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.

Friday, 14 February 2020

The Battle of Shrewsbury - 21st July 1403

Ever since being introduced to William Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1 as a teenager, I've maintained an interest in the Battle of Shrewsbury. Shakespeare's description of the struggle between Henry, Prince of Wales and Henry 'Hotspur' Percy, son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland, is a truly astonishing piece of writing - even in the context of the Baird's prestigious body of work.

The interior of Battlefield Church, near Shrewsbury

A lovely weekend break in the historic town of Shrewsbury proved to be an ideal opportunity to 'scratch the itch'. The prospect of lunch in the award winning Battlefield 1403 farm shop and cafe which is located on the edge of the battlefield site sweetened the pill for my wife who has become very used to such diversions over the years.

In 1399 the usurper, Henry Bolingbroke, had taken the English crown from his cousin Richard II, with the help of the powerful Percy family. Over the course of a few years tensions between the new King and the Percy family eventually erupted into conflict. In a rather incongruous rebel alliance, the Percys teamed up with the Welsh nationalist Owen Glyndwr and Edward Mortimer. Mortimer was uncle to the young Earl-of-March who some saw as the rightful heir to the throne.

Battlefield 1403 Visitor Centre

The armies took to the field and Hotspur, supported by George, Earl of Douglas headed towards Shrewsbury in order to meet up with Glyndwyr's Welsh rebels. The King reached the town first and Hotspur found himself separated from his Welsh allies and on the wrong side of the River Severn.

The Severn at Shrewsbury
After spending a night in the village of Berwick, Hotspur decided to move his force away from the river towards a town called Harlescott so as to get a better line of sight on the advance of the King's forces. The king intercepted the smaller rebel army and after a rather duplicitous negotiation (on the part of Hotspur's uncle, Thomas Percy) battle ensued in a large field planted with peas below a ridge.

The farm shop and visitor centre is located on top of the ridge roughly where the central echelon of the rebel army formed up. Standing at the back of the visitor centre one can view the entire battlefield. Immediately after the battle the victorious Henry IV gave permission to the Rector of Albright Hussey to build a chapel to commemorate the souls of the fallen. The chapel, which was in use just six years after the battle, was built adjacent to a mass grave right in the centre of the battlefield. The existing church built from the ruins of the chapel was reconsecrated in 1862 but is now redundant. (Note: If you are looking to walk the battlefield then don't forget to pick up the chuch key in the Battlefield 1403 shop).

Battlefield Church from Percy's start line

The battle started a couple of hours before dusk and the Earl of Stafford (for the King) attacked first - advancing into a hail of arrows from Hotspur's Cheshire archers. As an archery duel developed the King committed his main force and the battle turned into heavy hand-to-hand fighting.

Arrows of the type used
Stafford was killed as was Henry IV's standard bearer Edward Blunt. The Prince of Wales survived an arrow in the face (which is graphically illustrated in the visitor centre). Hotspur was cut down and killed and shortly afterwards the rebel army began to lose heart and were routed.

Shakespeare famously had the Prince of Wales despatching Harry 'Hotspur' Percy but the truth is slightly more prosaic in that Hotspur was apparently shot in the face with an arrow having lifted his visor to get some air.

“I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy, 
to share with me in glory any more:
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;”

It is said that about 5,000 men were killed or wounded in the battle and many were buried in the aforementioned mass grave. As is so often the case with historic battlefields, archaeological investigation has failed to validate the location of the pit. It is said to be within the curtilage of the Victorian church which, as I mentioned previously, marks the centre of the battlefield.

Somewhere near this spot lie several thousand fatal casualties

Hotspur's body was taken to Whitchurch for burial. However when rumours circulated that he was still alive the King had the corpse exhumed and displayed in the market place in Shrewsbury. To drive the point home, Hotspurs body was then quartered with his head and the parts being sent for display in York, London, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bristol and Chester. Percy was declared a traitor and his lands were forfeited to the crown. The Prince of Wales, of course, went on to inherit the crown and further glories - but that's another story involving at least one famous battlefield that I have yet to walk!

