RAF Beaulieu’s Control Tower / Watch Office


RAF Beaulieu control tower

Like the majority of structures on the site, the Beaulieu Airfield control tower no longer exists. It would have been demolished when the airfield was handed back to the Forestry Commission from 1960 onwards.

However, I’ve managed to track down never before seen photos of the control tower, plus put together my guide to the architecture and possible modifications it would have had. I’ve also included an overview of the other buildings that were also in close proximity to the control tower. 

Firstly though, this is where the control tower at Beaulieu Airfield would have been located.

RAF Beaulieu control tower location
On the 1945 airfield map you see the RAF Beaulieu control tower as the last building in a set of 4 to the north west side of the runways, just below the main hangar area.

WW2 airfield control towers (aka watch offices)

Control towers (or watch offices) didn’t exist at the start of the war, but they were soon to become ubiquitous. Prior to the build of control towers, air traffic control as we know it today consisted of pilots having to log their activity and plans with the duty station officer. 

As the battle to control the air and the inevitable bombing missions started, air traffic increased meaning a requirement for a dedicated building. This was initially known as a watch office.

At first a watch office was a single storey building, but by 1941 it was felt that larger airfields needed a standard design to cope with the various operational needs of WW2 airfields. 

That meant that by the time a large airfield like RAF Beaulieu opened in August of 1942, what were now referred to as control towers had become standard. Being an A class airfield, Beaulieu had one built, quite possibly by the Mowlem Construction company.

The RAF Beaulieu control tower

RAF Beaulieu’s control tower was located in the north west area of the airfield, just inside the perimeter track and below the northern hangar area. If you are familiar with Beaulieu Airfield, the control tower would have been situated next to where the Pundit Code letters still exists today.

It was the largest building in a line of 4; the control tower (watch office), the fire tender shelter, NFE (night flying equipment) store, and floodlight trailer/tractor shed.

RAF Beaulieu control tower area
This flight sim by Terry Wallis shows how the 4 buildings including the control tower could have looked during WW2.

In front of the control tower there would have also been the signals mortar, a signals area (a large black concrete square), and then the pundit code letters.

Historical photos of the RAF Beaulieu control tower

The only photos I have managed to find that show the control tower, were taken in the immediate post-war era. This is during the period when the AFEE took over the airfield from 1945 to 1950.

RAF Beaulieu in 1948
In this 1948 image of Beaulieu Aerodrome you can just about make out the control tower to the left of the photo. This image was scanned from Robert Coles’ History of Beaulieu Airfield book.

The reason for the lack of photos during the war is due to cameras being prohibited on WW2 airfields. It is also likely that there was a shortage of film and developing facilities.

But some of the US crew did manage to take photos. I’ve been told anecdotally that their officers would turn a blind eye to the airmen using cameras, with the film sent home to families in the US to develop. Unfortunately there are no photos I have been given so far that show the control tower during the WW2 years, either during the RAF or USAAF usage.

However, from 1945 onwards, the AFEE (Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment) had an official photography team stationed at Beaulieu until 1950. Their job was to document the AFEE’s testing of aircraft both on the ground and in the air, often shooting from a Dakota plane.

I have previously published the story of Bob Bird. He was on the Beaulieu AFEE photography crew and frequently flew as a cameraman in a Dakota. Below is one such photo taken by Bob Bird.

RAF Beaulieu control tower and watch office area
This is an aerial photo of the control tower and hangar area, likely taken by the AFEE photography team. You can see the control tower and 3 accompanying buildings.

Thankfully the AFEE did a lot of their work on the land directly front of the control tower area.

This was where they tested helicopters such as the captured Luftwaffe Drache. Because of this we’re very fortunate to see the 1949 images below of a Sikorsky Hoverfly being tested on the airfield with the control tower also shown prominently.

afee helicopter test
These notes and images are taken from the scrapbooks of Alan Brown, local author, illustrator, and AFEE parachute instructor. This shows a helicopter test by the AFEE in front of the control tower in 1949.

Below is another AFEE test photo, this time of the FA 330 Rotor Kite.

This strange looking craft was captured by the Allies from the Germans and brought to Beaulieu Airfield for testing. Here you can see it being pulled behind a truck. In wartime it was pulled by the German U-boat submarines to let them see further over the water horizon when on the surface of the ocean.

Again, it’s on the land directly in front of the control tower, where a lot of testing took place from 1945 to 1950.

