grass airfield saw its first flight on May 31st 1924 when American pilot Harry Abbott took a trial flight on the open area in Kai Tak Bund. On January 25th 1925 he opened the Abbott School of Aviation but this closed in August that year. The Royal Air Force established a military presence at Kai Tak in 1927, the first such base in the Far East. A crane and slipway were added in 1928 to enable flying boat operations.
In 1933 the RAF base was moved to the east of Kai Tak and an RAF hangar and administration building were built. A new private flying school, the Far East Flying Training School, opened on November 7th. The following year a civil hangar and office were built. Commercial passenger flying began form Kai Tak on March 24th 1936 when Imperial Airways launched the first regular passenger flight from Hong Kong to Penang. On November 6th China National Aviation Corporation launched the first regular flight between Hong Kong and China. Transatlantic flights commenced in 1937, Pan American World Airways began their flying boat ‘Clipper’ service on April 28th. Further flights to China also began in 1937, Eurasia Aviation Corporation started began operations on June 29th. The following year Ait France began flying from Kai Tak. A 500 yards long tarmac runway, running east-west, was completed in 1939.
Pre-War use by RN aircraft
Squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force began using the station from 1933, when HMS EAGLE disembarked 803 Fleet Fighter Squadron (Osprey Is) and 824 Spotter, Reconnaissance Squadron (Fairey IIIF) on June 11th for five days ashore. RAF Kai Tak was to be utilised by Carriers on the China Station; 803 and 824 alternating between periods afloat and ashore at Kai Tak and Wei-hai-Wei, transferring to HERMES in 1935 when she relieved EAGLE on the station. On her return in June 1937 EAGLE carried 813 Torpedo, Spotter, Reconnaissance Squadron equipped with Swordfish, 824 transferred from HERMES, now also equipped with Swordfish Is; 803 had been disbanded at Colombo in April.
715 Catapult Flight was formed at RAF Kai Tak on July 15th 1936 by renumbering No. 403 (Catapult) Flight, equipped with Osprey III Seaplanes under the command of Lt. Cdr E. O. F. Price, RN, it was to operate in ships of the 5th Cruiser Squadron in the China Station. By the end of 1937 the Flight was elevated to squadron status.
On May 24th 1939 all Fleet Air Arm squadrons and flights were transferred to Admiralty control and lodger rights were granted at Jai Tak by the RAF; at this time
715 Squadron was operating 7 Walruses in 5 cruisers, using both Kai Talc and Seletar, Singapore, as shore bases. HMS EAGLE re-embarked her squadrons for the last time on August 12th 1939.
WW2 and Japanese use of the airfield
715 Squadron was the only RN presence on the station when the Second World War started in September 1939; they were absorbed into No. 700 Squadron on January 21st 1940 when this squadron became responsible for all catapult aircraft. It is unclear how much use 700 squadron made of the station, 2 Walrus are recorded as being present in May 1940 but these departed for Aden the same month.
At 08:00 on the morning of Monday, December 8th 1941, four hours after the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Imperial Japanese
Army launched an assault on Hong Kong. The colony was totally unprepared for an aerial attack; there were only five aircraft at RAF Kai Tak, the station had a staff of seven officers and 108 airmen but only two Walrus amphibians and three Vickers Vildebeeste torpedo, bomber, reconnaissance planes. Twelve Japanese Ki36 bombers of the 45th Sentai escorted by nine Ki 27 fighters of the 10th Independent Chutai, operating from Guang Zhou, approach Kai Tak from the west in a V formation. They machine-gun and dive-bomb the barrack blocks and the RAF's three dispersed Vildebeeste. They then attack the two Walrus amphibians moored in the bay and sink them both. Some commentators quote these as Supermarine Walrus L2259, and L2819; the first formerly Station Flight, then Spotter Flight Kai Tak, but was in the UK on 754 squadron by February 1940. The second is an incorrect number – it in fact was the serial of a Swordfish lost off Holland in 1940. There is no record of any RN Walrus destroyed at Kai Tak on December 8th 1941. One Vildebeeste was left ablaze, another was badly damaged, leaving one intact. Several civil aircraft were also destroyed in the attack, amongst them four China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) Curtiss AT-32 Condor II's, two Eurasia Junkers Ju-52/3m's, two CNAC DC-2's and a Pan Am Sikorsky S-42B Flying Boat. On 8th, 9th, and 10th an air evacuation was carried out by eight American pilots of the CNAC and their crews; they completed 16 sorties into Kai Tak and ferried out 275 passengers. Tithe colony held out for two weeks before it was surrendered on December 25th 1941.
