Wednesday, 1 April 2020

The Testing Grounds at Middle Hope, North Somerset (1941- 2009)


For many years stories have circulated in Clevedon and Weston-super-Mare about the strange "goings on" in Woodspring Bay at the landward end of Sand Point, North Somerset. Locals remember ordnance being found on the surrounding beaches at low tide and in the post war years the peace and quiet of this tranquil spot was punctuated by loud explosions.

Military Road to St Thomas's Head

A few weeks ago I took a walk around the adjacent National Trust property at Sand Point and followed the fisherman's path onto the site. Once inside the wire I spent some time exploring the hard standings, derelict buildings and strange structures that remain. Sadly, within the last ten years the Ministry of Defence has demolished most of what remained there when the site was finally decommissioned in 2009 but one can still discern the layout of the camp and the berthing points on the beach.

Mysterious Structures at St Thomas's Head

During the First World War practice trenches were dug on St Thomas's Head but it wasn't until 1941 that the area came into serious military use. It was in this year that it was designated as a weapons-testing base having been purchased by the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development (DMWD) as part of the new HMS Birnbeck facility. By 1943 it was a busy facility used for testing a seaborne version of Barnes Wallis's 'bouncing bomb' and various exploding devices designed to thwart torpedo attacks - amongst other things.

Pier & Huts - Aug 1948 (Jean Sugar Collection)

In June 1944 two salvage wrecks were sunk in Woodspring Bay to test the efficacy of using concrete filled block ships to disrupt water borne traffic. These wrecks - HMS Staghound and HMS Fernwood - were later used for bombing practice. 

HMS Staghound & HMS Fernwood
In 1948 the St Thomas's Head site was turned over by the Royal Navy to the Air Ministry for use as a bombing range. Weapons testing continued until 1958 and then the site was used primarily for munitions disposals. The Bristol Channel has a remarkably wide tidal range and munitions would be placed on secured pallets at low tide. Once they were covered by water they would be exploded. 

Exploding Ordnance
Coincidentally, just a couple of weeks after I'd explored the site I has a phone call from Peter Lander, the archivist from the Birnbeck Regeneration Trust in nearby Weston-super-Mare. A local woman had found a photo album in a skip and thought they might be of interest because HMS Birnbeck was mentioned in some of the captions. "Can you make any sense of it?', Peter asked.

I met up with Peter a couple of days later and was astonished to find that the album contained a long series of carefully captioned photographs from St Thomas's Head in the late 1940s. It would seem to be a unique record and its pages answered a lot of questions about what exactly went on in Middle Hope during the early Cold War period.

Mines on the sands at Middle Hope (Jean Sugar Collection)

The album documents the testing of various air-dropped weapons and reveals that in the immediate post war years Lincoln bombers were used to drop test mines and Swordfish biplanes were used to drop test torpedoes. They operated from nearby RAF Locking and once deposited the test ordnance was collected by a small landing craft (LC) based at the St Thomas's Head establishment.

Dropping a smoke float (Jean Sugar Collection)
LC retrieving a torpedo (Jean Sugar Collection)

From the album one can begin to understand what the strange structures which still project from the water may have been used for. Images in the albums show men adjusting the guide wires and hanging objects (or maybe scientific instruments) from beams.  Some have notations the meaning of which are now lost. The picture below is marked '333 Modification to A Type S Carrier - 7th Jan 1949 - F/Lt White'.

Adjustment to 'A' Type 'S' Carrier (Jean Sugar Collection)

Much of the Cold War history of St Thomas's Head is still shrouded in mystery - the files remain classified. However this photo album now safely in the hands of the Birnbeck Regeneration Trust give an intriguing glimpse into a fascinating world. The person who took the photos and made up the album surely served at the establishment and probably features in some of the pictures. His name is probably lost to history but the record he kept is not - thank goodness.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

South Carlton Airfield (1918)


A few years ago, out of the blue, I was sent a briefcase marked with my Grandfather's initials which contained two photo albums and various other personal items. I'd heard stories that my Grandfather, Phillip Francis Saunders, had enlisted in the RAF in 1918 and had completed his training just as the war ended. I remember Frank (as he was known) saying; "just my luck, the war ended after I'd completed my training but before I'd had a chance to get involved". It was a genuine thrill, therefore, to discover that one of the albums contained numerous photographs documenting Frank's time spent training at RAF South Carlton in Lincolnshire.

Frank Saunders - RAF
Frank had joined the Army (Royal Flying Corps) at 16 years of age on 11 November 1918 for 'Boy Service'. He joined the RAF when it was formed on 1 April 1918 and trained as an observer at No. 46 Training Depot Station - RAF South Carlton. 

