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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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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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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The Rainbow Holiday

I know, it’s a twee title, but if I’d called it ‘The Haunted Holiday’ or ‘The night of a thousand coughs’ it wouldn’t really sum it up.

We headed off to Dunster on the North Somerset coast for three nights of Halloween flavoured fun. We had booked tickets for the Dunster Castle ‘Ghost Walk’ after seeing it advertised when we were visiting in September. We stayed in a beautiful old house on a hill not far from St Georges church and we made sure we walked through the graveyard every evening to set the atmosphere up for our stay.

Talking to the landlord, it turned out that he had owned Flora’s Barn, one of our favourite holiday cottages, for 25 years and Flora, the horse that originally lived in the barn (before it was converted) was owned by his daughter. Such a coincidence! On out first night we ate in the Luttrell Arms, named after the family who owned Dunster Castle. It’s an old pub with plenty of character. There are several rooms, and we chose one heated by a huge Inglenook and open fire. The food took a while to come and I enjoyed a pint of local cider, Thatchers, which was to be a recurring theme for me. The manager for the night apologised for the delay in bringing us our food and offered us a free round. When it finally came, the meals were gorgeous.

Delicious cooked breakfasts started our mornings off nicely. The weather wasn’t the best and we saw the first of many rainbows from the window of our room. On the 31st and with no real plan in mind, we headed off east to have a look at Crowcombe church. The village is small and typically English and the church nestles beneath the Quantocks, Graham, our landlord, and his wife had explained that it lay at the end of the only road ro cross the Quantocks and had grown up around the potential trade that would generate. But it remained a poor village dominated by the local landowning family until quite recently. They would move tenants around within the village so they didn’t feel as if they owned the homes they rented. Some of the family also insisted on influencing how the villagers voted. It was almost as if we were hearing stories from some period drama.

We drove up onto the Quantocks before heading down to Nether Stowey to visit Coleridge’s cottage. Like every other time we’d been there, it was closed. But there was hope; it would be open later in the week. From there we headed back to Williton and, although neither of us wish to talk about it much, we visited the Bakelite museum there. It’s been a bit of a standing joke with us everytime we’ve stayed in the area. Down a narrow farm track, in a farmhouse outbuilding, there was an amazing collection of old domestic items from the last 100 years or so. Many of them were, indeed, made from Bakelite – the first plastic. But there were other things there and the one that stood out for me was an old dentist’s appliance – a metal stand with several arms coming out of it, each with a mechanically operated tool on the end. It was bizarre and clever and sinister, all at the same time. It reminded me of the torture ‘droid from the original Star Wars film.

Cleeve Abbey, out next stop, was a rather clinical building that would have benefited from some thought to dressing the rooms with period exhibits. Most of the rooms were empty and although they were labelled, it was hard to imagine how, for example, the Abbott’s bedchamber would really have looked. Even an artist’s impression on the wall would have helped. We wandered around the grounds, including the original refectory floor tiles under a giant marquee, before making our way to the nearby pub for a snackette (with chips, of course).

Our final destination of the day was Minehead and by now the weather was closing in. Some abortive attempts to fly a kite on the beach only succeeded in getting us wet. So we retreated to the B&B for a rest and to plan the evening. Neither of us were hungry so we headed off to a pub at the end of the village for a pint and some games of pool. I came second in two games but won the third. Watching over our every shot was Nelson, a large grey parrot who insisted on whistling a lot and occasionally shouting the world ‘w@nkers’ at random. During our last game the pool room had been invaded by a gaggle of local women who seemed to be keen to get us to move on. They were crowding the room and seemed very reluctant to get out of the way if we were playing a shot.

We made our way to Dunster Castle by 9pm and joined the others waiting for the ghost walk. Soon we were off and heading through the medieval gatehouse to the servants hall, where we went through an underground passage (originally for servants to move about without being seen) and had the first of a series of encounters with characters, noises, slamming doors and other eerie sounds and sights. The nightwatchman told us about footsteps with no one around to make them. A cavalier officer explained how he had died in the room we were in. We saw a maid looking for the lady of the house, a child being taken away to be punished and a couple of ghostly figures lit only by candles. Eventually, we survived and made our way past the dungeons, from which unearthly sounds could be heard, and into the stables. It was only then that we found out our guide was, in fact, a ghost herself!

On Thursday, we went west to Lynmouth and the cliff railway. The rivers were in full race and although the sun was shining, it was cold. We made our way slowly back along the coast, stopping in Porlock to have a look around the little church there. We parked up at the B&B and went for a look around Dunster. While Em went shopping, I walked down to Dunster beach to see what there was to see. All the way down the muddy lane, I was following a huge rainbow from a storm shower that was passing to the west. The sky was black, making the colours stand out even more.

Dunster beach was a key risk area for invasion during World War 2 and at one time there were a dozen or so pillboxes and other defensive structures built to command the long beach. Most have gone but in the car park was a pill box still wearing its camouflage of pebbles from the beach. It was originally disguised as a large pile of rocks and pebbles. Further inland were two more pillboxes, one in the middle of a field, the other, one of many along the stretch of the West Somerset Railway.