The Japanese planned to develop Kai Tak airfield for military use and work began in 1942 to quadruple the size of the existing landing ground. Buildings to the South rest were demolished and villages and paddy fields to the North were cleared to provided the required land. Work began in September 1942 to construct hard standings and two paved runways; a new second runway running North-south and an extension of the existing East-west one, both 1.500 yards in length by 100 ft wide made of cement mixed with stones and sand. There were no new hangars constructed but there were aircraft shelters; three at 90 ft wide and 330 ft long capable of holding 5 large aircraft each, and five at 75 ft wide and 330 ft long capable of holding 5 medium sized aircraft each. A barracks was built on the northeast side.
Much of this work was done by as many as 2,000 British and commonwealth prisoners of war as well as 2,500 Chinese workers. Tenement buildings demolished to make way for the runways also provided a ready source of hard core. The area within Po Kong Village, Ta Koo Ling Road, Kak Hung Village, Shing Nam and Sung Wong Tai roads were levelled, also hills at Sung Wong Toi and Po Kong were levelled. All constructional activity of Kai Tak airfield ceased at the start of October 1044.
Elements of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 901st Kokutai (Air Group), Maritime Escort and Anti-submarine unit operated from Kai Tak and Toko, Taiwan. Formed on December 15th 1943 they used a mixture of Kawanishi H6K4 2-3 [Mavis]flying boats, Aichi E13A [Jake] floatplanes and Mitsubishi G4M [Betty] amd Mitsubishi G3M [Nell] landplane bombers and Mitsubishi A6M [Zero] fighters.
When the Japanese Surrender was announced on August 15th 1945 the airfield had been sabotaged, buildings blown up and communication lines were cut, any remaining Japanese aircraft were also spiked.
Commissioned as an RN Air Station
When the war with Japan ended on August 15th 1945 plans were already in motion to reoccupy former British colonies
and Kai Tak airfield was to play a major part in the liberation of Hong Kong. Elements of the British Pacific Fleet arrived off the colony in August 29th; the first allied aircraft to land at Kai Tak was an Avenger of 857 squadron which flew off from INDOMITABLE to collect Commander. D. H. S. Craven, an ex-POW who had been Staff Officer (Operations) in Hong Kong pre-war, together with a Japanese representative, to discuss the state of affairs in the Colony and to finalise instructions for the surrender of the Japanese garrison. The ships present at Hong Kong were immediately tasked with sending out working parties ashore to put the airfield back into limited operational condition, re-establishing essential facilities, communications links and securing the airfield perimeter.
The Royal Navy formally reoccupied Kai Tak airfield on September 3rd 1945 when the Avengers of 857 squadron from INDOMITABLE, the Barracudas of 814 and Corsairs of
1851 from VENERABLE, flew in. Also arriving in Hong Kong on September 3rd was the liner Empress of Australia with 3,000 RAF personnel of ‘Force SHIELD’ on board. They had been diverted to Hong Kong while on route to build airfields on Okinawa, and were now to repair airfields and air facilities in Hong Kong. The RAF claimed Kai Tak for themselves and proclaimed it RAF Station Kai Tak – a point of contention as the Royal Navy also had plans for the station. It was decided that the station would be jointly occupied, with two camp areas and two sets of maintenance areas; the airfield was effectively split in half, the RN operating the Westside, the RAF the East. There was only one hangar on the station, located at Tai Hom, outside the northern boundary road, accessed via a narrow road and this was used by the RAF.
RAF flying operations began on September 6th with the Catalinas of 240 Squadron began flying in personnel, they were soon joined by 132 Squadron flying Spitfire XIVs, and a second Spitfire unit, 681 Squadron with Spitfire PR.19s arrived later in the month. Sunderland flying boats from 209 Squadron and 1430 Flight also arrived to operate from the harbour. The joint operation of the airfield resulted in many, sometimes nearly disastrous experiments at dual air traffic control, it was soon decided that the RAF should have sole control over air traffic control. Another two RN squadrons flew ashore on the 8th, the Barracudas of 812 and Corsairs of
1850 disembarking from VENGEANCE.
squadron personnel were also employed ashore to provide
security patrols and to augment working patties involved in
infrastructure repairs. The CVE (Escort Carrier)
SLINGER arrived at Hong Kong on September 26th carrying the advance party of
Mobile Naval Air Base VIII (MONAB 8), together with equipment, food and medical supplies for the relief of the colony. Also, on board were several reserve Barracuda aircraft to start a stock of spare airframes on the airfield. As the title Mobile Naval Air Base suggests MONAB 8 was designed to establish a functional airfield at any captured airfield or prepared location; living under canvas they were equipped with specialist vehicles, containerised workshops, and portable hangars, they could provide support for disembarked squadrons and hold a reserve of reserve airframes.
Kai Tak was commissioned as a Royal Naval Air Station, bearing the ships name HMS NABCATCHER, on September 26th, Captain V.N. Surtees D.S.O. in command. Three days later 857 squadron re-embarked in INDOMITABLE.
