The New Forest
During my lifetime the New Forest has had to endure some very significant events which have threatened the very existence of its unique character. For it is unique: there is no other area of land anywhere so blessed with a combination of history, folklore, cultural tradition, natural beauty and variety of wildlife.
The first major disruption of the New Forest occurred in World War Two, from the impact of the armed forces, especially the airforce, during the months immediately preceding D-Day. Although there were many temporary army camps set up, the greatest disturbance was the building and subsequent almost continuous use within or very close to the Forest boundaries, of twelve airfields. This article attempts a brief account of their histories.
The earliest airfield in the Forest had been at East Boldre, near Beaulieu, where a flying school started operating in 1910. It became a Royal Flying Corps training airfield during the First World War, but in 1919 the camp closed, although it remained listed as a flying field and pilots occasionally made private use of it into the 1930s. During the Second World War, as local people will relate, it was used a dropping ground for parachute training, although this was not general acknowledged at the time. It was certainly used for that purpose between 1945 and 1950, however, by the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment from their base at Beaulieu. One building remained in use – the old YMCA; it became East Boldre village hall.
In 1913, a Royal Navy Air Station had been established around Calshot Castle, the old Tudor Gun Fort on Calshot Spit in Southampton Water. From here experiments in designs of seaplanes and flying boats were performed. During World War One the aircraft were engaged not only in training but also in reconnaissance patrols of the English Channel and this continued after the formation of the RAF in 1918. RAF Calshot became the base for high-speed flight training for the British teams in the competitions for the Schneider Trophy, in 1927, 1929 and 1931, when Great Britain were the winners. Meanwhile, training and reconnaissance flights continued until the Second World War, when the station became an Air Sea Rescue base and a service unit for Sunderland flying boats. After the War the base became mainly a maintenance unit for Sunderland flying boats, some of which were detached in 1948 to join the Berlin Airlift.
During the nineteen-fifties, by which time the flying boats had been ‘mothballed’ and moored off-shore in Southampton Water, I was living in the lane bordering the camp, ‘Top Camp’ as it was known. After the station closed in 1961, Top Camp became the temporary home of refugees from Tristan da Cunha when a volcanic eruption on their island had forced them to leave. They returned to their island in 1963.
Calshot Castle is now an English Heritage site and has on display some photographs of RAF Calshot. It is open to the public at certain times. Some of the old hangars and other buildings were used in setting up the Calshot Activities Centre.
Many attempts had been made during the 1920s to establish an airfield for a flying club to the west of the Forest in the Bournemouth area, but it was not until 1935 that a flying field was constructed at Somerford, just to the east of Christchurch, to be used for private flying. It became a venue for civil air displays, such as RAF Empire Air Days, and performances by Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus, but it was closed as a civil airport following the declaration of war in September 1939. The RAF moved in and soon the little airfield became very busy, with gliders being built by Airspeed Limited, and a Royal Navy detachment from HMS Raven installing radar in naval aircraft. Later in the war an extra runway almost a mile long and made of wire mesh was built south of the airfield and immediately behind houses at Mudeford. This was for use by United States Army Air Force P47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers during the build-up to D-Day, after which Seafires from HMS Raven and Mosquitos, which by now were being assembled by Airspeed, made use of it. After the war the De Havilland Aircraft Company built Vampire, Venom and Sea Vixen jet planes at the site. The airfield closed in 1967 and has since been built over with housing and industrial units, but for many years a Sea Vixen aircraft stood at the site of the De Havilland building.
Ibsley Airfield was built on farm land between Ringwood and Fordingbridge in 1940. The base covered a wide area, stretching two miles from Furze Hill, where I now live, to south of Moyles Court. Throughout the war, many different national air force squadrons as well as the RAF, flew from Ibsley and every year since, a reunion, called Bye Gone Days, has been held on part of the old base at South Gorley. Until about ten years ago it was not unusual to meet former airmen there from the United States, Australia, Poland or Czechoslovakia. A memorial to those who died whilst serving at Ibsley is situated on the southwest corner of Mockbeggar Lane at its crossway with the Gorley Road. The site was used as a maintenance unit until 1947, when it was handed back to the Somerley Estate. Almost the entire runway area is now a water reservoir known as Mockbeggar Lake, having been used for gravel extraction in the intervening years. Part of the old control tower, however, can still be seen from the Gorley road.
