A New Forest Fighter Strip…

Amidst the many great joys and privileges of living down on the South Coast of Hampshire is the fact that I am only a 20 minute drive from one of the greatest and certainly the largest Mediaeval Forests in Western Europe.. The New Forest… plaything & hunting ground of Kings & Princelings down the ages. Now a world famous British National Park in all its eye-watering splendour, it was also the place where my late, much adored, mum was born and raised on a riding school owned and run my maternal grandfather…

In an idyllic child-hood, every morning mum was taken to school across the Forest by pony & trap and as she grew was certainly schooled both in horsemanship and in the lore of this beautiful, awe-inspiring, massive & very ancient Forest…

It was also a wonderful place in which I too spent much of my childhood and now that my mum has sadly passed on, my dad & I content ourselves with regular trips down to this place of outstanding beauty and try to catch a glimpse of my mum’s spirit dancing in the dappled sunlight between the oaks and the silver birches on myriad sunny Autumnal days…

But as well as being such a historical and most beautiful place with a very long and distinguished history, in recent living memory it was also home to a number of RAF and American air-bases during the Second World War.

As I grew up and my many & varied youthful interests turned into serious ones relating to the 1939-45 war, I certainly became aware of two major airfields, the largest one being at Stoney Cross in the heart of the Forest, (a vast open space even today upon which I  took my first tentative steps behind the wheel of the family car when learning to drive), and a second, less evident, bomber & fighter field at the nearby village of Ibsley.

Flying from Southampton to the Channel Islands as I regularly do and looking down from a lower-flying 16 seater Aurigny Trislander, Stoney Cross, (which opened in November 1942, but has long since had its huge concrete runways dug up), is easy to pick out by the impressive outlines of its two former main runways. These were home initially to RAF Mustangs from January 1943 and then, in March 1944, firstly the USAAF’s 367th Fighter Group flying primarily Lightnings and thence in September 1944 the USAAF 387th Bomb Group flying B-26 Marauders who were, in turn, followed by RAF Stirlings & Wellingtons acting as Transports & Glider Tugs for the final big push across the Rhine into Germany.

Nearby RAF Ibsley just a few miles away to the north-west and on the fringe of the Forest is another former war-time airstrip that you can see from the air; in fact only recently when out on a jaunt and dad & I were wondering exactly where the air-strip may have been, we accidentally uncovered some remaining crew huts and a water-tower on a nearby farm when driving through this lovely small village’s back lanes.

Ibsley air-base also played host initially to RAF Spitfire & Hurricane Squadrons early on in the war and thence later to the USAAF 367th Fighter Group when it transferred across from Stoney Cross, firstly with its P.38 Lightnings and thence P.47 Republic Thunderbolts.

In fact dotted through the vastness of the Forest and down on its fringes you can still accidentally stumble across grass airstrips that were used both at the height of the Battle of Britain in 1940 and in support of the D-Day landings in 1944 as forward airfields, including Beaulieu, now home to the world famous Motor Museum). But in 1942 this was also home to RAF Typhoons and the medium twin-engined light bomber the Boston, (or ‘Havoc’ as they called it in America), until 1944 when the USAAF again moved in with their Thunderbolt fighters and B-26 Marauder bombers.

Seemingly many small-to-medium sized war-time airstrips sprang up alongside the huge concrete ones of Stoney Cross and it was upon one of these that dad & I stumbled by lucky happenstance last week when making our way down to Bucklers Hard, (another famous historical landmark, this time full of Nelsonian Royal Naval history). Backing up the car to catch further glimpses of the Solent through a gap in a hedge that we’d just trundled past, quite amazingly we noticed some little signs in a field that we have driven past on numerous occasions, but had never actually caught sight of before…

Pulling over to the side, I leapt out of the car, thanking my lucky stars that I had thought to bring my digital camera with me, intent on capturing some of the early stunning Autumn hues as the massive oaks and beeches turn to golden browns, golds and copper.

I was met by a small framed photograph of a Hawker Typhoon & pilot, (my favourite fighter aircraft, after the P40 Tomahawk for obvious reasons), and with incredulity began reading a larger framed sign that contained what turned out to be a the history of a forward fighter airfield that had supported the Allied D-Day Landings on the German Occupied coast of France back in June of 1944…

Judging by the map contained within the glazed frame, as we were standing there looking out across the field to the nearby Solent, the stretch of water separating the mainland from the Isle of Wight, I could see that dad & I were actually slap-bang in the middle of one of the two original landing strips from 1943 & 1944 – all those years trundling up this slightly off-the-beat road and we never knew..!

