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History Section - Airfield History - Post WW2  1945-59

THE AIRBORNE FORCES EXPERIMENTAL ESTABLISHMENT (AFEE)

The control of Beaulieu airfield passed to No. 23 Group Flying Training Command on 5 January 1945 and this heralded the arrival of the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment. This was an RAF unit set up in 1941 under Army Cooperation Command to train airborne troops. Eventually it became the AFEE in February 1942. Its main function being to test and to assist in the technical development of the means of transporting airborne forces with their equipment and delivering them on the ground in a serviceable condition so that they could engage the enemy immediately. The Ministry of Supply assumed control of AFEE in 1946.

The move to Beaulieu was made possible by the retreat of the Germans from northern France, and so the AFEE arrived from Sherburn-in-Elmet (Yorkshire) and stayed until 1947, when it moved to Boscombe Down.

Organisation

The AFEE was split into three main experimental Flights (A, B and C) each specialising in a different aspect of research. 'A' Flight was concerned mainly with towing gliders (old bombers had been previously used). Some target towing and pick-up trials were also carried out.

‘B’ Flight experimented with the dropping of men and materials. This involved the development of parachutes and the most suitable methods of packaging such as foam rubber, cardboard, etc.

'C’ Flight was involved with helicopters, not in developing them as such, but more in their adaptation for military use — introducing instruments like altimeters and equipment to assist night flying.

A fourth section, 'M' Flight was responsible for maintenance and carried out major overhauls in the hangar which was shared with the helicopter section.

Each 'Flight’ was self-contained with its own group of Ministry of Supply researchers. The Station CO who brought the unit to Beaulieu in 1946 was G/Capt. Ubee. His staff included the following:-

F/Lt. Roman {Stn. Adjutant).

W/Cdr. Duder. DSO. DFC and bar (O.C. Flying Wing) (later W/Cdr Gibson).

F/Lt. D. Wiltshire (Wing Adjutant).

S/Ldr. Davis (Station Senior Engineering Officer)

F/Lt. Springett (Engineering Officer)

F/Lt Pendleton (Station Equipment Officer)

Section Officer Williams (O.C. of W.A.A.F.)

Maj. Baslegate (Army Liaison Officer).

F/Lt. J.J. Sanders (Station Dental Officer) later F/Lt P. Holford.

F/Lt. Pleasants (Station Photographic Officer).

 

'A' Flight

S/Ldr. Palmer (O.C.) (Later S/Ldr. May)

F/Lt. Hodgkiss

F/Lt. Hellyar


'B' Flight

S/Ldr. A. Pitt (O.C.)

F/Lt. Stagg

F/O Davies

F/O Matheson


'C’ Flight

S/Ldr. Cable (O.C.)

Lt. Sox Hosegood  R.N.

F/Lt. Harper

F/Lt. Gillies

(This list was as remembered by Don Wiltshire and his late wife, Gladys, whose airfield romance blossomed like several others into marriage.)

When G/Capt. Ubee later moved to Farnborough the new Station C.O. was G/Capt. Heath, who stayed until the unit left Beaulieu, and he was transferred to Calshot.

Airforce stations were instructed to invite local dignitaries to the mess and, as in the First World War, were themselves invited to Palace House, this time to enjoy the hospitality of the Hon. Mrs. Pleydell-Bouverie. Their own parties in the Mess would occasionally become a bit high spirited — at one, the complete room, walls and furniture, was sprayed with red ink, which did not amuse the C.O., G/Capt Heath.

The airfield with its dispersed sites would have involved a lot of time walking and thus all personnel had their own numbered bicycle. Cycling without lights by RAF personnel was unofficially allowed during the War but afterwards about 120 summonses were issued as the police tightened up. At a house near Brockenhurst Station a lady allowed cycles to be left in the garden while their owners went home on leave or weekend pass. But if one had a good bike it was likely that it would be ‘exchanged’ or ‘borrowed'. Motorcycles were also in evidence and these came in useful for towing friends on bicycles, sometimes two at a time, to and from the Montagu Arms. There was also on the camp a 3 litre Bentley which the RAF had rented from a London Garage Co. It was a beautiful car in wonderful condition (c 1930-31 model), and had been fitted with a hook at the back, which for a short time enabled it to be used to tow light gliders into the air. It was returned to London during the summer of 1946 and there was quite a struggle for the pleasure of driving it back.

