Hatchet Pond Plane Crashes, Myths, Drownings, & Military Activity
According to New Forest legend there is a plane at the bottom of Hatchet Pond. The story has many different elements and variations to it which are often discussed on social media.
One common thread in the story suggests there’s a Lancaster bomber in Hatchet Pond. Other people say it’s a Spitfire under the water. Another tale recounts how an aircraft overshot the runway at RAF Beaulieu during the Second World War, and ditched in Hatchet Pond, never to be seen again.
Here are some typical comments you might hear or read:
“When I was a kid, I was told that that Hatchet Pond was bottomless and that a plane crashed there in the war, and it was never found.”
“I’m sure I was told it was a plane crash or one that had overshot the runway and it was that deep that no one could get down to it.”
Another variation on the story is how the American army pushed jeeps into Hatchet Pond at the end of the war because it was too much hassle to take them home. It’s a bit of a stretch to believe this would have been the case.
Most of the tales of a Hatchet Pond plane crash are easy enough to debunk. For example, a Lancaster bomber has a wingspan of 31 metres, and whilst Hatchet Pond is wider than that at points, it’s a very large aircraft to conceal in a pond.
Another popular story is of a plane overshooting a runway at RAF Beaulieu during WW2. This is also relatively simple to debunk. Firstly, none of the runways line up with Hatchet Pond. Secondly, there are no mentions of this in the RAF or USAAF operational records from the war.
When researching this period in history, there are no records of plane crashes in Hatchet Pond at all. There are also no newspaper reports, either then, or in the immediate post-war years when reporting would have been relaxed.
But there were aircraft accidents and crashes near Hatchet Pond during the Second World War. It could be that real events have been retold and changed over time to evolve into a plane being under the water.
For example, the closest plane crash to Hatchet Pond in WW2 was in November 1943. A Liberator GR Mk V of 53 Squadron RAF came down at Swinesleys Farm in Hatchet Lane shortly after take off from RAF Beaulieu, with the loss of 8 lives. This was just a half mile or so away from the pond.
In 1948, a helicopter also crashed near Hatchet Pond, but not in it. I know this because I have a photo of the crash shown below. It was a Sikorsky Hoverfly being tested by the AFEE at RAF Beaulieu.
If a plane did crash in Hatchet Pond and the remains are there to this day, it certainly didn’t happen in WW2, or the post-war period.
So where could the rumour of a sunken plane have come from?
And it’s not just stories of planes being under the water. There’s another local legend that Hatchet Pond is bottomless, or at least so deep that a plane could never be recovered.
Steve Antczak who grew up in the area explains what the stories were like for kids growing up in the 1950s:
“I remember both my parents and grandparents, and school teachers just before breaking-up for the summer holidays, warning us not to swim in Hatchet Pond because it was extremely deep and had a strong undertow, deep sink holes that would drag us down, and there were unexploded bombs left over from the war, and phosphorus flares dumped there. We were told we would get tangled-up in the aircraft wreckage and drown. Unfortunately, the Forestry Commission signs forbidding swimming in the pond helped to compound the myths. Of course, kids still swam there.”
There were local news reports of phosphorous bombs being washed up on the shore of Hatchet Pond some years ago, so that aspect has an element of truth.
As for the plane though…. I personally believe the rumour of an aircraft being in Hatchet Pond originated earlier than the Second World War. Here’s what could be the potential source of the story.
East Boldre’s flying school and airfield connection to Hatchet Pond (1910 to 1920)
In 1910 the heathland at East Boldre on the opposite side of the road to Hatchet Pond was the scene of a flying display. This would have been the first time many people would have seen an aircraft.
The land went on to become a flying school before the area was used as a First World War airfield from 1915 to 1918, before closing in August 1920.
Over the course of this 10-year period there were multiple crashes at East Boldre airfield. These early aircraft were notoriously unstable, and records suggest at least 47 airmen died at East Boldre.
Some of these fatal crashes occurred near Hatchet Pond, as it was only over the road from the airfield. Here’s a photo of one such crash on the corner of the road by the pond.
In terms of planes crashing into the pond though, I can only find one reference. The late Bob Coles wrote a “History of Beaulieu Airfield” in 1982 and included the following entry when describing early aviation activity at East Boldre in 1918.
“Frank Reid was one of many who crashed into Hatchet Pond, but his was the unfortunate fatal one in a DH4 machine.”
Coles suggests that there were many crashes in Hatchet Pond. Sadly, I can’t substantiate that with evidence.
Official reports also contradict Coles’ sentence and say Frank Reid was killed in a Sopwith Camel when he half-rolled and failed to pull up in time, crashing into the heathland. It doesn’t reference him crashing in water at all.
Coles is believed to have received many of his accounts from oral histories, so perhaps he was told tall tales about plane crashes in Hatchet Pond and his 1982 publication helped to keep the story going?
He also wrote how one aircraft managed to land on Hatchet Pond it when it was frozen over.
Early aviators drowning in Hatchet Pond
The tales of planes in Hatchet Pond are often accompanied with a story of an airman drowning. Airmen did drown in Hatchet Pond and there are two records of this happening.
The first was Lieutenant Fletcher Smith, a British airman in the Royal Flying Corps. He drowned whilst bathing, with a report suggesting he became exhausted while swimming.
The second account of an airman drowning was Private Fred Bauer, an American aged 22 from Illinois. He was a member of the US 93 Aero Squadron, who joined No. 1 Training Squadron at East Boldre airfield.
