If the New Forest played an important part in the First World War, just over twenty years later its role in the Allied Forces success in bringing to an end the largest conflict in world history was even greater and should not be underestimated. During the Second World War, not only was the New Forest home to twelve rapidly constructed airfields and an experimental bombing range, it was also the temporary home of thousands of Allied troops together with all types of military hardware under cover of the Forest’s oak and beech trees.
Details of the New Forest Airfields and Ashley Walk Bombing Range can be found elsewhere on this website. This page attempts to cover the affect on the local population and the activities of Allied troops and agents in the area during WW2. Unfortunately, many records of the period have been lost or destroyed and the majority of the generation who witnessed it are no longer with us, all of which makes research difficult but, hopefully, the following with provide a picture of the largest upheaval experienced by the New Forest in its long history.
THE BUILD UP
The threat of major conflict in Europe had been ever present following Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933. This threat was heightened when the German army annexed Austria in 1938. After Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain’s failed attempts at appeasement, the UK readied itself for war and started to prepare its armed forces for what was seen as the inevitable. At the beginning of 1939 defence preparations commenced in the New Forest in view of its close proximity to the main port of Southampton and Air Raid Precautions (ARP) were put in place. In March 1939 Britain, France and Poland signed the Anglo-Polish and Anglo-French agreements aimed at protecting Polish independence from German expansion but this proved to no avail when on 1 September that year, Hitler’s forces invaded. As a direct consequence, Britain and France immediately declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 and WW2 began which would last for six years and spread around the globe.
Even before the outbreak of war at the beginning of 1939, anti-aircraft and searchlight sites were constructed across the Forest in anticipation of what was feared to come. Both Hurst and Calshot Castles were manned with coastal gun batteries and searchlights.
Fearing air raids on the strategically important nearby ports of Southampton and Portsmouth, child evacuees from these areas started to arrive by train and bus in the New Forest in large numbers as early as September 1939. They were housed with local families who were paid an allowance of 10s 6d (52.5p) for sharing their home. At that time arrangements were made to accommodate over 5000 children together with teachers and helpers. Expectant mothers were also included in these arrangements and early during the war Northerwood House at Emery Down was requisitioned as a maternity home for evacuees before it was taken over by the military for other purposes. The majority of evacuated children experienced a completely different life in the country which doubtless proved traumatic for some and a big adventure to others. Many would not see their parents again as a result of air raids on their cities.
At the outset of WW2, the bells of the Forest’s churches were silenced as they were reserved for use as a “call to arms” in the event of an invasion which many considered inevitable. They would not ring again for the next six years. Elsewhere road signs across the Forest were removed in order to delay/confuse the enemy if they invaded and “blackout” restrictions were imposed. The narrow Forest roads were widened in places to allow movement of large numbers of troops and military equipment. Troop manoeuvres and training in the Forest intensified which caused problems with a large increase in accidents with the ponies who still expected to wander freely. As a consequence, the New Forest Verderers made an appeal for the voluntary removal of ponies from the Forest and numbers reduced significantly to around 900. However, the market for ponies and the prices they commanded improved dramatically and with the onset of meat rationing, horseflesh began to find new markets. The ponies also contributed to the war effort in other unlikely ways by supplying blood for anti-tetanus serum!
By May 1940 Germany advanced into France and by June the French Government had surrendered leaving Britain separated from the German army only by the English Channel with the New Forest strategically placed less than eighty miles from the French coast and a prime target area for any invasion. The Forest found itself in the front line.
One of the first tastes of hostile action by UK troops was the evacuation at Dunkirk by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Overrun by sheer weight of men and weaponry, the decision was taken to retreat from France rather than risk a massacre and a flotilla of small craft from all along the south coast travelled across the English Channel to ferry the troops back, including five seaplane tenders and their crew from RAF Calshot who rescued over 500 men from the beaches of northern France.
Fearing an airborne invasion by the German forces, areas of open land such as fields and heathland were covered with materials to prevent troop carrying gliders from landing. In some areas poles were erected into the ground, and even obsolete vehicles were used to create obstructions. In addition, anti tank obstacles were placed at key road junctions in the Forest at Lyndhurst, Beaulieu, Brockenhurst, Ringwood and Fordingbridge. Anti tank islands were defensive points, centred on major road junctions and bridges which were designed to delay the advance of an invading German army, giving time for reinforcements to move to the area. These sites were usually made up of bunkers, roadblocks, trenches which, in the event of a withdrawal being necessary, could be blown up by explosives making the road impassable.
