In 1945, a top secret German helicopter, piloted by a Luftwaffe pilot, crashed at RAF Beaulieu. If that wasn’t intriguing enough, some people also say that the FA 223 Drache came to be buried at this New Forest airfield.
But what is the truth?
Note: The expert opinions on the burial are towards the bottom of this page, so please scroll down to see their quotes and opinions.
I wanted to find out more about the FA 223 Drache helicopter so spent a lot of time researching it. This blog post details all that I managed to find out. I also include expert opinion on whether the helicopter that was built upon the Nazi command’s orders is actually buried in the Hampshire heathland of RAF Beaulieu.
You can also watch my amateur documentary on the Focke-Achgelis 223 Drache below. It follows the story of Heinrich Focke, the pilot Gerstenhauer, and how the FA 223 helicopter came to cross the English Channel to RAF Beaulieu, eventually crashing and being destroyed.
How Heinrich Focke developed the FA 223 helicopter
Heinrich Focke was a German inventor who jointly founded the Focke-Wulf aviation company in 1923. His company initially developed civil aircraft in pre-war Germany.
When the Nazis came to power 10 years later, Focke was ousted from the company he founded, some say because he was deemed too politically unreliable in the eyes of the ruling party.
However, the Nazi air ministry soon realised that Heinrich’s skills were actually something they could not do without.
This was based on his rather impressive feat of creating what many consider to be the first ever fully functional modern helicopter… this was the Focke Wulf FW 61 in 1936, that he had created just before the Nazis had discarded him.
With the decision to oust Heinrich Focke looking a little hasty, the Nazi party brought him back into the fold. It was suggested to him that he set up a new company focused purely on helicopter design.
As a result, in April 1937, Heinrich Focke and the pilot Gerd Achgelis founded the Focke Achgelis company.
Their brief in simple terms was to develop a better designed helicopter that was capable of carrying a 700 kg payload.
By 1939 and the outbreak of the Second World War, this vision was starting to become a reality. In the same month that war was declared, the first prototype of the Focke-Achgelis 223 Drache (translated as the Dragon) was developed at the Delmenhorst factory close to Bremen.
However, it did take some time for the teething problems of the FA 223 Drache to be fully ironed out and wasn’t until August 1940 that the ground-breaking helicopter was able to hover independently without being tethered to the ground.
But the development was moving quick, as just 2 months later, the FA 223 Drache set a top speed of 113 mph and managed to reach an altitude of over 23,000 feet.
It truly was a remarkable piece of engineering, with very advanced capabilities for its time. In fact, nobody had ever come close to creating anything quite like the Focke-Achgelis 223 Drache helicopter.
But it would still take some time and design iterations until FA 223 Drache was considered ready for military service. the Nazi high command demanded a helicopter that could be used during wartime. It needed to be able to complete tasks such as rescue operations or transporting people or gear from inaccessible places.
By 1942 it was felt that the latest version, the V3 of the FA 223, ticked those boxes and was ready to be put into mass production.
However, as you will learn as we progress through this story, nothing would ever be straight-forward as far as the Focke-Achgelis 223 Drache goes.
For example, in 1942, Allied forces identified the factory at Delmenhorst as being of significant importance. One night in June, the factory was devastated in a bombing raid.
All of Heinrich Focke’s helicopter work was destroyed.
The Focke-Achgelis facility was flattened, and with it, all the helicopter prototypes for V2 and V3 were destroyed. At this point in time, only 10 helicopters had ever even been completed… and they all were now reduced to a pile of twisted metal, broken glass, and scrap.
With this setback, the powers that be decided to relocate the factory to a place called Laupheim near Stuttgart.
By 1943, the development had proceeded further again when version 11 of the Drache crashed whilst on a rescue mission. Whilst that might sound like a setback, they used another iteration, version 14, to go rescue the crashed one.
During this rescue mission, the V14 managed to make 5 flights, picking up pieces of the crashed helicopter with its winch each time. This demonstrated the capability of how the Focke-Achgelis FA 223 Drache could potentially be used once in mass production.
This successful mission was piloted Lieutenant Helmut Gerstenhauer. He was to become an instrumental character in the story of the Drache as it reached English shores, eventually ending up at RAF Beaulieu, where it crashed.
More about that later on though.
Subsequent tests were carried out with the FA 223 Drache helicopter, including the dropping of troops in mountainous terrain, supplying troops in difficult to reach places, and more testing to assess the suitability for heavy cargo and rescue operations.
The success of these tests meant there was now an appetite within the Nazi leadership to ramp up production of the Focke-Achgelis 223 Drache.
