Wartime airfields — memories rekindled
WWII has been over for 69 years. Although the world has changed and new generations have been born, interest in those dark years of 1939–1945 has not dwindled. In Britain, memories of air activity high in the summer skies of 1940 and thousand-bomber raids leaving their bases in East Anglia seem to have been rekindled during the past few years.
During WWII, Britain became almost one massive aerodrome. That was necessary to support not only the RAF but later the United States 8th Air Force with its heavy bombers and in 1944 the US 9th Air Force with fighters and medium bombers.
RAF Bomber Command operated extensively in the eastern counties. In that area, air traffic was often so dense and the airfields so close together that it was necessary, when flying a circuit, to fly around two airfields!
My mind goes back to my early schoolboy days, living in Bournemouth on England’s south coast. Not far away in an area of 38,000ha were 12 airfields, six of them fully operational while the remainder were advanced landing grounds (ALG). All of those airfields were within the New Forest, an expanse of heath and woodlands created in 1079 as a royal forest by William the Conqueror.
In a wider radius beyond were such airfields as Middle Wallop and Warmwell — Battle of Britain bases — and Tarrant Rushton, which launched scores of Horsa gliders and several Hamilcars carrying tanks during the first assault on D-Day.
The seaside town of Bournemouth was also No 3 Personnel Reception Centre RAF, the arrival point for thousands of Commonwealth aircrew after training in Canada. They were accommodated in scores of requisitioned hotels and luxury flats, and their presence in the town prompted a heavy raid by the Luftwaffe.
At lunchtime on Sunday 23 May 1943, 50-plus Fw 190 fighter-bombers, flying at sea level across the English Channel to avoid radar, swooped up over the town and bombed the central area. There were heavy casualties among the aircrew stationed there and many hotels were destroyed.
I well remember the roar of low-flying planes and the exploding bombs as we left our lunch and dived under the table! The whole performance was over in about 15min and silence reigned again, except for the clanging bells of ambulances and fire engines.
The operational airfields in the New Forest were Hurn, Christchurch, Holmsley South, Stoney Cross, Beaulieu and Ibsley. Wartime flyers in the UK may remember those bases.
My first experience of flying was as a young Air Training Corps cadet, taking off from RAF Hurn (callsign Bumpus) in Whitley bomber Mk V LA828, sitting on a jump seat behind the 20-year-old pilot. We flew about 10 miles across the New Forest to RAF Stoney Cross with two other Whitleys. The bombers were modified for glider towing and parachute dropping, and two of them were to give a demonstration to top brass on Salisbury Plain.
Because we were the standby aircraft in case of unserviceability and not needed, we flew back to Hurn. Now considerably enlarged and capable of operating Concordes and B747s, the aerodrome rejoices under the name of Bournemouth International Airport, (BMO). I learned to fly there while working with the Operations Development Unit of BOAC, forerunner of British Airways.
RAF Ibsley, a busy front-line fighter station, was brought into service in early 1941. Again, as a keen ATC lad I remember cycling several miles there and back for a flight in a DH Dominie.
The weather was cold, dull and gusty with low cloud down to less than 1000ft. We had to queue up for our 15min flip and I remember seeing a bucket in the aircraft, which did not bode well. After bouncing around, often in the clag, most of us were glad when it was over — except for the long cycle home. The things we did!
At the end of the war most airfields were disused, closed, reinstated to agricultural land or even abandoned, over a period of years. Buildings were dismantled and sometimes the runways were ploughed up.
Holmsley South, in the New Forest, was opened in September 1942 and remained operational until 1946. It has been partly turned into a caravan camp and the rest is left to nature and the wild ponies.
Ibsley, where 453 (Australian) Squadron flying Spitfires was stationed in 1943, now looks like anything but an aerodrome. During the past 55 years the ground has been excavated into a series of gravel pits, now full of water and surrounded by willow trees. The only sign of those hectic wartime days are the remains of the control tower, now sadly windowless and suffering from concrete rot.
Christchurch, on the south coast, housed one of de Havilland’s wartime factories, making Oxfords, Horsa gliders and Mosquitoes. It was also home to an American Thunderbolt wing. No longer an aerodrome, the land has been developed for housing.
Beaulieu Airfield, in the heart of the New Forest, is near the village of the same name and Lord Montagu’s well-known motor museum. When last seen the airfield was derelict, quite different from when 486 (NZ) Squadron was stationed there, flying Typhoons during the early part of 1944.
The only sign of life now will be model aeroplane enthusiasts who enjoy a part of one runway, left for their use. The water tower and a few buildings remain on the living sites and a commemorative plaque has been erected on the former airfield.
Stoney Cross, like Holmsley South, has been handed back to the forest and the wild ponies. The last remaining structure, the water tower, was removed in 2004, although several dispersal areas are used as part of a camping ground. The plan of the airfield can still be traced even though the runways have been removed, and a commemorative plaque has been installed there.
I have some memories of that airfield. On my very first flight, as an ATC cadet, we landed there in a Whitley V. And, much later and much more hairy, I managed to crash my homebuilt car-towed autogyro on its first flight!
All that was long ago, but now there seems to be a resurgence of interest. People are wanting to know about the old airfields, even to the extent of forming historical associations. A recent book published by the Ibsley Historical Group combines history with personal stories of life, recalled by men and women who served at Ibsley.
In addition to the control tower, a few remaining wartime structures hidden among the trees and the long grass have been registered with the Imperial War Museum’s Defence of Britain project. A polished granite plaque, resting on the original concrete base of the airfield’s old guardroom, marks the role played by RAF Ibsley during WWII. Further along the perimeter, by the remains of one of the runways, another plaque, “To all who served at this Station”, is dedicated to the RAF and the 8th and 9th USAAF.
On 17 August 2002 a formation of RAF Red Arrows streaked at low level across the summer sky, trailing smoke as a salute during the unveiling of the newly erected monument at Holmsley South. In a corner of the former airfield a 4½m obelisk bearing the names of 12 aerodromes in the New Forest was dedicated to all those who flew, lived and died while serving at those wartime airfields.
Watched by 500 veterans and aviation enthusiasts, they were told by retired Wg Cdr ‘Cyclops’ Brown, Battle of Britain pilot: “Fewer and fewer people have any idea of that momentous part in the New Forest’s history. Now, future generations may pause at this monument and ponder.”
Far away in Cambridgeshire, at the village of Mepal is a plaque at the gates of the old wartime airfield. Erected in July 2000, a 2m white plinth supports the plaque which carries the wording: “Former site of RAF MEPAL, Home of No 75 (New Zealand) Squadron, 3 Group, Bomber Command. 1943–1945”. At the top of the plaque are the crests of the RAF and 75 Squadron. There is a plan of the airfield and illustrations of Stirling and Lancaster bombers, the types flown by the New Zealand squadron.
Let us hope that future generations will pause there too, and ask questions about the brave men from far away New Zealand who flew from Mepal to fight the enemy, and the many who never returned.
- Report and photographs by Max Pudney
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