History Section - Airfield History - WW1 1914-20
World War I Military Airfield
After about two years' inactivity at East Boldre, on 21 March 1914, the War Department took out a three-year lease on one of the aviation sheds previously used by McArdle and Drexel. Before then, in November 1913, the estate agents, Austin and Wyatt of Bishops Waltham, had offered two aviation sheds to the Commander of the Aviation Corps at Farnborough, who decided to have the site inspected. The report of the inspector, Major R Brooke-Popham, reads as follows:
"… there is an area of about 50 acres excellent landing ground, and by cutting the heather and filling up a few holes, this could be extended to about 150 acres, to include the whole area between the Beaulieu-Lymington road and Beaulieu Rails. The land could be purchased cheaply." (Presumably the verderers and commoners would not mind?) "Quite suitable for elementary tuition."
However, it then continues:
"… very bad as a Flying Corps station as outside the aerodrome is a tract of country at least 10 miles across with hardly any landing ground. A failing engine would certainly mean a wrecked machine and probably serious injuries to personnel."
This was "sufficient reason to reject it." It may seem strange therefore, that in less than four months the War Department took out a lease on this very tract of country. Britain's unpreparedness to meet any air menace was still being propounded by Lord Montagu, in the House of Lords and elsewhere, and perhaps it was thought a military airfield on his doorstep might placate him.
The terms of the lease were as follows:
Period: 3 year lease No. 2 Aeroplane shed, subject to six months' notice.
Rent: 4 shillings per aeroplane per night but not less than £25 p.a.
Fuel: Landlords to make available 100 gallons of petrol and 50 gallons of oil each day at current prices.
Among the conditions, the landlords reserved the right to erect other buildings on the Aviation Ground and any sheds, unused by the landlord, could be used by the War Department. The landlords were Samuel Biddlecombe of Swinesleys Farm, Beaulieu, and Charles Orman of Sparks Hotel, Freshwater Bay. They were acting as trustees for Eliza House of Monkshorn Farm, Beaulieu.
In November 1915, it was proposed to use the airfield as a flying school and Captain Wise of the War Office came to visit the site and to seek the necessary permission to use it "for the present emergency only". The Office of Woods and verderers raised no objection, and Lord Montagu was entirely in favour. So, on 7 December 1915, the required area was marked out by the War Office and, ten days later, Agister Evemy was able to report to the verderers that one plane had "just pitched down near the sheds and another expected in the afternoon. Army are filling holes with earth and gravel."
The flying school became known as RFC Beaulieu, and after 1 April 1918, RAF Beaulieu, although it was known locally as East Boldre Airfield. Until 27 July 1918 the function of the site was a Training Squadron Station. After this date its function was listed as a Training Depot Station and School, RAF; specifically, No. 29 Training Depot Station.
A post was next erected to warn people away and three wooden huts were erected on the open forest. Pipes were laid to drain water to a manhole as water tended to pool everywhere on the flat heathland which drained slowly due to underlying layers of gravel and clay. By the end of January 1916, the buildings had grown considerably in number:
Platform for swinging compasses
Coppersmith and acetylene welders' shop
Vehicle sheds for 24 vehicles, 19 bays in all comprising: 17 bays for lorries, light tenders and cars (including 2 lock up bays with pit, and benches as a workshop); and 2 bays for trailers, 6 motor bicycles and M.T. Office, plus a platform for washing cars.
Other planned buildings included hangars, a Power House, stores for petrol, oil, explosives and technical equipment, latrines and a Guard House.
At first, the military flying schools trained pilots and observers with the aim of replenishing front-line squadrons when aircraft and crew failed to return from a mission. As aerial warfare evolved, new ideas emerged from the Central Flying School at Upavon and from Gosport about the role of Training Squadron Stations. They would now build up new squadrons of the latest aircraft and train the entire unit before dispatching the squadron to the front-line. Before RFC Beaulieu could do this effectively, it had to expand.
This led to a request by the War Office for more acreage to double the previous site but with so much building work, suspicions had been aroused locally that the War Office had more permanent designs on the site. However, Lord Montagu was reassured by them that this was not so.
A new gravel pit was opened for the use of the flying ground and several notices were put up forbidding entry to the airfield. The area was again altered on 12 April 1916, this time slightly reducing it.
By then, several properties in the area were occupied by the army including Factory Cottage and Forest Room, East Boldre, and in Beaulieu, the Parish Hall, The Studio, a cottage, and rooms over Palace Stables, The House-by-the-Sea and another nearby owned by a Mr Squires. The airfield itself occupied about 211 acres and with £20,000 or so spent on buildings, suspicions were still fermenting as to the War Office's intentions after the cessation of hostilities. The Deputy Surveyor at Lyndhurst objected publicly in his official role to its continued use but privately he admitted he thought it should stay.