But before that initiative could start, the Allied bombing put paid to any development yet again. In July 1944, bombs fell on the Laupheim factory, and only 7 helicopters that had been made so far managed to survive; versions 11 through to 17.
Not to be deterred, the production of the FA 223 Drache was moved to Tempelhof in Berlin. You can’t say that the Germans weren’t tenacious when it came to persevering with the project, which just goes to show how much faith they had in Heinrich Focke’s helicopter.
In fact, this belief in the FA 223 Drache and Heinrich Focke was so strong that the Nazi leadership ordered the Focke-Achgelis organisation to ramp things up and start producing 400 helicopters a month.
Despite this optimism, things still didn’t go to plan. By the end of January 1945, only 4 FA 223 Drache helicopters had been completed at the new Tempelhof base.
Despite their best intentions, Germany were failing with their helicopter program. Due to a mix of allied bombing, delays in testing, and accidents, only 11 Draches were actually ever flown during 1940s Germany. That equated to just 400 hours flying time in total.
A very poor return on the investment.
However, one Drache did enter active service during the war with the Luftwaffe, and it was commanded by the expert pilot Hans Helmut Gerstenhauer who I mentioned earlier.
Well, this is where his story starts properly, and where the story will eventually end with a crash on heathland in the New Forest, England.
The FA 223 Drache’s rescue mission on the orders of Hitler
In August of 1942, the experienced German pilot, Helmet Gerstenhauer, was assigned to the Focke-Achgelis project.
Gerstenhauer was no ordinary pilot. He was an aircraft engineer, a graduate from engineering college, and was probably one of, if not the most experienced German helicopter pilots.
It was his job to support Focke in testing the FA 223 Drache with test flights in the Austrian Alps.
By the time we reach 1945, Gerstenhauer had been witness to the stop and start nature of the project, with the Drache yet to see active service during the war.
But that was soon about to change for Gerstenhauer, as the Focke-Achgelis factory received a message from the Nazi high command on the 25th of February 1945.
By order of the Fuhrer, Gerstenhauer and two colleagues were told to fly the Focke-Achgelis 223 Drache from Tempelhof in Berlin, to Danzig on the Baltic coast.
The reason for the mission has never been revealed.
However, it is probable that the plan was that the Drache helicopter would help rescue Karl Hanke, a leading Nazi. Hanke was besieged in the city of Breslau as the Soviet Red army was advancing.
As you will have seen with the story of the Drache helicopter so far, a common theme of failure runs thought it.
Based on that, you won’t be surprised to hear that what appeared to be a rescue mission ordered by Hitler was unsuccessful.
That blame can’t really be placed with Gerstenhauer or the Drache though. In fact, the failed mission proved how good the FA 223 Drache helicopter actually was.
And here’s why… Gerstenhauer and his two colleagues took off. But before they even did that, reports say they’d named themselves as the Himmelsfahrtskommando.
In German, that word roughly translates as the Heaven Bound Squadron or Suicide Mission. That gives you some insight into how they thought this mission might end… and they were not far off in truth.
The journey was to be plagued with bad luck and bad planning from the beginning. There was a lack of fuel on their pitstops due to allied bombing raids and terrible weather conditions
The helicopter also had to take diversions due to enemies advancing into landing zones along the way… it wasn’t going well at all.
In fact, the inability to find sufficient refuelling stops meant that next time the FA 223 Drache did manage to find fuel on a stop, Gerstenhauer took a fuel drum and hand pump onboard the helicopter and was pumping fuel into the tank whilst in flight.
This type of procedure was never in the manual as you can imagine.
By the time the Drache and crew approached Danzig, they were flying over the invading Red Army. Not a great position to be in for a helicopter low on fuel.
The rescue mission had become so perilous, they were ordered to return, and made the journey back to Tempelhof in Berlin, making more dangerous stops along the way.
Whilst this might sound like an abject failure again in the life of the FA 223 Drache, it actually served to prove the complete opposite.
This epic journey had lasted over 2 weeks. In that time, Gerstenhauer and his two-man crew had covered 1041 miles in a helicopter, crossing battle zones, encountering terrible weather conditions, and stopping for re-fuelling.
In total, they had flown for 16 hours and 25 minutes.
This was a feat that was previously unimaginable in a helicopter. It showed that this version of the Focke Achgelis helicopter was operationally ready to enter active service, and production needed to be initiated.
But… as is the story of the FA 223 Drache, this was not to be… the war was coming to an end, and the Allied forces were closing in.
The Allies capture the FA 223 Drache which then crosses the English Channel… the first for a helicopter
The Second World War was coming to a conclusion. The Allied and Soviet forces were taking territory daily, which meant the Germans were retreating at speed.
