History Section - Airfield History - WW2 1941-45
RAF BEAULIEU - WORLD WAR II
The idea of re-creating an aerodrome on the Beaulieu Heath was proposed on the 31st July 1941 by the Air Ministry in a letter to the New Forest Verderers, and an Air Ministry map delineates the proposed site on Hatchet Moor. The Inspector of Ancient Monuments sought to excavate the bronze age round barrows on the site before they were destroyed, and this was done by 12 September when Mowlems, the construction engineers who had been awarded the contract, entered the site with their cement mixers, and within three weeks had erected three buildings (store huts and offices) along the Lymington Road. The local agister, Hubert Forward, had reported to the Verderers that the proposed aerodrome site was very poor grazing land, but the Verderers felt rightly aggrieved that they had received no notification prior to the contractors moving in. Their complaint drew an apology from the Air Ministry.
In March 1942 it was agreed that the aerodrome would be fenced with Dennert wire (coiled barbed wire) by the military before any actual flying took place, but this was refuted in July when the Air Ministry declared it was not their policy to provide fencing — “Station personnel should be able to keep runways clear”, so the area remained unfenced, and agister Forward had later in the year to request a pass to enable him to enter the prohibited area of the airfield to get access to commoners’ animals.
From the 25th March, 1942 an Agreement was made between the Secretary of State for Air and the Verderers. This granted the verderers £57 per annum for the loss of common rights over the 570 acres occupied by the airfield. This did not indemnify the Ministry against accidents involving commoners’ animals. Any claims for death or injury to these had to be settled separately. In September that year another 443 acres were requisitioned for the airfield, so the amount paid to the Verderers was increased to £101.6.-. p.a.
location plan printed in May 1943 shows the extent to which the airfield had expanded in a north-westerly direction. These were the so-called “dispersed sites” but there were no defined boundaries to these sites. The buildings, mainly temporary brick construction or Nissen huts included:
The dispersal site plan was printed just too early to include the developments of another area north of the runways. This was the use of Hawkhill enclosure as a bomb store. The Air Ministry wrote in September informing the Verderers about the area fenced off. The work had been done without any prior consultation with the Verderers, the agreement having been made between the Airfield's Resident Engineer and the New Forest's Deputy Surveyor. The bombs were kept on large flat concrete bases (some still survive) and brick walls were spanned by large timbers (like telegraph poles) with camouflage on top of them.
A plan initially made in May 1943 but amended two years later shows the development that had occurred on the actual airfield site. The hangars were made of steel, and the rest of the buildings were mainly either 'temporary brick' or Nissen huts. One exception to this was the Radar Office, which was a timber construction 15ft x 18ft 6in. An aerial photo of 1946 shows the airfield and part of the dispersed site area, plus several aircraft. The two additional hangars proposed in the 1945 plan had not been built.
Use of the Airfield (1942-45)
On the 8th August 1942. Beaulieu airfield was opened as a Coastal Command Station (No 19 Group) and was first occupied by No. 224 Squadron who flew in three weeks later. The day before the squadron arrived, when the airfield had not even been manned by ground crew, two of its members paid it a visit. As Flying Officer Sleep and Flt. Lt. Arden approached the brand-new runway they noticed a tiny spot moving along it, which on landing turned out to be a forester trotting along in his pony and trap. As the enormous Liberator passed him he did not even bother to look up, to David Sleep’s amazement. Of course he had seen it all before, remembering aircraft had started landing at East Boldre over 30 years previously! This would have been the last day of civilian use as a 'motorway' for a few years.
On the 9th September there was a fatal crash nearby at Boldre when a Beaufighter, which had shot down a Heinkel HE.III south of the Isle of Wight, returned in trouble itself. The observer survived but not the pilot. This was not a Beaulieu aircraft. No. 224 Squadron were employed with Liberators on anti-submarine patrols in the Bay of Biscay and south western approaches. The O.C. was W/Cdr. Kearney who was quartered in a house near Hatchet Pond, ideal for witnessing the dinghy drill practised here. Their first U-boat sinking was on 20 October when, in dropping the depth charges, the aircraft itself was severely damaged. F/O Sleep managed to crash land at the Lizard (earning himself an immediate DFC) as recorded in his log book and the Sunday Express. The following day his squadron brought him and part of his crew back to Beaulieu, and that night he must have thought some sort of revenge was to be enacted as enemy aircraft came over Beaulieu and dropped large numbers of flares. Fortunately, however, the brilliantly illuminated airfield never received the expected follow-up raid.
From October 1942 two squadrons arrived from Yorkshire on loan from Bomber Command, one was a detachment of 158 Squadron from East Moor, equipped with Handley Page Halifaxes. It spent three months based at Beaulieu to strengthen Coastal Command. At that stage of the war, convoy movements were taking place in connection with Operation Torch (the Allied invasion of North Africa). The other strengthening squadron was Canadian, No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron, RCAF, equipped with Halifaxes and Liberators, and this squadron was the one to suffer the greatest losses locally (seventeen men in three separate incidents).
