Ashley Walk Bombing Range

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Lancaster releasing Grand Slam

Lancaster releasing Grand Slam – Imperial War Museum

Ashley Walk lies to the north west of the New Forest, one of its more remote areas of open heath land where rare birds nest and ponies graze largely undisturbed. It is also one of the few places in the Forest where you can lose the sound of traffic from the trunk roads that bisect it. However, this scene of rural tranquility was not always the case.

During the early stages of World War 2 late in 1939 the New Forest Verderers considered a proposal to allow a temporary bombing range to be located south of the B3078 Fordingbridge to Cadnam road near Godshill. Its remoteness was considered ideal for the purpose with only small pockets of habitation in its immediate vicinity. Whilst we tend to think of everyone pulling together for the war effort, the location of the range was not universally popular with local people and landowners. Various letters were exchanged with the Air Ministry most of which were suggesting alternative sites in other parts of the country with one gentleman even suggesting Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel. In addition the Godshill Defence Committee was formed to voice their opposition – it appears that some things in the Forest never change!. However, the Verderers  approval was eventually forthcoming in July 1940 after much deliberation, subject to the whole 5000 acre site being ring fenced to prevent Commoners animals straying onto the range. Only three houses had to be evacuated to accommodate the range which was encircled with nine miles of security fencing. It was accessed through any of thirteen gates positioned around the perimeter with the main entrance being near Godshill cricket pitch.

WW2 Bomb sizes - Grand Slam (top right) above Tallboy

WW2 Bomb sizes – Grand Slam (top right) above Tallboy

The range was under the direct control of RAF Boscombe Down near Amesbury, Wiltshire which was home to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE). The A&AEE was transferred to this location at the outbreak of war in 1939 from its previous base at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk where it was feared that its position on the east coast would make it an easy target for German Bombers. The Boscombe Down unit became operational on 20 September 1939 but it lacked access to ranges to test the weapons it was developing and hence the need for the range at nearby Ashley Walk. While many other ranges were established across the UK, the range at Ashley Walk with its link to the A&AEE is thought to have been unique in that it was used predominantly to test weapons rather than for training purposes of bomber crews.

At the start of World War 2, British bomb technology had not really progressed a great deal since the end of the Great War in 1918 when a 20lb bomb was considered large. Against this background there was an arms race to catch up with the perceived superiority of the German Luftwaffe and the weaponry that they had at their disposal. As a result, over the next five years this tranquil part of the New Forest would have more armaments dropped on it and fired at it that most other parts of England, with the exception of the larger cities – this included the largest ever bomb to be dropped on British soil.

This was wartime when “careless talk cost lives” and whilst some local lads managed to get onto the site from time to time, the general public had little idea what was going on behind the security fence. It was really not until the latter years of the 20th century that more facts about the range started to emerge as a result of work by local historians, most notably the publication “Ashley Walk – Its Bombing Range, Landscape and History” by Anthony Passmore and Norman Parker which is recommended for more detailed information on the subject. Unfortunately, because of the secret nature of its work very little photographic evidence of wartime operations on the range is available to us.

Scattered across the site were a variety of specialist targets against which a rapidly improving armoury of new weapons were tested. Anything and everything capable of aerial delivery was tested here with the exception of incendiaries in view of their fire risk to the heath. These targets included the following:-

Air to Ground Targets – Situated to the west of the range and used for gun and rocket fire.

Fragmentation Targets – Situated in two separate areas on the range with one being used to test the protection afforded by aircraft pens (12 pens of British design and 12 of German design) and the other used to test fragmentation bombs against artillery.

Line Target – This was a 2000 yard track constructed of chalk resembling a railway line. Most of it is still clearly visible today.

Wall Targets – These 3 targets were imposing reinforced concrete structures of varying heights and their principal use was to test the strength of bomb casings (inert bombs of similar weight to primed bombs were used in these tests).

The picture below shows a Mosquito Bomber approaching the range between No.1 and No.2 Wall Targets.

Nos 1 and 2 Wall Targets - Ashley Walk Bombing Range

The following picture shows No.3 Wall Target with a prototype “Highball” bomb heading in its direction from left to right. This target was quite different to the other two wall targets in its design. It was just under 9′ high, 20′ long and 6′ in depth, faced with armour plating.

No.3 Wall Target - Ashley Walk Bombing Range

Ship Target – A large rectangular steel  target made of half inch thick steel plates used to test the penetrating powers of weapons designed for used against shipping. Unfortunately, no photographs remain of this target.

Submarine Pens - Ashley Walk Bombing Range

Low quality image of target shortly after construction

Ministry of Home Security Target – This latter target is perhaps the most interesting as for many years it has been known as the “Submarine Pens”. Due to the previous absence of records concerning the true nature of this building the common perception was that it was built to replicate the German submarine pens built along the Atlantic coast of France in order to test various weapons designed to destroy them. It comprised of a large reinforced concrete slab measuring 79 x 70 feet and 6 feet thick supported by five internal walls which were 6 feet high. Both front and rear ends were left open. The total volume of concrete in the target was 1643 cubic yards and the total weight of steel used was 121 tons of which 102 tons were reinforcing bars.