Snacks and such like were provided on the station by a YMCA waggon. At times cattle were allowed onto the airfield to help keep the grass down, and forest ponies would also occasionally find their way in uninvited and have to be chased out.

Prisoners of war were employed. About one hundred Italians were there in 1946 and performed menial tasks such as latrine attendants and during the following year some German P.O.W.s were still there. One of the more famous visitors being Willi Messerschmitt.

The Navy had loaned a whaler to RAF Beaulieu, and Harry Bell, the Lymington Hospital radiographer, helped teach RAF personnel how to sail it. He ran the A.T.C in Lymington.

Aircraft

The aircraft used at Beaulieu included the gliders Hadrian, Hotspur (H.H.838), Airspeed Horsa II (TL400 and RN379), CG-13A, G.A.L. Hamilcar I (NX8S8 and RR923) and the large powered glider G.A.L. Hamilcar X(RR986), appropriately nicknamed ‘Jumbo'. One must not forget 'Trixie' when talking of gliders. This was a prototype General Aircraft GAL55 training glider (NP671).

‘A’ Flight also had a number of 4 feet, 8 feet, 16 feet and 32 feet Mk. I and 32 feet Mk. II large gliders, manufactured by International Model Aircraft.

Tugs — Short Stirling IV (U989), Handley Page Halifax III (576 and NA644), IIIA (LL615), and IX(RT758), a Lancaster, and Avro York GT1 (MW132).

Helicopters — included eight Sikorsky Hoverfly Is (KK974, 978, 987, 989, 994, 996, KL103 and 105) one one Hoverfly II KN864.

Other aircraft included:-

Anson I (N5351), Avro Anson X (NK530), Lincoln (445), Percival Proctor III (HM319). Auster (GT-V TJ638). and Avro Anson X (MH129) used for mail snatching trials. A "Wildcat' is also given in the Airfield Historical Research Group's list but this is probably a mistake by an aircraft spotter for Trixie. the stubby nosed glider (GAL55) mentioned previously. Little used aircraft were the Slingsby T.20 prototype (VM109). Miles Martinet (GT.l HN959) and Supermarine Seafire TT.III (NN303). The latter two being in the Naval section, as also was a Miles Monitor II (NP406). This was the first twin-engined target-tug to be designed as such but after fire problems was replaced by another, NP422. A Fairey Firefly I (Z2037) was used for photography by the parachute flight who also used a Fairey Swordfish, a Douglas Dakota 111 (FD943) and a Handley Page Halifax A VII (PN30X).

Wilmot and Mansour, two Ministry of Supply officers had a Supermarine Spitfire TT XVII (SM970) being converted into a target-tug with an electric winch in their small hangar on the south west perimeter of the airfield. Their hangar also housed a Grunau 2B Baby glider and some ‘Frog’ model aircraft they were developing to test the ‘Jetex’ model engine, also under development.

The above listings are from the records kindly given by Don Wiltshire and John May — Mr. May was a radio operator in Flying Control and mentions that the RT code for all Beaulieu pilots was Drinker' followed by a number, but assured me this had no significance, or only a little.

Some unusual visitors during the AFEE period included a civil Junkers Ju 52/3ms tri-motor aircraft piloted by Gp. Capt. Hinds in mid-1945. It had been previously used on regular flights between Germany and Scandinavia. Gp. Capt. Wheeler, a Trustee of the Shuttleworth Collection, brought a 1910 Depurdussin aircraft to Beaulieu, which would have been good company for the Sopwith Camel that 29 Training Depot rebuilt from various odd bits and pieces.

As one would expect in an experimental establishment, accidents would occasionally happen. For instance, Don Willshire recalls a Martinet being air tested after repairs, and the under-carriage would not come down. After following the instruction book's method of winding it down by hand, without success, the pilot tried the methods of several other pilots now gathered in the control tower — "Dive and climb", "fly upside down", etc. In the end the pilot had to fly round for an hour to use up the fuel and then do a belly landing on the grass at the side of the runway. He made a perfect landing and climbed out unhurt to greet the fire engine, crash tender, ambulance, etc.