At this time, three of the surviving Drache helicopters were now based in German-controlled Austrian territory.
As the US 80th Infantry advanced, the German helicopter division retreated over the border into Germany to a district called Ainring.
Two of the Drache helicopters managed to get back into Germany, but the optimism was short-lived, as soon after, as both were captured by the US army.
Rather than destroy the two German FA 223 helicopters, the US army handed them over to the team responsible for Operation LUSTY.
Operation LUSTY stood for LUftwaffe Secret TechnologY.
Operation LUSTY was a project setup by the US Intelligence Service to gain access to German aircraft, technical and scientific reports, research facilities, and weapons to take back and study in the United States.
However, it wasn’t just the US who wanted to take advantage of Heinrich Focke’s work. France and the UK also wanted to get their hands on Germany’s Drache helicopters.
But there were some disagreements between the 3 countries. However, once the US realised, they only had room for one Drache on an aircraft carrier returning to the States, the UK was able to take command of the other surviving helicopters.
The fate of the FA 223 commandeered by the Americans have never truly been established. Unfortunately there is no record of what happened to it once it reached the United States, or even if it reached the destination.
What we do know for certain though, is that the one FA 223 Drache handed to British forces had to get to England for testing. But there was a problem here as there were no Allied pilots who knew how to fly the Drache. There would also be no room on a ship once they managed to get the Drache to the French coast.
So, this is where Gerstenhauer enters our story again.
He was now a prisoner of war and being the most experienced Luftwaffe pilot of helicopters he was the ideal candidate to help. Whether he offered his services to help or was ordered to we will never know for sure.
As is the story of the Focke-Achgelis 223 Drache, this was to be no ordinary journey to England.
Because no helicopter had ever flown across the English Channel. This was to be, yet another first achieved by Gerstenhauer and the Drache.
Accompanied by an RAF officer and a US counterpart, the Drache helicopter piloted by Gerstenhauer left mainland Europe from the coast of France. It was escorted by a British plane which was also carrying 2 German engineers, and they finally arrived at their English destination in late September 1945.
And this is the point where the connection to the New Forest in England will start properly.
Testing the FA 223 Drache at RAF Beaulieu by the AFEE
Hans-Helmut Gerstenhauer and his Allied crew landed the Focke-Achgelis 223 Drache at RAF Beaulieu on the south coast of England. The reason this airfield in Hampshire was chosen was because it was the home to the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment – aka the AFEE.
The AFEE had only recently moved to this New Forest airfield to conduct research and development into non-traditional air operations such as gliders, rotary wing aircraft and parachute drops.
This meant it was the perfect place for the FA 223 Drache to be examined in order for the Royal Air Force technicians to extract as much of the secret technology as they could – with the help of Gerstenhauer and the 2 German engineers of course.
Once they landed at RAF Beaulieu, the Germans prisoners of war worked alongside the British personnel. The following is an extract from an audio interview with Fred Hambly courtesy of the New Forest National Park Authority (NFNPA).
Fred Hambly was in the RAF at the time the helicopter and Germans came to RAF Beaulieu. Here’s what he told the NFNPA.
“Because we had these German aircraft, we’d also brought some German technicians over with them. Equivalent to us, airmen, and a Nazi type officer, and they were housed in a small compound the other side of the road. We mixed with them during the working day and they were OK. They were just ordinary lads like we were.
The lads were OK, the officer was a bit of a pig and I remember one occasion when Squadron Leader Cable, our boss, happened to be in the hangar when he was shouting at his men, and he called him to one side and in no uncertain terms, told him we don’t do that in this country, much to our amusement, and I think to the amusement of the German troops.“
Whether Fred Hambly is referring to Gerstenhauer as being the pig of an officer, I don’t know.
The German FA 223 helicopter crashes on the RAF Beaulieu airfield
Over the next few weeks, the FA 223 Drache was subjected to tests and inspections by the AFEE at RAF Beaulieu. This included two test flights over the Beaulieu airfield, which despite Gerstenhauer’s objections, often involved having more than the recommended 3 people on board.
It was test flight number 3 where things went wrong.
On October the 3rd 1945, Gerstenhauer took off from Beaulieu with 3 RAF personnel on board. Whilst hovering above the airfield at 18 metres off the ground, the rotor blades failed, causing the helicopter to descend rapidly, hitting the ground with considerable force.
Continuing the theme of misfortune and bad planning we have seen during the Drache’s history, the reason for the mechanical failure was described in the memoirs of Alan Brown who worked for the AFEE.
