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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Death Rays

The weekend doesn’t really count for our fortnight of fun as I’d be off anyway. Instead, I had planned on having a weekend of rest. Of course, Rufus wasn’t quite so keen on the idea despite the rest being for him. So yesterday morning we went off to the woods for a stroll and around Broadpool in the evening, where we dodged cows and watched the heron lit up by the red evening light.

Today was slightly different. I wanted to visit Carn Llechart, a Late Neolithic or early Bronze Age ringed burial cairn, a little to the north west of Pontardawe. As I remembered it, it was a short but steep climb from the lane to the top of the hill (imaginatively called Mynydd Carn Llechart). I saw this as a relatively simple and short walk. I hadn’t counted on the local farmer fencing off the common access land along the lane. Undeterred, I drove on a little further and found proper access as it should be.

We climbed the short incline to the ridge but I knew we’d have to double back to make our way to the cairn. It was a gorgeous morning with not a cloud in the sky and clear visibility for miles. In the distance to the north were the Carmarthen Fans, all of which we’ve climbed in the past. Little wisps of fog were gathering just below the summits of some of the hills. The sun was warming the morning up.

After about a mile, we reached the cairn, overgrown with reeds. It was the last time I was here, too. The cairn is an almost perfect circle, with upright flats stones forming a ring around a central earthen mound. At the centre is a small cist chamber in which a burial was made. The cairn is just over the top of the ridge and would have been visible from the south. Beyond the cairn, southwards and in a fenced off field, are three large stones which may have been contemporary with the cairn, marking an approach of some sort.

Rufus explored the cairn while I tried to take photos of it. Then, once he and I had finished, we set of northwards until we got to a spot that gave us a great view over the hills. I know Rufus doesn’t have the same appreciation of landscapes that I do, but even he was impressed, judging by the time he spent stood still just looking.

I’d checked on the map before heading out this morning and I knew that we would be on the opposite side of the Clydach Valley to the one we normally are when we go to the wind farm. I’d been reading a book on local history and it mentioned that one Henry Grindell Matthews had a small laboratory on the the hillside we could see from Carn Llechart, Tor Clawdd. There he set about perfecting several ‘secret weapons’, including a ‘death ray’ that could stop engines, ignite gunpowder and knock out humans. The buildings were surrounded by a fifteen foot high electrified fence, and he even had his own little airstrip for the private plane he flew. I’m fascinated by things like this so I made a mental note to explore that area at some future date.

Back at the car, I decided to carry on along the lane rather than turn around and go back the way we came. I knew from checking on the map where we’d come out and sure enough, we were heading towards the wind farm on Mynydd Betws. The drive was pleasant and scenic along a narrow lane and almost as quick as the journey up on the main road.

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