Time Travel

I’m sinking almost imperceptibly into the mud, which means that I’m travelling very very slowly back through time. On Monday, we raced back 6 or 7 centuries in as many hours but now I’m down to perhaps a year every hour as the ground slowly swallows my boots. I’m not helping by gently digging into the ground around me. No this is not an episode of Dr Who, it’s an archaeological dig.

I saw a Tweet about some community Archaeological projects being run in Rhossili by the Gower Landscape Project, Black Mountain Archaeology and ArchaeoDomus and although I’d missed many of them, a dig at the site of the medieval village in Rhossili was yet to happen. Last year I took part in a field walk on ‘The Vile’, part of the medieval field system at Rhossili. The purpose was to try and find evidence of flint working in relation to the near by hill fort. At that event, there was mention of a possible dig at the old village and I was keen to take part. Now was my opportunity. I rushed off an email to express my interest, and I was accepted onto the dig.

I turned up on day one not sure what to expect. The weather was perfect, the location stunning and very soon I was off down to the Warren, the bracken covered dune system just above the beach level. I joined a number of other volunteers from the area, the four professional archaeologists and the National Trust ranger for a safety briefing and overview of the project, it’s aims and objectives.

The basic idea was to involve members of the local community in investigating the extent of the medieval village. In the early 80s, the Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust had excavated in the middle of the village site and uncovered a church and a house. These were recorded and covered over to preserve them and the site scheduled as an ancient monument, meaning it couldn’t be dug. We would be looking outside that area, which was carefully marked out before any digging took place.

The first objective was to clear away the great mass of sand that had accumulated and may well have been the cause of the abandonment of the old village for the new. Archaeologists and volunteers watched as the mechanical digger stripped away the sand, making sure that the digger kept to the line of the plan, and ensuring that no archaeology was accidentally lost to the big metal bucket. This took most of the day and only at the very end were we able to get into the trenches and see what was going on. In the last few minutes we found the medieval land surface in trench 2.

Day two was hotter and now we were in the trenches, as much as 2 metres below surface level, there was no cooling onshore breeze. But I found that I was completely distracted from the conditions by the activities and the fact that we’d just got our first find, a medieval dog or fox jaw bone, complete with teeth. Today, I was using an augur to bore holes beneath the bottom of the trenches to identify what was going on and whether it was worth the time and effort to go deeper. It was tough going, even in sand, to get the augur down more than 50cm but eventually, with people hanging off the handles, twisting and turning the augur, we managed to get a few samples from nearly 2m below the base of the trench, perhaps 3.5m deep in total. These were telling us that we were just beginning to reach the natural medieval layer. The decision was taken to concentrate on just two trenches and the other was filled back in.

On day three and four I was cleaning the edges of our latest trench to provide a clear record of the soil levels, cleaning off the surface of the trench itself and then gently scraping back the sand and earth from a section of stones at one end of the trench. The latter was remarkably calming work, and time went quickly as I slowly lowered the level of the surface of the trench, revealing more of the stones. Next to me, a colleague was picking out bits of pottery and shell but I seemed to be on the wrong side as there was nothing in my bit.

At the end of day four we had found animal bone, cow’s teeth, several large bits of pottery and a deeper level of loam and shell fragments, which was most likely a midden, or rubbish deposit. A large piece of pottery remained within it and as would this need careful work to retrieve it, we decided to leave it until the next day so that it wasn’t rushed. It was protected with a bucket and we headed home.

Day five was a controlled rush to get the pottery, dig carefully but quickly below it to see what was going on, collect samples of the shell-filled loam and to record the trench features accurately for future reference. And all of this was being done in humid conditions which threatened and then did turn into rain, and in clouds of midges. As the rain fell, the clay levels at the bottom of the trench got wetter, supporting an earlier suggestion that there may have been a water course here. With all the recording done, the areas of interest in the trench were protected with plastic and the trench was filled in. It took considerably less time to cover them up that it did to dig them out. At the end of the day, all that was left were patches of sand in the bracken, and these would soon be covered by foliage.

I’ve always been interested in archaeology but I never expected to be able to take part in a dig. For me, the experience was amazing, and a bonus was the involvement of professional archaeologists who were prepared to give time and effort to share knowledge and skills with the volunteers. Not only did I learn what to do, but I was able to understand why it was done that way. I’ve always found that the part of history that interests me most is the stuff that happens to individuals. During this week I was able to handle pottery that was used by real people more than 600 years ago, walk on the land surface they would have trodden on and rummage through their rubbish dump. And all this reasonably close to my own home.

I think I may be hooked on this time travel lark!

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Welsh clouds have hard centres.

“Welsh clouds have hard centres” is a quote by an unknown flying instructor to an unknown trainee fighter pilot during World War 2. When you look at the number of aircraft crash sites from WW2 and since, it’s clearly good advice.

I’ve written before about the sites I’ve visited around the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountain. All of them are situated in bleak, lonely places usually on high ground and inevitably on slopes steep or slight.  Some of these crews were new, completing their operational training on the type of aircraft they would fly into battle. Others were re-training, having survived a tour of operations over enemy territory. A few were returning from operations and got lost in bad weather, or succumbed to battle damage.

Yesterday, I decided to visit a new site for me. Vickers Wellington MF509 was on a training flight from RAF Stratford  on 20 November 1944. The crew of 6 Canadians were carrying out a night navigation exercise when a fault developed with one of the engines. The plane began to descend over the Black Mountain and hit the ground on the western slope of Carreg Goch, a couple of miles west of Craig y Nos. Sadly, the crew were all killed on impact. The engines were salvaged but the rest of the wreckage was left in situ.

I had read about this site several years ago and had always planned on visiting. But the site was in the middle of a difficult limestone landscape and not on any route that I regularly took during training for treks. So I never got round to making the trip.