Alan Brown said that the engine mountings were to blame, as (rather specifically) every 25 hours, steel housing securing the engine had to be tightened using a special tool.
Apparently, that special tool was never brought over to England. Despite Gerstenhauer’s protestations, the tests had continued to be made in less than optimum circumstances.
Whilst the crash of the FA 223 at RAF Beaulieu in Hampshire was serious enough to destroy the helicopter, thankfully, Gerstenhauer and the RAF personnel all escaped without serious injury.
This version of the Focke-Achgelis 223 had only completed 170 hours of flying time, yet within days of arriving in England it was damaged so badly it could not be repaired.
As for what happened to Hans-Helmut Gerstenhauer, Fred Hambly said this in his interview with the NFNPA about what he saw in the immediate aftermath of the helicopter crash at RAF Beaulieu.
“The twin rotor crashed and the last we knew; they were taken away. Whether they got repatriated home or whether they went to another prisoner of war camp we never found out.”
The helicopter crash on RAF Beaulieu marked the end of Gerstenhauer’s flying career. He was released as a prisoner of war in April 1946 and would never fly a helicopter again.
He returned to Germany and was known to be still alive and living in a retirement home near Dortmund as recently as 2013.
But what became of the Drache FA 223 wreck?
Is the German FA 223 Drache helicopter buried on the RAF Beaulieu heathland?
I have found two online reports that the FA 223 helicopter is buried on Beaulieu heath in the New Forest, Hampshire. Both websites use a similar phrase about a newspaper report from 2005, so it’s possible that that one used the other for a source.
There are the only references to a burial I have been able to find online, in documents, reports, or spoken words accounts though.
So, what is the truth?
Well, we know for certain that the helicopter was flown here by Gerstenhauer the Luftwaffe pilot. We also know it was the first ever helicopter to cross the English Channel, and that it crashed here at RAF Beaulieu during testing with the AFEE.
What’s not so certain is the story around the wreckage being buried here.
If we go back to the online reports, I think we need to consider a few things before coming to any conclusions.
The online reports both use the same quote from a local newspaper in 2005 which printed the line “wreckage buried on site”. You can see one for yourself on the excellent Hampshire Air Crashes page.
I have unsuccessfully tried to find that newspaper report from 2005, but with no luck. Given we are in the age of the Internet, you would hope there would be an online version of this news report if this had been reported in 2005.
UPDATE: Since first publishing this blog and video and have managed to track down the newspaper report where this burial is referenced. Scroll down the page to see the scan of the article.
That doesn’t mean the German helicopter wasn’t buried at RAF Beaulieu though and those websites could be correct. After all, there are reports of aircraft being scrapped and pushed into pits to be burned at UK airfields during the war years.
In fact, one of the experts I asked below, referenced an occasion just like that.
What the experts say about the FA 223 being buried in the New Forest
Here are what some experts including local historians, authors, and archaeologists told me about the likelihood that the Focke-Achgelis 223 is buried at this New Forest airfield.
John Levesley, the former education officer at the Friends of the New Forest Airfields (FONFA) charity says it is very unlikely and had never heard this. He believes it would have been picked up and taken away from the airfield to a breaking yard.
“I had always understood that the FA223 wasn’t that badly damaged but was effectively grounded after its accident by a lack of spares. By then they had probably learnt enough about the helicopter, so it was scrapped. It almost certainly wouldn’t have been scrapped and buried at Beaulieu; The RAF had maintenance units with mobile flights that operated around Britain doing that work.”
“For example, there was one based at RAF Ibsley in 1945 that actually operated a breaking site just east of Picket Post alongside what is now the A31. The FA233 probably left Beaulieu on an RAF Queen Mary artic for a destination unknown.”John Levesley, ex-FONFA education officer
John Leete, the author of The New Forest at War book and consultant for TV and DVD productions about the Forest during WW2 also discounts there being any buried wreckage still there today, but agrees it might have been buried temporarily.
Whilst he said there are reports of crashed airplanes being bulldozed into specially dug pits during wartime, he thinks in this case it was probably taken for scrap.
He also explains that LIDAR scans of the airfield would have shown any burial site.
“The most likely policy in a situation like this would be to take the aircraft off site for examination after which it would either be scrapped at an official yard or in rare cases it would be preserved for further research. However fact checking indicates that during the war, large pits were dug on a couple of the airfields into which some badly damaged aircraft were bulldozed. But I suspect all pits were cleared because LIDAR scans including those of RAF Beaulieu shows nothing.”John Leete, author (visit website)
LIDAR is a scanning technology which lets us look at earth disturbances. There was a LIDAR mapping project of the New Forest a few years which covered the airfield and there is nothing that appears to be related to an aircraft burial site.
