Surprisingly, the longest serving airfield in the New Forest didn’t even have a runway! The strategically positioned narrow strip of land, known as Calshot Spit, at the southern end of Southampton Water in the far south east corner of the New Forest proved an ideal location for seaplanes and flying boats.
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The site has been strategically important for many centuries and a Tudor Castle built by Henry VIII still remains intact at the far end of the spit. In 1913, following the formation of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) the previous year, the Admiralty chose Calshot to be one of a series of seaplane stations along the south coast – at this time, the seaplane had only been in existence for three years. Initially the station consisted of three sheds built to house 12 planes, one of these, now named the “Sopwith Hangar”, is still in use today. In July 1914 the naval wing of the RFC was renamed the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).
With the seaplane still in its infancy, it required much research and testing and up to the outbreak of WW1 Calshot was used mainly for experimental purposes, involving seaplanes and their armaments. After the start of WW1, the station’s role expanded to take on the protection of shipping in the English Channel, and a variety of seaplanes were introduced, including the Wight “Converted” Seaplane (manufactured at East Cowes, IoW – pictured left) and the Short 184. In these early years Calshot was also used for training on observer kite balloons and airships. Throughout the duration of WW1 Calshot trained seaplane pilots and from late 1916 onwards developed into a base for anti submarine patrols for which seaplanes were particularly suited. Despite this additional role, no fewer than 270 trainee pilot pupils passed through the school in 1917. In 1922 it was renamed RAF Calshot after the RFC and RNAS merged to form the Royal Air Force (1918).
As space was limited at the end of the narrow spit of land the main accommodation blocks were eventually situated at Eaglehurst Camp, just under a mile south west along the coast. Originally accommodation was provided on the spit outside the castle with additional buildings added as personnel numbers increased. Work on constructing Eaglehurst Camp commenced in 1917 at the time of the expansion programme which included the construction of what is now the “Sunderland Hanger”. The accommodation blocks at Eaglehurst were served by a narrow gauge railway which transported personnel backwards and forwards and was in use from 1919 until 1945 and known affectionately as the Calshot Express . One of it’s steam locomotives is still in use on the Talyllyn Preserved Railway in Wales and is named Douglas – the fictional Skarloey Railway, which formed part of the series of children’s books by the Rev. W. Awdry, was based on the Talyllyn Railway and features a train named Douglas!
At the end of the war Calshot’s role changed and it became a school for naval co-operation and aerial navigation. In 1922 some Felixstowe F5 flying boats and personnel were transferred to Calshot from Felixstowe. These flying boats differed from the seaplanes in that they were able to alight and float on their hulls. The F5 was developed after the end of WW1 and became the RAF’s standard post war flying-boat until replaced by the Supermarine Southampton in 1925.
The Southampton was designed by the team of R J Mitchell (better known as the designer of the later Spitfire) at Supermarine’s Woolston factory in Southampton situated just a few miles across the water north west Calshot. It proved to be one of the most successful flying boats of the inter war period. During this period the base gradually expanded its Marine Craft Section and by 1927 it had become the centre for marine engine fitting and repairs plus motor boat crew training for the RAF. .
From 1927 until 1931, Calshot became the temporary home the RAF’s High Speed Flight. Sometimes known just as ‘The Flight’, it was a small unit of the RAF formed specifically for the purpose of competing in the Schneider Trophy. This series of air contests for seaplanes was first run in 1913 in Monaco and became important in the advancement of aeroplane design, particularly in the fields of aerodynamic and engine design. It also aided the design of some of the best fighter aircraft of WW2.
The rules of the competition stated that if any team won three contests within five years they would retain the cup. Each race was hosted by the previous winning country and in 1927 the British team won the event in Venice, Italy in a Supermarine S5 seaplane which was designed by R J Mitchell and his team and powered by a Napier Lion VII engine. The next event in the series took place at Calshot in 1929 which the British team won again in another Mitchell designed seaplane, the Supermarine S6. On this occasion their only opposition was the Italians as both France and the USA were unable to produce suitable seaplanes in time for the event and Germany did not want to show their hand. The event was watched by thousands of spectators along the south coast and was won by the British team who went on to break the world airspeed record at 358 mph in an S6 a few days after the contest.