The initial climb from the main road was short and steep but I quickly gained height and left the trees and farmland behind. I passed a limestone quarry and finally reached the first over many limestone pavements overlooking Glyntawe and Craig y Nos. Now the fun started as I tried to find the best route to the crash site. The main path from here would take me north of where I wanted to go so I decided on some cross country walking, taking a more direct but much less obvious route. I took advantage of sheep trails and open rock to climb quickly onto Castell y Geifr.

This area is full of sink holes and is frequently used by pot-holers exploring the vast cave system of which Dan yr Ogof is a part. I passed several deep holes lined with scaffolding poles and blocked for safety reasons. The going underfoot was tough, with broken limestone hidden just beneath the surface of heather and grass threatening to turn and ankle. I took advantage of exposed flat limestone slabs to make better progress but this meant my route twisted and turned and I had to stop frequently to check the map for progress and to keep heading n the right direction.

As I headed west, off to my right was a large area of peat bog known as Waun Fignen Felen. In prehistoric times, this was a shallow lake surrounded by trees which slowly silted up, providing a habitat for wildlife. 8000 years ago, the climate was warmer and upland areas of Wales were more habitable than now. Traces of human habitation from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze ages have been found on the margins of the bog, in the form of flint tools and flakes and a small drilled stone bead. Ancient people hunted here, and stayed in the area while the hunting was good.

I continued on, following a particularly sinuous sheep track through thick purple heather and onto the top of Carreg Goch. Slightly sloping slabs of limestone made the final few yards much easier and from the description of the crash site, I expected to find the wreckage on the reverse side. But it wasn’t there. I checked the map and decided that I was a little too north of the co-ordinates and turned south. There was no path, just lots of broken and weathered rocks ready to trip me up. I scrambled and wobbled from rock to rock until I reached a little stream bed, now dried up. I followed that for a while and climbed up onto a rock slab to see where I was. There, on the western slope, was a great pile of silver-grey metal and beside it flew a Canadian flag.

The Vickers Wellington bomber was designed by Barnes Wallace, the genius behind the Dambusters bouncing bomb. In the early years of the war, aluminium to make aeroplanes was scarce and Wallace produced a two engined bomber with a metal frame covered in fabric to minimise the use of aluminium. The airframe had a distinctive geodesic form, a series of struts and bars forming triangles. It was very strong and proved capable of taking a lot of damage without losing its structural strength.

At the crash site, a large amount of the wreckage had been gathered into one place. The largest piece was instantly recognisable as a part of the inner wing. A lot of the metal had been burnt in the fire that followed the crash and had melted out of shape but the wing retained it’s distinctive form. I could see the undercarriage legs and a couple of pieces of armour plating, which had rusted to a deep orange. Down the slope, what appeared to be a long section of part of the fuselage lay in the rocks and around about, other parts of the plane were scattered.

There were a few others at the site when I got there. I got talking to one who said he’d first come to the site 35 years ago and he remembered a large wheel, complete with tyre, lying just down the hill. We went a little way down to see if we could find it. All we saw were more scattered fragments and a short section of metal tubing which could have been from the landing gear. I knew the engines had been removed by the RAF shortly after the crash.

After the others had gone, I spent a few minutes taking in the atmosphere. It was a lovely summers day but I know what these hills can be like on cold, wet and misty winters morning. This crash happened at night it terrible conditions for flying. The crew probably never knew what happened.

I love being in the hills. I love the sense of open space, the remoteness and the spectacular beauty all around. But little parts of our countryside hold sad secrets that clash with this beauty.

The crew:

  • Sgt C. Hamel
  • Sgt J.R.R. Villeneuve
  • F/O W.J. Allison
  • Sgt J.P.E. Burke
  • Sgt J.A.E. Groulx
  • Sgt J.L.U. Du Sablon

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A little bit of local.

On Friday, I was reading a book about childhood experiences in Swansea during the war. This morning, I was sliding and slipping in mud in Dunvant. There’s a link.

I’ve been researching Swansea during WW2 as a result of some of the stories my mum told me of the bombing, the anti-aircraft guns and the Americans stationed here just before D-Day. I found a book in the local library and read with some interest the first mention of anti-invasion defences in Swansea Bay that I’d ever see. The bay would have been an ideal landing place for enemy troops if it wasn’t for the long journey they would have to make down the Bristol Channel. But Swansea had a big port, an airfield near by and a sheltered bay and it may well have been worth the risk. In fact, Swansea Bay was used (along with other beaches on Gower) to practice beach landings prior to the Normandy landings.

My interest has been in finding any evidence of other defensive plans. One of the threats to Britain during the early part of the war was invasion from the west. It was thought that the Germans would make a pact with neutral Eire and come across to West Wales. Lines of fortifications, known as Command Stop Lines were built all over Britain and there is one stretching north from Pembrey to New Quay that would have been used to delay or block any advance eastwards. I had explored parts of this line north of Carmarthen, on one occasion finding myself at the end of a shotgun when I accidentally strayed on to private land. Fortunately, after explaining to the landowner why I was there and pointing out that there were no fences or signs, he let me explore the particular pill box and told me of several more relics of the war hidden from the road.

This stop line reaches the south coast at RAF Pembrey, which is now a bombing range and private airport. There are remains of pillboxes and anti-tank defences near the estuary and they merge into the defences of the airfield itself, and the fortifications and minefields that protected Cefn Sidan and the Pembrey munitions factory.

Swansea had it’s own defences. With the port, bay and airfield in close proximity, and reasonably good transport links, it needed it’s own protection. The beach had several pill boxes and minefields along it’s length and on the low tide mark, iron girders set in concrete were ready to rip the hulls of craft trying to land. There is a suggestion that flame weapons (either oil to be poured on the water or fougasse firebombs) were available, too. Inland, there were anti landing trenches on the hills north of Morriston, anti-aircraft sites on Mumbles Hill and around Kilvey Hill and decoy bombing targets north of the docks.

