Thursday, 20 August 2020

The Pawlett Barrage Balloon Hanger (1940-45)

 The Pawlett Barrage Balloon Hanger must be one of the biggest enclosed spaces in Somerset, eclipsed only by the generator halls at the nearby Hinkley Point nuclear power station complex. I'd almost given up looking but an elderly local resident directed me down a narrow roadway leading down to the lower reaches of the River Parrett. Tucked away in a fold in the landscape, the site is is clearly well suited to discreet activities.

The Barrage Balloon Hanger at Pawlett

In 2011 The Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society undertook a survey covering The Defence of the Bristol Channel in the Second World War (ISBN 978 0 902152 23 6). An application to have the hanger listed was rejected in November 2001 so I was half expecting the structure to have been dismantled. It's still there though, and it's an impressive building.


The Pawlett Hams (as the area is known) was chosen as a suitable location for secret experiments by experts at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough. the first experiments were concerned with the breaking strain of German barrage balloon cables - an example had come loose of its tether and had drifted into the North Sea where it was picked up for analysis. 


The process of inflating, deflating and manoeuvering a barrage balloon was time consuming and manpower hungry so the hanger was built in 1940 to house a single fully inflated balloon which could be deployed quickly and efficiently. The hanger measures 100 x 70 x 80 feet high and it dwarfs the buildings around it.

The efficacy of the cables was tested by flying specially modified aircraft into them. These aircraft had strengthened wing edges and it strikes me that it would have taken a lot of guts for a pilot to deliberately fly an aircraft into wires tethering a huge balloon full of highly inflammable hydrogen gas. This hanger and several at Sutton Coldfield, were the only facilities of this type in the country. Sadly the ones in the West Midlands are long gone so Pawlett has the only surviving example.

In the cemetery at the St John the Baptist parish church there is a memorial to the crew of a Blenheim which crashed onto Pawlett Hams on 5th July 1942. The aircraft along with the bodies of Sgt James Anderson, Sgt Adam Hogg and Sgt Gilbert McBoyle was recovered by local enthusiasts in 2007. My initial reaction was that the aircraft may have been lost during one of the aforementioned experiments. However, in looking up the incident, it seems that the aircraft (Blenheim IV R3912) was lost on a cross country training flight having taken off from RAF Bicester on a cross-country training flight. The aircraft involved in the balloon experiments flew from RAF Exeter and later RAF Churchstanton on the Blackdown Hills.

The picture shows, from left to right, Sgt Hogg, Sgt Anderson and Sgt McBoyle. It would seem that the aircraft was practising dives over the nearby Pawlett Hames ranges, to the east of the hanger. The ranges were used for the initial trials of 500lb and 1000lb bombs and for testing the dispersion of incendiary bombs. Later they were the location for testing the aerodynamics of objects falling at high speeds. In 1945 both the range and the hanger were decommissioned.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Totleben Fort, Kronstadt, Russia (1910-1950)


The COVID-19 pandemic has put paid to a number of battlefield walks this year, including an extended visit to Belarus to explore the 1944 Bagration battlefields. Time to sort out material from previous trips then - and this blog entry covers a boat trip to the fortified island of Totleben in the Gulf of Finland. Totleben Island was part of the seaward facing St Petersburg defensive ring of which the great Russian Navy base at Kronstadt formed the lynchpin.


The author in front of Totleben Fort in 2018

Tortleben Fort was built on a sandbank four km west of Sestroretsk and ten km from Kotlin Island. 
Construction was completed in 1910 and what was, until then, called 'Fort A' was renamed 'Totleben' after the Baltic German military engineer Eduard Totleben who at age 18, in 1836, joined the Imperial Russian Army with the rank of Captain. He never commanded a great army in the field but he was responsible for the construction of the formidable defences at Kronstadt and, later, around Sebastopol where he was appointed an Adjutant General. As an aside, my Great Great Grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Taylor whilst serving as a private soldier in the British 17th Regiment took part in an attack on Totleben's 'Great Redan' in the Crimea on 18th June 1855.



Totleben Island
In 1915 an inventory shows that the fort was fully armed and garrisoned with 800 men. It had a freshwater reservoir, a desalination plant, a church, a cinema, a telegraph office and other facilities. It saw no action during the First Worlds War, nor did it feature in the events of 1917. 

In 1923 the armament was upgraded with the installation of four 8-inch guns recovered from the Russian cruiser 'Rurik' which had been scuttled after performing well - but not without severe damage - at the Battle of Ulsan (14 August 1904) during the Russo-Japanese War. The fort was active during the Winter War of 1939-40, its guns had a range of 20km and were able to support the Red Army's offensive on the Karelian Isthmus.