Lord Montagu was most anxious that once the the War had ended, the military should leave and he took practical steps to ensure this happened. Under a new Bill, the 'Defence of the Realm (Acquisition of Land) Bill', the War Office would be entitled to retain it. Accordingly, Lord Montagu had Mr WF Perkins, the Forest MP, move an amendment specifying, "Nothing in this Act shall apply to the New Forest".
Construction of the airfield continued and 1916 saw the arrival at the hutment camp of several people whose task was to expand and modernise the site. First to arrive were two Royal Engineers, Lieutenant Brooker, in civilian life an Eastbourne builder's manager, and Sapper WR Steel, his surveyor and draughtsman. Some weeks later they were joined by five civilians, namely C Slatter, a quietly efficient clerk of works who later succeeded Brooker as Resident Engineer, Mr Moore and Bill Tee (bookkeepers), Mr Saunders (junior clerk) and Mr Cooper, a builder's manager.
The hutted accommodation provided them each with separate bedrooms containing a camp bed, oil lamp, and a tortoise stove. An elderly Mr Stride from Boldre attended to their caretaking and cleaning, and as work proceeded, they were joined by skilled and unskilled civilian tradesmen (over military age) and Chinese labourers. The latter, following the County Surveyor's instructions, cleared the site of scrub and heather, levelled the ground by hand (there were no bulldozers), and laid the scrub as a mat foundation for all the new roads on the aerodrome. The Chinese men were housed in two temporary wooden huts sited about 100 yards from the main Beaulieu-Lymington road.
To supply the contractors with cold chisels, hardened pickaxes and other tools, a civilian blacksmith, Mr Holt, cycled out from Lymington with his son, Les. They worked in a tent on the north side of the Beaulieu-Lymington road.
By 1918, the drainage system of 1915 was unable to cope with the increased area and the airfield was frequently waterlogged up to 12 inches (30 cm) deep. The only solution was to walk on planks elevated on bricks which was quite a balancing trick. So an elaborate drainage system was installed including a sewage works with revolving distributors over filter beds. The additional land required for this was allowed at the Verderers' Court in May 1918.
The land added to the north of the Beaulieu road was used to site a large women's hostel. The building stood alone, surrounded by a high wire fence to discourage fraternization with the opposite sex.
One of the young men who came to learn to fly at Beaulieu in late 1917 was John Bradbury, who later settled locally at Hordle. His initial application to join the RFC was refused due to his height (over 6 ft.) but later they became less choosy. After learning to fly at Beaulieu he went to Gosport to complete the 'Smith Barry' instructors' course and in 1918 returned to Beaulieu as an instructor until September. He remembers the squadron, under Lieutenant Colonel Carmichael, as being divided into two groups, each having its own Major in command, one of whom was Major Guilfoyle.
John Bradbury remembered the camp as three separate areas. That nearest East Boldre village was the largest, with three metal hangars and a Bessonneau hangar, and housed No. 2 Training Depot Squadron. The living quarters (huts) and mess tents (two marquees) were alongside the road. The second area comprised two double truss hangars near the Lymington-Beaulieu road and housed a squadron of BE2cs and BE2es. A third area sited nearer Hatchet Pond comprised a Bessonneau hangar which housed a squadron of Sopwith Dolphins. This was in January 1918, according to John Bradbury's description, and the sites are clearly illustrated in the superb perspective plan of the airfield drawn by WR Steel, RE, the following year. He produced this drawing solely for his own amusement by plotting the buildings onto an ordnance survey map and afterwards sketching the structures in perspective. This drawing is reproduced later in this chapter
In the summer of 1918, it was proposed that the efficiency of transportation would be improved if a railway was built linking the airfield to Beaulieu Road Station. It would certainly have assisted in transporting materials for the tremendous amount of building which was taking place alongside the main Beaulieu-Lymington road from the beginning of 1918. This included two large double hangars and dormitories. A power house was built within a complex of technical buildings to provide the camp with electricity and street lighting by underground cable.
During the early twentieth century, narrow gauge railways were built to facilitate the transport of timber cut in the New Forest. During the First World War years, logging was stepped up and the military supplied men to cut timber and build railways. There is some evidence that a railway line was built to improve freight transport to RAF Beaulieu. One article in 'The Industrial Locomotive' issue 144, 2012, published by the Industrial Locomotive Society, contains the following paragraph:
"… A detachment of 141 Company from H.Q., Feltham, Middlesex, commenced work at Beaulieu Aerodrome on 31 July 1918, moving on to Chelmsford on 26 August 1918. Also engaged at Beaulieu was a group of 123 Company of H.Q., Reading from 4 September 1918 until 24 December 1918, thence to Worthy Down. The work at Beaulieu involved 2' 0" gauge 0-4-OST WB 2049, dispatched from Stafford in April 1918 to the order of the Ministry of Munitions Air Board for Beaulieu Aerodrome Construction, Brockenhurst, Hampshire."
