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.