South Carlton airfield was built from scratch and became operational, along with Scampton, Harlaxton, Waddington and Spitalgate, in November 1916. By March 1918 the airfield had the population of a small town. It was home to the 23rd Training Wing under the command of the highly decorated war hero, Lt Col Louis Strange (whose memoirs were later published under the title Recollections of an Airman). 39, 45 and 61 Training Squadrons trained men from Britain, Canada, America and even Russia.


'Prang' at South Carlton - Copyright Applies

My Grandfather's album is full of pictures of crashed aircraft at South Carlton - Avro 504s, 503s, Sopwith Pups, Sopwith Camels, Nieuport 20s, 'Shorthorns', Airco DH6s, BE2s and RE8s. Crashes seem to have been a regular occurrence and in his memoirs Col Strange gives some remarkable statistics:
Work in a Training Wing was no joke. The write-off of one machine for every 140 flying hours meant the loss of something between thirty and forty machines a month, in addition to some thirty or forty minor crashes. In May of 1918 for instance, we had sixteen fatal casualties in 23rd Wing.


Main Hangers - South Wingfield - 1918 - Copyright Applies

The Same View - Feb 2020

The aerodrome at South Carlton consisted of a grass runway / landing zone, four large hangers (see picture above) and three brick built hangers / workshops (one of which remains). In addition there were numerous wooden barracks (one of which is pictured in the air crash picture above), various functional buildings and a cinema. The cinema is still standing albeit with a collapsed roof. One can see the projection room on the side facing the main farm access road (see picture below).

RAF South Carlton - Camp Cinema

The owner of Cliff Farm, which has been in the same family for a couple of generations, remembers seeing the big screen on the wall and spent many childhood hours exploring the nearby bottle dump. In the bottom picture, the hardstanding for Hanger No. 4 is marked by the trees and shrubs. The other three are long gone in order to make way for productive agricultural use. The  concrete base for No. 4. remains because the farmer's wife at the time (late 1970s), having felt the farmhouse windows rattle when the base of No. 3 was blown up, called a halt to the demolitions!

Remaining Hanger / Workshop - Used For Agriculture

Three buildings and one other structure remain on site - aside from the numerous First World War hardstandings. The remaining hanger, the cinema and what looks like an old engine house. There is part of a fourth structure which has been incorporated into a modern farm building. (The owner of the land is sympathetic to the history of the site and I'm grateful for his warm welcome on a wet cold day last week!).

South Carlton - From the Air - 1918

Cliff Farm - From the Air - 1976

The four main hangers can be seen in the top 1918 photograph. The cinema is in the bottom left corner adjacent to the accommodation area. In the bottom picture the concrete bases of Hanger Nos. 3 & 4 can be seen. The remaining brick built hanger / workshop is in the top right corner.

South Carlton Church
The airfield closed in 1920 and the land, over the ensuing years, has been restored to agricultural use. After the RAF had left the area, the local vicar, the Rev'd Wardale-Hall (1917-1926) carved the pulpit in memory of those who served at South Carlton.

Nowadays there is an RFC badge presented as the fall on the church lectern. Behind the pulpit is a display - dating from 1990 - giving the history of the airfield. A brass plaque on the front of the pulpit reads Praise God for the brave men of South Carlton Aerodrome who gave their lives in our defence.

The Pulpit at South Carlton Church, Lincolnshire

The dead from South Carlton are, I think, interred in Newport Cemetery, Lincoln (sadly, I timed out and the cemetery was closed by the time I got there).

My Grandfather was extremely disappointed not to have seen action in the First World War. However, his time with men from 'the colonies' had wakened a renewed sense of adventure. At the end of hostilities he emigrated - temporarily - to Canada where he joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police before absconding on a weekend pass and travelling across to British Columbia where he set up a chimney sweeping business. He eventually returned to these shores with a wealth of valuable life experience.

South Carlton - Frank Saunders - Top Right - Copyright Applies

The picture above was, I think, taken at the end of the war. My grandfather seems a lonely figure sitting on the bonnet of the vehicle on the right hand side. Within weeks he would set off for a thrilling working trip through Canada and Washington State in the USA. He wrote to the War Office from his room at the Imperial Hotel in Calgary asking for his medals to be forwarded. Sadly, they were not forthcoming. Luckily for his heirs, the war had ended before he was able to get involved.

Note: All photographs except the water colour of South Carlton Church and the two aerial shots are Copyright Phil Curme.

For more information including access to the full South Carlton photo portfolio use the contact form on my home page.

Please note that Cliff Farm is private property and permission should be sought from the landowner for access.