According to the legend written on the board, this was Needs Oar Point and it was constructed on farm land on Park Shore in 1943 by No 5004 Royal Air Force Construction Squadron, through levelling the fields, diverting ditches removing some hedges and trees and then laying Sommerfeld tracking and four blister hangers, which were added a little later. Accommodation was provided by the RAF commandeering several local farm cottages but the bulk of the station’s personnel were billeted under canvas at the airstrip’s perimeter.

The board also states that aircraft maintenance was provided by mobile workshops based on the back of heavy RAF trucks, whilst airfield cover & protection was undertaken by  the Royal Artillery who manned heavy anti-aircraft guns sited south of School Cottages whilst the RAF Regiment manned lighter ack-ack guns (40mm Bofors), based just down on the nearby shoreline..

The completed airstrip was to become the temporary home to the RAF’s No 146 Wing, 84 Group, Second Tactical Air Force and on the 10th & 11th of April 1944 it opened its two runways up to welcome in over 100 RAF Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers of 193, 197, 257 and 266 Squadrons and immediately began flying the very hazardous low-level missions over France in advance of Allied Forces on the forthcoming D-Day Landings.

On D-Day 6th June, and for 4 weeks thereafter, these 4 fighter squadrons flew regular ‘Rhubarbs’ (low level strafing missions over the invasion beaches), then further such sorties against trains, vehicle convoys & enemy strong-holds in support of the advancing forces, including attacks on several Wehrmacht HQs.

In July 1944, one month after the successful invasion of Hitler’s ‘Festung Europa’ the Typhoon squadrons then moved to nearby Hurn Airstrip, (now Bournemouth International Airport and the only former New Forest war-time air base in use today), for two weeks before transferring across the Channel to new airstrips built in the Normandy countryside from which they would continue their strafing war against the Third Reich from newly liberated fighter bases now established in France!

Finally the board states that “In 1945 the land was returned to farming and the tracking and hangers removed; and now this Commemoration panel is placed at the point where the North-South runway crossed the road. It is placed here as a tribute to all concerned with the Liberation”

So it was that with the ending of the long war in Europe in May 1945, the heavy Allied bombing campaign of 1943 & 1944 followed by the low level RAF and USAAF raids over France and Germany in support of the advancing troops finally ended and so all of the various concrete and grass strips dotted across The New Forest, (with the exception of Hurn) were slowly run down.

By 1946 had all been returned back to their previous pre-war owners, with nature allowed to reclaim the spaces that had formerly throbbed with heavy fighter & bomber aero-engines… and now you’d find it hard to even believe the huge amount of men, material & aircraft that operated in this beautiful part of southern Hampshire..but if you look closely, (and indeed know where to look) the signs are all still there before your eyes!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

Kalamazoo’s ‘Air Zoo’ Michigan USA…

Standing in the shower this morning listening to Chris Evans’ BBC Radio Two breakfast show I was fascinated to hear the studio take a call from a ‘weekend display’ pilot of a veteran aircraft, talking about the cockpit of a former de Havilland Vampire jet, (the second jet-fighter to enter RAF service, just missing out on WW-II), that he had sitting on his drive-way!

Bought ‘on impulse’ at an auction of a former independent aircraft museum up north that had ‘gone west’ and was subsequently having to sell off all its wonderful exhibits, including a number of original aircraft cockpits of varying hues & conditions, the chap had bought this particular decrepit cockpit, restored it and was now looking for a museum that would like to take it away from his driveway and have it on display for other enthusiasts to enjoy.

With my other ‘great historical love’ being Second World War vintage aircraft this radio exchange immediately called to mind a superbly displayed ‘front half’ of a twin-engined, USAAF B-26 Marauder bomber, (an aircraft that had operated with great distinction from UK airfields and flew in the skies above Germany during the Allied heavy bombing campaign of WW-II), that I saw at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington on one of my many US trips… and my mind then drifted further to another superb air museum that I was also very lucky to have seen on another of my exciting US jaunts:

Whilst over on another US Veterans’ gathering as a result of the treasured contacts I had made when travelling with the US 79th Infantry Division on their pilgrimage back to Normandy’s D-Day beaches in 2000, I was staying with my great mates up in the stunningly beautiful state of Michigan, when it was suggested that I might like to visit the Kalamazoo Zoo.. (and yes, Kalamzoo does actually exist – it’s not just a song..!)