BATTLE OF BRITAIN and the BLITZ
After the surrender of France, Germany controlled most of Western Europe and it turned its attention to “Operation Sea Lion” which was its codename for the proposed invasion of Britain and stage 1 of their plan was to neutralise the RAF ahead of a seaborne invasion on the south coast. Hence, in the summer of 1940, the German offensive that Prime Minister Winston Churchill dubbed the Battle of Britain, began. At that stage, none of the New Forest WW2 airfields had been constructed and as a consequence the area received little attention from the Luftwaffe who initially concentrated on attacking shipping in the English Channel and attacking coastal towns and defences. From August 1940, Germany focused on the destruction of the RAF by attacking airfields and radar installations.
By mid September, as a result of the fierce resistance put up by British fighter pilots, Hitler concluded that Germany would be unable to gain control of the skies and abandoned the invasion plan. The Luftwaffe strategy then turned to bombing raids on London and other key locations which became known as the Blitz. At the time Southampton was a key military port and home of Spitfire production at Supermarine’s factory in the suburb of Woolston. Situated just a few miles from the New Forest boundary, it became a prime German bombing target – it is believed to have been the 7th most heavily bombed area of the UK. During November and December 1940 the intensity of the air raids destroyed large parts of the city (over 45,000 buildings including seven churches) and it became known as the Southampton Blitz. A total of 630 people were killed and over 2000 injured, resulting in many of the evacuees to the New Forest becoming orphans.
Much of the rubble from this devastation was used in the construction of runways at RAF Ibsley which became operational in 1941 – the first of the New Forest airfields. Elsewhere in the Forest, the rubble was also used to improve many of the mud tracks through the timber plantations to accommodate the movement of troops and machinery. Whilst not a bombing target, many bomb craters still exist across the Forest’s landscape as a result of German bomber crews jettisoning unused bombs on their return flights to their home bases.
In 1940 the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) was an organisation formed to help defend the mainland in the event of an invasion. In the radio announcement, Anthony Eden, Secretary of State for War called on men in Britain between the ages of 17 and 65, who were not in military service but wished to defend their country against an invasion, to enrol in the LDV at their local police station. It quickly recruited large numbers of men and became better known as the Home Guard – also affectionately called “Dads’ Army”.
There were Home Guard units in many locations across the Forest but what was not known until long after the war had ended was that there were also special auxiliary Home Guard units in several locations across the Forest. Men with special skills were recruited and sworn to secrecy – several New Forest Keepers who were good marksmen were among their number. Meeting deep in the woods they were trained in the use of explosives and both armed and unarmed combat. Little did they know at the time but they were part of a secret network along the south coast who were trained for sabotage in the event of an invasion. They built underground bunkers and stocked them with enough supplies for six months, together with ammunition and explosives. In the event of an invasion, their instructions were to remain underground in the Forest until they received orders by radio – they were also issued with cyanide tablets!
SPIES & SPECIAL AGENTS
The secret Home Guard units were not the only clandestine operations taking place in the Forest during wartime. It was not until several decades after the war that information started to emerge about undercover operations that took place around the Beaulieu Estate during WW2. During that time it was used as the “Finishing School” for the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The SOE was formed in the summer of 1940 to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe – it was also nicknamed “Churchill’s Secret Army” and the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”. SOE maintained a large network of training, research and development and administrative centres under various guises around the country and abroad but it was at Beaulieu that many of the organisation’s secret agents received their final training. It was a joke of the time among those in the know that SOE stood for “Stately ‘Omes of England”, after the large number of country houses and estates it requisitioned and used.
In all, a complex of 12 country houses were requisitioned in and around the Beaulieu Estate by the SOE. During the course of the war over 3000 agents (male and female) passed through the school whose curriculum included burglary, forgery, sabotage, blackmail and killing techniques! Initially it must have been quite a challenge to find instructors to teach these skills. Together they made an odd bunch including army officers engaged in espionage in WW1, a safe-breaker, gamekeeper, film scriptwriter and dress designer among others. Some of the team went on to be well known or infamous in other fields and included the Queen’s dress designer, Sir Hardy Amies, and the notorious spy Kim Philby who defected to the Russians after the war. Indeed, the origins of James Bond can be traced back to the SOE.
The remoteness of this part of the Forest and the cover of large areas of woodland made it an ideal training ground for the agents who included nationalities from across occupied Europe. Not only was the existence of the school kept secret from the local community but the groups of trainee agents in the different locations around Beaulieu did not know of each other’s existence or, indeed, the name of the house in which they were located. In addition to classroom sessions, students were assigned individual outdoor exercises where they had to live off the land in areas remote from the school and undertake reconnaissance on sensitive railway networks, ports or military establishments in order to establish the most vulnerable point for attack.