No sign of the existence of this railway can be seen on the airfield today.
By the end of the war, the 50 acres mentioned in Major Brooke-Popham's original report had grown to 213 acres and measured some 1150 by 850 yards (1051.5 by 777 metres).
The Military Flying School
The squadron occupying East Boldre airfield during 1916 was the No. 16 Reserve Squadron (also known as No. 16 Training Squadron or No. 16 TS). In February of that year, an Australian, Captain Norman Brearley, was stationed there prior to becoming a fighter pilot on the western front. He made his first night flight under instruction from Captain Herewood de Havilland and was then appointed as an instructor. His first pupil was Lieutenant Vincent, later to become Air Vice Marshal Vincent.
One of the tests to be completed by student pilots was a cross country flight calling at various airfields. There they had to collect the Commanding Officer's signature and were given a compass bearing to find the next airfield. LE Bickel performed this test in an AVRO 504, starting at Upavon, calling at Andover, Gosport ("lost in low cloud, nearly hit a ship's mast"), Beaulieu, and then to Old Sarum ("via Bournemouth and Poole harbour for my own pleasure").
Another test involved Mr Leonard Holwill, who operated a radio station at Hill Top, Beaulieu. letting off small explosive charges in various places, which the overhead trainee observers had to pinpoint. He had his first trip with No. 16 TS on 1 May 1917 in an American-built Curtis JN-4 Jenny, A899 piloted by Lieutenant JB Fenton. This was the second plane of a batch of six transferred to the RFC from the RNAS. The squadron moved to Yatesbury, Wiltshire, in the following year.
About a dozen Captains and Lieutenants served as Pilot Instructors, e.g., Captains Cox, De Haga, Haig and Wood. There was an Engineer Instructor, who lectured on engines, and then there were the student pilots - about three per instructor at various stages of competence. It normally took about 20-30 hours to qualify, and instruction usually started in dual-control AVRO's and progressed to Sopwith Pups and then Dolphins and Camels which were single-seaters. The young trainee pilots first had to learn to fly the aircraft then progress to other skills such as loading and firing machine guns or taking photographs while flying.
Squadrons Attached to East Boldre
In addition to No. 16 Training Squadron, several squadrons passed through East Boldre during the First World War. No. 23 Reserve squadron was formed at East Boldre in June 1916 and was attached to No. 16 Reserve Squadron. The following month it moved to Egypt.
During 1917, the airfield housed several squadrons, sometimes simultaneously. The first to arrive, No. 84 Squadron, was formed there on 7th January 1917, although the Commanding Officer, Major HR Nicholl, did not assume command until 16th February. Six aircraft were assigned to them: three BE12as (Blériot Experimental 12a); one BE12 (single-seater) with a 150 hp Royal Aircraft Factory (Raf) engine; and two BE2cs (two-seater Artillery machine) with a 90 hp Raf engine. On 22nd March 1917, the squadron moved to Lilbourne near Rugby, before going to France as a scout squadron. At this time, the word 'scout' essentially meant 'fighter'.
No. 79 Squadron arrived at Beaulieu on 4th August 1917 having been formed at Gosport. It was commanded by Major MW Noel and acted as a training squadron until 15th December, when it was equipped with Sopwith Dolphins. The squadron left Beaulieu for Le Havre on 18th February 1918.
No. 103 Squadron had a brief stay. It was formed at Beaulieu on 1st September 1917, commanded by Major T Maxwell-Scott, and transferred to Old Sarum on 8th September 1917. It was intended to be a day bomber unit and, while at Beaulieu, training was carried out on several different aircraft.
No. 59 Training Squadron and an Aeroplane Repair Section were also there from November 1917. All came under the 17th Wing HQ, Southern Training Brigade.
No. 16 Training Squadron continued to be stationed at Beaulieu throughout 1917 and a new batch of fifty BE2c machines was supplied by Wm. Denny & Bros. of Dumbarton. The first, A1361, was piloted by Lieutenant GE Wilson of the Scottish Rifles. This aircraft was used for night flying over Gosport to train the searchlight crews.
No. 2 Training Depot Squadron was at East Boldre from at least late 1917 and its Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel GI Carmichael, whose log books, etc., survive in the RAF Museum.
