There were so many factors that helped Britain stand up to and eventually help extinguish Nazi aggression during World War II. The wartime years had numerous effects on the entire nation. Thanks to emerging technology and ongoing research, the role of the New Forest in that winning war effort is slowly becoming more and more apparent.
The war had a huge impact on the landscape and the people in this part of southern Hampshire. The forest found itself caught between the chaos of bombings in London and the threat of German invasion though the Channel. Its geographic importance made it an important and strategic location for the war effort.
Seventy years later, an effort by the New Forest National Park is hoping to show new generations all the ways the region was involved in World War II. The New Forest Remembers initiative is bringing together scientists, historians, residents and visitors to learn more about the sacrifices made in the New Forest to protect Britain.
At any time of the year, the perfect cottage holiday is waiting for you and your family in the New Forest. There are hundreds of nature walks, cultural events and animal life to enjoy whilst on holiday. As more and more details are emerging about the wartime events, visiting the region to learn about the war effort is a trip not to be missed.
Here are some highlights:
Battle of Britain and the Blitz on England
The New Forest airfields played a vital role in helping Britain maintain control of its skies to stave off a Nazi invasion. When the Germans turned to blitzing the country instead, these airfields became both a target and a launching point for Allied bombing raids into Europe.
Because of the area’s proximity to Southampton’s port and a Spitfire factory in nearby Woolston, the airfields were often a target of the Luftwaffe. During November and December of 1940, the region was heavily shelled, resulting in more than 600 deaths and 2,000 injuries. Many people sought refuge in the forest. The New Forest villages were perfect places for evacuees. Over 5,000 children from various cities were sent to the region with nothing but cutlery, a change of clothes, and a gas mask.
There were four major airfields used at Beaulieu, Holmsley South, Ibsley and Stoney Cross, but at the height of activity there were 12 airfields and ALGs (Advanced Landing Grounds) in and around the New Forest. They played a vital role in a variety of war operations. The eventual Allied victory is commemorated at a memorial on the western boundary of the former Holmsley South airfield.
Preparation for D-Day
Because of its geographic location between London and the coast, the New Forest played a strategic role in the Allied war efforts. Troop movements, training, and the amassing of supplies took place in the forest during the weeks leading up to D-Day in June of 1944. The forest was home to four Advanced Landing Grounds, military installations that served as staging stations for waves of troops and equipment taking part in the operations in Europe.
At the private estate at Exbury, a troop camp was created large enough to house 300 troops in Nissen huts. Naval staff, ships and landing craft were maintained at Buckler’s Hard and on the Beaulieu River. Regular training exercises involved Allied troops attacking the English beaches along the New Forest’s southern border.
When the invasion was eventually ordered, thousands of troops who had been training in the forest were deployed across the English Channel. Many left from temporary piers constructed at Lepe. Today, just a few hundred metres from public car parks, the remains of history can still be seen in the waters off Lepe Country Park.
Uncovering the past
Much of the evidence from this period of the forest’s history remains. Destroyed, forgotten, or reclaimed by nature, enthusiasts have had to turn to other means to make sure the past is not lost. Local community groups, including the Park Authority and the New Forest Centre, have used a number of techniques to recover the airfields, camps, hospitals and training bases used during the war.
According to New Forest Remembers, hundreds of man hours have been put into telling the region’s stories from the war. Thanks to the involvement of volunteers and public contributors, the project investigating the legacy of World War II has completed:
• 95 field survey days that equalled 603 individual volunteer days • 10 site improvement days that equalled 93 individual volunteer days • 352 volunteer days spent on developing oral histories • 147 recorded oral history interviews • 88 hours of recordings • 30 independent volunteer research days • 164 volunteers taking part in two community digs
The New Forest Centre has been hosting a number of events around the history of war in the region. The Lost History series highlights many of the locations uncovered by recent hi-tech mapping of the forest. The laser-guided technology, called Light Detection and Ranging (Lidar), recently found a previously undetected airfield at Beaulieu.