Focke Achgelis FA 330 at Beaulieu
From left to right you see the hangar in the background, the NFE store, Fire Tender Shelter, and then the Control Tower. In the foreground is an AFEE test of a captured German FA 330 Rotor Kite.

My personal favourite photo of RAF Beaulieu’s control tower is the one shown below. I believe this was taken in 1946, and whilst it’s a snapshot in time, for me it encapsulates how people might have been feeling immediately post-war.

There’s something fun and care free about this image.

Beaulieu Airfield control tower
I believe this photo to be dated between 1946 and 1949, quite possibly on an open day.

What remains today

It is almost impossible to find any significant remains of the control tower today. However, there are some remains of a raised square concrete area in the area. People (including myself in the past) will often mistake this broken concrete for the control tower foundations. This isn’t the case though, and I will explain what that is further down the page.

However, there are a few hints left of where the control tower once stood, if you look closely.

For example, in May of 2021 I managed to locate some evidence of concrete in the ground where the tower was. The image below is a possible corner section of the control tower’s bottom floor.

concrete remains at beaulieu
All that remains of RAF Beaulieu’s control tower are what could be corners of the bottom floor sticking out of the heath (May 2021).

You will also find the occasional piece of broken brickwork where the control tower once stood. I also found this tangled wire coming up through the ground.

wire on Beaulieu Heath
This could be a “stay wire” to help support a communications mast, although I cannot say for certain (May 2021).

And then of course, as you walk further onto the heath land you will find the signals mortar, evidence of the signals area, and the pundit code letters.

The signals area

As I described earlier, there is still evidence of a slightly raised concrete square area just as you reach the pundit code letters, if walking from the perimeter track direction. I believe this would have been the signals area. This was a square section between the control tower and pundit code (as illustrated in my sketch below).

sketch of 12799/41 control tower
These are the components that would have been in front of the RAF Beaulieu control tower including the signals area just before the pundit code letters.

To see it, you walk on the site of where the control tower once stood, then go further ahead until you reach a raised area of concrete just before the pundit code letters. I used to think this was the site of the control tower, but have now revised my thinking based on historical aerial photography and the layout of the 1945 airfield plan.

I now firmly believe this would have been where a signals area was positioned. It was a 40 foot by 40 foot black-coloured concrete square set in front of WW2 era control towers, Ground-to-air signals or symbols would be placed onto the signals area concrete, giving signs for the pilots to read from their planes.

airfield signals area
The pundit code is to the left, and you walk over a raised area of broken concrete to reach it. This was the signals area (May 2021).

In fact, in my first ever video tour of RAF Beaulieu, I actually say that I am stood on the foundations of the control tower. This is incorrect, I was actually stood on the site of the signals area which was in front of the control tower.

On the 1945 airfield map I included at the top of the page, that’s what the blank square with no number is – it’s the signals area, not a placement for the pundit code.

In my sketch above, I’ve illustrated the signals area as having a temporary dumb-bell signal being placed in the area.

You can also clearly see the signals area in the aerial photo below from 1946. You can’t see the BL pundit code letters, though. I believe these were covered up post-war perhaps with a tarpaulin when the pundit code changed to BQ.

aerial photo of RAF Beaulieu
It’s possible to see the signals area in this 1946 aerial photo of RAF Beaulieu. Image Crown Copyright.

You can see an example of what this could have looked like closer up on a WW2 airfield in the photo below of RAF Clifton, Yorkshire. Like my sketch, the dumb-bell signal has been placed on the signals area.

RAF Clifton
This photo of RAF Clifton in Yorkshire shows a signals area in front of the control tower. I believe RAF Beaulieu had the same based on the broken concrete found on the site today. Image credit: Unknown.

Another example is seen at RAF Tarrant Rushton in Dorset in this 1949 aerial photo.

signals square and control tower
RAF Tarrant Rushton, 1949. Image credit: Unknown.

The concrete at Beaulieu also appears to have been painted black in the past. This offers further evidence that this is a signals area rather than the foundation for a building. Signals areas were painted black to help the symbols stand out from the air – as you see in the RAF Clifton photo above.

To further discount the signals area being a building foundation you need to consider how close it is to the pundit code. If it was a building, this would have obscured the pundit code’s BL letters from the air if planes were approaching from a north easterly direction or if the sun was casting shadow.

ww2 airfield signals area
The concrete of what I believe to be the signals area does appear to have once been black. This provides evidence that this was where the signals were placed – May 2021.

