The Wartime New Forest

Many Penny Post readers will have visited the New Forest to cycle, walk, horse ride, paint, and photograph or simply relax and enjoy the scenery. Visitors to the Forest in the 1940s however, had little time to relax and enjoy the surroundings for they were there on the business of war. 

Some years before the outbreak of WW2, the War Department and Air Ministry identified the Forest as most suitable for military use. A number of areas were recommended as potential airfields and others for camps and training grounds and whilst huge opposition was expected from landowners and Commoners to any development, if and when the country was on a war footing, such opposition could be quashed. And so, it was that from 1939, great tracts of land across the Forest were taken by the Armed Forces for war use. Seventy five years since war’s end, there is still some evidence of the Forest’s pivotal roles in this country’s defence and in the eventual liberation of Europe.

Today for example, the visitor can still walk across sections of former airfield runways at Stoney Cross, Beaulieu and Holmsley South. These sites were just three of a total of twelve mixed permanent, and temporary airfields, part of the most significant wartime construction development programme in the Forest. 

Following is a brief overview of those 12 sites with some technical data and the opportunity for the reader to research to find out more.

Christchurch Pundit

Christchurch Pundit code XC (the identity code of the airfield: a beacon was set to flash the relevant letter or letters to confirm the name of the aerodrome to aircraft overhead). 

Already established at the outbreak of the Second World War, the aerodrome had an interesting history spanning the previous two decades. 

On the boundary of the New Forest, Christchurch was in Hampshire at the time; now it is in Dorset because of boundary changes. 

The runways included grass, concrete and steel matting, a total of five in all. There were five hangars, including three ‘blister’ types in preparation for war service. It acted as a satellite for nearby Hurn and Ibsley airfields under No. 10 Group, Fighter Command. It became operational in 1940. (No visible signs remain)

A wartime enemy aerial photograph of Christchurch Airfield

Ibsley Pundit

Ibsley Pundit code IB, call sign LARDIT. This airfield was built by various contractors and opened in early 1941, with three tarmac runway sites and twelve hangars. Many variants of the Spitfire and the Hurricane Mk I flew from Ibsley. Based here were 32, 66, 118, 129, 165, 234, 263, 302, 310, 312, 313, 421, 453, 501, 504 and 616 Squadrons. 

It transferred between the RAF and the USAAF on two occasions. Ibsley in use, yet still under construction, was the location for the 1941 film ‘First of the Few’ starring Leslie Howard and David Niven. (Some visible signs remain including the control tower. The land is in private ownership)

Former Control Tower at RAF Ibsley (author's collection)

 

Beaulieu Pundit

Beaulieu Pundit code BU, call sign ARCHEBACK. Beaulieu Heath was on the opposite side of the road to the First World War East Boldre airfield and was opened in the autumn of 1942 having been built by various contractors to the standard three runway design. To begin with it had two T2 hangars and a single blister type, and it was variously home to 257, 263 and 486 Squadrons flying Typhoons and Tempests. In the early days, most personnel had tented accommodation, and the operations room and control tower were of temporary construction. No. 224 Squadron, flying Liberator 111As, arrived in September to bolster the U-boat offensive in the Bay of Biscay. Halifax’s of 405 and 158 Squadrons, Royal Canadian Air Force, arrived to take part in strikes against enemy shipping. Later in the war, in the post D-Day period, various aircraft including B26 Marauders flew into this airfield on the way to France. Lysanders carrying SOE agents also flew from Beaulieu, the nearby village being home to various training establishments. Beaulieu Airfield was put under the control of the United States Army Air Force in May 1944 and reverted to RAF control in September of the same year. (Some visible signs remain)

Holmsley South Pundit

Holmsley South Pundit code HM; call sign RECESS. This airfield was built by John Laing and Son Ltd and opened under Coastal Command in September 1942. With three runways and five T2 hangars it was a large aerodrome, flying Spitfires, Typhoons and Mustangs. It passed to the USAAF in June 1944 and then to RAF Transport Command in October 1944. The site is a now a popular camping and caravanning area. Visible signs remain.

Hurn Pundit

Hurn Pundit code KU. This was a large aerodrome, with three concrete runways and seventeen hangars including for T2 types. Typhoons and Mosquitoes from 125, 164, 181, 182, 183, 193, 197, 198, 247, 257, 263 and 266 Squadrons flew from here. It opened in the summer of 1941 and closed in 1946. The site is now Bournemouth International Airport with a few visible signs of wartime use.

Needs Oar Point Pundit

Needs Oar Point Pundit code NI. This was opened in April 1944, for D-Day only, right on the coast at St Leonard’s in the New Forest. The site had two runways of steel matting and four Blister hangars. It flew Typhoons from 193 and 197 Squadrons. Domestic accommodation was in tents, and the nearby farmhouse at Park Farm was used for units including Intelligence and Radio. Needs Oar is on the coast south of Beaulieu. (No access, in private ownership)

Stoney Cross Pundit

Stoney Cross Pundit code SS. Call sign IRONWORK. Situated in the north of the Forest, Stoney Cross was opened in November 1942, although at that time it was still under construction by George Wimpey and Co. Ltd. With a typical three concrete runway layout, this site was originally conceived to serve as a ‘secret’ airfield, deliberately devoid of any of the usual facilities and with camouflaged hides for aircraft, although the exact reason it was to be secret remains open to conjecture. It was subsequently designated as an advance base for both fighters and bombers, and in the process it expanded from about 500 to 900 acres, yet its construction was delayed because of disagreements over how much compensation was to be paid to commoners who grazed their cattle on the site. An agreement was eventually reached, and the six-month delay in starting work was temporarily overlooked by the authorities. However, the agreement, to pay compensation at the rate of 2s 6d per acre was subsequently scrapped under a War Requisitions Act. Four new generation T2 hangars were erected, as were six blister types. Flying Hurricanes, Ventura’s, Stirling’s, and the widely criticised Albemarle’s from 175, 297 and 299 Squadrons were based here. Stoney Cross was operated by the RAF and the USAAF. There are several features at the south-eastern end of the airfield immediately adjacent to the main A31 that may represent features of an antiaircraft site. These include a possible searchlight emplacement, a gun-laying radar position, a radio mast, and foxholes. These features are not recorded on the RAF maps of the airfield, but further investigation may be able to identify them more positively. 