I found several pillboxes on the Swansea to Llanelli railway line, now disused, that used to run through Clyne Valley. One overlooks the main road through Killay to Gower. Two more protect a bridge over the railway line some 200 yards further south. I would have expected more but I could find none. The book I read said that there were two more pillboxes at the entrance to the Clyne Valley where it meets the sea at Blackpill. Anti Tank blocks also shielded access to the railway and some parts of an old wall made of wartime concrete (with more aggregate as it was cheaper and quicker to make) line the sea front near by. Much of the land between Blackpill and Killay is marshy and undulating and would have needed little extra protection.

Further north at the Loughor Estuary, there is a line of concrete anti-tank blocks stretching out into the water. They are covered by a gun emplacement near the Chinese restaurant, and the estuary also had artillery as it was at one end of a firing range. When you look at a map, the railway cutting (it’s mostly below ground level) makes an ideal obstacle for tanks and runs across Gower. To be most effective, extra fortification at weak points would be necessary. Infantry trenches would be hard to spot after so long as the ground is wet and overgrown. I expected there to be more pillboxes but knew of none between the estuary and Killay.

I went online to see if I could find more about the Clyne pillboxes and found a reference to Dunvant Brickworks. Dunvant lies north of Killay along the same railway line and an archaeological survey had been done in 2009, showing the site of several small scale collieries and a brickworks. The survey also described two more pillboxes and a spigot mortar site in the area and mentioned the ‘Gower Stop Line’. Suddenly it was all making a bit more sense.

And so this morning, I was scrabbling about in the mud in completely the wrong place trying to find one of the pillboxes. I slipped, skidded, squelched and was nearly tripped up by brambles. I climbed, descended and all the while got wet in the drizzle. But it was all worth it (for me, anyway) as I finally came across the pillbox I was looking for. It was high up overlooking the railway line. And even better, it was an unusual design that was used mainly for observation. It was hard to visualise the context as in the nearly 80 years since it was built, trees and bushes have grown around it obscuring it’s original field of fire. It was impossible to enter as bars had been placed in the entrance tunnel. I later found out that it has become a home for bats so I’m glad I didn’t try to disturb it.

For the pillbox geeks, it was a type 22, modified with a longer entrance tunnel and no embrasures or a roof. This one had railway sleepers over the top to provide shelter for the bats.

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Mumbles

For most people in Swansea, Mumbles head, with it’s lighthouse and distinctive twin tidal islands, is iconic. It can be seen from the whole 5 mile sweep of Swansea Bay and, by design, it’s lighthouse is visible much further away. I’ve written about it before, here.

The first lighthouse was built there in the late 18th century. It had two coal fired lights in open braziers. The island just out into the Bristol Channel and catches every last whisper of wind; keeping an exposed coal fire burning in those conditions was well nigh impossible. So it wasn’t long before the coal fires were replaced by enclosed oil lamps with reflectors to improve visibility. There was a house on the outermost island for the keeper to live in during his (or her – there were wives and daughters here sometimes) duty, which must have been a lonely existence.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was causing mayhem in Europe and to protect the country, coastal forts were built at strategic points. By this time, Swansea was an industrial centre producing copper and other metals and exporting coal. Copper was particularly important strategically as copper coated hulls allowed Nelson’s ships to move more quickly and maneuver more easily. Mumbles Head was the ideal place for a defences and in the early part of the 19th century a stone fort was built which still stands today. Over the years various guns were placed here. Initially, 6lb cannon protected the port and these were replaced by bigger calibres until 68lb cannon with a range of 5 miles were sited on the island.

Eventually, modern 4.7″ guns were emplaced on the island and the 68lb cannon were unceremoniously dumped into the sea. One was recovered in the 70s and is situated in Swansea Marina. During WW2, these guns formed the inspection battery part of the defences of the port of Swansea, which was one of the biggest Bristol Channel ports during the war. Their responsibility was to enforce the requirement for all shipping to stop and be identified before proceeding into the docks and they were manned by regulars of the 299th Coastal Defence Battery, with Home Guard units and women of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRENS).

A pair of 6″ guns formed the defence part of the battery and were sited further back on the mainland, above the Bracelet Bay car park. These heavier guns with their longer range and better visibility would have engaged any enemy shipping trying to enter the bay. Search lights and local defences completed the battery. Further back on Mumbles hill was the 623rd Heavy Anti-Aircraft battery comprising 4 x 5.5″ guns sited to engage enemy aircraft flying in to bomb Swansea.

The whole area was defended from attack by Territorial and Home Guard units in trenches, machine gun emplacements and pill boxes. A mobile 75mm gun was also available to be used where required and there were minefields laid for further protection.

Where Bracelet Bay car park is now were the Nissen huts and other temporary accommodation for the garrison troops. Immediately after the war, these were used for homeless refugees while new houses was built to replace those destroyed in the bombing of Swansea earlier in the war.

The islands are accessible at low tide. A concrete walkway built to improve access for the battery garrison was destroyed after the war when it was found to affect the way the tide interacted with the beach. As you walk out, you can see the remains of the walkway along with railway lines and, as you near the outer island, posts for guide railings. On the outer island, the Napoleonic fort forms part of the current lighthouse structure. Around it there are the remains of the buildings that made up the more modern defences. And engine room to provide power for the searchlights; barracks for the garrison; platforms for the defence of the island from landward attack and the two search light houses.

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Even more history on your doorstep

Zulu! One of my favourite films, Michael Caine’s big break and a classic movie of the 60’s.

