RAF Ibsley

Spitfire taking off at RAF Ibsley

RAF Ibsley straddled the New Forest boundary on the western extremity between the hamlet of Rockford and the village of Ellingham which are nowadays separated by a series of lakes known collectively as Blashford Lakes. Nearby stands Rockford’s most prominent house, Moyles Court, which is steeped in history.

The tranquil lakeside scene today bears little resemblance to how the area looked in the 1940’s. At the beginning of WW2, the Blashford Lakes did not exist and the large area of level ground which then existed proved an ideal site on which to construct one of the wartime airfields that quickly spread out across the New Forest. RAF Ibsley, as it was known, was constructed in the early stages of the war and officially opened in February 1941. Like many other wartime airfields in the Forest its operational life was relatively short lived and it ceased operations in 1946 before closing finally in 1952.

Construction commenced during the 1940/41 winter and the airfield was finished in less than six months despite the difficult soil conditions which demanded substantial runway foundations. Around the time of construction, nearby Southampton had been heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe and the rubble from the bombed buildings was used for these runway foundations.

RAF Ibsley

Ibsley Control Tower

It comprised of three tarmac runways (the main (01/19) runway was 4,800 ft, the second runway (05/23) was 4,200 ft and the third (14/32) runway was 4.050 ft long), two Bellman hangars, twelve Blister hangars, fourteen aircraft pens plus a variety of other buildings, the most prominent of which was the Control Tower whose concrete shell still remains today. The adjoining property of Moyles Court was requisitioned as Station HQ and a few hundred yards away on the hill to the east of Moyles Court can be found the largely intact remains of the underground Battle HQ which was designed for use in defending the airfield in the event of invasion. It is now surrounded by a conifer plantation obscuring the 360 degree views which it enjoyed in wartime.

Such were the desperate needs of wartime Britain that No.32 Squadron of Hurricane fighter aircraft were moved to the airfield before its construction was finished in order to provide cover for the merchant naval convoys bringing much needed supplies into the country. Around this time Ibsley was the subject of an enemy attack by a low flying bomber, believed to be a Heinkel, taking advantage of a bright moonlit night. Around thirty small bombs were dropped but damage was minimal, being limited to a wooden hut and one Hurricane aircraft. This proved to be the only attack on the airfield during the war although bombs were dropped in the vicinity on other occasions. It is now hard to imagine but the property that is now the Alice Lisle pub was formerly the village school and, being situated at the end of the main runway, it must have been quite distracting for its pupils with fighter planes regularly taking off and landing in close proximity while they sat at their desks!

“Bunny” Currant – Imperial War Museum

During its operational years many different squadrons were based at Ibsley and when construction of the airfield was was completed the Hurricanes were replaced by 118 Squadron of Spitfire fighter aircraft whose main role was bomber escort duties. An unexpected problem encountered in its first winter was flooding at the southern end of the airfield which proved to be a recurring problem during its operational lifetime. However, despite these difficulties the base continued to give a good account of itself as a frontline station of Fighter Command.

During its initial year of operations in 1941, Ibsley was chosen as the location for some of the action scenes in the wartime classic propaganda film, ‘First of the Few’ starring David Niven and Leslie Howard, depicting the story of the development of the Spitfire by R. J. Mitchell. Pilots from Squadrons operating out of the airfield together with their ground crews took part in the film between operational sorties in their Spitfires.

The Ibsley site was chosen for the filming of the airfield exteriors and runways, portraying a fictional south-eastern airfield called ‘Seafield.’ Some footage of a Spitfire performing aerobatics is also believed to have been shot above Ibsley. The clip below showing Spitfires taking off and landing at RAF Ibsley are taken from the film. With the exception of the film’s two stars, most of those that feature were serving RAF personnel of 118 and 501 Squadrons who were based at the airfield. The film was described as “The epic of the Spitfire with pilots of Fighter Command.” It was considered a great success at the time.

