Friday, 1 October 2021

The Fortified Island of Flat Holm

 From 1870 to 1900 the Severn Estuary was protected by four interlocked forts - Brean Down, Lavernock Point, Steep Holm and Flat Holm. Later, during the Second World War, these sites were redeveloped and brought back into use. Nowadays all of these sites can be visited, and each one is unique and of special interest. Last month I managed to get to Flat Holm Island, the journey itself was a bit of an adventure in that the only way of getting there is in a rib running out of Cardiff Bay.

The Landing Beach - Flat Holm

In Victorian times there were four batteries on the island: Lighthouse, Well, Farmhouse and Castle Rock. Because of the relatively low and exposed terrain the nine 7" Rifled Muzzle Loading (RML) guns deployed on the island, were all mounted on Moncrieff Disappearing Carriages. Many of the guns are still on the island, as they were difficult to salvage, but the carriages are long gone. The sunken gun pits are there to explore as are the tunnels, ammunition stores and the original 1869 barrack block (now a pub, small museum and visitor hub). 

Gun Pit at Lighthouse Battery, Flat Holm

Moncrieff Carriage in Gun Pit

The quarters provided on the island were good for fifty men but generally the island was served by a Master Gunner and five lower ranks. The gun pits were constructed from limestone blocks and bricks - they are 18 ft in diameter and 10 ft deep. When firing their 115-pound shells, the recoil forced the gun into the down position (see illustration above). It was then reloaded and, with the aid of a counter weight, raised ready for firing again. The guns were only fired in tests and in 1888 the R.A. and R.E. Works Committee recommended that a number of the guns be replaced with a 6" breech loading (BL) gun and two 3" quick firing (QF) variants. These upgrades never happened.

The 1869 Barracks & Lighthouse

7" RML Gun at Lighthouse Battery

During what is sometimes referred to as the 'second military occupation' from 1940 to 44, over 350 soldiers were based on Flat Holm. Two anti-aircraft (AA) batteries were established, both consisting of two heavy, 4.5" AA Mark II guns, a command post, and were flanked by two searchlights. Bofor and Lewis guns augmented the AA armament. The batteries were constructed from mid 1941 and throughout 1942 - sometime after the main raids on Cardiff and Bristol between October 1940 and May 1941.

1941 era AA Gun Position - Farmhouse Battery

Searchlight Building and Store - Farmhouse Battery

The pictures of Farmhouse Battery above, illustrate the strategic value of Flat Holm Island. The coastline in the distance is the Weston-super-Mare / Sand Bay stretch of Somerset shoreline, defended by the fort at Brean Down. Steep Holm Island can be seen in the second picture. The main deep water channel up to Bristol and into the Severn Estuary runs between the islands. 

We can garner some idea of what the batteries were like in the wartime years through the work of war artist Ray Howard-Jones (1903-96). After being accredited as an official war artist Penarth based Ray spent several months on Flat Holm and Steep Holm in 1942, leaving a rich legacy of contemporary paintings. The painting below, showing two newly installed A.A. guns is reprinted with the kind permission of the National Museum of Wales and Nicola Howard-Jones. 

Lighthouse Battery under Construction - 1942

Flat Holm became non-operational in December 1944 and in 1945/6 German prisoners of war removed most of the equipment and many of the pre-fabricated structures. Aside from the batteries, ammunition stores, control bunkers and searchlight positions visitors can explore the remains of a G.L. Mk II radar platform and ramp, plus a number of other wartime structures such as the old gas attack store and guard house.

Ramp to G.L. Mk II radar platform

Open Moncrieff Gun at Well Battery

As is the case with Lavernock, Brean Down and Steep Holm it is interesting to see how Victorian fortifications have been reused in later conflicts. The sites chosen in the 1860s and 70s remained relevant in later times and although the gun pits required a radical new approach, some of the other buildings were re-used. The picture immediately above shows an open-backed Moncreiff gun position at Well Battery on Flat Holm, with a 1941 era structure built where the original Victorian artillery piece was originally mounted.

Main References
'A History of Maritime Forts in the Bristol Channel' by J.H.Barrett
'Flat Holm Island: Rich in wildlife, steeped in history' from Cardiff City Council
Bay Island Voyages: https://www.bayislandvoyages.co.uk/


Wednesday, 18 August 2021

The Lundy Island Heinkels (1941)

Lundy Island, in the Bristol Channel, is a remote and beautiful place which attracts a limited number of visitors, particularly in the two or three months up until the end of July when the Puffins are around. Their spectacularly colourful beaks and liking for precarious cliff-top locations, make them an attractive subject for bird watchers and photographers. To some extent I was drawn to the island by the prospect of seeing birds as well - but not the feathered variety, rather the remnants of two German Heinkel HE III bombers which crash landed on Lundy in 1941.