Zulu tells the story of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu war in the late 19th Century. Over two days – 22 and 23 January 1879 – around 150 British and colonial soldiers successfully defended the mission station from attack by between 3 and 4 thousand Zulu warriors. By any standard it was a heroic battle; 11 Victoria Crosses and 4 Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded for that one action.

Of the 150 or so defenders, one stands out for me. Not because of his actions but because this afternoon I came across his grave in the local churchyard. I didn’t know it was there and I was in the graveyard for a completely different reason. But the clean and well tended headstone with fresh flowers attracted my attention, situated as it was in an older part of the plot amongst old and collapsing grave markers.

Private ‘David Lewis’ was born James Owens in 1852 near Whitland. In his teens he sought and obtained work in the tin works at Swansea Docks before he became a weaver. He married in 1875 and had two children, one of whom was named David Lewis Owens. He enlisted into the  2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot at Brecon in December 1876 under the name David Lewis. His pay was sent to his sister.

In 1878 he sailed with his regiment to South Africa where he fought in the Cape Frontier war and the Zulu war between 1877-79. He was invalided to England and discharged from service in August 1879 with heart problems. He returned to Swansea where, as James Owens, he resumed his trade as a weaver. Years later, he lost an eye in an accident when he went into work on his day off to collect his wages.

James Owens died on 1 July 1938 in Brynmill, Swansea, aged 87 and was buried with full military honours at Bethel Church, just down the road from where I live.

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Forward to the past

Apologies for the rather forced title. Indulge me.

Yesterday Rufus and I went wandering over Tor Clawdd, a hill near the Upper Lliw reservoir and Bryn Llefrith plantation. Both have featured heavily in this blog before and they are a favourite destination in reasonably good weather. During our walk we came across an odd concrete structure on a dike that followed the top of Tor Clawdd. The bank and ditch is listed as a defensive work in the archives and is likely to have been some form of control over those proceeding south to the coast. Whatever it was, it was subsequently used as a convenient starting point for a number of adits, or small horizontal pits, used to mine coal. In this case, the Graigola seam. An aerial photos shows the extent of the pits, which line the northern edges of the hill. On the ground they are weathered and worn but clear and make for annoying walking as the sides are steep.

Today we went back because I wanted to investigate in more detail the adits and two concrete structures; one I’d come across yesterday and the other I’d seen on an aerial photograph. We set off to walk along the dike, climbing steeply for a few metres from the road. When the dike was built, this road didn’t exist and the route would have been further to the west. The old track is still visible in photos and faintly in person. We quickly reached the first little brick shelter. It had a concrete roof which had shown up on the photos and was a single room, about 3m by 3m with a smaller outbuilding which looked like it was for storage. There were no markings inside but I noticed the interior had been plastered, and there was a single abandoned bird nest, delicately attached to the ceiling.

Not far beyond was the concrete base I’d seen yesterday. It looked like a mounting point for an engine, possibly used to raise and lower wagons ontop the road below. There were mounting bolts still in place and it was aligned to a track that led down to the modern road. I haven’t been able to find any information about that part of the mining operation. We walked around the northern edge of the hill and then south, following the edge of the hill before it dropped down to Bryn Llefrith and the reservoir. It was a lovely morning and although a cold wind blew from the north, we were soon sheltered from it and the sun was allowed to warm us up.

We walked down as far as the firing butts and I spent a few minutes picking up more bullets and broken glass until Rufus let it be known that he was bored and wanted to walk on. In addition to some fine examples of .30 calibre bullets, which would have been fired from American rifles and machine guns, I found three .45 calibre bullets which are pistol rounds, sometimes used in sub machine guns of the day.

I followed Rufus as he headed back to the hill and the dike. By now the sky was blue and the sun was warm and it was just pleasant walking. We strolled and bounded and dodged hidden mud pools until we reached the undulating line of spoil from the coal mines. Looking down to the reservoir, the water was blue and it felt like summer.

The next thing I wanted to visit was a ring cairn, which I read about when researching the dike and which was supposed to be along side the old track running parallel to the earthwork. The cairn has not been dated and it is not clear if it is contemporary with the dike. It has been suggested that it is the remains of a shelter for those guarding the dike, or perhaps a temporary cattle pound. RCHM records suggest holes for stones, which would make it more of a ring cairn or even a henge.

We spent about 20 minutes wandering about. Rufus enjoyed the chance to explore new ground and I was eventually rewarded when I found the faint outline of the ditch, inside which was the low earth bank. This was no Stonehenge but it was clearly a ring and must have had some significance for those who built it. An undertaking like this was no light matter when most of the time was spent tending to livestock and crops. On this exposed high ground next to a thoroughfare it would have been highly visible and a landmark to those who lived nearby.

To Rufus’ relief, I quickly took the photos I wanted and we set off back towards the car. As we reached the layby, I watched as three model aeroplanes soared from the eastern slopes of Tor Clawdd. But it was time for us to head home for coffee and snacks.

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Bog and bullet

World War 2 wasn’t just about the famous battles. Troops were away from their loved ones for months and years, often in hostile places but always thinking of home. I’ve written before of the aircraft crash sites I’ve visited, all remote and lonely places. These crashes took place during training exercises and it’s important to remember that during war, its not just in the fighting that servicemen risk their lives.

Around the UK there are many places that are associated with military training. But during the build up to D-Day in 1944, allied troops of many nationalities were training and preparing all over the country. Swansea played host to American soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division. My mum remembered them driving Jeeps along the roads of Swansea and making tyre screeching turns at speed. Their transport ships were anchored in Swansea Bay and vehicles were parked along roads and under the cover of trees across the area.

