Royal Flying Corps, Beaulieu

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Whilst the New Forest Aviation School of Drexel and McArdle at East Boldre was short lived, it was by no means the end of this rural area’s contribution to aviation history.

Lord MontaguNo doubt encouraged by his involvement with the flying school, John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu (1866-1929), developed an early idea about the effectiveness of strategic bombing via aircraft and in 1910 he delivered one of the first lectures on the subject, entitled  “Aerial Machines and War” to the Aldershot Military Society. Montagu was Member of Parliament for New Forest from 1895 until 1905, at which time he inherited his father’s title and entered the House of Lords. During his time in both Houses of Parliament he was a prominent advocate of the use of aircraft in war and in the First World War, during 1916, he became an acting member of the War Aircraft Committee .

With this growing recognition of the potential for the wartime deployment of aircraft it was recommended that a flying corps be formed to consist of a military wing, a naval wing, a central flying school and an aircraft factory. The recommendations were accepted and on 13 April 1912 King George V signed a royal warrant establishing the Royal Flying Corps. Shortly after in May of that year the Royal Flying Corps set up its Central Flying School at Upavon in Wiltshire

Given Lord Montagu’s keen interest in wartime aviation, it is perhaps no coincidence that in 1915, given the pressing need to increase facilities for pilot training, the War Office chose the East Boldre site as one of several Training Squadron airfields for the military wing of the Royal Flying Corps, using and expanding upon the original Drexel and McArdle facilities. The New Forest Verderers granted permission for this use of common land on the basis that there would be no material damage to the land but within weeks of permission being granted large buildings, including hangars, were being erected. Grass runways were used as it was not until the advent of much heavier aircraft in WW2 that hard tarmac or concrete runways would be required on airfields. Throughout the remainder of the war the airfield complex was repeatedly extended with numerous concrete buildings and in 1918 it was proposed to build a railway link to Beaulieu Road Station but the end of the war that year meant that this proposal never got beyond the drawing board stage.

Beaulieu Hangar housing Sopwith Dolphins 1918

Beaulieu Hangar housing Sopwith Dolphins 1918

At the start of WW1 the airplane was still only 13 years old and initially they were only used for reconnaissance purposes without any form of armament. At this stage it was not unusual for opposing pilots to fly past each other throwing heavy objects such as bricks!

In early 1916 the first aspiring aviators began to arrive for training at East Boldre, many of whom came from the ranks of serving soldiers who had already seen action on the Western Front. At this early stage in military aviation, there were basically two roles – pilot and observer/gunner. Before being let loose on the aircraft, pupils had classroom instruction in such subjects as basic aeronautics, map reading, navigation and gunnery.

Avro 504 and pilot - East Boldre 1918

Avro 504 and pilot – East Boldre 1918

The RFC at East Boldre airfield was home to No.16 Training Squadron and initially the aircraft used in training were BE2cs, Avro 504s and the US manufactured Curtiss JN4s (known as Jennys). The BE2cs were used mainly for observation as it was soon discovered that they were not suitable for aerial combat whereas the Avro 504 and the Curtiss JN4 were purpose built training aircraft with seats for instructor and pupil.  It is worth pointing out that in the early stages of WW1 there were no purpose built fighter aircraft and mounting guns to fire forward was problematical as technology had not advanced sufficiently at that stage to enable pilots to fire through the propellor without taking large chunks out of it! All of the aircraft were still of wood and fabric construction.

East Boldre Church - War Graves

East Boldre Church – War Graves

Perhaps it is not surprising that there were many training accidents at the airfield of which 23 were listed as fatal – the local cemetery at East Boldre contains the graves of 19 of these gallant pilots. Crashes were very frequent often after a heavy landing when the frail undercarriage would collapse with aircraft sometimes ending up upside down. One such fatal incident involved the planes of Sgt. Patrick Hogan and his instructor, “Mad Jack” Bayetto who collided in mid air with both pilots losing their lives. After the collision, Bayetto’s plane came down in the trees at Clay Hill and his body ended up spread eagled in the soft ground below. As a memorial to him, his relatives planted two ornamental trees at the site. Apparently “Mad Jack” gained his nickname as a result of his crazy flying stunts which included flying among the hangars at Beaulieu!

Some planes occasionally ended up on top of the hangars and on one occasion, a pilot flying an Avro 504 ended up on the roof of the village post office just above the bedroom of Miss Page, the Postmaster’s daughter. Somewhat miraculously none of the occupants were injured.

Crash landing at East Boldre Post Office

Crash landing at East Boldre Post Office

Aviation technology advanced rapidly as a direct result of the demands of war as did training methods. As the conflict intensified many pilots were being sent into action as replacements for those killed in action at a time when the life expectancy of a RFC pilot was 11 days. There was a poor level of competency with many of the replacements as a result of a lack of continuity in training methods. This was eventually addressed thanks to the efforts of Lt. Col. Robert Smith-Barry who was put in charge of the Training Squadron at nearby Gosport. He had qualified as a pilot in 1911 and had seen the problems of inexperienced pilots first hand on the Western Front. His methods proved so successful that they were adopted across all the training squadrons and Gosport became the RFC’s School of Special Flying where instructors were trained.

The following is a copy of this new training syllabus:-

Syllabus-1LG

Towards the end of the war as training methods continued to develop, they began to train up whole new squadrons of pilots at East Boldre with the latest aircraft which by this time had been designed with aerial combat in mind and were equipped with synchronised guns that could fire through the propellor. A total of three of these new squadrons were trained at Beaulieu and then moved to operational stations at home and abroad – 79 Squadron, 84 Squadron and 103 Squadron. In order to accommodate this increase in training activity, the airfield complex was further extended and by 1917 it comprised of four large hangars supplemented by two Bessonneau canvas hangars together with many other buildings such as accommodation huts, mess halls, workshops and a power supply house. Overall, it formed a very large complex by the end of the war – much larger than anyone had anticipated at the outset, including the New Forest Verderers!

Aerial view of airfield 1917

Aerial view of airfield 1917

In November 1917, in recognition of the rapid progress made in the use of combat aircraft, the Air Force Bill was given Royal Assent and on 1 April 1918 the military and naval wings of the RFC were merged to form the Royal Air Force and the airfield at East Boldre became RAF Station Beaulieu. It continued in its training role which by this time had widened in scope to include ground crew.

Following the end of the war in November 1918, activities at the airfield were gradually wound down and by the Spring of 1919 all personnel had left. In September of that year the Aerodrome Disposal Board put all the buildings up for sale and by 1922 they had all been removed leaving the moor quiet and peaceful again. Today, the only evidence that remains of the large complex is East Boldre Village Hall which had originally served as the Officers’ Mess and later as a YMCA canteen when the site was enlarged.