203mm (8-inch) Gun Position - Totleben


Comparison - 203mm (8-inch) Gun 

We travelled to the island in a small boat from Kronstadt. The journey took a couple of hours and we passed a number of other fortified islands. Nowadays Kronstadt is linked to the mainland by the Saint Petersburg Dam which was built about fifteen years ago. We sailed underneath the only bridge which allows the passage of ships through the northern arm of the structure. The orbital motorway which traverses the dam was still under construction when I first visited St Petersburg almost twenty years ago and I remember locals driving around the barriers in order to take shortcuts along the road even though it's surface had not been put down and they were driving on gravel.


Our transport
The island is uninhabited and everything is accessible, so armed with maps, local expertise and head torches we explored the decaying rooms and corridors of the impressively large military complex. 

The main purpose of our visit was to better understand the role played by the Fort during the 1941-44 Siege of Leningrad. During this period the Fort was an active part of the northern defensive line facing the Finnish forces who were holding the encirclement lines at the foot of the Karelian Isthmus. The defenders were attached to the Soviet 23rd Army and initially played a purely defensive role in protecting the Sestroretsk area from Finnish attack - indeed, according to Russian sources an amphibious assault by Finnish forces was successfully repulsed in the early days of the siege (though I can't find a reference to this in David Glantz's pretty definitive history). 


The rear of Totleben Fort with Sestroretsk on the skyline


The panorama above shows the rear of one of the gun emplacements with Sestroretsk in the distance. The guns were active against Finnish positions on the Beloostrov to Terijoki axis during the Red Army's successful attack against the Finns in June 1944. After the Second World War, in the period 1950-54 the Fort was upgraded with new electrical and communication systems. Waterproofing work was undertaken in the vaults and an anti-chemical protected bunker was installed. 


Totleben Fort - Interior

Just one year after the Fort was upgraded, in 1955, the guns and ammunition were removed. In 1958 the military presence was stood down and after formal decommissioning contractors removed any remaining valuable metal components. In 1985 it was moved to the jurisdiction of the St Petersburg (then Leningrad) local authority. More recently the site has been listed by UNESCO.

Other stories from our 2018 'Winter War' Tour. 

The Fight for Vyborg 1944 - Here
The Continuation War (1941- 44): Finland's Dilemma - Here
Owl Mountain / Gora Filina (Finnish / Soviet) Base - Here
The Amphibious Attack at Losevo (Winter War / 1940) - Here
The Anatomy of a Soviet Bunker (1941-44) - Here
The Lemitti Pocket / Motti (Jan - Feb 1940) - Here
The Fight for Sortavala and the Northern Shore of Lake Ladoga - Here
The Transit Camp at Hanko, Finland (1941-44) - Here


Friday, 17 April 2020

Clevedon's Victorian Gun Battery


In the late 1850s a wave of anxiety swept through the British military establishment. The letters page of the London Times was awash with concerns about Britain's vulnerability to foreign invasion. The letter writers had a point - the British Army and the Royal Navy were sorely stretched in defending the Empire and were engaged in a series of colonial and foreign wars. Indeed in a single decade the British had taken on Czarist Russia, an Indian insurgency and most notably the Qing Emperor in China, a country with a population of 500 million. 


Clevedon Volunteer Artillery (Source Unknown)

Ironically, the concerns were centred on France who were, of course, Britain's coalition partner throughout this period. Some sixty years earlier the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had changed European geo-politics for ever. Those with very long memories recalled the last French invasion of Britain in 1797 (the invasion battlefield at Fishguard is the subject of one of my earlier posts). Much later, the coup d'├ętat by Louis Napoleon in 1852 induced a particularly acute bout of invasion panic and in the ensuing years a number of steps were taken to strengthen Britain's costal defences and raise a local militia who would backfill gaps in home defence.

Clevedon Pill - 1878 (Rob Campbell Collection)

The volunteer movement got underway in 1859 and the Clevedon Artillery Volunteers (initially known as the 1st Somerset Artillery Corps) were formally adopted into the 1st Artillery Volunteer Corps (Portishead and Clevedon) on 18th June 1860. At its' inception the Corps mustered nearly 45 men and almost a year later The Weston-super-Mare Gazette was reporting a roll of over 50. The unit was commanded by various members of the Elton and Trestrail families up until the point of its disbandment in 1908. 