In the months leading up to the invasion, these soldiers were training constantly to prepare themselves for the ‘Day of Days’. On Cefn Bryn, practice trenches can be found on the ridge and there is at least one bunker, now derelict, near Broadpool. For years I’ve suspected but never known for sure that it was a military relic – it’s in the wrong place to be defensive as it can easily be outflanked. But I recently found out that it was a command centre, and probably played a role in assault training.

The wonderful beaches of south and west Gower were used to practice beach assaults. The Loughor Estuary became an artillery range; the firing points are still visible as concrete shells of buildings near Penclawdd and the target area, not far from Whiteford, is marked by an observation post built on stilts near Woebley Castle.

To the north of Morriston is Mynydd y Gwair and a place Rufus and I visit often. Opposite is Tor Clawdd and the site of the home and research facility of Harry Grindell Matthews, known as ‘Death Ray’ Matthews after his work during the early part of the war on a weapon to stop engines and explode bombs at a distance. He built this isolated retreat, complete with a small airstrip, to work on his secret projects (which also included an aerial torpedo, a means of turning light into sound and a means to synchronise sound and film). Unfortunately he died in 1941, before any of these inventions could be perfected.

In 1944, Tor Clawdd was taken over by the officers of the 2nd Infantry Division and the troops were camped on the surrounding hills. One of the training exercises they carried out was to try and simulate real battle conditions. This they did by firing live rounds at an earth bank while the soldiers crawled along a trench in front of the bank or behind the bank. The remains of this exercise is still visible opposite Tor Clawdd and this morning Rufus and I took a look.

Once you know what you’re looking for, the earth bank is very noticeable, although just glancing at it might lead you to think it’s a drainage feature. As we walked towards it, we passed a single conical mound followed closely by six more, lined up parallel with the bank. The mounds were the positions of the machine guns used to fire on the bank. Then came a deep ditch and some 30 yards from this was the bank.  Between the ditch and bank were several shallow depressions in the ground and I had read that these were the result of explosions set off as part of the training. We wandered along the bank, heading north until it came to an end. Great sections of it were weathered and worn by the passage of sheep and cattle but it still stood a metre or so high.

Then I started to notice the bullets. The first one I saw was long and grey and could have been mistaken for a stone half buried in the mud. But I knew what I was looking for and within 10 minutes I’d picked up 19 bullets and fragments just lying on the surface. I also picked up three large pieces of sharp glass, souvenirs of a later period of history.

I have no idea what it must have been like to undergo this kind of training, but I guess if it helped to save their lives later on, then it was worth it. Research I did into this site suggested that some of the soldiers were killed when a section of the bank collapsed on them during an exercise.

The troops of the 2nd Infantry Division landed at Omaha beach in Normandy on June 8, two days after D-Day, and went on to see action in France, Belguim, Holland and Germany. The division is currently stationed in South Korea.

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Tudor Walls and a Sheep Rescue

In the true tradition of all good stories, I’ll keep you guessing about the title until the end.

Time for a nice long walk today – the weather forecast was looking good and I’d had an idea to drive down to Angle in Pembrokeshire to walk part of the coastal path there. I’ve been there before, but a number of years ago, and I remember it as a beautiful part of the coast. So off we went in the car and just over 90 minutes later, we were parking in the sunny, hot car park of Angle Bay.

It’s been a while since I’ve strapped a back pack on so it felt a little odd. Then I draped the more familiar camera bag and water bottle over me and we were ready to go. Rufus was characteristically unencumbered – something we’ve discussed before and something he’s always successfully argued against. Although there was a strong wind, the sun was out and it was much warmer than I expected. As we left the beach and entered a sheltered field, the wind died down and it became more like a summer’s day. I’m always careful to watch Rufus as he heats up quickly. Today was no exception and I made sure he drank as often as possible.

Rufus is a fussy drinker; when he feels like it, he will drink and drink. But if the slightest scent, aroma, movement or other distraction occurs, it immediately assumes the priority. Today he drank sensibly.

At the top of the field, we were on the cliffs and plenty of signs warned of the crumbling, eroded nature of the rocks. This area was a significant part of the military defences of Milford Haven, a natural deep water harbour and we soon saw the first sign this. Below us on the slope was the remains of a searchlight emplacement. There were gun batteries, observation posts and searchlight houses all along this part of the coast, and on the opposite coast around a mile away. Milford Haven was heavily defended.

The next ruin took us back to Tudor times. In 1539, Henry VIII had a number of block houses built around the coast to protect the strategic ports against attack by the French or Spanish (or both). Here, the remains of a watch tower belonging to his Eastern Block House stands on the edge of the cliff. It won’t last much longer as coastal erosion undercuts it. It was reused during WW1 and WW2 as an observation point, as the brick repaired wall shows. Opposite this post lies Mill Bay, where Henry Tudor landed with a force of French mercenaries in 1485. A couple of weeks later, he had gathered about him an army of men loyal to his cause from Pembrokeshire and beyond, and had met and defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. He became King Henry VII.

We wandered on, passing the WW1&2 gun emplacements for now and walking along the beautiful Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Swallows swooped and dived above us and gulls hung stationary in updrafts. The sea was a Mediterranean turquoise, breaking against the cliffs with bright white waves. The gorse was in bloom – a carpet of yellow flowers that we walked alongside (neither of us like their needles). We stopped for a drink and a snack at a smaller gun emplacement standing alone, and then dropped down into a gully carved by a small stream and no doubt helped by the endless battering of the sea.

Up on the other side we surprised some sheep, who were content to stare while chewing on their grass as we went by. A little further round the corner, Rufus caught a scent and led me off the path to the cliff edge. As we were so close and the cliffs were dodgy, I had him on the lead. I’m glad I did, because he was staring at the two ears of a small rabbit hiding in a hollow right on the edge of the cliff. Had he been able, Rufus would have run over and I don’t know what state that part of the cliff was in. I raised my camera and zoomed in to the rabbit – which wasn’t a rabbit at all, but a fox cub. I took a few photos and dragged Rufus away so that we didn’t disturb it more than we already had.