Thanking my hosts (the Brantingham family), for their suggestion and imagining what strange North American wild-life might be housed within: Moose? the odd Raccoon? or perhaps even evidence of the original Big Foot?… I was soon put right!  We were indeed talking about an exotic collection… of ‘cats’…for the small, friendly American town of Kalamazoo is home to the Flight of Cats, a mind-boggling collection of Grumman fighter aircraft lovingly restored and displayed on the edge of the town’s small airport.

Opened in 1979 with nine aircraft, the Air Zoo was the brainchild of war-time ferry pilot Sue Parish and husband Pete. A former member of the American Women’s Auxiliary Flying Service, Sue’s own Curtiss P40 Tomahawk fighter aircraft, (after which our archival company Tomahawk Films is named), is on show complete with its ‘lipstick pink’ paint-work. The pink hue was originlly the ‘planes undercoat showing through its 1942 desert livery and today is one of the star attractions of this much loved fighter collection.

Excitingly, the whole of the illustrious Grumman fighter family is on display at the Zoo: from the famous US Navy carrier-borne fighters of the Pacific War, the Wildcat, the Hellcat and the Bearcat, through to the F7 twin-engined Tigercat that just caught the end of World War two, but which distinguished itself as a night-fighter in the Korean War, up to the modern day and the awe-inspiring and beautiful front-line carrier-borne F14 Tomcat, an example on loan from the US Navy’s ‘Fighting 84t.h’ Squadron.

Far more than just a collection of static aircraft, the Kalamazoo Air Zoo, (much like our very own Imperial War Museum’s Airfield of Duxford, where our SFX CD Sounds of War, offering a number of original WW-II aero-engine sounds is on offer), is actually a living, breathing museum, with a daily display flight by one of their restored aircraft, a comprehensive reference library & education centre and a fully working aircraft restoration and renovation department.

With over 70 aircraft on display, museum guests will find a small, dedicated team of ‘Docents’ (tour guides), drawn from a collection of war-time pilots, including Canadian Bill Clearly who flew Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain with Tangmere-based 601 Squadron. Known as ‘Pranger’ due to several mishaps whilst with a ‘Mossie’ squadron, Bill was eventually credited with four kills in the Battle and ended his war flying Lysanders on spy-drop missions behind enemy lines in Northern France.

In fact the log-books of many of these formally-trained museum guides read like a plane-spotter’s dream; from ‘Black Widows’ to the amazing F82 ‘double-mustang’ from the B25 Mitchell bomber to the P39 Aircobra and all these animated, former fighter pilots are eager & willing to share their amazing war-time experiences with the visitors.

I must admit that in chatting to one of these, now elderly, gentlemen, I finally found out where the phrase ‘the whole 9 yards’ actually comes from: apparently early machine-gun belts in the wings of Allied fighter aircraft were 27 feet long and when returning pilots were greeted by the armourers, if the pilot had expended all of his ammunition, the ground-crew opening up the gun-ports would exclaim: ’well he certainly shot the whole 9 yards..!’

Many similar nuggets of information were forthcoming and such is the importance placed on learning that the Zoo has appointed an education director, Gerard ‘Jerry’ Pahl, who showed me their Restoration operation at the centre of which was an amazing project: the rebuild of one of the X-planes. In fact the XP-55 ‘Ascender’  which Jerry proudly pointed out is the last surviving example and, as an affiliate of the Washington Smithsonian Institute, the Air Zoo was tasked with its important renovation upon behalf of the American nation.

Maintaining another local connection is the on-going restoration project to restore a superb Douglas SBD Dauntless naval carrier-borne dive-bomber that was recovered from the bottom of the nearby Lake Michigan. During the war, local paddle steamers were pressed into military service and converted into training carriers upon which Dauntless naval aviators could practice the hazardous business of carrier landings & take-offs; however some 300 aircraft were lost into the lake during this training period and many still lie in the silt at the bottom to this day.

However a number of successful recoveries have since been made by aircraft recovery groups and the Air Zoo now has one of these rare aircraft in the main hall alongside its other exciting exhibits, which also includes a flying version of the Bell P39-Q Aircobra in the markings of the 67th US pursuit squadron… one of the world’s only 3 surviving airworthy examples of the 9,585 originally built.

World War Two aircraft buffs & students of US Naval carrier history passing through this lovely Great Lake State would be well rewarded with a stop-over at Kalamazoo’s Air Zoo and its amazing collection of combat aircraft… I certainly was!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013