October was to be a busy month; ‘B’ Flight of
1701 squadron, operating 3 Sea Otter amphibians, disembarked from
REAPER on the 13th, she also brought more components of MONAB 8, including Maintenance, Storage & Reserve 9 (MSR 9), from Australia. Work had already commenced on aircraft maintenance with 4 Corsairs, 4 Hellcats and 1 Avenger tested during September, but throughput increased with the arrival of MSR 9 to include 2 Avengers and 6 Barracudas in October and 7 Avengers and 1 Corsair in November.
A detachment of Corsair’s from
1846 squadron was disembarked from HMS COLOSSUS on October 12th, they were joined by 6 Barracudas from 827 on the 15th; they only stayed for a short time however, both re-embarking on the 18th. The next day 814 and 1851 squadrons re-embarked in VENERABLE. During this month a severe typhoon caused widespread damage to Kai Tak, MONAB 8 had begun setting up its equipment but the winds were so severe that the canvas covers were ripped of a newly erected Dorland Hangar; they were never found.
1701 Air Sea Rescue squadron established its HO at RNAS Kai Tak on November 1st in readiness for the arrival of the 3 aircraft of ‘A' flight which disembarked from
on the 16th to reform the squadron into single unit; previously a first-line squadron it was reduced to second-line status on being established at Kia Tak. The last two disembarked squadrons re-joined VENGEANCE on December 20th 1945 leaving only 1701 in residence.
In the New Year the station’s resident squadron, 721 Fleet Requirements Unit (FRU), arrived on board
SPEAKER on January 11th, equipped with mix of Vengeance Target Tugs, Corsairs, Avengers, Seafires, and 1 Harvard to provide aircraft for radar calibration and gunnery exercises carried out by ships in the area. Three of the Vengeance Target Tugs were specially modified aircraft transferred from the Royal Australian Air ForceVultee Vengeance A27-539, A27-545, & A27-619 Issued from No. 1 Aircraft Depot RAAF Laverton to RNAS Bankstown, Sydney in September 1945. for DDT spraying; they were employed by RN Mobile Malaria Hygiene Unit No. 1 when work began to eradicate the mosquito infestation from the colony in February 1946. Spraying commenced on Friday, February 15th, 1946. each of these spraying aircraft catbird 320 gallons of DDT solution.
A twin-engine Oxford was added to
1701 squadron strength
in April 1946, followed by a Tiger Moth in July. Another particularly severe typhoon caused widespread havoc in July 1946, the RAF suffered most damage this time with five Dakotas, one of which was blown twenty yards away, and two visiting Sunderland Flying Boats being battered.
Reduced to an R.N. Air Section
In August 1946 the naval presence on the station was scaled back,
1701 squadron was disbanded on August 26th, its Sea Otters passing to 721 FRU and MONAB 8 ceased to be an independent command on August 27th 1946, reduced in status to R.N. air section Kai Tak, NABCATCHER’s accounts being held in HMS
TAMAR the local naval base.
Commercial flying began from Jai Tak with The Roy Farrell Export Import Company (Hong Kong) Limited which was incorporated on August 28th 1946 for air freight, and a sister company Cathay Pacific Airways Limited was formed September 24th for passenger flights.
At the start of October GLORY arrived in Hong Kong and disembarked her squadrons,
806 equipped with 12 Seafire F.XV and 837 equipped with 12 Firefly FR.I on the 1st. They re-embarked at the start of November, 837 re-joined the ship on the 4th followed by 806 two days later. Command of HMS NABCATCHER passed to Commander (A) W.H.N. Martin RN on November 9th 1946 along with the title Fleet Aviation Officer, British Pacific Fleet. Another 12 Seafire F.XVs arrived on the station on the 27th when 802 squadron disembarked from VENERABLE, they were joined by 806 from GLORY on December 19th
The two Seafire squadron remained ashore until February 12th 1947 when they re-joined their respective carriers. HMS NABCATCHER returned to its main role of providing FRU flights until April 1st 1947 when another
administrative change occurred - NABCATCHER was paid off and the Air Section re-commissioned the same day as HMS FLYCATCHER, the name formerly belonging to the MONAB formation station in the UK, accounts remained with HMS
TAMAR; Commander (A) W.H.N. Martin remained in command.
R.N. air section Kai Tak received its last disembarked squadron on October 20th 1947 when 804 squadron’s 12 Seafire F.XV flew ashore from THESEUS; they re-joined the carrier on November 4th. By this time the decision had been taken to close the RN Air Section. On December 21st 721 FRU was disbanded and HMS FLYCATCHER paid off on December 31st 1947; the RN Air Section facilities at Kai Tak were reduced to a 'care & Maintenance' basis at 18 months’ notice to reopen. This option was never taken up but rights to disembark RN squadrons were retained.
