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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Climbing Kilimanjaro 5: Up the hill

At 10.30pm on 24 January, I was awake and lying wrapped up against the cold in my sleeping bag. I’d gone to bed about 4 hours before wearing thermal long johns, lined trousers, socks, thermal base layer and a fleece. I’d managed a nervous 3 hours of sleep but had woken early. I was resting, and thinking about the climb to come. Reluctantly, I got out of the warm cocoon and donned another fleece, my duvet jacket and boots.

We were greeted in the mess tent with hot, sweet tea and porridge. I was getting fed up of porridge but there was no doubting it’s energy giving properties. I put a large spoonful of sugar in and downed the contents of the bowl. I took my last diamox tablet, drank another cup of tea and was ready.

Withe little fuss, we gathered outside, little pools of torchlight in a sea of darkness. Passian led us off towards the gap in the rocks that formed the first, steep climb out of School hut camp.  The scramble over, we started off on the path which climbed steeply right from the start. It was the beginning of a mindless, endless trudging that went on with little to show for the effort. The darkness hid any landmarks that could have shown the progress we were making, and that was probably a good thing.

We stopped for a short break after about an hour and I checked my altimeter. We’d climbed 100m. As we set off again, and aching limbs protested, I started to do the calculations. If we’d only done 100m in an hour, it would take us 12hrs to get to the top. It was a depressing thought and only after a few more minutes did I realise that I hadn’t recalibrated the altimeter at School Hut camp. I guessed the readings were wrong, and resolved not to look at the altimeter again.

We carried on along a series of zig zags, climbing steadily but with no idea of how far we’d come. I longed for each break, but when they came, they merely served to make me feel the cold and for my limbs to develop cramp. Starting off again was harder as a result.

Suddenly, ahead, I saw a line of tiny lights stretching down to my left and up to my right. We had reached the junction with the path from Kibo huts, another popular summit route and the lights were the head torches of the other climbers heading towards Uhuru Peak. We turned sharply right and joined the line. Behind, one group was singing but this soon petered out and there was a strange silence despite the number of people on the path. We stood to oe side to allow faster groups to pass, and we passed slower groups including some people clearly in trouble and being tended to by their guides.

We stopped briefly at Hans Meyer Cave, which I knew to be around 5300m. I had no idea how log it had taken and knowing we were about half way didn’t help either. After the cave, the zig zag legs got shorter and steeper. Lights high above gave an indication of the steepness. A chill wind picked up and blew across the face of the slope. This part of the climb was the hardest as by now I was digging deep for reserves of mental strength. The climb was never ending. Although the pace was very good, I began to have some doubts about whether I could get to the top.

But I started to think of the people who had supported me; my friend’s little boy who had drawn a good luck card which I had with me, and friends and colleagues who had helped me get ready. I also had in my head a song that I used to listen to when doing the harder parts of the training on the Brecon Beacons. All of that gave me an extra boost of determination, and I carried on placing one foot in front of the other as we climbed higher.

All of a sudden, the slope got steeper and we climbed over a series of rocks to a flat area and our guides stopped. They pulled out flasks and gave us all a welcome mug of hot sweet tea. It slowly dawned on my fuzzy brain that we had reached Gillman’s Point; the place where the steep path upwards crests the crater rim. Gradually, as the tea warmed me, I remembered that this was the end of the steep section and from now on the going would be much easier. To the North East, a faint glow was in the sky.

We set off from Gillman’s Point around the rim of the volcano towards Stella Point. By the time we reached the large sign, the sun was just below the horizon and the colour in the sky was deep and beautiful. We stopped to watch the sunrise from just beyond Stella Point, and the peak of Mawenzi was silhouetted against the sky and the layer of cloud hundreds of metres below.

Although the path was far less steep, there was still an incline and the altitude meant that it was still hard going. I passed a number of people sat by the side of the path, head in hands. None were alone so I wasn’t worried about leaving them. There were a number of false summits before I finally spotted the big sign that marked the highest point. I reached it at 7.15am local time.

The feeling of actually getting there after all the time spent preparing, the delays caused by injury and the last 8 days trekking, was amazing. It’s hard to put it into words even now. I’d read about this place but until recently I’d never dreamed I’d actually get here. The 45 minutes I spent on the summit went by in a blur and looking back, many of the memories are through the photos I took. Not because I didn’t stop to see with my own eyes, but because I was tired and my mind was trying to take everything in.

The crater of Kibo is still largely intact and had I been able to spend more time on the top, I would have loved to have descended into it to explore. But our time on top was limited, mainly because of the cold and the tiredness. Instead, I was able to look out onto the remains of the glaciers, and the snow lying on the path I’d just walked. The views from the top were magnificent. Beyond the Northern icefields was Mt Meru. Down to the south was our next goal, Barafu Camp.

All too soon Passian was motioning for us to leave and reluctantly, I followed him back down the pathway. We passed more people coming up and many were struggling in the thin air. We reached Stella Point and dropped over the side of the crate rim to begin the descent.

Passian set a fast pace down across the scree. The alternative was a three hour trudge down which would have played hell with my knees. Nevertheless, I was reluctant at first to follow him as I was conscious of the potential erosion. I compromised and sought a firm path down, occasionally skipping past the longer bits with a diversion across the scree. Passian and the others all but disappeared ahead of me but I could see where  we were heading and wasn’t too concerned. In no time we were down at Barafu camp, having descended 1300m in around 85 minutes. After a brief brunch stop, we descended further to Millennium camp, our overnight stop.

As we registered at the camp site, we were told that they were blasting to clear a site for a new toilet block. But my tired brain misheard and I thought the ranger said they were blasting to clear the toilet. I thought of an explosion in a cess pit and didn’t want to think any further. Shortly afterwards, there was a dull thud and we were allowed to go to the tents. I fell asleep almost as soon as I lay down and after about an hour, I was woken by someone shaking the tent. It turned out they were blasting again. I staggered over to the ranger hut just in time to hear a much louder bang. A huge cloud of smoke and debris rose high in the air and over our part of the camp site. Back at the tents, we saw that one of them had been hit by debris which had torn through the fabric.

The following morning, after we’d distributed the tips and said good by to the crew, I took a last look at Kilimanjaro in the morning light, and then we headed of to begin the 2200m descent to the waiting minibus. By that afternoon, we were back at the poolside of the Ilboru Safari Lodge, showered and rested.

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Remember, remember…

…when you were a kid and fireworks were the coolest thing ever? Well, in that respect, I never grew up. I love fireworks. I love the smell, the sound and the light. I’m fortunate where I live that I have a grandstand view of most of the organised displays in the area. After festivals, parties in the park and on the 5th of November, I get to see the fireworks in all their glory.

Tonight was no exception. In fact, it was a lovely clear night, with the stars out and good visibility. Our council put on yet another brilliant display that lasted around 30 minutes. I enjoyed every second.

I couldn’t resist taking some photos of Andromeda afterwards.

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