But then the Army Flying Museum’s archivist says that it does sound plausible.
She said they have a collection of airplane parts that were excavated from burn and burial sites on former WW2 airfields.
“I would like to mention that the burial of wreckage or redundant airframes during and shortly after the Second World War sounds very plausible to me. For example we hold a collection of Horsa and Hamilcar glider parts that were excavated from such a burn and burial site. As far as I am aware there was no official scrapping yard for this kind of wreckage.”M. Verbrugge, Army Flying Museum archivist
Stephen Fisher, a historian who has specialised in New Forest wartime archaeology also says it is possible that the burial did happen, given that a helicopter of this type would have had a lot of fairly thin metal that could have been scrapped in a burial hole.
“It is possible it was buried on site – aircraft are largely hollow and thin metal, so when they crash, what’s left is usually fairly thin, pancaked metal. A few plane wrecks were left after armaments and significant parts were removed. Where it will have been buried, I don’t know. Equally, it’s still possible it was removed.”Stephen Fisher, archaeologist (follow on Twitter)
Equally though, he says it could also have been removed.
But that’s not to discount it. Sometimes personal accounts told to newspapers can offer the best insight into history.
Richard Willson, a man who knows a lot about airfields, said this to me.
“I did notice that website cited a local newspaper article. Because of this, one thing to bear in mind is that someone who was involved in the burial might have given them this information despite it having never been mentioned before.”
“Just a point to bear in mind, as we are so used to having unlimited information on the Internet, but I have found that personal accounts, often never told before, offer the best insight into history.”Richard Willson
My personal conclusion on the fate of RAF Beaulieu’s German helicopter
The general consensus seems to be that it is entirely plausible that the Drache was buried in the New Forest at RAF Beaulieu.
After all, there are accounts of parts of aircraft being scrapped and pushed into pits to be burned at UK airfields during the war years.
However, the question of whether the Drache 223 is still buried here to this day is in the main, a negative response. If the helicopter was buried, it might have been a temporary measure, with the burial pits and scrap removed at some point.
There’s also the consideration that LIDAR scans of the earth don’t show any obvious disturbances where aircraft could be buried here.
Overall, my gut feeling is, that based on uncorroborated anecdotal evidence, there is no German helicopter buried at RAF Beaulieu.
The only people who know for certain have now passed away. So maybe it did happen, maybe it didn’t. Perhaps someone came up with a story one day, and other people thought it sounded fun and ran with it.
And that’s how urban legends begin.
Does it need to be proven or not though?
Probably not, after all, it’s just a good story.
And if anything, I might have contributed further to the myths of the New Forest airfields.
Update on research as at 21st March 2021
A month after I published this blog and video I was shown a scan of a newspaper report from September the 12th, 2005 which is the one the websites have referenced. In the newspaper, it reports the following headline, and segment of text that I have also highlighted below:
WW2 German helicopter believed to be buried in Hampshire farmland.
“The V14 is said to be buried in a farmer’s field somewhere near the old airfield.
I managed to get in touch with Robin Bird who gave the quote to the newspaper. Robin is the son of Bob Bird, the British war photographer working for the AFEE. Robin is also the author of the book “Top Secret War Bird” which contains his father’s photos, including one of the Drache just after it had crashed.
I asked Robin where the the burial story came from that he gave the part, and he said it was from Bob Bird, his father.
Robin explained that when Bob was at Beaulieu, he saw the crash aftermath.
He went on to say that his father said aspects of the Drache were buried. But it was likely to just be scrap remains such as thin fabrics and thin metal tubing.
The reason being, was that the Drache’ fuselage was fabric stretched over a light steel skeleton. So, if you take away the engine and other mechanical aspects that were probably salvaged and taken for scrap, there would not have been much left to be buried – and if it had, it would have rotted away by now.
Robin further explained that the damaged Drache would never have been kept either as there would be no use for it. The few rotary wing experienced pilots at Beaulieu were already working on the next generation of helicopters like the Hoverfly.
In his conclusion, he believes that, yes, some residue from the Drache was probably scrapped and buried, but as for a whole top secret German helicopter being buried somewhere on Beaulieu heath or the farmland… it’s a no.
Below you can watch my quick follow up video to the story.
Credits and sources
- The New Forest National Park Authority.
- Air International Magazine (June 1984 edition).
- Rotocraft of the Third Reich by Ryszard Witkowski.
- Fred Hambly.
- Tony Johnson for access to Alan Brown’s work.