There is one RAF burial in Beaulieu cemetery in May 1945 but this 25 year-old pilot has not yet been linked with the AFFE. He was Fit. Lieut. William Geoffrey Eagle, DFC, RAF(VR) of Birmingham.

A tragedy that did happen on the airfield was exactly a year later. It was on one of the first airfield Open Days since the war and Beaulieu was one of about twenty airfields chosen for this. The pilot. Sqn. Ldr. R.H. 'Smoky’ Palmer O.C. ‘A’ Flight, was flying a Seafire III when it broke up in front of the spectators. He had not flown one of these planes for several years as he had been involved with 'A' Flight towing gliders or other heavy stuff.

There were three Hafner Rotachutes which had been tested and finished within 1946. but were still lying around the following year. They were designed as a one-man rotating-wing glider/parachute, made of fabric and weighing about 76lbs. A ‘Rotoplane' was also lying about having been brought to Beaulieu after testing at Sherburn. It was a jeep equipped with a rotor and tail plane plus two fins. It was towed as a glider, becoming known as the Flying Jeep or Rotabuggy, and jettisoned the rotor etc. on landing, but it finished up on the MT inventory as a replacement for a standard type jeep which did not survive a parachute drop.

The Research

The reports and results of the various research projects carried out by the AFEE while at Beaulieu still survive in their folders at the Public Record Office. The subjects of the Reports are classified under the headings 'Gliders', 'Parachutes, 'Research and Development', ‘Towing Aircraft', 'Miscellaneous Equipment’ and 'Helicopters’.

(i) Gliders, as well as routine handling and performance tests on the gliders listed earlier, there were flight tests for a D.I. automatic pilot on the CG-13A glider, bellows and flaps in the Hotspur I, and tests of the free flight performance of the Hamilcar X glider under tropical conditions.

(ii) Parachutes. The list of reports includes the following experiments:-

 

On the 10th April 1946 F/Lt. Wiltshire went up with S/Ldr. Pitt in a Dakota to carry out a 'barometric parachute drop’, the parachutist jumping out and the parachute opened at a certain height. The civilian parachute tester was Jimmy Driscoll, a veteran of about 200 jumps with the Parachute Regt. He had retired as a Warrant Officer and came back as a civilian. Major Baslegate acted as liaison officer with the paratroops. He lived on Lymington Quay and went up for his first flight in thirty years and viewed his house etc. On landing, he cowered back in the seat of the Dakota not realising there were brakes.

 

Research and Development reports included;

The Focke-Achgelis submarine kite was tested at Beaulieu using a land rover and trailer. It elevated an observer by means of a rotor blade, who then controlled his descent like a parachute; it was given further tests with a M.T.B. off Calshot but was again unsuccessful.

 

(iv) Towing Aircraft

Reports were made on various types of towing aircraft-Halifax III NA644. Commando Mk. I C.46. Dakota III, Lancaster II. Halifax VI, Martinet I, Auster V, York C Mk. I and a Halifax A XL The gliders used in these tests were the Hadrian, Horsa, CG-13A, Hamilcars I and X. Hotspur, TX3/43. Grunau sail plane, TX 8/45, and Horsa II, and the experiments were performed in various climatic conditions, described as 'temperate summer and 'tropical’ the latter being performed in India at times.


(v) Miscellaneous Equipment

These reports include endurance tests for the pick¬up ropes of a Hadrian, and pick-up tests of Horsa I and II gliders by a Dakota aircraft

Cable laying experiments were performed using the Auster in 1945 and two years later using the Dakota. The Auster was also used in September-November 1945 to perform mail pick-up tests and the detailed report of this by G.P. Norman gives the following information:-

Summary. Tests of an installation in an Auster aircraft of mail pick-up gear have shown that a mail bag containing 20 lbs. of mail can be successfully picked up in flight


Description

(i) The Aircraft Auster V TJ645 fitted with a wooden pick-up arm 12 feet long having a metal track fitted along its upper surface to accommodate the pick-up hook. The arm was attached to the aircraft by a pivot near its forward end. and raising and lowering were carried out manually by hand on the extreme forward end of the arm. In the slowed position the arm was retained by spring loaded catches fore and aft, operated by Bowden cables from the hand raising and lowering grip.