Saturday, 11 January 2020

The Battle of Stalingrad (Jul 1942 to Feb 1943) - Final Part - Pitomnik Airfield

During the night of the 15th/16th January the German 6th Army 'air bridge' in Festung Stalingrad was dealt a fatal blow when the Red Army retook the airfield at Pitomnik. When I visited the site in 2002 it was, on first appearances, a featureless field - miles from the nearest habitation and very difficult to find.

Military earthworks on the site of Pitomnik Airfield, Stalingrad (Volgograd)

The BBC correspondent, Alexander Werth, toured the Stalingrad battlefield at the invitation of the  Soviet authorities shortly after the city had been liberated. In his excellent book The Year of Stalingrad, Werth recorded an eye-witness account of a visit to Pitomnik on the previous day from a "gruff Red Army captain with a drooping moustache".

It's not much of a place; you could put the whole village on a five-kopec piece. But when you drive up to it now, it looks like a big town. Thousands and thousands of lorries are accumulated there, and over an area of six square kilometres the Germans had piled up pontoon parts, and you think all this is so many houses when you look from a distance, and it looks like the town has factory chimneys - with all those ack-ack guns of theirs pointing upwards. Before the war there was a wonderful fruit-tree nursery at Pitomnik; the highest grade apple, pears and cherry trees were grown there; but all this has been destroyed.

Pitomnik - as shown on the Volgograd Panorama

The 'gruff Red Army captain' went on to describe the fight for the airfield in the final days of the 6th Army pocket.

The fight for Pitomnik was a very stiff one; the Germans had an enormous concentration of firing-points, but in the end, with an intensive artillery and Katyusha barrage, we smashed them all. The place is now littered with thousands of dead frozen Fritzes. Our guns also smashed all the planes on the Pitomnik airfield; several JU52's among them.

Concrete walkway on the Pitomnik battlefield site

After the fight had ended, the men of the Soviet 65th Army who had taken Pitomnik found many of their Red Army comrades - PoWs - in a pitiful state. Again, Werth quotes the captain.

Close by, we found an open-air concentration camp for Russian prisoners; it was dreadful. They could sleep on rough bunks dug into the slope - the sleeping spaces were only twelve square metres, and here seventy or eighty men were supposed to sleep. Each of these 'dormitories' had barbed wire around it, and so had the camp as a whole. There were 1,400 men there whom the Germans had forced to work on fortifications. Only 102 survived. You might say that the Germans had nothing themselves to eat; but the starving of prisoners began even before the encirclement. And it was bad luck: for finding these unfortunate people lying there among the frozen corpses of the others, our men started to feed them bread and sausage. Many died as a result.

Luftwaffe Tool Tags - Pitomnik Airfield

When I visited the site in 2002 with a small group of friends there were areas of ground which had been disturbed - possibly by animals but more likely by 'black' diggers looking for artefacts. From the spoil I picked up a couple of Luftwaffe tool tags - one red and one yellow. I was told later, by a local historian, that in the final days these tags were 'repurposed' for the prioritisation of casualties being evacuated from the kessel. If this is true that I have in my possession a couple of pieces of pressed metal that would have determined life or death during those desperate days during the winter of 1942/43. The red one would presumably have been a 'ticket out'. 

Saturday, 4 January 2020

The Battle of Stalingrad (Jul 1942 to Feb 1943) - Part Four - Journal Notes From 2002

I am sitting on the edge of a fox-hole facing west. The sun is shining and I have a cold beer in my hand. A picnic is being laid out on a table. All manner of things – some of my favourites are vodka, smoked sturgeon and cheese. We have with us several veterans. Anatoly has been joined by three lovely ladies all wearing their medals. As they tell their stories we listen carefully.

Listening to veterans stories - Mamayev Kurgan

The place is called Rossoshka - way out on the Volga Steppe and it is reached by a road that runs through uncultivated fields pitted with fox holes and gun pits. In town we had picked up two German veterans and they joined us for Victory Day. Wary of local reaction, although both had fought during the battle, they are saying that they had only visited the city whilst incarcerated as PoWs whilst helping to build the post-war Don - Volga canal. The interpreter is doing a good job in facilitating an exchange of pleasantries. A less diplomatic Russian / English speaker tells me that the messages to the Germans from the Red Army veterans are more akin to what might have been said in 1942!

