Jack Humby was born in the early 1900s and spent his whole life in the New Forest. By the time the Second World War started, Jack was living with his family in Stockley Cottage working as a forest keeper.
His old home still exists on the edge of Beaulieu Airfield, close to Hawkhill Inclosure where aspects of the airfield bomb store still remain. It is on the road we now know as the B3055 which runs from Beaulieu to Brockenhurst – this road would have seen a lot of traffic and troops during the period.
The path that runs past Stockley Cottage also used to be one of the main entrances into the airfield. It is directly opposite the defence site in Stockley Inclosure which was home to around 200 airmen during the war.
In 1995, local author Jo Ivey spent time with Jack, recording his many memories of the New Forest. The result was a fantastic book of his memoirs titled “Keeping the Forest: The Life Story of Jack Humby, Forest Keeper”.
The following are extracts of the book where Jack Humby recollected Beaulieu Airfield during WW2, reproduced with the kind permission of Jo Ivey.
Jack Humby’s memories of Beaulieu Airfield in WW2
When we’d been at Stockley four years, the Ordinance Survey came and surveyed the plain for an aerodrome. From that day on there was no peace until long after the war finished. The contractors came in, and then the aeroplanes came in, and the troops came in. The army was there right up until the 1950s.
On the other side of the road from Stockley Cottage there was a guard room. We lay in bed at night and heard the chap walking up and down, up and down, up and down all the time. And across the road in the trees, that was the RAF regiment. They were the guards for the ‘drome. And they built huts all down through the woods.
Hatchet Pond was used for dipping the tanks. Over where the ice cream van stands now, there was a great deep trench, a pit dug out 10 or 12 feet deep. And it was concreted up both sides and over the bottom, and then it was filled with water.
The tanks used to go down right under the water to test them. They had a long pipe out of the top for the exhaust. What they called ducks – vehicles that went on land and sea – used to go right under and out the other side. After the war finished, they took off the top and filled it in. If you look underneath, there’s still a lot of concrete there now.
There was another place above Hatchet Pond, where the old gravel pit is, where they used to test explosives. It was said they dropped some munitions into the pond, but I don’t think there was a lot. When they were on manoeuvres and the chaps wanted to get rid of some rubbish, they might have thrown them away. But I think they kept a very tight rein on that sort of thing.
I wasn’t involved in any of it really, but we had to pass through all the time. I had to come and go all times of the day, with an identification photo on, and I got quite involved with a lot of them.
But the trouble was, there was an officers’ mess just up on the top, and round the corner from Stockley there was a sergeants’ mess and an airmen’s mess, and then there was the canteen.
If I came by there, they’d shout “Oh, come and have a drink!” Well, that was fatal, because when I got in there I couldn’t get out. And there were so many of them onto me, I couldn’t cope! If I went into the officers’ mess three parts of them were mad because they’d get on the booze, and nothing would stop them.
And I think they got to the stage where they couldn’t care less. Then the siren would go and away they’d go, and that was that!
The first lot was Coastal Command. They used to take off at midnight and they were on patrol for twelve hours: twelve out and twelve back. I used to count them out and count them back. More often than not there were one or two missing.
But it was pretty hectic, at times. We had planes crashing all round, and coming down short of the runway,
The Forest wasn’t the peaceful place we were used to. There were troops everywhere. Every wood was full of troops, and full of lorries and tanks and huts. Every wood there was, was chock full of army, navy and air force.
The planes were coming in all night long. The first German planes I saw came in the end of August, or September of 1940. And they came in from the Island and came right up past the aerodrome; and I could see the markers all in a row. They were just about anywhere, and there was nothing to stop them.
To start off with there was nobody to shoot at them; we had nothing then. I remember they went down Lyndhurst High Street and machine-gunned right down through the middle.
Then, when the men were building the camp for the aerodrome this Jerry came in and started machine gunning the workmen who were on the site. There was a telegraph pole there, with the lines to the camp, and the workmen went and stood right up beside it. And I could see the bullets hitting the ground all the way through the site.
The first firebomb we had was dropped in the September. As you go out to the main road on the left-hand side there was a thicket of brambles and gorse, and the trees weren’t so big as they are now. This plane came in over us and dropped a bomb. It hit one of those big firs and exploded and went all ways and, of course, set fire to it all round the bottom.
At that time, we had some New Zealand chaps here cutting timber. And they had agreed to turn out at night if they were wanted for fires. They were all stationed at the Tuileries, down at Brockenhurst. They came up here and we beat the fire out with branches and what have you.
One of these chaps had a torch. And he was shining it up trying to see where the bomb had hit the tree. I said, “Put that light out, there’s another one coming!” He didn’t take any notice of me. Of course, the next thing, BANG! Another bomb came down, another plane coming in.
So, the light went out and he just disappeared in the distance. He didn’t want telling anymore! It was something new to them.
