During the late 1930s, the suitability of the land near Holmsley, west of the A35, had been noted, but it was not until 1941 that construction of a major WW2 airfield commenced. Like nearby RAF Beaulieu, Holmsley was originally chosen as one of a number of airbases for Coastal Command in order to combat the German U Boat threat, mainly in the English Channel. Its location was ideal – almost a treeless expanse of level ground just a few miles from the coast.
It was built in a rush during the winter of 1941/42 and before its construction was complete, planes and personnel began to arrive, such were the pressing needs of wartime Britain – not an unusual occurrence as far as wartime airfields were concerned,
It consisted of three converging runways optimally placed at 60 degree angles to each other in a triangular pattern. These three runways were of the following lengths – 5,910 ft (07/25), 4,200 ft (12/30), and 4,110 ft (18/36) – runways are named by numbers between 01 and 36, representing the runway’s compass heading in degrees from north i.e. a runway numbered 09 points is due east (90°), runway 18 is due south (180°), runway 27 points due west (270°) and runway 36 points north (360°). As runways can normally be used in both directions, they are named for each direction they can be approached such as Holmsley runway 07/25 (70° or 250°). Branching off the runways were thirty five “Frying Pan” dispersal bays together with three “Loop” type bays connected to an enclosing perimeter track, of a standard width of fifty feet.
The station accommodation was constructed largely of Nissen huts of various sizes. This is where the group and ground station commanders, squadron headquarters and orderly rooms were located. Also here were all the other ground functions necessary to support the air operations of the group mess facilities, chapel, hospital, briefing and debriefing huts, armoury and bombsite storage, parachute rigging, supply stores, station and airfield security plus the transport section. These facilities were all connected by a network of single path roads.
The technical site, connected to the airfield consisted of at least two T-2 type hangars and various workshops to keep the aircraft airworthy and to quickly repair light and moderate battle damage. Aircraft severely damaged in action were sent to repair bases for major structural repair. The Ammunition dump was located outside of the perimeter track surrounded by large earth mounds and concrete storage pens for storing the aerial bombs and the other munitions required by the aircraft.
Various domestic accommodation sites were constructed dispersed away from the airfield, but within a mile or so of the technical support site, also using clusters of Maycrete huts or Nissen huts. The Huts were either connected, set up end-to-end or built singly and made of prefabricated corrugated iron with a door and two small windows at the front and back. They provided accommodation for almost 3000 personnel, including communal and a sick quarters.
Holmsley South opened in September 1942 as an RAF Coastal Command airfield with 547 Squadron RAF being formed there flying Mk VIII Wellingtons, reinforced with a unit of USAAF 8th Air Force B24 Liberator heavy bombers. The urgency to use the airfield before it was completed was as a result of Allied plans to remove the German army from North Africa and its aircraft were required to protect the sea lanes in preparation for this invasion of North Africa, codenamed “Operation Torch” which commenced in November 1942.
When the US Liberators and their crews left in December 1942 after Operation Torch had been successfully concluded, Armstrong Whitley aircraft supplemented by deliveries of new Handley Page Halifax bombers continued Coastal Command duties. These Halifaxes flying from Holmsley were quite distinctive in the grey/white camouflage which was more suited for flying over the sea lanes.
The early months of 1943 saw many changes of units as various squadrons converted to Halifax aircraft for glider towing and training crews for a series of long ferry tips to North Africa in preparation for the invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky) during july/August 1943. Prior to the invasion their task was to deliver new Horsa gliders built at the nearby Airspeed factory in Christchurch to Allied air bases in Tunisia. The length of this glider tow was extremely ambitious as nothing like it had been attempted before and a practice run was organised to fly around the UK simulating flight conditions. The Halifax crew took off from Holmsley towing its Horsa and flew 1400 miles in just over 10 hours before landing at nearby Hurn, which must represent the longest time ever taken to fly between the two adjoining airfields!
Their highly ambitious task was codenamed Operation Beggar and after the practice run their mission involved towing the gliders 1,200 miles over the Atlantic Ocean around the coast of Portugal and Spain, then a further 2,000 miles across North Africa to reach Tunisia. In order to shorten the distance they would have to travel, the Halifaxes and Horsas were moved to RAF Portreath in Cornwall before setting off on the first leg of their journey. After surviving attacks from Luftwaffe fighter patrols and often experiencing adverse weather, a total of twenty-seven Horsas were successfully delivered to North Africa in time for the invasion of Sicily. However, losses were quite heavy during the flights and totalled three Halifaxes and five Horsas, with twenty-one RAF aircrew and seven glider pilots killed.
Due to its proximity to the English coast, the airfield was also a regular host to aircraft from other bases who had hit problems returning from missions in France. It was also used regularly as a refuelling stop to extend the range of aircraft based further inland. The base was not without incident either and witnessed several crashes and near misses that were not the result of enemy action. It is easy to forget that on many occasions bad weather and equipment failures coupled with inexperienced flying crews were sometimes equally as hazardous as encountering the enemy. The close proximity to RAF Beaulieu also caused problems as their aircraft take off and landing circuits overlapped. Unfortunately, on one occasion, a Wellington from Beaulieu collided with a Halifax climbing away from Holmsley killing both crews and one unfortunate civilian.
Coastal Command duties continued during 1943 alongside the glider towing operations. The squadron acquitted itself well in the battle against the German U Boats whose serious threat to Allied convoys was largely nullified due to the attention of Coastal Command crews from Holmsley and other bases. However, this success came at a price – the base had witnessed significant sacrifices both in terms of men and aircraft.
At the end of 1943, Holmsley’s days as a Coastal Command base same to an end and its squadrons were transferred to St Davids on the Welsh coast. After a relatively quiet start to 1944, preparations for D-Day (Operation Overlord) began to gather momentum and the airfield came under the command of the recently formed Allied Tactical Air Force (RAF 2nd Tactical Air Force). With priorities changing constantly in the build up to the June invasion of France there were many comings and goings of both planes and personnel. Among others, RAF Hawker Typhoon and Canadian de Havilland Mosquito fighter bombers arrived and for a short time it was also home to Polish Mustangs.
By July 1944 the RAF 2nd Tactical Air Force moved to France as the invasion progressed and the airfield was handed over to the USAAF for use by B-26 Marauder units (see picture above) for a few months before they also moved to France. By the autumn of 1944 Holmsley once again had RAF units based there flying Warwick, Liberator, Halifax, York and Skymaster transport aircraft and for the remainder of the war it was used primarily to ferry troops and freight abroad.
In 1946 flying ceased and by 1947 the communal buildings on the site were being converted into much needed temporary civilian housing by Christchurch Town Council. Some of the metal skinned Nissen huts were also used to ease the pre war housing shortage and the area became known as ‘Tintown’ and its last inhabitants did not leave until 1960. For a few years from 1950 the newer hangars were used by General Motors for reconditioning tank and other vehicle engines before the buildings were demolished. Nowadays, part of the former complex is occupied by Holmsley Campsite
The Image below is an aerial photograph of the airfield taken in 1946.
Much of the airfield layout is still clearly visible from the air.
View Holmsley Airfield in a larger map