The pick-up hook at the end of a 25 feet length of 3.0(H) lbs. nylon rope connected through a 1,000 lbs. weak link of double 7/8" manila rope to an 18’’ length of 3,000 lbs. nylon rope spliced around a suitable strong point of the aircraft.

Tests were tried with the starboard door off (too uncomfortable), rear portion of window openable and hinged panel, (awkward getting mail bag in past the pilot), and finally with a hole cut in the floor behind the operator's seat.

(ii) Ground Station. Two 12 feet poles, wood or metal, arc used to construct the attachments for a 50 feet loop of 3,000 lbs. nylon rope. The mailbag is constructed of reinforced canvas 30" long, 8" diameter, with a detachable wooden head.

Procedure

  1. Open near starboard window and remove floor access panel.
  2. Lower pick-up arm and feed pick-up hook to end of track.
  3. Approach pick-up at 70 m.p.h. Air Speed Indicator (ASI), level off at 10-14 feet
  4. Climb steeply just before the pick-up station to avoid mailbag bouncing along the ground after pick-up.
  5. Keep speed down to approximately 50 m.p.h. ASI, to allow operator to haul in the mailbag.


Dropping of Mailbag. If required a full mailbag can be dropped out of the hole on the approach to the pick-up Station.

Pick-up experiments are also recalled by Don Wiltshire involving a Dakota trying to snatch a glider from the ground using a ground station set-up almost identical to the above; and there were also attempts to assess if it were possible to pick up a person using a similar technique. This was performed with dummy models.

Helicopters

The files on the helicopter reports at the Public Records Office were kept closed until 1979. a few years’ extension to the usual twenty years for some unknown reason. Beaulieu had been used for a helicopter demonstration in 1944. (before the days of the AFFE), when a Sikorskv R4 helicopter was flown by the American Sox Hosegood.

As mentioned earlier, the AFEE's main interest was in testing equipment to put in the helicopter to improve its capability for military uses, and not developing the actual helicopter itself. One of the unit’s helicopters, and pilot S/Ldr. ‘Jeep’ Cable, came in useful for the 1946 Boat Race, when the BBC wanted to provide a commentator with the advantage of an aerial view.

The AFEE were not using Beaulieu airfield to the full and during 1946 squatters had moved in around the first entrance. The Boscombe Down establishment had made the use of the High Post airfield impractical and so the Wiltshire School of Flying sought permission to use Stoney Cross or Beaulieu when Ministry of Supply use finished. Not surprisingly this was refused by the verderers.

Now began a long period of negotiation before the airfield was handed back to the Deputy Surveyor and verderers.

PART VI—POST-WAR RUNDOWN AND REHABILITATION

Before the end of the war, the Deputy Surveyor had claimed that— "if there is any attempt to maintain the aerodromes after the war the Forest will be largely ruined". The airfields of Stoney Cross and Holmesley were reopened for the Commoners’ animals in summer 1947, while the Air Ministry sought to retain Beaulieu so that in the event of war it could be brought into use without delay. Agreement was reached to this effect in 1950 on condition that the airfield would not be used for flying in peacetime. Some areas of the dispersed sites had been declared redundant in 1948 and offered to other Government Departments. The New Forest Rural District Council expressed an interest in Site No. 2 and WAAF site for use as housing.

During the crisis of the early 1950s the rearmament programme meant a large expansion in flying training and the airfield was re-enclosed with a perimeter fence to prevent cattle damaging the newly asphalted runway. To compensate for this the verderers' rent was increased from £101.6.-. to £151.19-. in March 1951. It was agreed the following year that RAF personnel on station would not exceed 50 and that flying would take place in daylight mostly during fine weekdays—this was in connection with the use of the airfield as a relief landing ground for Tarrant Rushton where Flight Refuelling Ltd., were operating. So naturally, when Tarrant Rushton airfield ceased in 1954 the verderers hopefully enquired if Beaulieu Heath was at last going to be theirs again. But again, the Air Ministry were in procrastinating mood, wanting to retain it on a ‘Care and Maintenance’ basis in case of a future war. The previous year it had been allocated to the U.S.A.F. and intended for development, and although some Americans arrived and started doing up the runways, guardroom, and HQ. it was never operational. In 1956 more sites were released, this time the Bomb Stores and HF/DF sites.