He accidentally drowned while swimming in Hatchet Pond in May 1918.
Both airmen didn’t drown at Hatchet Pond due to a plane crash, but instead due to misadventure.
They were not flying at the time.
There also appears to be one record from the Second World War of a soldier drowning. On the 1st of June, 1944, there is an entry in the War Diary of 1008 Field Security who looked after Area B for D-Day Marshalling.
“Report came in re missing waterproofer of Sub Area X. Body recovered from East Boldre lake”
Hatchet Pond was being used for the waterproofing tests of military vehicles in the lead up to D-Day, so one has to assume that this is what is meant by “East Boldre Pond”.
The soldier was William Frederick Mansell, aged 18 from Horsham. He is buried at St.Johns Churchyard in Boldre.
On a similar note, there are further records of drownings at Hatchet Pond dating back to 1865 which highlight how dangerous this area of New Forest water can be.
- A boy named Etheridge aged 10 from Furzey Lodge, drowned in Hatchet Pond in June 1865.
- Ellen Money, 20 years old, drowned in Hatchet Pond in January 1903. The verdict was suicide.
- Two brothers aged 12 and 8, from Furzey Lodge, drowned in Hatchet Pond in September 1960.
Using Hatchet Pond for military drills during wartime
Robert Coles also wrote how Hatchet Pond was used for machine gun target practice and dropping depth charges between 1914 and 1918. You can see two photos of those explosions on the water below.
The pond was also used for training purposes during the Second World War, as well as for other uses which were frowned upon. Here’s a written entry I found in the Verderers’ Notes from November 2nd, 1941.
“Agister Hubert Forward reported complaints had been made with regard to military vehicles being washed in Hatchet Pond. Also they had been washed in some of the forest streams. The Agister was instructed to call on the military officer concerned and to inform him that this must not take place again and to ask that orders be issues to the lorry drivers accordingly”
Airmen from RAF Beaulieu would also use Hatchet Pond for dinghy practice.
By 1944 Hatchet Pond was being used to test the waterproofing of military vehicles in the lead-up to D-Day, including tanks and jeeps.
It’s still possible to make out the shape of what was once a “tank dip” next to the gravel track that leads down to the pond.
These events could be where the rumours of jeeps being in Hatchet Pond have come from. You can imagine this might be the case if locals had seen amphibious vehicles being tested on the water.
The New Forest National Park Authority created a great video about it which you can watch below.
Post-war military activity at Hatchet Pond
Other events which could have helped to accelerate the stories of planes and jeeps being in Hatchet Pond occurred between 1945 and 1950.
For example, if you’d been enjoying an ice cream at Hatchet Pond 75 years ago, you might have seen some unusual sights. They would have been so strange it’s unlikely people would have believed you…
But it really did happen and here’s why.
During the post-war period, the RAF Beaulieu Airfield was being used by the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment (AFEE). The AFEE were researching and developing new methods of delivering soldiers and equipment into battle.
Aircraft would take off from the airfield multiple times a day to release teams of paras over Hatchet Pond. The men would float down and land on Bagshot Moor on the East Boldre side of the road that runs from the pond to Lymington.
The AFEE also dropped various items that might be useful in battle. These included motorbikes, bicycles, jeeps, and guns from different types of aircraft, all attached to parachutes.
They even once dropped a bulldozer from the sky.
It didn’t always go to plan though. In this photo taken by Ron Whatley you can see where a parachuted jeep flew off course and crashed into the roof of a Beaulieu Airfield building.
It’s not inconceivable that people saw jeeps dropping from the sky, and that story eventually become one about jeeps being in Hatchet Pond.
I can’t find any records of a plane crashing in Hatchet Pond. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Given the number of crashes that did occur in and around East Boldre airfield from 1910 to 1920, there’s a good chance one did land or crash on the water. But I can’t say for certain.
As for there being a plane under the water in Hatchet Pond waiting to be discovered… perhaps, but I think it’s more likely to be a myth rather than fact.
I have heard people say that divers explored Hatchet Pond in the 1970s. Both accounts say that nothing was found.
How deep is Hatchet Pond?
One of the men who was involved in a diving exploration recently contacted me and told me this:
“In the 1970s myself Rick Mills, Steve Ray, Dave Strong, Malvern Holdsworth and one or two others did a survey. We were part of the newly formed Calshot & Waterside sub aqua club. We used long sticks then dived down and pushed them down about 4 feet into the mud. Sometimes we’d dig into the mud with our hands if we thought we had found something. We recorded all results on depth on a large A1 or A0 map of the pond which was then given to the Turfcutters Arms pub where it was on the wall for years. We all signed it, but it disappeared years ago. We found no planes.”
Another account says that the divers from the 1970s found that Hatchet Pond levelled out at about 12 feet deep.
If this is true, it’s certainly not deep enough to hide a Lancaster bomber!
Credits and references:
- “A History of Beaulieu Airfield” by Bob Coles, published in 1982”
- “From Forest Field to Western Front” by Stephen Antczak, Tony Johnson, and Robin Street, published in 2016
- East Boldre Village Hall website: www.eastboldre.org.
- Additional information by Richard Reeves.
- Header photo of pond and horses by K.Murray and used under a Creative Commons License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/keithjmurray/
- Thanks to Chris Barrington-Brown for the account of the solder drowning during waterproofing tests: www.DDayBuildup.info
- Will Ward