Guernsey’s Victorian Fortifications…

It is a little remiss of me when writing about Fortress Guernsey and all of the terrific work undertaken by this historical initiative in the late ’90s under the leadership of my good friend and former boss at the Guernsey Tourist Board, Deputy Director Major Evan Ozanne, not to have ever touched on the earlier Victorian Fortifications of the 7 islands making up the Bailiwick of Guernsey…

For almost as important in the engrossing history of these sun-soaked islands as the German Occupation is the story of the earlier fortification building programme that took place in the late 1700s to combat the ever-present threat of an earlier invasion, this time by the French, (our on-off friend & enemy down the years), as these attractive of Anglo-French islands were literally right in the firing line between our two countries.

Though a greater part of my responsibility as Media Consultant to Fortress Guernsey, (often working alongside leading Alderney-based fortifications expert Colin Partridge), was to write, report & broadcast on the German Occupation side of the story and indeed to bring over as many documentary-film makers, fellow broadcasters and travel journalists as possible to show off this unique aspect of Guernsey’s formidable & fascinating history, so too the incredible Victorian Fortifications were a major part of our combined endeavours when promoting the military historical background of Fortress Guernsey to an intrigued outside world.

For almost 2,000 years in fact Guernsey and its 6 satellite islands of the Bailiwick  possessed considerable strategic importance in the defence of Britain and by virtue of its special relationship to mainland Britain as a Crown Dependent territory, Guernsey was to eventually find itself covered with myriad fascinating earthworks, forts, Martello towers, gun-batteries, arsenals & watch-houses, all built principally to resist the threat of invasion… and obviously long before the rise of the Third Reich and Hitler’s lustful eyes on these stunning islands, (though interestingly enough all those years later many of the subsequent German fortifications were actually built upon, or added to, these previously early constructed and very sturdy Victorian fortifications.)

The catalyst for the earlier defensive positions can be traced back to the American War of Independence in 1775 as 3 years later in 1778, France declared its support for the American colonists in their struggle against the British Crown..and the Channel Islands, despite the presence of a powerful Royal Navy, lay very close to an increasingly aggressive France.Indeed in May 1778 the Governor of the neighbouring island of Jersey wrote to the British Secretary of State in London recommending that a programme of  coastal defence building should begin in the two larger Channel Islands (i.e. Jersey & Guernsey).

So it was that in August 1778, approval was given for the construction of 15 fortified towers and with the importation of a large force of labour, (later echoed in the 1940s when the Germans brought in slave labour for their building programme), by March 1779 all 15 were complete and ready for action. The French had actually drawn up plans for the full invasion of the Channel Islands, though mercifully this did not materialise, nevertheless it was decreed that Guernsey’s defences be further strengthened. So it was that from 1803 onwards three large Martello Towers were built at Rocquaine Castle, Fort Sausmarez and at Houmet Point, all of which were to have additional German fortifications added to, (or on and indeed over), during the 1940-45 Occupation of the Bailiwick.

However, of the original 15 Victorian Loophole Towers built in 1778-79, just 12 now remain in Guernsey, one of the most important of these being Rousse Tower in the north of the island overlooking Grand Havre. Designed primarily to prevent the landing of enemy troops on nearby beaches and, on stretches of coastline where more than one tower was erected, Rousse and the other towers were positioned to provide overlapping fields of fire from their light 1-pounder cannons.

Musket-fire could also be directed down on invading forces through the loop holes whilst from a position on the roof the later addition of a 12-pound cannonade could fire grapeshot. Heavier guns on these batteries were subsequently added and this allowed the towers to actually engage enemy ships up to a range of some 3000 yards.

Rousse was actually constructed in 1804 on the site of a former small battery already sited on this ‘achingly beautiful’ headland and by 1816 it boasted three 24- pounder cannons and two smaller 9-pounder cannons and, on a base of Portland stone imported over from Dorset, the larger guns were mounted on inclined platforms to help with the force of the cannon’s recoil, whilst the smaller cannons were sited on the flat so they could be easily manoeuvred to fire on the advancing enemy through the embrasure openings on the rear wall if required.