At long last in December 1957 the Air Ministry' decided they no longer wished to retain Beaulieu airfield, but it was not until March 1960 that they relinquished possession and even then, there were six small matters to complete the reinstatement of the airfield; namely clearing debris, fertilising, harrowing, filling trenches and covering tarmacadam heaps with soil.

During the rehabilitation period the airfield was used for various activities such as the demonstration by the Ford Motor Co. of 13 vehicles used for petrol consumption tests, acceleration and braking tests, etc., in 1956. A Civil Defence exercise was held using the buildings as sites for rescuing bombed civilians. The hangars served as cookhouses.

Various other proposals were refused by the verderers. Norman Jones sought permission to land private aircraft and got approval from the RAF and the local MP but not the verderers. Neither did the Royal Yachting Association with a similar proposal the following year (1957). A scheme to confine camping to twenty-four acres of the airfield in exchange for a similar area of Crown Freehold land being made available also met with no success, being thwarted by the Planning authorities. The idea of the proposal was to then ban camping elsewhere in the forest. Another proposal was by the Ministry of Aviation in 1959 to build a long-range radar station, occupying six sites at the eastern end of the runway. This met opposition from all quarters — the local Planning Authority, C.P.R.E., and the New Forest Association.

So, into the 1960s with large areas of the concrete runways remaining, for motorcyclists to roar round and learner drivers to practice on. The Deputy Surveyor gradually whittled away at this, reducing the 7" thick concrete to crushed hardcore, and even Anthony Pasmore admits that it has "since been transformed to quite reasonable grassland". An aerial photo of 1968 shows this in progress.

There had been a mound of about 2,300 cubic yards of gravel just outside the perimeter fence near the Beaulieu-Lymington road. This was sold at auction for £350 but the cheque was not met and so the local auctioneers had to pay the Air Ministry. They managed to find a 'small man' who would remove the gravel over a two-three year period and suggested a £5 p.a. rental to the verderers, pending removal.

Back in July 1958 an approach was made to the verderers by the West Hants Aeromodellers Association to use the airfield again. They had used it earlier in the year, describing it as "the finest flying field in the whole of England". The aeromodellers continue to utilise the eastern end of runway No. 1.

A privately-owned plane paid an unscheduled stop on Beaulieu Heath at Hilltop in November 1979. The twin-engined Piper Seneca had left Manchester for Lee-on-Solent with a kidney for a transplant for a Southampton man and, piloted by its owner, Charles Strasser, had crashed in fog soon after 5 a.m. A report published eighteen months later mentions pilot fatigue, an incorrect cloud base estimate being supplied to the pilot by a ground controller, and an unidentified radio transmission which the pilot interpreted as a signal from a direction finder on the ground. In the event, the kidney although undamaged was not used due to tissue matching difficulties. The pilot and co-pilot both from Stoke-on-Trent, escaped uninjured and so sixty-nine years on from the first crash landings of the New Forest Flying School let us hope that this was the last.


Courtesy Robert Coles ‘History of Beaulieu Airfield’

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Tales From The Crew Room at AFEE is a personal account of Alan Brown’s time as a parachute instructor at the post WW2 Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment based at Beaulieu Airfield in the New Forest.

This book was never published and only a few copies were ever produced. This is now available as a PDF for reading on screen.

Click for a 7 MB Free Download

If the file opens in your browser, you can save a copy to your computer / pad.

A Drawing by Alan Brown in his book, ‘Twelve Airfields’ he shows the dropping zone on Bagshot Moor on the site of the WW1 Military Flying School. A letter ’T’ shows the dropping target. This ‘T’ is still visible today as shown in the photo taken by Sue Adams in 2015.

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