No. 1 Training Squadron came to East Boldre from Port Meadow, Oxford, on 16th December 1917 and on 27th July 1918, it was disbanded and absorbed into No. 29 Training Depot Station.
Earlier in 1917, two Canadian Reserve Squadrons came to East Boldre. In January, No. 81 (Canadian) RS was formed from, presumably Canadian, members of No. 16 Reserve Squadron. They later moved to Deseronto, Ontario, Canada. In February, No. 87 (Canadian) RS arrived from Gosport and was attached to No. 16 Reserve Squadron. The following month they relocated to Camp Borden, Ontario, Canada.
The Air Historical Branch of the Ministry of Defence also lists No. 3 Training Squadron and No. 73 Training Squadron as having used Beaulieu during the first half of 1918.
The camp continued to grow and squadrons continued to pass through East Boldre until the middle of 1919. On 1st January 1918, No. 70 Training Squadron arrived from Gosport and stayed until 27th July 1918 when it relocated to Weston-on-the-Green. No. 73 Training Squadron from Turnhouse and No. 17 Wing ARS from Gosport arrived on 20th February 1918. Both were disbanded, No. 73 TS, along with No. 1 TS, being merged to form No. 29 Training Depot Station on 27th July 1918.
During that year, the School of Instruction, Southern Training Brigade, was formed at East Boldre but was then relocated to Ford Farm (Old Sarum).
No. 11 Training Depot Station moved to East Boldre during April 1919 from Boscombe Down and in July were re-designated No. 11 Training Squadron but were disbanded in March 1920. May 1919 saw the formation of the SW Area Accounting Centre and the arrival of the Wireless Telephony School from Winton near Bournemouth. This was disbanded on 1st September 1919 and the Accounting Centre relocated to Eastleigh when the Airfield closed.
There are reports of three American squadrons based at Beaulieu during WW1 but only the 93rd Aero Squadron is well documented. Other US Squadrons were the 43rd, 170th and 177th but no record for the latter have been found.
In early August 1917, at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, 150 civilians were sworn into the United States Army as soldiers. They were sent to Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas, where they arrived on 19 August, were organised as the 93rd Aero Squadron USAAS and underwent six weeks of basic training. On 13th October, the 93rd moved to Long Island and, two days later, boarded the former British Cunard liner RMS Pannonia, bound for Liverpool. On arrival, they were placed in the charge of the RFC at Camp Sorden where they were split into a number of flights for instruction in the technical aspects of maintaining aircraft and operating a squadron.
After six months, they moved to RAF Beaulieu, arriving on 1st May 1918, where the flights were reformed into a single unit and trained as a Pursuit Squadron. On 1st June they moved to the Flower Down Rest Camp, Winchester before being sent to France where they arrived on 7th June. They were first posted to the Air Service Production Centre No. 2, Romorantin Aerodrome on 14th June. There, the squadron was put to work assembling newly arrived DH4 Liberty aircraft and, after two weeks at the Production Centre, further orders were received and the squadron reported to the 3rd Air Instructional Centre at Issoudun Aerodrome, arriving on 7th July. There, the mechanics were put to work on the Nieuport and SPAD VII and XIII aircraft while the pilots were instructed in combat flying.
93rd Aero Squadron took part in 157 missions and shot down 32 enemy planes before the war ended on 11th November 1918.
The 43rd Aero Squadron USAAS was first activated on 13th June 1917, at Kelly Field, Texas and moved to England in March 1918. The squadron arrived at Beaulieu on 24th September 1918, where it trained until reassigned to Codford, Wiltshire on 14th October before departing for France on 1st November 1918, arriving just as the war ended. Having never seen combat, the squadron was demobilized in April 1919.
Details are lacking for the 170th USAAS but this unit arrived in East Boldre in July 1918 and and arrived in France on 3rd November 1918. It was classed as a Service Support Squadron and did not see combat. It was demobilised in May 1919.
The Role of Women at East Boldre Airfield
By early 1918, women were performing several vital roles. Some were lorry drivers, or officers' chauffeurs while others worked in the workshop, which was also on the north side of the road. This workshop comprised a Sewing Room where the material was stitched onto the wings, and a Doping Room where the material was 'dipped' in stiffener. It was a terrible place to work due to the fumes given off by the dope.
Aircraft Stationed at East Boldre
The following aircraft are known to have been stationed at East Boldre:
Armstrong Whitworth FK8
de Havilland DH1/1a
de Havilland DH9
de Havilland DH9a
Royal Aircraft Factory BE12/12a
In addition to these, a number of photographs of other types of aircraft show that they have visited East Boldre.
Handley Page Type O Bomber - the largest aircraft to visit East Boldre.
Some images of the WW1 airfield buildings at East Boldre:
Click to enlarge or start slide show.
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