A member of the organising team for the 1929 event was Aircraftman T E Shaw, better known as Lawrence of Arabia following his exploits in WW1. After all the publicity following these exploits and his high profile with world politicians, he changed his name to Shaw and sought anonymity by enrolling in the ranks of the RAF. During this period he was based with the RAF in Plymouth and was given the role of clerk to the Commanding Officer who was also in charge of the British Schneider Trophy team. As a consequence, Lawrence found himself based temporarily at Calshot where he took an interest in fast powerboats as a means of rescuing pilots forced to land in the sea. He was subsequently attached the British Powerboat factory at nearby Hythe working closely with its owner, Hubert Scott-Paine. Whilst there he carried out powerboat trials for the RAF in the Solent and became instrumental in improving air sea rescue methodology with the use of high speed craft.
The next Schneider Trophy event was held at Calshot in 1931 when, reportedly half a million spectators lined the beachfronts around the circuit. However, these were very austere times during the Great Depression that had spread around the globe and against this background the British government withdrew financial support but a private donation of £100,000 from Lady Houston, a well known philanthropist of the time, allowed Supermarine to build a S6B seaplane with which the RAF High Speed Flight team won again on 13 September. In the absence of competition from any other teams, only one British aircraft was flown in the contest by Flt. Lt. John Boothman with other HSF aircraft held in reserve in case of technical problems. On successfully completing the seven lap circuit he was declared the outright winner and later the same day the air speed record was broken by the reserve aircraft flown by Sqn. Ldr. G H Stainforth, who two weeks later in the same aircraft set a new World Absolute Air Speed Record when he became the first person to break the 400 mph barrier .
The following video of the 1929 event is courtesy of “Bomberguy”
Things at Calshot became quieter for a few years until the outbreak of WW2. By this stage the Supermarine Southampton flying boats had been replaced by Saunders Roe Londons. However, no doubt due to its proximity to the key German targets of Southampton and Portsmouth, operational units were moved from the base by 1940 as was all flying boat training. For the remainder of the war Calshot became primarily responsible for the repair, maintenance and modification of RAF flying boats, including Short Sunderlands which had replaced the Saunders Roe Londons as the workhorse of Coastal Command.
The station was also responsible for the maintenance of high speed launches, known as HSLs (pictured below) and the training of their boat crews. These launches were built at Scott-Paine’s nearby Hythe factory and incorporated many of the principles that he and Lawrence had developed before Lawrence’s untimely death in 1935 following a motor cycle accident in Dorset. These launches were used for a variety of tasks at a flying boat stations, including towing disabled aircraft, delivering armaments and towing target boats for gunnery practice in addition to their prime role of rescuing aircrew downed in the sea. The Calshot base was busier than ever and it was necessary to enlarge the Eaglehurst camp to accommodate the extra personnel required.
Despite its lack of operational squadrons, Calshot still managed to take an active front line role on occasions. On 31 May 1940 it sent five RAF High Speed Launches to help in the evacuation at Dunkirk when they carried 500 men to safety, with one of the craft making a successful second voyage. Many years after the war it emerged that the base was also involved in secret covert operations involving a number of German Heinkel 115 seaplanes. These planes had been flown in from Norway, who had purchased the aircraft before the outbreak of war and, as the war moved into Norway, two more had been captured. For a period, a small elite team of British airmen flew many top secret missions into German held territory.
At the end of the war in March 1946, Nos: 201 and 230 squadrons and their Sunderlands were relocated back to Calshot, and the station once more became an operational flying base whilst still retaining its repair and maintenance functions. Soon after the war, it’s Sunderland flying boats came to the rescue of the German people during the 1948 Berlin Air Lift, when the Soviets cut off all access to West Berlin. During this period, Calshot’s Sunderlands flew over 1000 sorties to the Berlin’s Lake Havel helping to airlift food into West Berlin and evacuate sick children. However, within a few years of the war ending the development of large airports like Heathrow (itself a former wartime airfield known as RAF Heston) gradually made flying boats obsolete and in 1953 RAF Calshot was closed as a frontline station and was transferred to Maintenance Command. Finally, on 1 April, 1961 it closed as a Royal Air Force station after 48 years continuous military service – much longer than any of the other New Forest airfields.
However, there was yet another twist in the tale of the Calshot base as very shortly after official closure the tiny remote volcanic island of Tristan da Cunha in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean erupted violently and its 264 inhabitants were evacuated by the British and housed at the former RAF accommodation Calshot village until it was deemed safe for them to return to their island in 1963.
Nowadays, three of the original hangars still remain (Sopwith, Sunderland & Schneider) and are used as part of a sports and outdoor activity centre run by Hampshire County Council – these surviving hangars form part of the most outstanding group of early aircraft structures of this type in the UK.
The Tudor Castle is open to the public and is maintained by English Heritage. Towering above the castle at 130 feet is the former HM Coastguard Watchtower which was not built until 1973. It is now staffed by volunteers from the National Coastwatch Institution.