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Crash landing of secret helicopter piloted by German PoWs at RAF Beaulieu detailed in new exhibition detailing airfield's secrets

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HOW German war prisoners came to pilot a top-secret helicopter that crash-landed in Beaulieu is one of the fascinating wartime anecdotes set to be told at a special exhibition.

The incident involving the FA 223 Drache at RAF Beaulieu during the Second World War has fascinated local historians for decades, not least because the remains have never been located.

It was made by the Focke Achgelis company, a partnership between pilot Gerd Achgelis and Heinrick Focke, considered to have created the first fully functional modern helicopter.

The Drache FA 223 at RAF Beaulieu (photo: Bob Bird)
The Drache FA 223 at RAF Beaulieu (photo: Bob Bird)

While it was a brilliant feat of engineering, its development stalled in the war – partly due to factories being bombed by the Allies.

By the closing stages of the conflict, only four Focke Achgelis helicopters had completed around 400 flying hours.

Three were captured in 1945 by American forces, who handed one to the British.

Having no one able to fly it, the British commandeered experienced Luftwaffe pilot Lieut. Helmut Gerstenhauer, who was by then a PoW, and he made the first crossing of the English Channel by helicopter in September 1945.

The German PoWs at RAF Beaulieu with the Drache FA 223 (photo: Bob Bird)
The German PoWs at RAF Beaulieu with the Drache FA 223 (photo: Bob Bird)

Escorted by a British plane carrying two German engineers, it landed at RAF Beaulieu – then was home to the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment (AFEE).

The AFEE had moved to the airfield to conduct research and development of non-traditional air operations such as gliders, rotary wing aircraft and parachute drops, and wanted their technicians to learn more from their German prisoners.

Over the next few weeks they undertook test flights. It was the third take-off when things went wrong – the rotor blades failing while it hovered above the airfield 18 metres off the ground.

The personnel on board escaped without serious injury but the helicopter was destroyed, and there were claims the rest of it was deliberately buried by the authorities.

Lieut. Helmut Gerstenhauer in the cockpit of the Drache FA 223 at RAF Beaulieu (photo: Bob Bird)
Lieut. Helmut Gerstenhauer in the cockpit of the Drache FA 223 at RAF Beaulieu (photo: Bob Bird)

However, searches have proved fruitless.

It is one of a number of fascinating tales involving RAF Beaulieu, which local resident Marc Heighway is highlighting at a special exhibition beginning on 2nd June.

Lasting four days, it will showcase the history of RAF Beaulieu from the Second World War to the present day and includes photos and film footage never seen before.

The FA 223 Drache crash landing (photo: Bob Bird)
The FA 223 Drache crash landing (photo: Bob Bird)

It will take place at East Boldre Village Hall, with any proceeds going towards plans to spruce up the facility.

Mr Heighway told the A&T he has always had a fascination with RAF Beaulieu and during the first lockdown, aided by his nine-year-old son, started to build on research already conducted by two historians, the late Alan Brown and Bob Coles.

“I’ve managed to uncover new photos, stories and evidence to add to their work and the internet has helped me track down families from around the globe whose relations served at Beaulieu: Americans, British Canadians and Czechs. I wanted to tell their stories,” Marc said.

Marc Heighway
Marc Heighway

“The bottom line is that I want to tell the stories of the people who served there so they are not forgotten. During the war there were sometimes in excess of 2,000 people there, doing their bit with fighter planes and bombers coming in and out daily, some never to return.

“Contrast that with how quiet and desolate the airfield is today and it’s quite the thought.”

Marc is keen to hear from anyone else who has links to the airfield. Contact him via rafbeaulieu.co.uk

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