Clevedon No. 9 Battery - May 1888 (Elton Archive)
Captain Sir Edmund H. Elton
 (middle seated row - 6th from the left)

The Clevedon Volunteers went through a number of iterations the most controversial one being their incorporation into the Gloucester Artillery Volunteer Corps as Battery No.9 in 1880. According to some secondary sources there was a strong local preference for the unit to be brigaded with any of the southern counties. Certainly in 1908 (18th March) the Western Daily Press reported that it had been hoped that the Clevedon Artillery would be united with Weston-super-Mare as a Somerset Corps and then made into the Horse Artillery or something useful. 

The Wain's Hill Battery - Recently Restored

The Clevedon Volunteers' gun battery overlooked The Pill, an area of coastline characterised by small creeks suitable for supporting an amphibious landing (the topography has changed since a pumping station was built in modern times). It was formally inaugurated on the 14th August 1860 when the Corps' two guns (landed from the Juverna) were put in position - one on the battery site and the other in the 'Drill Shed'. The Volunteer Service Gazette and Military Dispatch described the day as one of the gayest ever witnessed in Clevedon with flags flying from every church tower. Clevedon formed just a small part of the Bristol Channel picture. 


Clevedon Artillery Volunteers - Clevedon Pier - 1893

Around the same time a series of batteries were strung across the channel from Brean Down to Lavernock Point in Wales with two heavily fortified islands in between - Steep & Flat Holm. Since 2016 a local volunteer group - The Friends of Poets' Walk - have put in hundreds of hours of hard work into clearing the battery site near Wain's Hill (referred to as Battery Hill in a press report of 1878) - along with the adjacent 2nd World War era Home Guard depot. The Clevedon Civic Society generously donated resources and expertise in order to stabilise the remaining structures.


'Big Bertha' 1932 (Derek Lilly Collection)

What about the guns? I haven't examined many primary sources but by a process of deduction it is possible to work out the basic story. An edition of the Weston-super-Mare Gazette on 17th September 1864 tells us that the Clevedon Artillery Corps was originally equipped with two eighteen-pounders and these are referenced in press reports from the opening of the battery - as quoted above. In his book Clevedon: Places and Faces the late Rob Campbell mentions a  '64 pounder'. Indeed contemporary press reports reveal a 64 pounder was used in Heavy Artillery competitions between (at least) 1882 and 1889 at Wain's Hill. The original guns had in fact been replaced (or perhaps augmented) by the aforementioned RML (rifled muzzle loading) 64 pounder and a 40 Pounder RBL (rifled breech loader). In 1899 the two guns were, in turn, replaced by 40 pounder RBL's adapted with a side loading action. There are a number of photographs of at least one decommissioned 40 pounder RBL with side closing, still in situ at the battery but with the breech and vent piece removed. 


Clevedon Battery - Two 40 Pounder RBLs - (Ted Caple) 
The Left Hand Cannon - Close Up (Jane Lilly Collection)


The two side loading 40 pounder RBLs latterly deployed at Clevedon was the 'Land Service' version of the RBL 40-pounder Armstrong Gun. The naval version was mounted on an iron traversing carriage but the picture above shows the Land Service block trail carriage variant. 226 of these guns were issued to Volunteer Artillery Batteries in 1888-89. Clearly the remaining guns were rendered inoperable - and became tourist attractions - when the battery was decommissioned in 1908. In 1916 the Western Daily Press was reporting that influential residents had asked for the removal of the obsolete guns from Dial Hill (sic). It doesn't look like they were removed at that time but according to a Council Road Committee report they were 'dismantled' (probably deactivated). In June 1924 Clevedon Council approved the payment of 6d per annum to the Clevedon Court Estate so that the two obsolete guns could remain in situ - this despite 'other members' saying the guns were neither useful or ornamental. Rob Campbell has the guns being disposed of in 1940 so as to avoid the unwanted attention of the Luftwaffe. Local historian Jane Lilly says that one of the guns was offered to Sir Ambrose Elton as a decorative piece for his lawn and this is borne about by a 1924 report in the Western Daily Press which said that the two guns and the German howitzer mentioned below should be offered to the Lord of the Manor


First World War German Howitzer at Pier Copse (Rob Campbell)
Pier Copes - April 2020

In 1919 a First World War era German howitzer (with carriage) was placed in Pier Copse overlooking the entrance to the Pier. The gun had been allocated to Clevedon by the A.S.C. Transport Officer based in Exeter.The current whereabouts of that gun is unknown although at least one local person remembers playing on it as a child. So what happened to the three guns in the end? Well, thanks to Mike Taylor on Twitter, we now know that the two old guns (erroneously described as Crimean War relics) were put up for sale in 1938 having been moved and hidden during the Great War. The article discovered by Mike - Wells Journal, September 1938 - says that a relic of the last war, a captured Austrian howitzer, has already been moved from Pier Copse. (Clearly the point about the two older guns being 'hidden' prior to 1919 is contradicted by the Clevedon Council minutes for 1924 quoted above so there remains some doubt as to exactly when they were moved away from the old battery).