3 March 1941, Heinkel HE II Crash Site

The Bristol Channel was a critical lifeline for Britain during the Second World War. The deep water passages around Lundy were (and still are) used by a huge number of merchant vessels heading for Avonmouth, Portishead, South Wales and smaller ports further up in the Severn Estuary. During the Battle of Britain period the Heinkels of Kampfgeschwader 27 Boelcke (KG 47) were active over the area. Often operating in pairs, the German raiders would seek out and and attempt to sink merchant vessels in the Channel. Their leader, Oswald Boelke, was a a First World War fighter ace and the squadron sported an emblem showing a black eagle with red beak and claws overlayed with a sword.

Lundy Island in the Bristol channel

The history of the two Lundy Island Heinkels has been thoroughly researched by the South West Aviation Historical Society and made public in Graham Lewis's excellent booklet Eagles on Lundy (from Leesthorpe Publishing). The history is one thing, but would I be able to find the crash sites and would there be anything to see? I knew one was readily accessible but the other one looked like it might be a challenge, particularly since the aircraft crashed into a cliff face on the wild and windswept western side of the island.

All That Remains at the First Crash Site

The first crash on the 3rd March 1941 resulted in no fatalities. The Heinkel medium bomber had taken off as one of a pair from its base near Brest in France. Just off the Welsh Coast the two aircraft spotted a Dutch merchantman, the SS Simaloer and proceeded to attack. The bombs missed but as the second aircraft passed over the target, the gun crew on the Simaloer managed to disable the plane's port engine. The pilot gained a few hundred metres before spotting what he thought were was one of the Scilly Isles. Anxious not to land on water, the pilot managed to crash land the aircraft on what turned out to be Lundy Island. 

Looking south towards the First Crash Site

Graham's book tells us that the five crew scrambled out of the aircraft and that the navigator fired a signal pistol into the fuel tanks. The crash site still bares witness to this in that there is a circle of ground devoid of vegetation and covered in shards of melted aluminium. A local lighthouse keeper was the first on scene and was somewhat non-plussed to find that the flyers were not Polish, but German. To avoid retribution from vengeful locals, the Germans concocted a story about searching for a missing aircraft. The true nature of their mission was subsequently uncovered during interrogation and the five men went into captivity as PoWs. The youngest member of the crew, Elma Botcher, returned to the island and the crash site in 1991 where he was received warmly by the small local population. 

1 April 1941, Heinkel HE III Crash Site

The second site, known to the locals as the Forgotten Heinkel is a little trickier to find. I'd planned a round-the-island walk and luckily, Simon Dell, one of the Lundy island Ambassadors was on hand to give me some advice. What remains of the second aircraft is a couple of hundred metres from the coastal path underneath a rocky outcrop known as Parrot Rock. Access was easier than I thought though I wouldn't recommend it for anyone suffering from vertigo! The story of this aircraft is also revealed in the Eagles over Lundy booklet. The remains of one of the Heinkel's two engines is jammed between a couple of rocks and there other pieces of the aircraft scattered around. 

Heinkel HE III Engine Crankshaft

This German raider had been operating with two other aircraft and after crashing, locals surmised (incorrectly) that it had attacked the Kestrel, a trawler, some four weeks earlier. The trawler's first mate had been fatally injured and the skipper had managed to put his stricken vessel onto the landing beach. The crashed German aircraft had four ships painted on its tailplane which attracted the attention of locals still shocked by the Kestrel incident. Three of the Luftwaffe crew had bailed out over the sea but the pilot and his observer who had tried to guide the plane to safety were killed instantly when the plane crashed into the soaring west side cliff. 

Parrot Rock, the Crash Site is bottom left

The surviving three aircrew were apprehended by four Royal Navy men who were incensed by the earlier incident and made their anger apparent. Eventually the Luftwaffe men were put aboard a boat called the Lerina for onward transportation to North London's Trent Park House interrogation centre and then on to a PoW camp. Investigation revealed that this aircraft had been involved in a successful attack on the MV San Conrado, a 7,892 oil tanker on passage from Curacao to Milford Haven. The second Lundy Heinkel had been hit by anti-aircraft fire which damaged the starboard engine. Whilst attempting to go over the cliff and crash land on the centre of the island, the pilot lost 75 feet of height and, as described above, hit the cliff.