However, it was 224 Squadron which had the first casualties when, on 7 November, 1942, one of their Liberators hit the ground and exploded. The two victims were the pilot, Flight Sgt. Kenneth Crabtree, a 30 year-old Yorkshireman, and the Flight Engineer Kenneth Edward Hunt, 20 years old. These, together with the later casualties, were interred in Boldre churchyard.
The first crash involving 405 Squadron happened on the 15th December 1942 killing five Canadian airmen in a Liberator. They were:-
Flight Sgt. Richard Alan Rollins (22 years). Flight Engineer from Vancouver.
W.O.II Robert William Stewart (24 years). Pilot from Saskatchewan.
Sgt Harold William Gunn (26 years). Air Gunner from Toronto.
Sgt Robert James Abadore Shaw (22 years). Air Gunner from Ontario.
Sgt Albert George Henry Capes (31 years). Wireless Op/Air Gunner from Carshalton, Surrey.
The next accident occurred five days later on Sunday 20th December. Mr HJT Leal remembers that morning as witnessed from the Isle of Wight. At 6:30 a.m., the Liberators could be heard warming up for their usual patrols and several went on their way. One however circled and headed south west, in difficulties. It turned, lost height and crashed at Eades Farm, near Newbridge, Isle of Wight. The crew were all killed:-
Flying Officer Ernest Stollery (21 years). Air Observer from Edmonton.
Flight Sgt. Norman Albert Van Brunt (21 years). Wireless Operator/Air Gunner.
Flight Sgt. Gerald Edward Wagner (19 years). Air Gunner from Nova Scotia,
Sgt. Morris William Croft (20 years). Flight Engineer from Derby.
Sgt. Michael William Fugere (29 years). Air Gunner from Toronto.
W.O.I I Lloyd Elsworth Snarr (22 years). Pilot from New Brunswick.
The third and final crash involving one of 405 Squadron's Liberator bombers claimed another six victims on 21st February 1943;-
Sgt. Benjamin Frederick John Parker (23 years). Wireless Operator/Air Gunner.
Flying Officer Carl John Shagena (21 years). Bomb Aimer.
Sgt. Benjamin Warren Turner (24 years). Air Gunner.
Sgt. Roy Victor McLean (20 years). Flight Engineer.
Flight Sgt Ernest Harold Sellar (22 years). Navigator from Winnipeg.
Flight Sgt. Frank James O'Donohoe (28 years). Air Gunner from Ontario.
The infant classroom at Vicars Hill School, Boldre was knocked about as a result of one of the crashes, and in the church, some finely embroidered hassocks bearing their initials and Air Force badges, help serve as a memorial to these young airmen.
With the departure of 405 Squadron in March 1943 the next to arrive was 311 Squadron, a Czechoslovakian unit which converted from Wellingtons to Liberators and continued the anti-submarine patrols. With some success, too, as they recorded the destruction of two U-boats, two aircraft and damage to two others. Also, they caught a blockade running ship in the Channel and homed in a naval force to sink four German destroyers which were waiting as escort.
On May 7th 1943 there was at last a determined raid on the airfield with flares dropped prior to the bombing, but no casualties were recorded. Prior to that there had been a few lone hit and run attacks by enemy aircraft flying in low. Also, 1943 saw two Fortresses in trouble. The first, in July, although on fire landed safely at Beaulieu. The second, on 31 December, was not so lucky. In spite of the searchlights being switched on and the airfield lit by flares to aid the pilot, he circled twice and then inexplicably headed back south, crashing into the sea south of the Isle of Wight.
No. 53 Squadron arrived in September 1943 from Thorney Island, to assist in the anti-submarine patrols for the next four months.
During 1943 a survey was made for suitable airfield sites between Beaulieu River and Lymington River. Two were constructed at Park Farm (Needs Ore Point) and Pylewell House. Temporary runways were laid down in the form of a wire mesh on the fields and blister hangars were erected plus a few fuel tanks. Although these were only used for about seven weeks, the local farmers were deprived of their fields from April 1943 until the end of the War, when African-American battalions were employed to pull them up, but much wire and concrete remains to this day.
A rather important function of the observers and anti-aircraft personnel was to be able to recognise friend from foe. Occasionally mistakes were made such as in February 1944 when a Stirling bomber was peppered by the Beaulieu area anti-aircraft gunners, but unsuccessfully.
The early months of 1944 saw the arrival at Beaulieu of four squadrons mainly concerned with attacking flying bomb sites and invasion targets in N.W. France, and dive-bombing shipping in the Channel.
The Americans took over the airfields at Lymington, Sopley, Christchurch and Ibsley, while Beaulieu and Needs Ore Point stayed under RAF control. 257 Squadron was there during January, 263 Squadron from January to March (S/Ldr. G.B. Warner. DSO. DFC. handing over command to S/Ldr. H.A.C. Gonay in February). New Zealand's second fighter squadron in the U.K. No. 486, commanded by S/Ldr. J.H. Iremonger, arrived at this time. These three fighter squadrons were all equipped with Typhoons. Bruce Gilbert, the Southampton bookseller stationed at Needs Ore saw a Junkers JU 188 shot down on 18 April. Mr. H. Leal records that from 7.24 am, when spotted approaching Sandown, it circled the Isle of Wight flying low and never exceeding 250 mph. It made no effort to attack or avoid the heavy ack-ack fire but continued to drop single red flares until finally shot down by the Typhoon, again making no effort to defend itself. To add to the mystery the wreckage contained 12 bodies whereas the Junkers would normally have a crew of four. Perhaps escaped RAF personnel? Or had the pilot got lost in bad weather while transferring extra personnel from an inland Luftwaffe airfield to one on the French coast? This incident was witnessed by Neville Shute and used by him in his novel "Requiem for a Wren".