If they were captured by the British authorities while undertaking these tasks, they were arrested, imprisoned and subjected to real interrogation before being sprung by their minders – it was all part of their training. Almost all of the agents trained at Beaulieu were infiltrated into occupied Europe after training and around 40% were captured with many losing their lives. Perhaps one of the most famous graduates of the school was Violette Szabo who was captured and executed by the German SS on her second mission behind enemy lines when aged just 23 – she was subsequently immortalised in the 1958 film “Carve her Name in Pride” starring Virginia McKenna.
There is now an excellent SOE exhibition in the grounds of the Beaulieu Motor Museum and Palace complex. In addition, a more detailed account of the SOE’s activities can be found in the book, “Beaulieu – The Finishing School for Secret Agents” by Cyril Cunningham.
PRISONERS OF WAR
From July 1941, Italian prisoners captured in the Middle East were brought to Britain. This was the first major influx of prisoners of war to the country. Italian POWs presented one way of alleviating labour shortages in Britain, particularly in agriculture and timber production. They were given considerable freedom and mixed with local people. In fact many chose to remain in the UK after the war rather than return to a state of poverty in their native Italy
In 1941 an Italian POW camp was established at Setley Plain, just south of Brockenhurst, to house Italian prisoners and was known as Setley Plain POW Camp 65. When German prisoners flooded into Britain from the summer of 1944 following the D-Day landings in France, Setley camp was also used to house German POWs. It closed in 1948 when the last prisoners were repatriated and following that it was used as temporary accommodation for local families during the housing shortage that followed the end of the war. Nothing now remains of the camp.
There is also believed to have been another POW camp in the Forest at Quarr House, Sway but as with many wartime activities, there is no relevant information or details available.
TIMBER & FOOD PRODUCTION
As in the First World War, there was a massive demand for timber for pit props as coal still fuelled UK manufacturing industry whose efforts were now diverted to the war effort. Around 90 per cent of timber felled came from private estates on this occasion. The Forestry Commission’s production was concentrated on the Forest of Dean and the New Forest because they were the most mature woodlands. Almost all conifers aged 20-35 in the New Forest were felled during the war. In total the New Forest yielded 400,000 tons of timber compared to the 300,000 tons which were felled in WW1.
In April 1942 the Ministry of Supply inaugurated the Women’s Timber Corps in England which recruited women to work in forestry during the war at various locations around the UK, including the New Forest. These “Lumberjills”, as they were known, carried out heavy work, felling trees by hand, working in sawmills, loading trucks and driving tractors. The timber was made into telegraph poles, roadblocks, packaging boxes, gun butts and even crosses for war graves.
In view of meat shortages, in mid 1941 plans were being drawn up for a grazing improvement programme across large areas of the open Forest by ploughing, fertilising and re-seeding but following a brief experiment it appears that the scheme was abandoned after much debate between the relative Ministry, commoners and the Verderers – nothing is ever simple in the Forest, even in wartime. However, areas of open Forest were ploughed for cereal and potato production, notably Wilverley Plain to the west of Brockenhurst.
ALLIED TROOPS 1940 – 1943
As WW2 progressed the numbers of Allied personnel in the New Forest increased and large tented areas under the cover of the forest woodlands became the temporary home of men and machinery. Many areas were designated for training in everything from small arms to tanks. Whilst official records are sparse it is clear from what records are available that many different units from a number of countries passed through the New Forest during this period either on their way to embarkation for the overseas theatres of war or to take part in training exercises and manoeuvres, of which there appear to have been many.
For a small village, Brockenhurst with its large railway station and rail junction, became strategically important in the transportation of men and machinery into the New Forest. Perhaps, therefore, it is not surprising that much of the military training activity took place in close proximity to the village at locations such as White Moor, Wilverley, Longslade Bottom and Burley.
Carey’s Manor Hotel in the village was requisitioned for the Eastern Warfare School where Royal Marine trainees were taught basic jungle warfare tactics along the Lymington River and Roydon Woods in preparation for what they might encounter against the Japanese forces. Booby traps and ambushes in common use among the Japanese were reproduced in this area of the New Forest. They also learnt how to take care of themselves and what to carry in the way of medical supplies in remote inhospitable locations.
White Moor just outside of Brockenhurst was the site of a firing range while Longslade Bottom and Wilverley Plain both played host to large tank exercises and manoeuvres. Overall, the Forest was subject to constant comings and goings of Allied troops as the war progressed but activity ramped up considerably as plans for the D-Day landings in Normandy gathered pace. For further information, please visit our D-Day page.
The contribution that the New Forest played in the liberation of Europe and WW2 in a wide variety of ways cannot be overestimated.