A stile stopped us and we turned back. We passed the fox hole but there was no sign of it. Neither were the sheep we’d encountered earlier, but at the top of the gully we saw the last of them trying to get through a wire fence. Unfortunately, it’s curved horn had got caught in the wire and it was struggling to escape. I could see it wouldn’t succeed, and it was beginning to panic with us being there. So I tied Rufus up to a fence post out of sight and went to try and help. The sheep was trying to get away from me and in doing so, tightening the wire. Luckily it wasn’t barbed otherwise there would have been a nasty injury. But I couldn’t leave it there as the horn was curved right around and the wire was well inside the curve.

In order to get enough slack on the wire, the sheep had to move back towards me but it wouldn’t. I accidentally poked it and it rolled towards me. So I poked it again, rather like tickling someone in the ribs, and it squirmed enough that the wire went slack enough and I managed to pull it over the horn. One happy sheep trotted off to it’s sisters and within second had forgotten all about it’s ordeal. I trotted back to Rufus who was working hard to pull the fence post I’d tied him to over.

At the lone gun emplacement, we stopped and had lunch. Rufus was surprised when I produced a bowl of his favourite crunchy food but he didn’t let that stop him devouring the lot. It was nice in the sun and while I sat and enjoyed the view, Rufus walked around the concrete wall of the circular gun pit. He was very happy to have a path all to himself. We took a couple of selfies and headed on to the main coastal gun battery. This was built in the early 20th Century and in it’s history had big guns (9.2″) and small guns (6pdr) and everything in between. By WW1 it was falling out of favour and the big guns were moved elsewhere. Smaller guns were brought in but the site was mainly used for training. Similarly in WW2 the guns were transported to a site near Penarth and the battery was used for training. It was finally decommissioned in 1945, when all the weapons were removed. Strangely, the ammunition wasn’t removed for another three years.

The last leg of the walk was back across two open fields and down to the beach car park. We were buzzed by swallows again and on the opposite side of the beach, a group of students were studying the geology of the bay. Had the tide not been so far out, I would have taken Rufus for a paddle. Instead, he had a long drink and we set off for home.

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A walk on the common

Bank Holiday Monday. Sunny but with rain coming in around lunchtime. No surprise there, but what should we do? I had a meeting with Rufus, my outdoor pursuits consultant, and he suggested a walk on the common while the good weather lasted. There may have been some bias in his coming to that decision, but I trust his judgement.

I decided to write a lighter blog after yesterday’s and it seemed a good idea to base it on a typical walk in Gower – one of the ones we do all the time and take for granted. So here it is. You have been warned.

Where we go on Fairwood Common is dictated by the location of the livestock there. Farmers get free grazing on this land and in that past we have encountered one several times who believes the land is his own personal possession. As I like to let Rufus off the lead as much as possible, I always look for the cows and sheep and avoid them. Today the cows, along with some horses and foals, were at the top of the common so we had free range. I parked the car off the road and we set off along an old and overgrown access road built for the airport when it was an RAF fighter station. Near here were a dead badger and a dead fox – I’d seen them before so I kept Rufus on the lead until we’d passed. Further along the road was the corpse of a dead cow, but that had been moved since we were last here. It was safe to let Rufus off the lead now and he went trotting ahead as we weaved through bushes and tree branches, all the while the birds singing from the cover of the branches.

At the perimeter fence, we usually see rabbits beyond in the airport. There weren’t any today; maybe we were a bit late. But Rufus picked up their scent and spent a few minutes trying to squeeze himself through the chain links. Giving up, he padded along the fence heading north along the line of the main runway. Two planes were flying, taking turns to land and take off before circling around again.

This part of the common is littered with the remains of WW2 buildings. Most of them are little more than concrete foundations; some are raised above the level of the ground and one or two have several courses of red brick poking above the marsh. Today, Rufus passed all of these and made for the end of the runway. I let him choose the route as he has an uncanny knack of finding trails and paths.

Fairwood Airport was built as a fighter station at the beginning of WW2. Thousands of tons of ballast and slag from the local steel and copper works were deposited in the marshy area known as Pennard Burch. Time was found to excavate two burial mounds in the area before they were covered by the runways. The airfield was open in 1941 and played host to a number of squadrons and aircraft types. It now hosts one of the Wales Air Ambulance helicopters, which was taking off as we walked, as well as the Swansea Skydiving Club and a number of private planes.

At the far end of the runway, we watched the planes coming and going, including the large aircraft used to take skydivers into the air. A smaller aeroplane had to dodge out of the way as the big plane taxied to our end of the runway. Beneath out feet, the marsh land was in evidence and I though that it was amazing how they were able to build on this type of ground. According to the records, damp and drainage were constant problems throughout the war at this base. Rufus disappeared in the long marsh grass but I was able to follow his progress by the splash and squelch noises he made as he explored. He wasn’t worried by the low flying aeroplanes.

We turned back and went onto firmer ground slightly above the level of the airfield. From here, it’s clear that the airfield is built in a dip in the ground. Not an ideal location, but it is the flattest part of the common and the only suitable place to site the runway. We were walking through the remains of the buildings now and Rufus climbed on to every foundation raft to make sure it was clear of local critters. We made our way further from the perimeter fence to a point that would have had a clear view of the whole airfield. Trees now block the way, but they are recent additions. Years ago, I found the half buried entrance to what I thought was the Battle HQ for RAF Fairwood Common. A recent check of a site map proved me correct. Nearby are the filled in remains of two infantry trenches, and between them is the holdfast for a small gun, possible an anti aircraft weapon.