Typhoons from Beaulieu were able to head off an enemy air attack heading for Portsmouth on the 25 May, and the last recorded enemy aircraft to fly over the Isle of Wight went over five days later — a Focke-Wulf FWI90 single engined fighter bomber.
A bomber squadron equipped with Douglas Bostons had arrived al Beaulieu in February. This was a detachment of No. 88 (Hong Kong) Squadron from Blackbushe.
The Americans Take Over
Just to show how cosmopolitan it had all become, the Americans took over the control of the airfield on 5 March 1944, and it became the HQ of the 84th Fighter Wing of the U.S. 9th Air Force. The unit involved was the 365th Fighter Bomber Group (386-8 F.B. Sqns) which flew P-47 Thunderbolts. Its employment included acting as escort patrols and dive bombing targets in France preparatory to Operation Overlord (the Invasion of Normandy). On 6 June at 3.30 am, the activity began on the airfield and Dakotas and Thunderbolts became part of the enormous invasion force heading south. Sadly, a fatal crash of a Typhoon from Beaulieu happened the following day near Calbourne on the Isle of Wight. The American Thunderbolt bomber squadron left on the 28 June to be replaced by another American bomber squadron from 21 July to 26 August. This was the 323rd Bombardment Group (453-6 B. Sqns) equipped with B-26 Marauders.
Doodlebugs (unmanned flying bombs) were now arriving over the area and in July three crashed near Beaulieu. one in the river and only one near the airfield.
Transferred Back to RAF
On 7 September 1944 the airfield was transferred back to the RAF, (to No. 11 Group, Air Defence of Great Britain), but was not used by any fighter units, and so on 5 January 1945 control passed to No. 23 Group, Flying Training Command.
The Special Operations Executive
Before leaving the subject of the use of the airfield in World War II, one ought to mention an especially brave group of people — members of the Special Operations Executive. These were the agents and resistance fighters who were flown into occupied Europe and, as some of their training was performed locally around Beaulieu, they were frequently transported by Lysander from the airfield to the Continent. A memorial plaque exists in the grounds of Beaulieu Abbey and a fine painting by Roger King depicting the aircraft over Beaulieu also commemorates this connection. About nine of the larger houses around Beaulieu were used by the S.O.E. As a ‘finishing school’ to give the agents a chance to practise their skills before being deployed overseas.
Courtesy Robert Coles ‘History of Beaulieu Airfield’
Key to Plan of Beaulieu Aerodrome May 1945
1 Old Operations Block. Later, Temporary Station Offices
2 SAA (Small Arms Ammunition) Store
3 Armoury and Maintenance Unit
5 The Turret Instructional Building (To train air gunners.)
6 Photographic Block
7 A.M. Bomber Teacher
8 MT Petrol Installation
9 Fire Tender House
10 Guard House
11 Fire Party
12 Works Services Huts and Yard
13 AMWD Stores
14 Field Flight Office
15 Fuel Compound
16 Lubricant and Imflammable Store
17 Bulk Oil Compound
18 Camouflage Store
19 Gas Defence Centre
20 Gas Clothing and Respirator Store, And Workshop
21 MT Shed and Yard
22 MT Office
23 Parachute Store
24 Link Trainer Building (Pilot Training)
25 Gas Chamber
26 Bulk Oil Compound
27 Main Store and Office Block
28 Main Workshops
29 Crew Rest Room and Parachute Store
31 Maintenance and W/T Unit
32 Speech Broadcasting Building
33 Flame Float Store
34 Personnel Sleeping Quarters
35 Refuelling Pool
36 Bulk Petrol Installation (72,000 gallons)
37 Maintenance Unit
39 Crew Rest Room, Locker and Drying Room
40 Flight Offices
41 Squadron Office
42 WAAF Latrine
43 Electrical Sub Station
44 Dispersal Hut
45 RDF (Radio Direction Finding) Building
46 Radar Office
47 Squadron and Flight Offices
48 RU Pyrotechnics Store
49 Dope Store
50 Watch Office
52 Fire Tender Shelter
53 NFE Store
54 Floodlight Trailer and Tractor Shed
55 Defence Huts
56 Site for Hangar
57 Battery Charging Room
60 Machine Gun and Cannon Range
61 Maintenance Unit and Staff Block
62 Bulk Petrol Installation (24.000 Gallons)
63 Bulk Petrol Installation (48.000 Gallons)
64 Picket Post
65 TR 3112 Building
66 Offices (Ex Mowlems Contractors)
67 Fuel Building 68
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