Memories of Ron Whatley: AFEE Photographer at Beaulieu Airfield


Ronald Whatley

From 1945 to 1950 Beaulieu Airfield was home to the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment (AFEE). Their role was to test new technology, aircraft, and parachuting methods. This included a captured German helicopter, trying new glider techniques, and even dropping jeeps onto the New Forest heathland from aeroplanes.

Each new test and technique needed to be documented by the photographic department based on the airfield. One of these AFEE photographers was a local man called Ronald Whatley. He served two stints at Beaulieu. 

Tragically, Ron was killed on Thursday the 12th of June 1952 during a routine flight in a Harvard aircraft whilst on a job for the Ministry of Supply. The airplane crashed at Figheldean, just 4 miles from Boscombe Down where it had flown off from. 

He was just 23 years old. 

This is Ron’s story with contributions from his brother David. The family have also kindly donated photographs from the Ron Whatley album. 

Ron Whatley RAF
Ron Whatley in one of his early RAF roles.

Ron Whatley’s story

Ron was born on the 20th of June 1928 in Eling Lane, Totton. The property was a Swedish wooden house, now demolished, which was the yard that belonged to Burt Boulton and Haywood Ltd. Ron’s father was yard foreman for the company.

In 1941 Ron’s family moved to Culford Avenue in Rushington just before he turned 13. This was shortly after the road they were living at in Totton had been hit by Luftwaffe bombs, so meant a lucky escape for the Whatley family.

1943 saw Ron join the Air Training Corps with the 606 Squadron at Brockenhurst Grammar School. He was to be with the local ATC until May 1945. The ATC at Brockenhurst was led by Wing Commander Meredith and Ron’s younger brother David would later join too. However, when Ron died in the plane crash in 1952, their mother, understandably so, made David leave the ATC.

As war started to come to an end, Ron was approaching 16 years of age and decided to join the Ministry of Aircraft Production. This would later merge into the Ministry of Supply in 1946. The Ministry of Supply were to assume control of the AFEE, becoming Ron’s employers for his first stint at Beaulieu until July 1946.

Hamilcar glider
This photo by Ron Whatley shows an Hamilcar glider on its back after crashing at Beaulieu Airfield.

After his initial Beaulieu posting with the AFEE, Ron then spent a few years with the RAF at various bases including Farnborough and Gibraltar. It was at Farnborough that Ron attended the RAF’s School of Photography where he completed a 13-week course to become a photographer.

Ron’s new qualification and role meant he was eventually able to come back home to the New Forest area, posted to RAF Beaulieu again with the AFEE in April 1949. It would be here that Ron would spend nearly a year and half working for the photographic department until September 1950. The department was run by Flying Officer Pleasance. Bob Bird who I’ve written about before was also in the team with Ron. 

RAF Beaulieu photographic section
Ron is highlighted here in a team photo taken outside the RAF Beaulieu Photographic Section building circa 1949 (Photo courtesy of Robin Bird from the Bob Bird collection).

During the team’s time at Beaulieu, the activities they would photograph included the specialist training of pilots for helicopters and gliders. Gliders tested included the AW.52, GAL.55, GAL.56, GAL.61, and Waco CG-13. Helicopters tested included the Bristol 171, Cierva W.14 Skeeter, Cierva Air Horse, and Sikorsky Hoverfly. The photographers would also document various parachute tests of new equipment and equipment drop methods. 

Fairey Firefly
This photo shows Ron on photography duties in the rear of a Royal Navy Fairey Firefly over the New Forest.

Ron was also in attendance at the Beaulieu Air Show of September 1949 which is said to have attracted over 30,000 people. Below you can see the entry from Ron’s logbook about the Battle of Britain air show at Beaulieu that year, including what plane he was in to take photos – a Harvard (KF226).

air show at Beaulieu

Ron’s brother David would have been 12 at the time, and recalls being taken into the photographic department’s buildings to see the equipment Ron was using with the AFEE.

AFEE camera gear
At the 1949 Air Show at Beaulieu Airfield it was possible for members of the public to see the camera equipment being used by Ron and the AFEE team in one of the buildings.

The photos and logbook that Ron left behind offer fascinating insight into his time on the airfield as it shows every flight he took over the New Forest heathland.