It was all downhill from here and the car was visible from this part of the common. It’s at this stage that Rufus normally slows down. Not because he’s tired but because he doesn’t want to go home. Today, he was too caught up in the smells of the countryside and he ranged either side of me until I eventually had to put him on the lead when we got close to the road. There was a lot of traffic as people took advantage of the sun to get out into Gower.

Then we were back at the car and our walk was over. We’d done just over two miles in about 80 minutes. No records were in danger of being broken today, but that’s not the point of our walks. It’s all about enjoying and having fun. And that we did.

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Auschwitz

To be honest, most of my posts here are written ‘off the cuff’ – I have an idea and I write with little planning. This one has taken a lot longer to make it into the blog. I considered writing a purely fact based account of my visit to Auschwitz but that would be no better than reading about it in any of the (much better researched and written) books that are available. So this is an imperfect account of my visit. For want of a better term, I refer to anyone in the camps as prisoners, although most were not guilty of any crimes. Inevitably, it’s not pleasant reading but it must be remembered.

I had wanted to visit Auschwitz for a while. It sounds like a ghoulish statement but I strongly believe that history is best experienced in person. I am interested in military history, particularly WW2. I had read a lot about the Nazi death camps, watched documentary films and programmes and I felt I knew a lot about this part of the war. Most of us have seen the grim images of ‘selection’, the iconic gates with the railway track passing through, the cynical ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign above the gate of Auschwitz. The complex called Auschwitz was actually a series of camps. Auschwitz itself was a concentration camp, bringing political and racial ‘undesirables’ together. Several other camps nearby were work camps where the prisoners were forced to toil building factories and industrial complexes. There was a prisoner of war camp in the area but this didn’t form part of the Auschwitz complex and the prisoners, mostly western troops, were treated much better. Finally, there was Birkenau which was the purpose built extermination camp.

Auschwitz

We pulled up outside Auschwitz and I felt nervous and a little apprehensive. There were quite a few people milling about outside and as I neared the entrance I saw that there were a lot of young people in the crowd. I’m glad of that; this is an event and a place that needs to be remembered.

Inside, our group made our way towards the main entrance to the camp. This is the one that prisoners would have been marched into and out of every day. Above the gate, the jauntily designed ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign cast more of a shadow than was apparent in the sunshine. Beyond the double fence of barbed wire – which was electrified during the camp’s use and which was one way a prisoner could, and did, end their misery in the camp – the red bricked barracks didn’t look like I expected at all. This camp was originally a Polish military camp and the barrack blocks were large and well built. As the camp expanded, more blocks were built on the pattern of the original building.

The tour of Auschwitz took two hours, during which time we visited some of the barracks – now mini museums, each with its own theme. For me, the two hours was an ordeal (one which I gladly undertook and I’m not complaining) as we were given the cold statistics of what went on here. There were up to 20,000 people in the camp at any one time. More than 8,000 Russian prisoners of war died here, and 21,000 Gypsies were murdered in the camp. The profit from the sale of Zyklon B pellets to the camp were 300,000 marks. When the camp was liberated by the Russians, they found 7 tons of human hair packed up ready to send back to Germany; that was only the latest grim harvest. Many more tons had gone before.

In one particularly chilling museum the personal possessions brought here were displayed. We walked past huge cabinets full of shoes, shoe, shaving and hair brushes, tins of boot polish and prosthetic limbs. In a cabinet on its own were a number of Jewish prayer shawls – symbols of the faith that brought many of the prisoners here. Newly arrived prisoners and those destined for the gas chambers were told to make sure their possessions were labelled so that after the ‘shower’ they could find them again. It was done to ensure the minimum of fuss when taking prisoners to their deaths. An example of Nazi efficiency. In one room, a collection of suitcases with their owners names printed neatly on them were piled up as they had been left by their owners. It made all the statistics into real people.

We were asked not to take photographs of the cabinet full of human hair out of respect for the victims. I found this display hard to take in but the next one was worse. In a small cabinet on the way out of the room were a few tattered and worn teddy bears and dolls. A child’s shoe lay next to them. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

We moved on through the camp, free to walk about as we wished before being guided to the punishment block, Block 11. This was also known as the Death Block and most of the prisoners who went in didn’t come out alive. Here, the barracks had been left as it was in 1945. I found seeing what the prisoners would have seen gave this particular building even more atmosphere that the others. We passed the dormitory rooms, where those condemned to trial slept their last nights on the floor with only thin mattresses of straw or, in some cases, just the straw. We passed the room where the ‘trial’ was held and made our way back along the corridor to the guard room. At the end of the corridor away from the entrance was a portable gallows used for some executions.

Block 11 was the only one to have a basement and it was here that the punishment cells were located. This was a grim place and it felt oppressive, depressing and unnerving. What it must have felt like for the prisoners, I dread to think. Some of the cells were used to starve prisoners to death. One was used to suffocate them. There were three cells which were only big enough to stand in, and more than one prisoner was kept in there at the same time. It was an awful part of a terrible place and I was glad to get out of the gloom and back to the stark corridor.

Outside was the courtyard where executions were carried out. usually, the guilty prisoner ( they were all ‘guilty’ of course), were taken out immediately after sentencing, and shot. To minimise the effect of gun shots on other prisoners, small calibre pistols held close to the head were used and the windows of the neighbouring barracks were blocked up. As we looked, a Jewish visitor was praying against the execution wall. I felt like an intruder, and I left.

Opposite the Death Block were the camp hospital wards. These were known as the waiting rooms for the gas chambers as many of the patients were rounded up and sent to their deaths from here. Medical experimentation took place here as well. A complete barracks were set aside for sterilisation experiments, for example. You did all you could not to be ill in Auschwitz.