I also measured the concrete remains in May of 2021, and they were around 40 foot by 40 foot. These dimensions are standard measurements for an Air Ministry signals area during WW2.

In terms of the symbols placed here, here is a small selection of the different signals that could be placed into the signals square to send warnings to pilots in the air. You can see the dumb-bell signal’s meaning.

signals area symbols
This is a small selection of the types of signals and symbols that would be placed into the signals area to offer warnings to pilots.

The windsock

There was windsock placed in front of the Pundit Code at Beaulieu during the WW2 years. I believe there might have been more than one though, so in my illustration have positioned it near to the signals mortar.

The one that appears in front of the control tower is still evident from left over concrete. You can see the concrete base where one of the windsocks would have been placed in the image below.

ww2 airfield windsock base
This is a base for a windsock,located in front of the Pundit Code looking out onto the airfield. Photo taken in May 2021.

A windsock is a conical textile tube that resembles a giant sock, and offers a very basic visual indication of wind direction and speed.

The pundit code and signals mortar

I’ve already researched and documented these two aspects to the control tower area previously. You can read more about those below.

The RAF Beaulieu control tower design (12799/41 then 343/43)

The control tower at RAF Beaulieu was built to the standard Air Ministry specification and drawing number of 12799/41. It was listed as building 7 on the Beaulieu airfield map. This design was the most common of wartime control towers. The Air Ministry’s official name for this building type was “Watch Office for all RAF Commands”. 

The watch office needed to have a view of the entire airfield, with the best views possible of all 3 runways and activity. 

The 12799/41 control tower was a two-storey building, but you will notice it has a glasshouse on the top in the historical photos. I cannot say for certain when this was added, but have a theory lower down the page.

It’s also likely that during the war, the Beaulieu Airfield control tower was converted from the original building type 12799/41 to Air Ministry drawing number 343/43, possibly around 1943. 

343/43 control tower design
The different sides of the 12799/41 and 343/43 control tower design (without the rooftop observation post addition)

This conversion was not that wide-ranging in terms of alterations, but did mean the ground floor windows were made smaller. It’s not known why these modifications was made in 1943 to airfield watch offices, but theories tend to revolve around light disturbance for night flying.

If you look at the photos I have discovered, it looks like the windows on the ground floor are smaller than those on the first floor. Based on that, I believe the RAF Beaulieu control tower was indeed converted from building type 12799/41 to 343/43 during WW2.

In terms of the construction, the RAF Beaulieu control tower would have been 34 foot and 6 inches by 36 foot and 9 inches wide. It was built with 9-inch bricks which were rendered with cement.

It had a flat roof, balcony area, and first floor all of which were constructed with reinforced concrete slabs. There were then timber floorboards attached to the first floor. The windows were steel-framed.

12799/41 control tower
This model shows how the rooms on each floor would have been laid out on a WW2 airfield 12799/41 control, such as the one at RAF Beaulieu.

Ground floor rooms

  • Toilets
  • Met office & teleprinter room
  • Switch room
  • Duty pilot’s rest room
  • Watch office

First floor rooms

  • Signal office
  • Controller’s rest room
  • Control room with PBX (telephone system)

The glasshouse or rooftop observation post

There’s also the glasshouse or rooftop observation post on top of the control tower in the photos. As established all of these photos showing the Beaulieu control tower in close-up were taken from 1945 onwards. 

The correct name for this classroom is a visual control room. Interestingly it’s not on the Air Ministry specifications for either the 12799/41 or 343/43 watch tower designs.

This leads me to think that it was possibly added by the USAAF when they started using Beaulieu as a fighter base in March 1944. The control tower at Duxford in Cambridgeshire had this modification by the 78th United States fighter corps, so perhaps similar happened at Beaulieu? It’s purely conjecture from me at this point.

An alternative theory could be that it was added post-war when the AFEE took over Beaulieu. Paul Francis, the WW2 airfield architecture author says:

“At some airfields used by the RAF post-war it became necessary in order to bring the building up to modern air traffic control standards, to erect a visual control room (VCR) on top of the existing building. Holes were cut through the concrete slab of the first floor and roof and then through the concrete floor in the former watch office down to the original foundations.” 

Whilst the structure he describes sounds very similar to the control tower photos we see from the AFEE’s time, I think this is the least likely scenario. During the AFEE’s time the airfield wasn’t a high-traffic airfield, with a constant stream of planes coming and going.

Therefore I surmise this makes it unlikely they would spend time and resources putting a VCR on top of the Beaulieu Airfield control tower if the area was just being used for testing rather than constant comings and goings.

