Page last updated at 07:31 GMT, Friday, 22 January 2010

Life during WWII in the New Forest

By Eleanor Williams
BBC News, New Forest

Gunners training at Holmsley airfield (Courtesy The National Archives )
Many soldiers from other parts of the world were stationed in the New Forest

World War II affected everyone in the New Forest - troops were stationed here and evacuees arrived from the cities, while farmers and locals had to pull together to help the war effort on the home front.

Although there are numerous records of the military work in the area, details of what life was like for the people in the forest between 1939 and 1945 are more fragmented.

Before it is too late the park authority wants to capture those experiences, collect documents and photographs, and record sites to build up a complete picture of the New Forest during the WWII years.

Frank Green, archaeologist for the park authority, says it is important to get first-hand accounts from people who were there.

"The New Forest is unique and there are so many stories out there.

"What we have to bear in mind is that we have a generation we are going to lose, and a lot of knowledge will then disappear.

"What we hope to capture is the stories of the foresters, the people working and living in the forest and how the war impacted on them."

Fields became airfields

Alan Brown, 84, from Brockenhurst, has written books about the New Forest's WWII airfields but also has stories of his own.

Former army barracks at Woodgreen which is now a home
A former army barrack at Woodgreen has been turned into a home

He was training with the Royal Air Force at the end of the war when he agreed to be moved to the Ministry of Defence's newly-established parachute training school.

"When we asked 'where is it?', they said 'we believe it's a French airfield just north of Monte Carlo'.

"It turned out to be Beaulieu in the New Forest," he says laughing.

It was one of 12 airfields which existed in the area between 1939 and 1945 - today only one of those remains, Hurn, which is now more commonly known as Bournemouth International Airport.

Four of the airfields, Lymington, Needs Oar Point, Bisterne and Winkton, were temporary ones built on farmers' fields in 1943 ready for the invasion.

However, very little remains of them and their buildings today.

Mr Brown said: "I used to take people on guided tours and had to apologise 'I'm sorry we can't get to see any aircraft today'".

Mr Green also has several stories from his father who had been evacuated to Brockenhurst with his family.

The building of Needs Oar Point airfield
Needs Oar Point airfield was built on farming land ahead of D-Day

He says: "My grandfather came back unexpectedly before Christmas. He was told that if you want Christmas dinner you'll have to go out and get a chicken.

"He went round the farms, but at this point the farmers were getting quite fed up with everyone asking for meat when there wasn't much. But then at one place he spotted a one-legged chicken hopping around and said to the farmer 'that one's no good to you'.

"There was a lot of bribing involved, it wasn't cheap. Eventually he got it but had to part with 10 shillings."

As part of the project a list will be compiled of WWII sites and buildings, such as control towers, air raid shelters and airfields through aerial and archaeological surveys.

Irish workforce

One important site is the remains of the D-Day preparations at Lepe beach on the Cadland estate.

At low tide you can still see where the temporary Mulberry Harbours were constructed, and Mr Green points to the beach-hardening concrete blocks, resembling "giant bars of chocolate", that were laid down to take the weight of tanks being loaded on to ships.

The Mulberry Harbours were floated over to the beaches of Normandy to form artificial harbours where troops and supplies could be landed during the invasion.

Lepe beach D-Day remains
An archaeological survey of the D-Day preparations at Lepe will be done

"Around 600 Irishmen building the Mulberry Harbours had to be housed and fed locally.

"We don't know how and where they and other similar groups were housed and often the best way to find out is through talking to those involved at the time."

Other pieces that will be sought are things that "people have hidden in their cellars or attics".

"All the day-to-day stuff that we normally throw away can tell a lot. My grandmother kept the last of the Brockenhurst parish newsletters."

German Luftwaffe photographs showing war-time activity around Lymington Harbour have already been found. Some of them were taken by the enemy under the guise of civil flights before war was declared in September 1939, others were taken during and after raids.

Mr Green says the project is huge and only in its starting phase.

It will take several years to complete but hopefully it will result in exhibitions and archives that will safeguard the WWII heritage for many years to come.

"The aim is to create a lasting legacy for future generations so that this isn't lost."

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