In one of Ron’s photos we see how Ron was witness to the AFEE dropping Jeeps from Dakota planes. That wasn’t too unusual, but what Ron managed to capture for posterity was how one of the Jeeps accidentally landed on the roof of an airfield building. You can see that photo from RAF Beaulieu below.

jeep in roof
Ron captured the aftermath of a Jeep crashing into the roof of a RAF Beaulieu building. The Jeep had been dropped on a cluster of parachutes from a Hastings as part of an AFEE test.

It wasn’t all work though, there was also downtime in the local area too. For example, sailing at the Calshot Sailing Club.

Ron was also to meet his future wife Betty in 1949. They met at an Empire Hall dance in Totton, going on to marry two years later.

Incidentally, one of Ron’s photos from this period shows Calshot and a captured German Blohm and Voss flying boat in the background. This was a BV 222 that had been captured at Sørreisa in Norway after the war. It was flown by Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown from Norway to the RAF station at Calshot in 1946 – where Ron took the photo below.

Calshot BV 222 Eric winkle brown
In the background of Ron’s photo at RAF Calshot is a captured German BV 222 flying boat which had been flown to England from Norway by Eric “Winkle” Brown in 1946. To the right of the BV 222 is a RAF Sunderland.

During his time at Beaulieu, Ron would also get to know Alan Brown, the AFEE parachute instructor who went on to later become a historian of the New Forest airfields

Comparing the service logs of both Alan and Ron, it shows how they both flew in a Dakota to Lee on Solent on the 28th of August 1950. This trip saw Ron documenting Alan’s jumps over the water. 

Sikorsky elephants practice beaulieu
One of Ron’s photos shows the Sikorsky helicopters practising the elephant and ringmaster routine on Beaulieu Airfield. This unique performance would later be displayed to the public at the Beaulieu and Farnborough air shows.

His time at Beaulieu was soon to come to an end though. In September 1950 the AFEE was disbanded and most of its equipment and personnel were transferred to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at RAF Boscombe Down. 

Ron would leave RAF Beaulieu and his local home comforts for the Boscombe Down base.

typhoon beaulieu
One of Ron’s photos shows a Royal Navy Fairey Firefly testing container parachute drops over Beaulieu Airfield.

This move would be the last posting of Ron’s career, as it was from here that tragedy would strike. The Western Mail reported the following about the crash of June 1952:

“Killed in the crash were RAF Flight Lieutenant I.K. Johnston and Ministry of Supply senior photographer Mr. Ronald John Whatley, who were in a Ministry of Supply Harvard aircraft. The aircraft crashed at Figheldean Range, four miles north of the Ministry’s establishment at Boscombe Down, Hants. The Harvard was on a routine flight from Boscombe Down.”

Ron’s young wife was pregnant at the time of his death. Ron never got to meet his son James.

Memories of Ron from his brother David

David Whatley was Ron’s younger brother by 9 years. He has some very fond memories of his older brother Ronald.

“My favourite memory of him is him flying his rubber band powered model aircraft that he had made, particularly one he called ‘Son of Trike’, in the fields behind our house in Culford Avenue.”

“His favourite time in service was at Beaulieu where he enjoyed flying. I think it was more of a community than Boscombe Down and he also enjoyed taking part in one of the air shows. I remember going to the air show at Beaulieu and Ron showing us around the photo department lab.”

typhoon beaulieu
Ron took this photo of a RAF Typhoon in the snow during a cold New Forest winter at Beaulieu Airfield.

During Ron’s time in service, he travelled in various aircraft as part of his role, even including some early post-war era helicopters. Some of the highlights include:

  • Avro Shackleton and York
  • De Havilland Mosquito and Vampire
  • Douglas Dakota
  • Fairey Firefly
  • Gloster Meteor
  • Handley Page Hastings
  • Lockheed Hudson
  • Short Stirling IV
  • Sikorsky R6 & Hoverfly
  • Vickers Valetta

Ronald Whatley is buried at Eling Cemetery near Totton, Southampton.

Ron whatley grave in eling cemetery
This is Ron Whatley’s grave at Eling Cemetery near Totton, Southampton in September of 2021.

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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