The work on this target commenced in February 1941 and was completed by September. Following completion a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to score a direct hit, and it was not until May 1943 that this was achieved by a USAAF Flying Fortress on their 15th attempt!

The photograph below shows the area as it is today.

Submarine Pen Target - Ashley Walk Bombing Range

However, this ‘sub pen’ theory is pure conjecture and any resemblance of the structure to actual U Boat pens is purely superficial. Even the smaller of the German buildings had far more substantial roofs, often with a void between concrete slabs to increase the resistance to bombs. Documents recently obtained from the National Archives describe the structure as a full size bomb resistant air raid shelter built by the Ministry of Home Security (department established in 1939 to direct national civil defence – primarily air-raid defences) in order to test its performance against the results obtained by laboratory tests on models. The following images show the interior of the structure and the damage done by bombs prior to it being covered with soil at the end of the war.

The range tests on this target included both British and German bombs of various sizes which damaged the structure and these tests concluded in May 1943 after which it was used by the RAF for general bombing practice. More detailed information on the structure following research undertaken by local historian, Henry Cole can be obtained by clicking here.

To the south of the range, a concrete directional arrow (pictured below) can still be found on the left of the cycle track that leads from Fritham to Frogham. This was also the site of the Main Practice Tower and part of its concrete base remains visible. The arrow pointed to the Illuminated Target which lay in the valley below at Lay Gutter.

Directional Arrow pointing towards Illuminated target - Ashley walk Bombing Range

Directional Arrow pointing towards Illuminated target

Whilst inert bombs were dropped on the range to test their casings upon impact, a high volume of live bombs was also dropped over the area, many of which were leading edge technology in their time. One person whose name was synonymous with bomb technology was Sir Barnes Wallis and he was known to visit the range from time to time to witness the effectiveness of his inventions. Perhaps the most memorable of these was the Upkeep Mine, more commonly known as the “bouncing bomb”.

Sir Barnes Wallis

Sir Barnes Wallis

After the successful raids on the Möhne and Eder dams in the Ruhr Valley, Germany by the Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron (“Dambusters” Squadron) in May 1943 attention was turned to other possible uses for the bouncing bomb principle. The Upkeep mines that were used to great success in these raids were cylindrical in shape and rotated in an anticlockwise direction so that they travelled down below the water surface when they hit the dams. It was thought that if they changed the direction of rotation it would roll up a beach and destroy coastal defences if dropped in the sea.

After concluding their trials at Boscombe Down and with Barnes Wallis watching from the ground, a group of five Lancasters of 617 Squadron loaded with inert versions of these revised Upkeep bombs approached Ashley Walk on 4 August 1943 to drop their payloads flying at very low level against a canvas screen target. While one aircraft’s bomb failed to release, the other four were dropped successfully and ran 1100 yards to the target. The following day five more aircraft of from 617 Squadron flew to the range to release inert versions against one of the concrete targets. Unfortunately, flying in close formation, the last of the planes to run at the target was affected by turbulence from the slipstream of the previous aircraft with the result that its wing clipped the ground and it crashed nose first and slid across the ground before bursting into flames. Fortunately its crew had a miraculous escape and lived to tell the tale although the bomb aimer suffered serious head injuries and never flew again. Despite the tests being deemed satisfactory it was decided not to use Upkeep over land following these tests and the project was eventually shelved.

Another Barnes Wallis variation of these bouncing bombs was the Highball which was a spherical bomb designed to bounce across the water to attack enemy shipping. It was tested at several locations including Ashley Walk when a Mosquito bomber proved that it could withstand heavy impact after making a number of Highball drops with inert versions at different angles against No.3 Wall. In order to determine whether the successful results achieved at Ashley Walk could be replicated under operational conditions, further trials were conducted at Loch Striven in February 1944, with Queen Elizabeth class battleship HMS Malaya acting as the target. However, despite a long period of testing it never proved successful and this idea was also shelved and never used in action during the war.

The following video clip shows a Mosquito Bomber releasing “Highball” bombs during a series of runs at the range. The Mosquito is flying over Wall No.1 and Wall No.2 before releasing inert versions of the bomb to test the strength of it’s casing against No.3 Wall. The clips show impact against No.3 Wall from a side view and also a frontal view. It is also interesting to note the close proximity of some of the observers.

