RAF Beaulieu became the third iteration of the East Boldre site. The area of lowland heath around Beaulieu had been used as a landing ground as early as 1910 by Drexel and McArdle’s Flying School and their site was taken over by the military for their Royal Flying Corps training squadron during the First World War. In the inter war years, it was not considered capable of meeting the requirements of the RAF during its expansion in the late 1930s. However, with the onset of the Second World War followed by the fall of France in 1940, there was a pressing need for more airfields in the south of England which resulted in the site being reviewed again but it was passed over in favour of a more suitable and larger area of heath about 1 mile to the west of the old airfield on the other side of the Lymington road.
Work commenced in 1941 and most of it was completed within a year. The main contractor for the new airfield was Mowlem. It had three converging runways placed at 60 degree angles to each other in a triangular pattern. Its runways included a main runway of 5,900 feet (1,800 m), two secondary runways of 4,100 feet (1,200 m) and 4,098 feet (1,249 m) with tarmac surfaces. There were 50 “frying pan” dispersal bays connected to a perimeter track, of a standard width of 50 feet (15 m). The administration and accommodation facilities were constructed largely of Nissen huts of various sizes and were located mainly to the north where Roundhill Campsite is now located. These facilities were all connected by a network of single path support roads.
The technical site, connected to the ground station and northwest side of the airfield consisted of various organisational, component and field maintenance shops along with two T2 type hangars, one at the site, the other on the south side of the airfield at a cluster of dispersal pans connected to the perimeter track. This is where the ground staff and other personnel necessary to keep the aircraft airworthy were located – their role was to repair light and moderate battle damage. Aircraft severely damaged in combat were disassembled and trucked to repair depots for major structural repair. The ammunition dump was located outside of the perimeter track, surrounded by large earth mounds and concrete storage pens for storing the aerial bombs and other munitions required by the combat aircraft. The remains of this can still be seen near Hawkhill car park.
Various domestic accommodation sites were dispersed away from the airfield, within a mile or so of the technical support site, also using clusters of Maycrete or Nissen huts. The huts were either connected, set up end-to-end or built singly and made of prefabricated corrugated iron with a door and two small windows at the front and back. They provided accommodation for nearly 2,200 personnel, including communal facilities and a sick bay.
As soon as the runways and perimeter track were completed in 1942, 224 Squadron of RAF Coastal Command flying Consolidated Liberator bomber aircraft moved in, such was the critical situation with German U-Boats attacking supply convoys in the Bay of Biscay at that time. Seven weeks after 224 Squadron arrived it was joined in its anti-submarine work by twenty Handley Page Halifax aircraft on loan from Bomber Command and flown by a Canadian squadron. Later that year, the Canadians were relieved by a Czech Liberator Squadron No.311.
No 224 Squadron moved to St. Eval in Cornwall in April 1943, and No 311 Squadron was joined by No 53 Liberator Squadron in September of that year. St. Eval would have been well known to the Beaulieu aircrews as it was regularly used by them as a refuelling and minor repair stop. The bomber squadrons of Coastal Command vacated Beaulieu early in 1944 as the airfield was required for fighter squadrons of the Second Tactical Air Force supporting the forthcoming invasion of the Continent (D-Day).
The Czech crews were the longest serving at Beaulieu during the war and were missed by the local population when they departed as they could muster an excellent dance band from among their ranks and played regularly at social events in village halls around the district.
After their departure, two RAF Hawker Typhoon fighter squadrons initially operated from the base making aggressive daylight sweeps over German troops in Northern Europe. They were replaced in March 1944 when Beaulieu was made available to the USAAF 9th Air Force and their 365th Fighter Group comprising three fighter squadrons of P47 Thunderbolts. On D-Day, they were attacking gun emplacements and communications facilities behind the bridgehead in France during which two P47s were lost. On the following day when 12 separate missions were flown, five aircraft failed to return. During this hectic period an unusual accident occurred on 9 June when two P47s being delivered to Beaulieu by ferry pilots landed on different runways at the same time and collided at the runway intersection with one pilot being killed.
The 365th Fighter Group was one of the most successful P47 groups of the USAAF 9th Air Force in terms of air combat with a total of 29 enemy aircraft being credited as shot down during the four months that the group operated out of Beaulieu. On 25 June, it had one or its most successful days when the group was credited with destroying eight enemy fighter bombers. However this success came at a price as a total of 24 P47s were reported as ‘missing in action’ during their stay at Beaulieu.
Between 1 and 21 July four squadrons of Martin B-26 Marauders of the 323rd Bombardment Group USAAF arrived from RAF Earls Clone, a move designed to extend their range over western France. The group was assigned to the 3rd Bombardment Wing of the 9th Air Force. Within a few days over 60 B-26 Marauders were in residence and operations were well under way. During the following five weeks 28 missions were flown from Beaulieu without loss, although one B-26 crash-landed near the airfield after running out of fuel.
From the middle of August the 323rd moved to Lessay airfield in NW France just south of Cherbourg. Following the move of the Americans to France, Beaulieu was then used as a staging or refueling post for aircraft passing to and from Continental bases. Control was returned to the RAF in late September. At the time, Beaulieu was under consideration for enlargement as a heavy bomber base, although this came to nothing.
In December 1944 the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment (AFEE) moved from Yorkshire to the airfield where it remained for nearly six years using a variety of aircraft. The AFEE was involved in experimental work with glider towing and parachute drops which used the old East Boldre Airfield site on the far side of the Lymington-Beaulieu road as a drop zone. They also tested and developed helicopters including evaluating captured Luftwaffe machines
In September 1950 the AFEE moved out to RAF Boscombe Down and the airfield was without any flying units. Beaulieu was placed on Care and Maintenance status and was inactive. On 1 April 1953 runways were upgraded emergency use by the US Air Force in case hostilities broke out with the Eastern Bloc. However no further flying units arrived and, finally, on 8 September 1955 Beaulieu airfield was handed back to Air Ministry control, in whose care it remained until November 1959 when they relinquished control of the land and it passed back to the Forestry Commission, ending 50 years of flying history at Beaulieu.
Today, some of the perimeter track is still in use as a cycle track, part of the New Forest’s cycle network and a small section of the runway remains in place at Beaulieu Heath car park which is used by a local model aircraft flying club.
Below is an aerial photograph of the RAF Beaulieu airfield in 1946
A Google map of the RAF Beaulieu airfield site today with most of its original features still clearly visible
View Beaulieu Airfield in a larger map