The construction of Hurn Airfield began at the same time as Ibsley and by 1941 it was being used by the Special Duty Flight, who had previously been at Christchurch Airfield engaged in radar research. Parachute training and glider towing exercises were also carried out, and by late 1942 pilots from Hurn were not only dropping supplies to resistance fighters in Occupied Europe, but also ferrying troops for the invasion of North Africa. By this time too, Hurn was one of the main airfields for VIP flights overseas. As D-Day approached the base was needed for fighter aircraft to support the invading troops, but when they moved on into France, Mosquito Nightfighter Squadrons took over to operate against raiders and especially flying bombs. By late 1944, though, Hurn was turning into what it eventually became, a civil airport, with BOAC, Sabena and KLM airlines starting to develop their overseas services.
In 1941 work started on Beaulieu Airfield. It opened in August 1942 as an RAF Coastal Command base, using Liberator aircraft on anti-submarine patrol. As at Ibsley, units of different national air forces shared the Beaulieu base at various times with the RAF: squadrons from Czechoslovakia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States flew from there. Throughout the war the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment used the airfield for test work on gliders, glider tugs, troop carrying planes and early types of helicopter, and went on doing so until flying ceased in 1950, when the airfield was designated as a stand-by base. It was never used again though, and in 1959 the land was handed back to the Forestry Commission, who returned most of it to a natural state, although part of one runway was left for use as a model aircraft flying area, and traces of many concrete access ways can still be found today.
Holmsley South airfield was built in 1942, partly on private land and partly on Crown lands. At first it became a Coastal Command base from which to patrol the eastern Atlantic on missions against U-boats. Within a year it was also being used by the army Glider Pilot Regiment for glider towing practice in preparation for flights to North Africa. As with other New Forest air fields during the approach to D-Day, support for the invasion became the priority and Polish, Canadian and RAF pilots were soon flying regular sortees in Spitfires, Typhoons and Mustangs. In the summer of 1944 the USAAF flew bombing missions over France after the invasion, and then for the next two years the airfield became a base for Transport Command to fly routes to Europe, the Middle East and even the Far East. In October 1946 flying ceased and in the early 1950s the land was returned to its pre-war private ownership and the Forestry Commission.
The present Forestry Commission campsites at Longbeech and Ocknell are built on some of the remains of The Stoney Cross airfield, which was built in 1942. Like other New Forest airfields one of its main uses in late 1943 to early 1944 was for developing parachute dropping and glider-towing skills in conjunction with the army paratroopers and glider pilots. Commando raids and supply drops to resistance fighters were also carried out from Stoney Cross. As the war progressed the same requirements as at other New Forest airfields were met from here too. After the war most of the base remained under War Office control and for a number of years the hangars were used for storage, but in 1956 the Forestry Commission took back the land. The water tower remains and some parts of the runways and taxiways are now roads.
As it happens I bought my first car in 1956 and as most of my friends wanted to learn to drive, in return for a free lunch at a local pub on Sundays I used to take them to Stoney Cross to practise (among a few other cars with L-plates), steering, reversing and turning in the aircraft parking areas and getting used to gear changing and speed along the long straight runways.
The remaining four airfields were smaller than those already mentioned. They were called ‘Advance Landing Grounds’, and were built in 1943 directly on farmland at Bisterne, Winkton, Lymington and Needs Ore Point, by RAF Airfield Construction units. The land was levelled, hedges removed and ditches filled and Sommerfield wire tracking was put down to form runways, of between 1400 and 1600 yards in length. After serving their purpose, which was was to augment the air support for the invasion of Normandy, the land was returned to farming.
Fifty years later, in November 1994, the Forestry Commission arranged for a commemorative panel to be placed on the three former airfields built on land managed by them – Beaulieu, Holmsley South and Stoney Cross – as a tribute to the personnel of many nations who had served there. This panel was designed by my late friend Alan Brown, a former parachute jumping instructor at Beaulieu.
Alan wrote and illustrated the book,”Twelve Airfields”, which gives a detailed history of all of these airfields, and from which I’ve taken much for these notes.