An ancillary site of Stoney Cross airfield, at Castle Malwood, was built to accommodate ill and injured staff. Such facilities were a necessary feature of any military structure, and consisted of wards, a mortuary, an ambulance garage, and nursing staff quarters. The RAF site plan refers to an HF (high frequency) transmitting station located immediately east of this area. Stoney Cross airfield was released by the War Ministry in 1948 and largely demolished a few years later. As with many sites around the New Forest, it is possible that this demolition was only surface deep, leaving many platforms and foundations intact. The site of the sick quarters presently lies alongside the A31, which will almost certainly have disrupted the site when it was made into a dual carriageway in the 1960s. (Some signs of wartime use are still obvious)

Winkton Pundit

Winkton Pundit code XT, call sign DRAINSINK. This was an advanced landing ground for D-Day only, with two steel matting runways and four blister-type hangars. It was used by the USAAF under the control of 11 Group, RAF Fighter Command. Opened in March 1944, it was closed less than a year later. (Now in private ownership)

Calshot

Calshot, call sign STAMMER. Situated on the spit at the end of Southampton Water, Calshot entered the war for flying boat training, using the Singapore and Stranraer biplane flying boats of 201, 209 and 240 Squadrons. It was a service centre for Sunderland’s and an operational base for Air Sea Rescue launches. The original flying boat sheds and some original buildings remain in use. One of the most intriguing aspects of Calshot’s wartime history is its use as a base for Heinkel HE 115 Floatplanes. A number of these enemy planes were flown to England by Norwegian pilots and at least one was subsequently pressed into service by British Intelligence. We know that one of the Heinkel’s completed thirty-eight missions into enemy territory. We also know that the two floats on the plane were fitted with electric motors so that when the main engines were cut, the plane could manoeuvre quietly through the water. The floats were hollowed out and fitted with seats and a small protective glass shield. An agent would sit in each one, making it easier to transfer to a boat or the shore. Calshot is owned by Hampshire County Council with public access.

Sway 

This almost forgotten, but vital emergency landing ground (ELG) was used sporadically for just a few months in 1944 and, according to locals, offered no facilities except a grass strip and a guard hut. Aircraft were moved here from time to time from Christchurch,

Bisterne 

This site was surveyed in 1943 and was deemed suitable for service as an ALG, for use solely as part of the D-Day campaign. Opened in September 1943, the basic facilities comprised two steel mesh air strips, hard standings, and an aircraft marshalling area. Four blister hangars were erected, providing better cover for aircraft than the tents provided for the crews. Flying the P-47s of 371st Fighter Group, USAAF, from April 1944, it was not long before the mesh tracking became rutted and the site had to be temporarily closed for reconstruction. The Thunderbolts moved to Ibsley, before returning on 1 May 1944. The 371st continued its assaults on occupied Europe. Post D-Day the site was soon abandoned, and it was derelict by July 1944. (No access)

Pylewell

Pylewell, also known as Lymington. This Advanced Landing Ground was created on the Pylewell Estate, which was already being used by other armed services units. Great swathes of woodland were removed to lay steel mesh for two temporary runways on Snooks Farm and several blister hangars were erected. The 9th Tactical Air Command of the USAAF arrived in March 1944 with P47 Thunderbolts, and domestic accommodation was mainly under canvas. The site was effectively stood down in July 1944 and returned to farmland. For the most part, all new permanent aerodromes built after the outbreak of war used the dispersal principle of siting various key buildings at a distance from the main runway and hangar complex, as a safety measure in case of concentrated bombing by an enemy. For example, the barns at the junction of Shotts Lane and Lisle Court Road, East End, near Lymington, were used as debriefing rooms. (In private ownership, but possible access by contacting Estate Management)

 

RAF Sopley 

Not an airfield, but a ground control intercept (GCI) radar station was established at Sopley near Bransgore (on land requisitioned from the Manners Estate) in December 1940. 

The first installation was a mobile unit designed to be set up in just twelve hours and capable of operating all day every day. It was designed to identify enemy bombers and guide home searchlights and night fighter interceptors towards them. RAF Sopley served the night fighter squadrons based at RAF Middle Wallop (near Andover, Hampshire) and nearby RAF Hurn throughout the war. 

The antenna arrangement used here was so successful that its style was used at several other GCI (RADAR) stations, and Sopley achieved one of the highest success rates of intercepts of any GCI station in the war. In 1941 the installation was upgraded to an ‘intermediate transportable’ type, and in 1943 Sopley was made into a permanent station with a fixed antenna. Construction took place in an adjacent field and consisted of large brick buildings for operations rooms and equipment with a permanent Type 7 radar antenna alongside. (The site is a business park and the home of Friends of the New Forest Airfields. Contact them for more information)

Despite the passing of the years, these post war buildings on the former Sopley Radar site at Bransgore have stood the test of time.
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