The artillery competitions at Wain's hill left a legacy though -  a popular local pastime in the 1950s and 60s was cannon balling. At low tide local teenagers would wade out onto the mudflats and retrieve bullets, cannon balls and other items of ordnance from the area in front of the old battery. In the 1960s the remains of an old target looking like a burst barrel was a prominent feature on the foreshore.

Cannon Ballers on The Pill in the 1960s (Derek Lilly Collection)

As with many topics, the snippets of information included in this blog post pose more questions than answers. 

What about the men of the Corps? Who were they and what happened to them? Well that story will have to wait for another day.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

What the Centenary of the 1918 Armistice meant for Clevedon, North Somerset


At 11:00am on Sunday, 11th November 2018 a maroon was fired from the end of Clevedon Pier as part of a moving service of remembrance.  This has been an annual event (with some breaks) since 1918 when Captain Rowles – the piermaster at the time - fired two rockets upon hearing news of the signing of the Armistice on the morning of the 11 November 1918.

In 2018 it was 100 years since Marshall Ferdinand Foch (for the Allies) and Matthias Erzberger (for Germany) agreed to end what is now known as the First World War at the end of a hurried negotiation conducted in a railway carriage deep in the Forest of Compi├Ęgne, France.

'There But Not There' on Clevedon Pier

Over the course of the previous four years the Great War had hugely impacted Clevedon. Aside from the thousand or so men who served in various capacities, many local women had devoted their time to looking after wounded soldiers at the Oaklands Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital (Elton Road) and supplying garments to the fighting troops. Others helped in the Prisoners of War Food Depot in Hill Road and elsewhere. Young and old were involved – this was a community effort. For example; a few dozen fourteen year old girls were kept busy learning practical skills at the Clevedon Girls’ Patriotic Club in Old Street. There was even a series of events for the RSPCA Fund for Sick and Wounded Horses.

Despite local men leaving the town to enlist in the Somerset Light Infantry, The Gloucestershire Regiment, the South Wales Borderers and other units, in 1915 the town’s population swelled from 6,000 to 9,000 with the arrival of the 56th Infantry Brigade of Kitchener’s Army. These men – predominantly from Lancashire - were billeted in the large Victorian houses around Marine Hill, Princes Road, Chapel Hill and Linden Road at a cost of 2/6d per man per day.

Men of the 56th Infantry Brigade - The Triangle, Clevedon

We should of course remember the 208 Clevedonians who gave their lives for their Country in the First World War. Indeed, on Clevedon Pier  every one of these brave individuals was commemorated over a 100 day period through sensitively placed There But Not There silhouettes. Reading through these names one is struck by the scale of the overall loss and the variety of capacities and theatres in which the men served. Many of the names on Clevedon’s four main First World War memorials (All Saints, St Johns, British School and St Andrews) are recognisable even today as they belong to families with long local associations. 

For the ninety per cent of serving men who returned to Clevedon from the frontlines at the end of the war each had a unique story to tell – everyone had their own motivation, experience and memories. For some the return was incredibly painful for themselves and their loved ones because their lives were blighted by physical disability or mental illness. Others - perhaps the majority - quickly re-integrated into civilian life and played a part in making the town what it is today.

Armistice Day - The Triangle, Clevedon - 1969

Many historians had hoped that the centenary of the Armistice would encourage a broader public discourse about the legacy of the First World War. Sadly however the notion of ‘pointless sacrifice’ based on a perception that those who went to war were naive ‘victims’ lead by incompetent generals with the cynical support of conniving politicians has endured.

It is surely time to take a more nuanced view of the First World War’s legacy. A generation of young men whose life experience was shaped by their experiences in the trenches, on the high seas and in the air were instrumental in reshaping our society in later years.  For those at home, many would retain a pride in what they had contributed – and for women the forced involvement in work away from the confines of domestic drudgery had an emancipatory effect which certainly transformed society for the better.

Therefore, on the 11th November 2018, as people gathered in various locations around the town to mark the 100th anniversary, it was a time for all to reflect on the Clevedonians who were involved in the First World War and remember, with pride, their enduring legacy.

Note: With thanks to the late Rob Campbell whose book ‘Clevedon’s Own’ was a valuable source of information and to whom this article is dedicated. Pictures from the Jane Lilly collection.

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.