(Image: Mike Searle. The Beaulieu letters at East Boldre)
Since the end of the 1950s, the old wartime fighter base RAF Beaulieu has steadily returned to nature, its flat expanse – now administered by the Forestry Commission – a haven for wild ponies and model flying enthusiasts. From above, the ghostly forms of three abandoned runways are still visible and the eastern perimeter taxiway is now a cycle path. But as this airfield, in Hampshire’s New Forest, has slowly returned to heathland, an even older aerodrome across the B3054 road has been partially uncovered by the local community. In doing so, the illusive ‘Beaulieu letters’ have been revealed for the first time in decades.
(Image: Mike Searle)
On the opposite side of the B3054 (Hatchet Lane) from the World War Two airfield, on the edge of East Boldre, lay an early 20th century flying school that was requisitioned by the military during the Great War. The school dates back more than a century, to 1910, and operated for just two years before returning to grazing land. But in 1914, one of its original sheds was taken over by the Royal Flying Corps as the demand for pilots increased. The following year, as World War One gathered pace, the quiet field adjacent East Boldre officially became RFC Beaulieu (though Beaulieu village itself is actually two miles to the west).
(Image: via Google Earth)
It was during that period, between 1910 and 1916, that the word ‘BEAULIEU’ was carved out of the heath in a bid to help early flyers identify the field from the air. When the Royal Flying Corps vacated the aerodrome in 1919 after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the giant Beaulieu letters remained, a quiet reminder to those flying overhead of the young pilots who had once trained there. And as the years passed, the letters became increasingly overgrown.
Two decades later, war once again reared its ugly head across the New Forest, this time demanding a more robust infrastructure. To meet the Air Ministry requirement, a new airfield with three asphalt runways and dozens of hard standings was opened in 1942 due west of its Great War predecessor on the opposite of Hatchet Lane.
(Image: Ordnance Survey. RAF Beaulieu during World War Two)
RAF Beaulieu was first used by the Royal Air Force and later handed over to the US Army Air Force. During that time it became home to the P-47D Thunderbolts of the 365th Fighter Group (above) and the B-26 Marauders of the 323d Bombardment Group.
(Image: via Google Earth. Remains of RAF Beaulieu today)
Security during this period was paramount, and the devastating threat of enemy raids on bases in Southern England had played out for all to see during the Battle of Britain. Like other airfields, RAF Beaulieu was assigned a Pundit Code: BL. But for security reasons its American occupants referred to it only as USAAF Station AAF 408. The giant Beaulieu letters, which stood some 15 feet tall and 100 feet wide, had to be fully concealed.
(Image: via Google Earth. Letters visible on the old RFC aerodrome east of RAF Beaulieu)
They would remain that way for decades. After the conflict, control of the adjacent World War Two airfield was passed to the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment (AFEE), which used it for parachute drop tests. By 1950 the site was left to decay, and by the end of the decade the Air Ministry returned the land to civilian use. Now managed by the Forestry Commission, the site is now a wildlife haven used primarily by model flying fans. A small section at the eastern end of the original main runway (27/09) survives.
(Image: Mike Searle)
The 100-year-old Beaulieu letters remained hidden amid the heath until 2010, when a local enthusiast hatched a plan to unearth them during East Boldre’s Centenary of Flying celebrations, held at the nearby Turfcutters Arms pub. Environmental checks were carried out over the next year to ensure sensitive species wouldn’t be disturbed by restoration efforts.
(Image: Mike Searle. More giant letters! RAF Beaulieu’s WW2 Pundit Code)
Then in March 2012, over a three day period, the ghostly forms of the Beaulieu letters reemerged from the heathland near Hatchet Pond. Thanks to the villagers who restored them (filmed for the BBC), the chalk letters are as sharp today as when they were first crafted more than a century ago. Accessible from the nearby Beaulieu to Lymington road, those wishing to take a look can also do so via a 15 minute walk from the Turfcutters Arms.
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