Other of Barnes Wallis’ most potent weapons were successfully tested at Ashley Walk. Traditional bombing raids on large concrete structures in industrial Germany and fortifications along the French coast had not been particularly successful despite repeated attempts and it was against this background that Barnes Wallis developed the principle of an “earthquake” bomb capable of penetrating the earth or any structure before detonating. Their casings had to be hard enough to survive the initial impact when it penetrated the target prior to explosion seconds later. These bombs had to carry high payloads dropped from very high altitudes and because of the intricacies of their design each was virtually handmade. The first to emerge was the 12000lb “Tallboy” which, after an initial test at Ashley Walk on the night of 8/9 June, was hastily and successfully deployed the following day by 617 Squadron on the Saumur railway tunnel, 125 miles south of the battle that was raging on the Normandy beaches. These bombs continued to be used during the Allied invasion of Europe against heavily fortified German bunkers and U Boat pens. It was also a Tallboy that sunk the Tirpitz, the pride of the German Baltic fleet.

Grand Slam crater - Ashley Walk Bombing Range

Grand Slam crater with “sub pens” top left

In view of the precision required in their aerial delivery, these bombs were entrusted to 617 (Dambusters) Squadron whose Lancasters had to be specifically modified to carry them. Encouraged by early Tallboy testing, Barnes Wallis turned his attention to an even bigger “earthquake” bomb which became known as Grand Slam. This was a 22000 lb bomb that was also nicknamed “Ten Ton Tess”. A live version was only tested once on UK soil – in the middle of Ashley Walk range. On 13 March 1945 a specially modified Lancaster flying at 16000 feet released Grand Slam over Godshill. Barnes Wallis and many other officials were at the range to witness this live test. After it buried itself in the ground upon impact, they started counting. On nine seconds, the blast was minimal but villagers felt the earth shake for miles around and it produced an enormous crater around 130 feet in diameter and over 70 feet deep just to the north west of the Ministry of Home Security target. To this day it remains the largest ever explosion on British soil. The crater can be seen in the bottom of the picture below with the “sub pens” top left.

When news of the successful reached 617 Squadron, two Lancasters flown by the CO Group Captain J.E ‘Johnny’ Fauquier and Squadron Leader Charles ‘Jock’ Calder took off from Woodhall Spa both loaded with a Grand Slam. They required the entire length of the runway to become airborne and headed straightaway for the Bielefeld Viaduct in Germany but due to heavy cloud over the area they were forced to return to base with their bombs intact.

Grand Slam bomb loading at Woodhall Spa - Imperial War Museum

Grand Slam bomb loading at Woodhall Spa – Imperial War Museum

The raid was rescheduled for the following day, 14th March 1945, and at 1.00pm the same two pilots prepared to take off again from their base for the Bielefeld viaduct. The rest of the squadron (14 aircraft) were fitted with Tallboy bombs. Unfortunately, bad luck struck the CO’s Lancaster even before it left the ground when a mechanical fault caused one of the engines to shut down leaving just one Grand Slam fitted to Calder’s aircraft for the raid. Seeing Fauquier’s Lancaster with with its engine problem and the figure of his CO racing towards him to commandeer his plane, Calder quickly opened the throttles of his Lancaster and took off leaving behind a very angry CO!

When he dropped his Grand Slam on reaching the target it hit the ground around 30 feet from the target and created a crater over 100 feet deep. After release from the Avro Lancaster B.Mk 1 (Special) bomber, the Grand Slam reached near supersonic speed, approaching 715 mph (1150 km/h). When it reached the ground, it penetrated deep underground before detonating. The resulting explosion caused the formation of a cavern of sufficient size to shift the ground around the viaduct’s foundations. With the aid of the Tallboy bombs a massive section of the structure collapsed and it remained closed for the rest of the war. Many other successful operations followed as the Allies closed in on Germany to force their surrender.

After the end of WW2 the Grand Slam crater was filled in but a Tallboy crater remains as a pond a few yards from the Ministry of Home Security target – many other craters can still be found across the area if you look closely. In 1948 the security fence was removed and the Ministry of Supply confirmed to the Verderers that the area had been cleared of explosives. Targets were demolished with the exception of the Ministry of Home Security target which in view of its construction, proved impossible to dismantle. In the circumstances, the surrounding soil was bulldozed over it to cover it up and it appears on the OS map today as a tumulus but if you stand on top of it, some parts of the concrete structure are now clearly visible with the passage of time. The foundations of some other targets also remain visible but the most prominent reminder of the area’s former use are the chalk lines and target markers. Chalk is alien to the acid heath and as a result none of the bordering vegetation will encroach and grow on it. These few reminders apart, the area has returned to nature and is now one of the most tranquil parts of the Forest.

The aerial photograph below was taken on 27 April 1947 and shows the area with numerous bomb craters which had not been filled in at that stage – the rectangular construction near the middle is the “sub pens”.

Aerial view of Ashley Walk Bombing Range

On the Google map below, many features of the range can still be seen. The continuous blue line shows the original boundary – click on the markers and red/blue lines for further information.


View Ashley Walk Bombing Range in a larger map