Post RN Air Section use
By 1948 the one runway with some room for extension, 12/30 was extended to its maximum 1800 yards to provide longer take off runs for the larger multi-engined aircraft using the station. This involved crossing Choi Hung Road and the Kai Tak Nullah (water channel) at its northern end. The Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force was formed at Jai Tak om January 1st, 1949
The first time an RN squadron to be put ashore after the airfield was handed over to the RAF was during the Malayan Crisis. No. 800 squadron equipped with 12 Seafire FR.47s disembarked from TRIUMPH on November 5th 1949, re-embarking on December 3rd. The carrier was to launch a series of strikes against targets in Malaya and called at Hong Kong and Singapore between operations. The squadron returned on March 13th 1950 and stayed ashore for a month, re-embarking on April 10th.
The jet age had arrived by the time next squadron disembarked to use the facilities; this was 891 all-weather fighter squadron which flew in its Sea Venom FAW.22s from BULWARK on May 17th 1958. They stayed until June 3rd before re-joining the carrier; this was also the only time RN jet aircraft landed on the old runway 12/30, a new 2,800 yards long runway, 13/31 opened in September 1958 extending into Kowloon Bay on reclaimed land. The new runway was on the south-eastern side of the sir filed and unrepentant of the other two.
In December 1958 two squadrons from HMS ALBION put detachments ashore, 3 Whirlwind HAS,7s from 820 anti-submarine squadron on the 12th and 5 Sea Venom FAW.21s from 809 all-weather fighter squadron on the 19th. Both re-joined ALBION on January 5th 1959. ALBION returned in July 1960, this time disembarking a detachment of 4 Sea Venom FAW.22s from 894 all-weather fighter squadron for a one week stay, 1st to 8th. Later that year a number of Whirlwind HAS,7s of 848 Commando Helicopter Squadron were put ashore from BULWARK on November 8th, they re-embarked on the 21st.
In 1962 the new passenger terminal was completed, and Kai Tak became an international airport, renamed Hong Kong International Airport, the civilian operations occupied the eastern side of the airfield, RAF Kai Tak remained on the West. There was a gap of three years before another RN squadron appeared at Kai Tak, the Strike Carrier HMS VICTORIOUS disembarked a detachments of 4 Buccaneer S.1s of 801 squadron and 4 Sea Vixen FAW.1s of 893 squadron on October 23rd for a short stay, they re-joined the ship on November 7th. Three days later ALBION put ashore a detachment of 3 Whirlwind HAS,7s from 846 Commando Helicopter Squadron; they moved to Tawau, Eastern Malaysia on January 12th 1964. In March of that year the Gannet AEW.3s of ‘B’ flight of 849 Airborne Early Warning Squadron were disembarked from CENTAUR on the 28th, re-embarking on Capital 13th. CENTAUR arrived in Hong Kong again in September 1964 and disembarked the Sea Vixen FAW.1s of 892 all-weather fighter squadron on the 19th, followed by the Gannets of 849 ‘B’ flight on the 25th, both re-joined the carrier on October 14th.
The Gannet AEW.3s of 849 ‘D’ flight arrived at RAF Kai Tak on February 23rd 1965 having flown form RAF Seletar, Singapore to await the arrival of the Strike Carrier HMS EAGLE, they embarked in her on March 17th. Three years later the same flight was disembarked from EAGLE on March 23rd 1968 for a brief stay, re-joining the carrier on April 4th. The last RN helicopter squadron to operate from RAF Kai Tak arrived on September 28th 1970, these were the Wessex HU,5s of 847 Commando Helicopter Squadron which had flown here from RNAS Sembawang, Singapore. Just under a month later they departed to return to Sembawang on October 23rd. The last aircraft to use the landing rights at Kai Tak were the Gannet AEW.3s of 849 ‘D’ flight, a detachment of 2 being put ashore from EAGLE on September 18th 1971; they re-embarked on October 5th.
RAF Kai Tak was officially closed on June 30th 1978, all its units and responsibilities having been relocated to RAF Sek Kong,
Click here for a list of
Stanford D.S. (2006) ‘Roses in December’, Lulu Enterprises, UK Ltd accessed via
Industrial History of Hong Kong Group Various sections
on the Japanese expansion of Kai Tak, Access 31.01.2019
Gwulo: Old Hong Kong. Various sections on the Japanese expansion of Kai Tak, Access 31.01.2019
Pacific Wrecks information about the IJN 901st Kokuta.i
The erstwhile neighbour Kai Tak Airport
Pre 1941 timeline.
Mobile Naval Air Base VIII - History of H.M.S.
Latter from Commander A.W.F. Sutton, Executive officer
Confidential Admiralty Fleet Orders:
CAFO 1374/67 -
Naval Air Section, Kai Tak - Renamed H.M.S.