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Content © RAF Ibsley Airfield Heritage Trust 2024

Wartime History

RAF Ibsley was built on farmland belonging to the Somerley Estate, two miles north of Ringwood in Hampshire.  It was the first airfield to be built in the Avon Valley.

It was designed as a Fighter Command Station and construction work started in late 1940; the main contractors were Mowlem.  The airfield was near enough operational within six months and was officially opened on Saturday 15th February 1941, although building work carried on for most of the rest of the year.  RAF Ibsley provided a much-needed forward airfield for the Middle Wallop Sector of 10 Group, filling the gap between Middle Wallop (near Salisbury) and Warmwell (near Weymouth).

A great deal of the hardcore foundation for the three runways was rubble from bombed-out buildings in Southampton.  The runways, one at 3,000ft and two at 4200ft, were 'hardened' or asphalt surfaced to cope with the ever increasing weight of military aircraft.   Each was 150ft wide and connected to the perimeter track, which encircled the runways and followed the airfield boundary.

Until the control tower was ready a large house at the northern end of the airfield was used to oversee flight operations.  To provide accommodation for the more than 2000 personnel that were needed to keep it operational, seven 'quarters' sites and two 'communal' sites were built to the north and east of the airfield. Officers lived in very much more comfortable conditions in nearby requisitioned houses.  

The arrival of 32Sqn RAF with its Hurricane Mk1s, two days after RAF Ibsley opened, put the airfield at operational status.  The increasing activity drew the early attention of the Luftwaffe, which bombed the airfield within a month.  A suggested explanation for this raid is that the spy ring William Joyce had set up in the area had reported the opening.  Joyce, better known as 'Lord Haw Haw', had lived a couple of miles from Ibsley in the 1930s.  He announced the imminent bombing of Ibsley in one of his radio broadcasts from Germany.  

Other squadrons to arrive in early 1941 included 118 Sqn and 501 Sqn RAF, with their Spitfire Mk IIs.  A number of the leading aces from these squadrons provided the flying sequences for the film 'The First of the Few', using the Mk IIa Spitfires of 501 Sqn.  The film is the story of the development of the Spitfire and is told through Squadron Leader Geoffrey Crisp, a fictional Battle of Britain RAF station commander (played by David Niven).  He recounts how his friend, RJ Mitchell (played by Leslie Howard, who also directed the film), set out to build the fastest and deadliest fighter aircraft  in the world after a visit to Germany in the late 1930s, and a chance meeting with leading aircraft designer, Willy Messerschmitt.

In all, 19 RAF fighter and fighter-bomber squadrons were based at RAF Ibsley during the war, some for just a few days, and some for several months.  These included Polish, Czech, Canadian and Australian squadrons.  The majority of their sorties were shipping strikes and convoy patrols, bomber escort cover and offensive sweeps over Europe.  

After America joined the war, RAF Ibsley was allocated to the USAAF 8th Air Force in June 1942.  It became the headquarters of the 1st Fighter Group in late summer, with the arrival of the 71st and 94th Fighter Squadrons, flying P-38 Lightnings.   On 29th August, two planes were scrambled to intercept a German bomber.  It is believed this was the first sortie to be flown by American forces from England in WW2.

In July 1943, the north/south runway was extended by 1,800ft to just under a mile long, and the airfield became available as a base for tactical fighters when needed.  By November, RAF Ibsley had been transferred to the USAAF 9th Air Force.

In early 1944, the last RAF units moved out and squadrons from the 48th, 367th and 371st Fighter Groups of the USAAF 9th Air Force took over RAF Ibsley for short periods in the months running up to, and after, the D-Day invasion in June. At one point, there were over 150 P-47 Thunderbolts crowded onto the airfield and about 3,000 personnel stationed there.   As the breakout from Normandy progressed the squadrons relocated to France.  

By November 1944, the airfield had been transferred back to Fighter Command, but having little need for it, RAF Ibsley was loaned to Training Command, and Oxfords from No. 7 Flying Instructors School based at Upavon took up residence until early 1945.