I headed back to rendezvous with Em and after watching a cheesy horror movie (well, it was a Halloween holiday) we headed out for food and a swift half. We ate at Cobblestones, a lovely restaurant on the main street of Dunster. The food was wonderful and the service excellent.

After breakfast and the inevitable rainbow, which seemed to act a s a backdrop to a large crow sitting on the neighbour’s fence, we climbed up to Conygar Tower, a folly built to overlook Dunster from the west by one of the Luttrells. We walked through the woods, risking life and limb as conkers dropped all around with loud thunks. We drove off towards Nether Stowey, driving along the coast and keeping Flat Holm and Steep Holm islands in sight in the Bristol Channel. Again, rainbows kept us company as we headed for Coleridge’s cottage, which was open. It was very atmospheric, having been set out as it would have been when he arrived in 1797. In contrast to Cleeve Abbey, the rooms had character and while many of the items on display hadn’t belonged to Coleridge, they were genuinely contemporary and helped to set the scene.

Then it was time to find the motorway to take us back to the 21st Century and home.

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History on your doorstep.

I’ve always been interested in local history. While I was still in school, I attended local history lessons and since then I’ve taken an interest in the subject. I never studied history in school and that’s one of my regrets. I’m particularly interested in the military history of the area and that probably stems from the stories my mum used to tell me of the Swansea Blitz in February of 1941.

Swansea Bay Pillbox

Swansea Bay Pillbox

Swansea was used as a staging post for troops involved in the invasion of occupied France on D-Day. The bay was full of transport ships and the farmland around was full of American soldiers. Very little, if anything, of this remains today. Most of the visible signs of the area’s war lie in ruins. There’s a pillbox on Swansea Bay, opposite the University. I haven’t been able to find anything out about when it was built or if there were others, but it sits alone, half buried in sand. It’s seaward face has no embrasure and it was clearly intended to provide enfilading fire, that is to shoot at the enemy from their sides. You see it on the German defences on the beaches of Normandy and elsewhere.

A now ruined radar station sits of Rhossili down. Another is sited near Oxwich Point. A third sits overlooking Port Talbot. All kept watch on the Bristol Channel.

Clyne Pillbox

Pillbox at Clyne

More pillboxes defend a possible invasion route from the west towards Swansea along natural obstacle of Clyne Valley. One is hidden opposite the Railway Inn in Killay.

Mumbles Hill Heavy AA Battery

Mumbles Hill Heavy AA Battery

There are a number of anti-aircraft gun emplacements on and around Kilvey Hill, protecting the oil refinery and industrial areas of Swansea nearby. My mum told me of an anti aircraft battery, including ‘Z’ rockets (unguided surface to air missiles) sited on the playing fields near Singleton Hospital. The rockets were secret at the time. Another battery of heavy guns were sited on Mumbles head, above the Yacht club My uncle recalls that the sound of these 5″ calibre guns firing was totally different to the smaller 3″ guns nearer the city.

 

 

Mumbles Head Searchlight House

Mumbles Head Searchlight House

Lower down on the slopes, on a now flat and empty piece of the hill overlooking the lighthouse, a battery of anti shipping guns were located.

On the tidal island which is home to the lighthouse, there are searchlight houses.

Mumbles Lighthouse Fortress

Mumbles Lighthouse Fortress

Part of the buildings that for the lighthouse were originally a 19th Century fortress and gun battery.

Swansea airport was originally built as a fighter station in 1941 on land that was so boggy it had to be filled in with thousands of tons of industrial waste and rubble (which took a year to complete). Over the war years, it was home to a number of squadrons and became  a base for anti shipping strikes, night fighters and eventually the home of a weapons training facility.  The aircrews would practice shooting, bombing and strafing on nearby Whiteford and Llanmadoc bays. Fragments and unexploded ordnance is still being found there – last year an old gas shell was still potent enough to affect the ammunition technician sent to dispose of it.

Infantry trench

Infantry trench overlooking RAF Fairwood Common

Recently while walking around the area with Rufus, I came across several reminders of it’s past including an area of slightly higher ground which seemed to have been a defensive point. The faint indentations of several trenches could be seen, along with a deeper concrete lined one and the mounting for a small artillery piece of heavy machine gun.

Fighter dispersal pen

Fighter dispersal pen. Each metal feed trough is placed where a twin engined fighter bomber (probably a Beaufighter) would have been parked. The earth bank between them would have protected them from bomb damage.

Until a few years ago, I had an old Anderson shelter in the garden. I remember as a boy seeing several such shelters in back gardens around the area, most still buried as was suggested when they were issued. The wall of the old police station in Swansea is pitted with shrapnel damaged bricks from a bomb that fell in the street. Looking at the records for the bombing of Swansea, at least one house near me was destroyed by a bomb, and many others were damaged. There is a story that a stick of bombs fell close to the nearby further education college and a rumour persists that one landed in the marsh on which the college is now built, and failed to go off.

There are many such structures in the UK and many more that have been lost over the years since they were built. They are a valid part of our history in the same way as castle, churches and bridges are. I hope we don’t lose sight of that just because they are a reminder of an unpleasant chapter of history.