One day I could hear a lot of banging going on down at Frame Enclosure, so I went down there to see what was going on. There was bunch of Canadians down there. They’d set up a target on the gate post and were practising with a machine gun.
Another time, we had a fire down at Bishop’s Ditch overnight, and we went over and put it out. I went over the next morning to make sure it was still all right, it was completely out. I was halfway along the ridge, about to cross the ditch, when some trench mortars opened up from a big bush. They were pitching down behind me.
So, I laid down on the ground and waited there. Then there was a bit of a lull and I eventually got back out of it. But we didn’t know where they were: it was chaos.
Then there were seven big four-engine planes crashed in a fortnight. One of them came down just at the back, behind Stockley, on take-off. But funny things happened. Now, that one that crashed there: there were eight blokes in it.
When we went to recover the bodies, three had disappeared. We found them out in the wood: they were dead, but their clothes weren’t touched – they had just been thrown out of the plane by the blast.
Editor’s Note: You can see a list of all the brave airmen who lost their lives flying in or out of Beaulieu on missions during WW2 in our page Honouring the Airmen.
I was down in the wood there, at the back of Ladycross, and another plane took off. He was circling round, making a funny noise. I looked up and he turned over, flipped over and came straight down. He hit the ground about 150 yards from where I stood.
You know those engines were down in the ground twelve feet.
Then one night, I was coming up from Hatchet Pond on my bicycle, about 100 yards this side of the pond, I heard a plane coming and he started dropping bombs. When he put down the second one, I hopped off my bike and left it on the ditch side. That was the only thing to do.
There was a string of bombs – one after the other – he put eleven right across the aerodrome. When I got up to come home, I picked up the bike to come home, and the blooding chain had come off.
And could I get the blooming thing back on? No! couldn’t! But I tell you, it was hectic there!
What they used to do was drop flares in the sky on parachutes and they’d hang there in the sky – perhaps twenty of them – and it was like daylight all round. And the next time they flew over they’d drop the bombs.
They would drop a string of bombs right down from the airfield, across Stockley through the wood.
Then they would come in and drop incendiaries: they dropped literally thousands of them – all through the garden, all around the house, all down the road. It’s a wonder the house is still there!
And, it’s funny thing, they came in once or twice and scudded all-round the edges of the aerodrome, but they never actually dropped one on it. Whether they were off target or what, I don’t know.
There was a gun site at Fernycroft – they tried that, and they dropped literally hundreds of bombs all round it, but they never got it.
At night time, when it got to just before the D-Day landings – they were moving all the heavy stuff down to the coast. As soon as it got dark, we could hear them coming: but we couldn’t see them.
There’d be tanks, perhaps 40 or 50 of them, coming down the road. We could hear them coming, but of course we couldn’t see where they were for a long time. Then, there they were, weaving about, all the way down the main road.
If I was on the road, I’d have to get well off, because they wouldn’t see me; they would have just run over me!
The first one coming had two little lights and that’s all. The rest were following: they just discerned the shape of the one in front and followed him. But it was hectic, there’s no doubt about it.
There were 13 people killed on the road between Stockley and Brockenhurst in the fortnight before the invasion started. They got run over at night, in the dark. Most of them were troops.
Lorries were being loaded at Brockenhurst station with bombs that had come by rail. They were running all night and all day, all day and all night, bringing them down to the depot at Hawkhill Enclosure.
But, as soon as the invasion started, we finished: we weren’t involved in that at all but right through the Forest it was chaos, for about a week it was absolutely chaotic everywhere. Looking back on it, I wonder really how we got by.
We don’t want any more of that business. It’s terrible; the number of people who were killed.
When the war finished, after peace was declared, practically all the troops moved out within, I would say, a fortnight or a month. They were disappeared and gone. But all their huts and their dugouts were left behind.
Then when the war was completely finished, the Royal Engineers – about four or five hundred of them came in and removed all the buildings that had been left. All the slit trenches were filled in.
It was surprising within a twelve month it was nearly back to normal. Then the bracken came up on the open forest and it was grown in, and you couldn’t see it.
They mined the runways during the war and its only about three years ago they took the mines out. I think they were forgotten, and nobody knew where they were. That was why the Forestry Commission stopped people using metal detectors, in case they started trying to dig around one of these mines.
When the camp was there, there were hundreds of aeroplanes, lorries, jeeps and cars, and thousands of men, but there were more rabbits, more hares, more birds in there than there ever were.
The birds had their nests in the camp: plovers and all sorts. The great petrol tanks were all tunnelled under by rabbits.
But, talk about noise, it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference. They used to have to get out there very often and drive the rooks and seagulls off the runways before the planes could take off. I don’t think, provided animals aren’t molested, that noise makes any difference.
Credits and references
- “Keeping the Forest: The Life Story of Jack Humby, Forest Keeper” by Jo Ivey
- The Humby family
- Tony Johnson for providing some images from his collection