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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A walk in the woods

In the quest for the perfect misty woods photo every opportunity has to be taken advantage of. No matter how wet and muddy I’ll end up getting, it will be worth it. Or so Rufus told me this morning when I looked out of the window at the mist and drizzle and contemplated another day indoors. Of course Rufus didn’t actually say that to me. To imply that he can talk would be silly. No, he used his Jedi mind tricks to ensure that I knew that going out to Gelli Hir woods this morning was the right thing to do.

Gelli Hir is an ancient woodland, which means it is has been in existence since the 17th Century, probably longer. In the middle there is a pond which hosts ducks and dragonflies and boasts its own little hide. As you walk from south to north you pass through the oak and willow to one dominated by sycamore and beech. This place is one of my favourite woodland areas, with plenty of birdsong doing its best to drown out the occasional aeroplane from nearby Fairwood airport. In the spring, a carpet of bluebells fills the southern part of the wood. It’s always wet and muddy and all you have to worry about is how wet and muddy this time.

We set of in thick mist and the prospect of some lovely soft mist swirling around the old, twisted trees had me picturing what kind of photos I was aiming for. Too often I am guilty of not really visualising in advance and while sometimes I enjoy the spontaneity, I know I will get better results applying a bit of thought in advance. It’s one of the things I’m trying to get into the habit of doing.

We left the main path almost immediately and stepped into the mud and leafy mulch. It would be more accurate to describe the first 100 yards or so as marshland rather than path and we both splashed and squelched through, all the while getting wetter as water dripped from the leaves. And the atmospheric mist swirling around the trees? Nope! For some reason, there was next to no mist in the woods. We had dropped down slightly from the level of the moor when we left the main road and I hadn’t noticed. Rufus wasn’t worried and he enjoyed the myriad of new scents and aromas as he dashed back and forth, making sure he also sampled all of the mud.

In the distance, cows called to each other and it was eerie in the silent woods. For some reason, there were no birds singing and the mist helped to deaden any other sounds. Apart from the cows, all I could hear were out footsteps and the drips of water from the trees. Everything was a lush green with the recent rain, even in the dull grey light of an overcast morning. But still no mist.

We emerged from the woods back on to the main path and almost immediately reached the pond. A couple of moorhens were surprised to see us and disappeared with much flapping and splashing into the reeds. Two ducks remained calm and aloof and just kept an eye on us as we passed. A little further on, we climbed a small but steep hill and surprised a buzzard. Before I could even reach for my camera, it had spread its wings and flown off between the trees. Shortly afterwards, I started to hear birdsong again.

With little prospect of the beautiful misty woods I’d envisioned, we set off back to the car. Out of the woods, I grabbed a bag and we did a #2minutelitterpick along the road back to the main road. Looking back from the junction, the woods were shrouded in a thick mist. In around 10 minutes, I managed to remove plastic bottles, glass bottles and food wrappers discarded by the side of the road. Most of what I picked up was recyclable. Its a shame that people can’t be bothered to do a simple thing like take their rubbish home with them.

Back home, Rufus was so muddy that a shower was required and no amount of Jedi mid trickery prevented it from happening. We’d done more than two miles through the woods and so while Rufus dried out on the sofa (which involved a lot of snoring), I set off down the road to the local graveyard as I’d had a few ideas about capturing black and white images of the gravestones in the overgrown site.

When I was a kid, my gran lived opposite this graveyard and whenever we stayed with her, which was often, I’d sleep in the room overlooking the graves. It never bothered me and still doesn’t. I find graveyards fascinating; the inscriptions on the headstones are very much of their time and a lot can be read into the style of words and design. This graveyard has become very overgrown in recent months and while it’s a shame that some of the graves have all but disappeared beneath brambles and tall grass, it also makes for interesting photographs.

Many of the graves had collapsed completely, or were not far from doing so. A couple of the taller headstones were leaning so much that I was wary of going too close. Other graves were marked by simple wooden crosses that remained upright and betrayed their age through weathering. I always look for the distinctively simple military headstones and there were only two. One was from 1915, a ‘Serjeant’ Evans of 6th Btn, the Welsh Regiment. (I looked it up and found that the 6th Btn was sent to the Western Front in 1915). The other (Webb) was from 25 years later, in 1940. I couldn’t find out much about him other than the regiment was in the Western Desert at that time. He was 42 when he was killed, so he would have been 17 when Evans was killed and the chances are Webb would have served in WW1 too.

A grey day weather wise, and grey describes how I feel after having researched these two soldiers.

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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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Why not?

Why do I blog?

I was listening to a radio programme this morning while out with Rufus. He was off in the distance and ignoring me so I didn’t feel guilty. The programme was about diarists and three people were talking about why they or others keep diaries. The general opinion was that it was a selfish activity. One point of view was that although people who keep diaries claim it’s for their children to read when they are gone, in fact they would not want their offspring to read the things they actually note n their journals. The conclusion was that it was done for their grandchildren, as there was sufficient distance in the relationship to make the events recorded more acceptable.

It set me thinking, why do I blog? At first glance blogging can appear egocentric, big headed or can suggest delusions of grandeur. I hope I have none of these traits but if not then why do I blog?

I like reading military history and most of the books I’ve read in that genre talk about big campaigns, momentous battles and significant moments in the progress of wars. But the books I like best are the ones in which individuals talk about their experiences. There is a great series from the Imperial War Museum ‘Forgotten Voices’, in which the history of the battle or campaign is told through the recollections and anecdotes of individuals who were involved. These personal accounts add a realism and flavour to the story which cannot be found elsewhere. Each kind of account – the big picture and the individual – have their place and I prefer to start with the overview and then go in for the detail.

Anyway, the reason I blog is to provide the little person’s account of things. I’m not involved in any monumental moment in history but in years to come something I’ve written may provide a new insight into how things were for the ordinary person, or some background information about how the average person lived.

At the very least, I provide bedtime reading guaranteed to send you off to sleep.

Night night.

 

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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