One of the pilots taking part in the film, who can be seen in the clip below playing himself in the film, was RAF fighter ace “Bunny” Currant. Wing Commander C F “Bunny” Currant flew with No. 605 Squadron RAF during the Battle of Britain in 1940 when he destroyed 13 enemy aircraft. In August 1941 he became Commanding Officer of No. 501 Squadron RAF based at Ibsley and from June 1942, he commanded the three Spitfire Squadrons that formed the Ibsley Wing. During this period he led the Ibsley Spitfires on many sorties, escorting bombers over France and also against enemy shipping. On one occasion three German fighters attacked him and his aircraft was shot up. The instrument panel was destroyed and a bullet struck the back of his head but Currant managed to escape at low level. In great pain he landed at a forward airfield, but his aircraft turned over on to its back due to the undercarriage tyres having been shot through. He was trapped in the petrol-soaked cockpit but was soon rescued from the wreckage. After a month in hospital, he returned to Ibsley, flying with fragments of shrapnel still in his head! He became a wing leader in 1944. His final score was 15 enemy aircraft destroyed, 2 probables and 12 damaged. He was awarded the DFC twice, the DSO and the Belgian Croix de Guerre. He was regarded as one of the top British fighter pilots of the Second World War which he survived and lived until the age of 94. After his death in 2006 his medals were auctioned and sold for £84,450.

Beyond the film cameras, RAF Ibsley was a busy RAF and USAF fighter base. Between its opening and June 1942 it was home to Hurricanes, Spitfires, Whirlwinds, Mustangs and Typhoons of 19 different RAF Squadrons after which it passed to USAF control for a short period. The Americans had two operational fighter squadrons at the base until December 1942 when it reverted back to the RAF again. Just prior to D Day in early 1944 the USAF returned with fighter squadrons of P47 Thunderbolts and P38 Lightnings, some of whom had relocated from nearby Stoney Cross airfield.

These units flew operational missions over France before moving their base there after the D-Day invasion. It then reverted to the RAF once again being used initially as a Flying Instructor School and then as a Transport Command Glider Pick-Up Training Flight with Dakotas towing Horsa gliders. The airfield was placed on “Care and Maintenance” in October 1945 until its eventual closure.

During one of the base’s many operational wartime duties, the Spitfires of 616 Squadron had the honour of providing a close escort to the Liberator aircraft bringing Prime Minister, Winston Churchill back from the Casablanca Conference of Allied leaders in January 1943 which followed the successful allied invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch) during the previous year. Shortly after that, they performed a similar task when they escorted King George VI back from the same conference.

An aerial photograph of the RAF Ibsley airfield in 1944.

RAF Ibsley

A Google map of the same area today.

View Ibsley Airfield in a larger map

With the end of military control, the land (complete with runways, perimeter track, etc.) was handed back to the land owner, Lord Normanton, of nearby Somerley. Like some other airfield sites of the era, Ibsley became a 2.1 mile motor racing circuit holding events for both motorcycles and cars. Ibsley Circuit was operated by the Ringwood Motor Cycle and Light Car Club and, following a period of modification by the club members, its first racing event was held on 17 May 1951. This first event was for motor cycles and a few months later in August, its first car meeting was held

Many well known drivers competed there between 1951 and 1955, notably John Surtees (the only man to become world champion on both motorcycles and in F1) who made his racing début here in 1952 finishing fourth in a 350cc motorcycle race. The same year and up and coming driver on four wheels dominated on his first appearance at the circuit. His name was Mike Hawthorn who, six years later in 1958, would become the first British F1 World Champion.

Other well known racing drivers of that era who competed at Ibsley included Jimmy Stewart (Jackie’s brother) and Ray Salvadori (F1 Driver and 1959 Le Mans winner). Another young entrant at one of Ibsley’s early meetings was Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus Cars, who went on to manage his own Team Lotus which dominated F1 from 1962 to 1978 winning seven F1 World Constructors’ titles and six F1 World Drivers’ titles plus the Indy 500 in the USA. The largest attendance was 25,000 in 1954 and motorsport events continued until 1955.

When the circuit closed the land was put into agricultural use for a few years until the early 1960s, when it was sold to Amey Roadstone, who removed the runways and airfield hardstands for hardcore aggregate. In the years that followed, the entire site was subject to deep excavation to exploit the rich aggregate found beneath the surface and the area was transformed into what we know today as the Blashford Lakes.

Nowadays, part of the lake complex is a nature reserve under the ownership of the Hampshire and IoW Wildlife Trust whilst some of the other lakes are used by local fishing, sailing and water ski clubs. It is unrecognisable nowadays as either an airfield or motor racing circuit.