We walked back toward the gate, past the assembly square, where prisoners were paraded and counted, a process often taking hours in all weathers. In front of the square was the mass gallows, where offenders were hung in front of their fellow prisoners. To one side was a small wooden cubicle, where the officer in charge to the roll call sheltered from the weather. It was beautifully made and resembled a grandfather clock case only on a larger scale.

Instead of leaving, we walked to the other side of the camp, where the crematorium was situated. As we stood opposite, it, the guide pointed out the camp commandant’s house – a villa shielded from the camp by some trees. Rudolph Hoess was the first commandant and the one most associated with Auschwitz. Next to the crematorium was the gallows on which he was executed after a proper trial.

Finally, we were led in to the crematorium and as we went, so we were told that the part we were going in to first was the gas chamber. It was dark and silent (out of respect for those murdered here, we were asked not to speak). There was an atmosphere in there that I still can’t adequately describe – a mix of horror and depression and a grim feeling of hopelessness. The guide pointed out the chutes through which the gas pellets were dropped and then we moved on to the room containing the ovens. In another chilling example of efficiency, there was machinery designed to make the loading of the corpses quicker. I was glad to get out of the building.

Birkenau

We were transferred to Birkenau, only a few minutes away. This is probably the place you would be familiar with from film and stills of the Nazi extermination programme. We entered through the ‘Death Gate’ alongside the railway line (purposely built as a spur off the main line to speed up the transfer of prisoners). We walked along the tracks until we got to an open area and I turned around to look back. I saw the image I’d seen in pictures and realised that we were at the point where the prisoners were unloaded from the cattle wagons and the selection process took place. With the aforementioned efficiency, prisoners selected to be murdered were separated from the others; more often than not families were split up here and sent to the one of the four gas chambers. In less than half an hour, prisoners were being gassed.

We were stood next to a cattle wagon and I was surprised at how small it was. It would house at least 40 people but almost always more were crammed in. Our guide explained that in one transport (the name for the train full of prisoners) that took four long, hot summer days to get to Birkenau, only three people survived out of more than 2000 who started out. Heat, thirst and suffocation accounted for the rest.

Birkenau is huge. It covers 425 acres, with more than 300 buildings, and was being expanded in 1944. Most of the wooden huts, which once housed horses before being converted to house the prisoners, were dismantled immediately after liberation to provide building materials for locals. All that remain are a surreal forest of red brick chimneys for the fireplaces in the huts. In the sunshine on the day of my visit, they shone like square red tree trunks.

We made our way past the end of the railway tracks to the giant memorial to the victims of Birkenau. It had been created from the funeral and burial architecture from all the societies and religions represented by prisoners in the camp. It was an impressive sight but in the context of environment I found it hard to really take it in.

Because either side of the memorial were the remains of Crematoria 2 and 3. The four crematoria, with their attached gas chambers, were blown up by the Nazis in an attempt to hide the evidence of their crimes. But despite this, it was quite clear what I was looking at. The crematorium was at the junction of a right angle formed by the underground undressing room and the gas chamber. Prisoners would enter the changing room, usually believing their were going to have a shower, and be moved through to the gas chamber. They were locked in before most of them realised what was happening. After 15-20 minutes, the corpses were transferred to the crematorium, which could cope with around 5000 bodies a day. In a further example of terrible Nazi efficiency, crematoria 3 and 4 were built with their gas chambers level with them to make it easier to transfer the bodies from one to the other.

We passed a water filled pit, in which the ashes of the burnt corpses were deposited. They were also used to fertilise nearby fields and deposited in the woods that surrounded the camp. As we left this part of the camp, a party of Jewish students were singing a haunting song by the side of the ruined crematorium.

We made our way to the Women’s camp and into one of the huts. This was more like what I was expecting to see at Auschwitz. Instead of bunks, there were what can only be described as shelves and 3-5 prisoners slept in each one. Although there were two fireplaces, the terrible cold of Polish winters killed many occupants, and the lack of ventilation meant that many more died in the heat of summer. Our guide explained that the hut ‘kapo’, usually an ‘ordinary’ criminal selected by the camp guards to manage each hut, would live in a small room near the door and could be bribed for favours. A kapo’s favourite was far more likely to survive the camp ordeal.

By now, I was feeling emotionally drained. A lot of what I’d seen and heard was very hard to take in and fully comprehend. 1.3 million people were murdered in Birkenau. I don’t know what that number of people all together looks like. Around 100,000 people would be in Birkenau at any one time – that works out at more than 300 prisoners per hut. I just about know what 300 people look like together and I can’t imagine what conditions in the hut must have been like. The views along the wire to the guard towers was familiar from so many prisoner of war movies, but here it was for real. Even as a visitor, I felt a little unnerved by their presence. So much of this place was familiar from photographs and yet it was so different from what I was expecting.

And suddenly, we were being led to the exit gate. Something the former prisoners could only dream of. Although I was a willing visitor, I felt some relief at being able to get out of the camp. It had an oppressive, depressing atmosphere despite it being a bright sunny and warm day. I’d always imagined visiting here in grey, dreary conditions. And I’d heard that no birds sing in the area. I didn’t hear any while I was there.

I wondered about the guide, too. She was very good – her English was excellent and she had a very clear delivery. But throughout, it was level and business like. I guess she had to protect herself from the horrors she was describing. I’m not sure I would be able to keep the emotion and judgement out of it if I were leading a group around the camps.

More than 6 million Jews were murdered in Hitler’s death camps, or on the streets of their home towns or in their homes. It is estimated that between 15 and 20 million people were imprisoned in camps or ghettos during the war. It wasn’t just Jews that were sent to these places; Gypsies, political prisoners, homosexuals, disabled people, Jehovah’s witnesses and Catholic clergy were also routinely sent there.

It’s almost impossible to understand the mentality that created and maintained these places but we must understand that it can never be allowed to happen again.

 

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