The Newly Built German Cemetery at Rossoschka

Back to the Red Army women veterans. The first speaks and our interpreter is reduced to tears. She tells of joining the Red Army at 15 years of age. She ferried supplies to the front-line troops. Another tells of driving lend-lease trucks up from Persia. She learnt English so she could read the assembly instructions.

I preferred the yellow trucks provided by the Queen of England later in the war. Afterwards I went to Manchuria to deliver supplies to troops facing the Imperial Japanese Army.

Victory Day - 9th May 2002 - Rossoschka

The woman in the peaked cap in the photo above is Galina Oreshkina. Galina is the prime mover in gathering the fallen from the Stalingrad battlefield and laying them to rest at the Rossoschka reconciliation cemetery. She is a school teacher and is helped in her work by children from the local settlement and by children from elsewhere - including overseas.

Awaiting Burial - German Dead
Galina is charismatic and formidable - dealing with Russian and German veterans and doing battle with local opportunists who desecrate the battlefield whilst looking for artefacts.

As I write I notice the top of a skull lying on the surface of the ground. This is, effectively, an uncleared battlefield. It must look like Flanders did in the 1920s – helmets and other artefacts scattered everywhere.

I ask Galina how she can tell the Soviet casualties from the German, Croatian and Rumanian ones. She tells me that the Red Army soldiers wore glass capsules which contained a piece of paper with the soldiers name and unit. She says that many Red Army soldiers are not identified because they thought it was unlucky to fill their details on on the bit of paper. The German soldiers wore metal tags in two halves - one left with the dead soldier and the other retained for the record. When there is no clear identification then Galina says she can tell the nationality by the feel of the bones. I believe her.

Red Army Veterans at Rossoschka

Sitting quietly reflecting on what I am witnessing, I’m joined by two silver haired women who served in the Red Army during the battle. I feel so privileged sitting in such distinguished company. They write in my journal and sign the pages.

The people of Russia and England have always been friends. Thank you to the English for their help in rebuilding our home city of Stalingrad.

I had the great honour of receiving a gift from Her Majesty Elizabeth, the Queen of England (sic) during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. Heartfelt thanks to the English nation for their help in the struggle against fascism. We remember everything; the clothes, the medicines and the food. You saved us at a difficult time.

We bow our graying heads to the memory of Her Majesty – may her memory live for ever.

Polina Ivanovna Batayeva (Cheklova in the War Years), Rossoshka Village, 9th May 2002.

Red Army Cemetery - Rossoschka

I would like to express my thanks for the meeting with your group. It brought back memories of rthe evil war years when we stood together. We extend our sympathy to you on the death of Her Majesty.

Uvov, NL, Novgorodova, 9th May 2002

One of the more bizarre images of our day on the Volga Steppe concerns one of our party – Mike – think Terry Thomas but without the moustache. He consumed a huge amount of vodka and stated off sitting on the rim of a shell hole. He went missing though. Later, when the Victory Day celebrations were drawing to a close we found him sleeping at the bottom of the hole with a contented smile on his face.

Back on Mamayev Kurgan for Victory Day the hill is awash with people. They are dressed up and in good spirits – balloons, cold drinks and picnics. There are groups singing.

Our little group pause by the reflecting pool below the massive 'Motherland' statue on top of the hill - the highest point in the city. After two minutes silence amongst the tens of thousands celebrating nearby we place a British Legion poppy wreath into the water. The floating poppies provoke a mixture of bemusement and interest from our hosts.

We meet lots of veterans. Three Cossacks, one in his original uniform. One veteran is keen to know whether members of my family served in the Great Patriotic War.

Old Soldiers - Mamayev Kurgan

Back to the hotel and after dinner another phone call. “would you like to have a drink with a Russian lady?”. "No thanks", I reply. 

To read the final part click here.