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