The 3 other buildings in the control tower area

As well as the control tower, there was also a fire tender shelter, NFE store, and floodlight trailer and tractor shed. There is little to no evidence left of these structures as at May of 2021.

Instead I have used photos of the same building types with permission of Richard Flagg who documented these at other WW2 UK airfields – we can use these for comparison.

control tower layout
Here’s another flight sim image by Terry Wallis. This shows the control tower area and accompanying buildings described below.

8. Fire Tender Shelter (5352/42)

The fire tender shelter was building 8 on the Beaulieu Airfield map I showed at the top of the page. It had a critically important role as this was where the fire engine was housed. It wasn’t unusual for planes to crash land at RAF Beaulieu (here are some examples) so it was essential to have a fire crew ready and waiting. 

Firefighting on wartime airfields could be an extremely dangerous job. Survival times were much lower than fighting fires in buildings due to the cramped conditions in planes and the combustible elements. 

Fire Tender Shelter (5352/42)
This photo is of a fire tender shelter seen on the RAF Weston Zoyland airfield in Somerset as it existed in 2016. Whilst this is in a decayed state, it is a close representation of what the fire tender shelter (type 5352/42) would have looked like on Beaulieu Airfield.

If the control tower knew a damaged plane was coming into the land, the fire crew would be put on standby, ready to enter the airfield as quickly as possible. 

9. NFE Store (12411/41)

The NFE store was building 9 on the Beaulieu airfield plan. NFE store was an acronym for Night Flying Equipment store, and it would contain items including floodlights, beacons, and other pieces of gear to help aid navigation and safe landings at night. 

NFE store 12411/41
This photo from RAF Bodney in Norfolk was taken by Richard Flagg in 2009. This is the same building type as the Night Flying Equipment store at Beaulieu would have been (12411/41). Despite decay, it shows how the building would have been constructed.

It would have had three large doorways that faced out onto the airfield’s concrete roadway. Inside there were 3 bays and possibly 3 windows that would have been blacked out.

10. Floodlight Trailer & Tractor Shed (12411/41)

The final building in the line of 4 including the control tower was the Floodlight Trailer and Tractor Shed. This was building number 10 on the airfield map, and was built to the Air Ministry specification number, 12411/41.

This example of a Floodlight Trailer & Tractor Shed has been maintained to the modern day, with the addition of a new roof and modern door. The photo was taken by Richard Flagg in 2007 at RAF Lavenham, Suffolk.

Whilst it’s the same building type number as the NFE store, this building had one large door at the end, instead of the 3 doors set into the side. 

The walls would have been thin, constructed using a single skin bricks joined by buttresses and rendered-over in cement for greater strength. There would have been an angled iron roof frame, concrete floor, iron-framed vented windows and a pitched asbestos roof. 

99. The Dope Store

You might also have noticed on the airfield map at the top of the page, a position with number 99 that is set behind the control tower and the 3 accompanying buildings. On the map key this is listed as the Dope Store.

Aircraft dope is a plasticised lacquer that is applied to fabric-covered aircraft. It would tighten and stiffen fabric stretched over airframes, helping to make them airtight and weatherproof, increasing their durability and lifespan.

However, I am not 100% certain whether the Dope Store was built at Beaulieu in this position. I say that because I cannot see it on any aerial images of the time, and there also appears to be no evidence of where it would have been when examining the ground. 

There was definitely one on the airfield at some point though, as in Alan Brown’s AFEE memoirs he says:

“The flight sergeant had gone off on a week long pass with a girlfriend and left one of his more picked on AC2s with orders to go to the Dope Store, get some paint, and repaint the Morris.”

References and credits

  • British Airfield Buildings of the Second World War by Graham Buchan Innes
  • British Military Airfield Architecture by Paul Francis
  • Control Tower Designs at controltowers.co.uk
  • Essex Country County Field Archaeology Unit
  • GS Wilson for the 3D modelling
  • Hampshire Airfields in the Second World War by Robin J Brooks
  • Paul Francis on the Airfield Research Group forum at airfieldresearchgroup.org.uk
  • RAF Duxford’s entry on historicengland.org.uk
  • Richard Flagg at ukairfields.org.uk for use of his photos
  • Terry Wallis for the flight sim images

M Heighway

I am not a historian. I am not an archaeologist. I have no association to the Royal Air Force. I am just a local guy with a kid, a dog, and video camera trying to create a lasting resource for other people to enjoy.

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