Although the British Government maintained a permanent military garrison in the islands, there were actually insufficient troops to guard all of Guernsey’s wide-open sandy beaches, so this task was delegated to the Guernsey Militia. Recruited at the age of 16 and transferred into the Reserve at 45, they remained on standby by for call-up right up to the age of 60, and though there were weekly drills & parades, they were not paid… and even had to provide their own Militia uniforms until the British Government began furnishing them from 1782 onwards.

With a force of some 2,500 to 3,000 men in the Militia, Rousse Tower was manned by a Sergeant and 20 men under the command of a Captain, who was also responsible for 3 other identical batteries sited across the headland

Men allocated to this duty also had to continue their normal day-job as farmer, fisherman or quarryman, however they were allowed to appoint ‘substitutes’ for when the day job was more pressing and at these times it was not unusual for the soldier’s wives or their children to stand in. But eventually this led to abuse and many derelictions of duty when men supposedly on duty… but were anything but!

As a part of Fortress Guernsey’s remit, Rousse Tower was given a superb make-over and in addition to the construction of life-size models then placed inside the tower to illustrate life within in the late 1700s/early 1800s, after a great deal of effort a number of original cannons were sourced and, after proofing in Chatham Docks in England, were sited on accurately reproduced carriages. Now these are proudly on display at this beautifully restored Victorian site.

On my recent trip back over to Guernsey I was delighted to once again pop up to Rousse and happily note that the Tower, (seemingly falling yet again into a state of some disrepair on a previous visit, despite all the work that Fortress Guernsey had originally invested on it), was now looking really ‘ship-shape & Bristol fashion’.. a real sight for sore eyes in fact!

It was a real delight to spend some time here once again, this time with my dad, taking in the magnificence of this Loophole Tower, now some 230 years old, fully restored to its former glory as it is a truly wonderful testament to the Victorian art of military fortification; and something that the German military designers & engineers either consciously or subconsciously copied some 160 years later when it was their turn to further fortify the Bailiwick from 1941 onwards, (after their invasion the previous year), and the island’s unique German gunnery range-finding towers began to rise at their coastal locations…

Now following Major Ozanne’s earlier lead & persistence in the late 1990s, Rousse Tower is deservedly back on Guernsey’s list of States-maintained historical sites and with further island investment and continued work on the site in 2006, this important landmark attraction can rightly said to be of the finest restored Loophole Towers anywhere in the Channel Islands. So to all involved…well done and bravo!

Finally, whilst just finishing off this latest Blog, a number of readers kindly contacted me to say that they had been enjoying my piece entitled ‘A Soldier’s Grave’ concerning ‘Douglas’ Small’s final resting place in my local village churchyard and my musings as to whether the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had learned of my periodic maintenance of his grave and added it to their official cleaning list as a result?

Well I am delighted to say that a fellow villager, Reg, came forward to say that he and his wife had seen a van in the churchyard when out on one of their regular rambles that bore the legend ‘Commonwealth War Graves Commission’ on the outside and when they approached the team, they were told that the CWGC now comes to our churchyard every two years to give the soldier’s headstones a make-over…

Back then Reg was unaware of my tie to Douglas’ grave so wouldn’t have been able to ask the cleaners if it was indeed them that had given his headstone a thorough make-over, but as his is now a clear white marble, (as opposed to the ‘grey concrete’ when I started to clean it in 1999), I feel I can conclude that the CWGC have indeed added ‘Douglas’ to their list. A very happy outcome for me as we approach this Sunday’s November 11th Remembrance ceremonies and then, next year, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and the subsequent opening of the Hazeley Down Army Pre-Embarkation Camp here in my beautiful village of Twyford on the River Itchen.

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

 

A New Forest Fighter Strip…

Amidst the many great joys and privileges of living down on the South Coast of Hampshire is the fact that I am only a 20 minute drive from one of the greatest and certainly the largest Mediaeval Forests in Western Europe.. The New Forest… plaything & hunting ground of Kings & Princelings down the ages. Now a world famous British National Park in all its eye-watering splendour, it was also the place where my late, much adored, mum was born and raised on a riding school owned and run my maternal grandfather…

In an idyllic child-hood, every morning mum was taken to school across the Forest by pony & trap and as she grew was certainly schooled both in horsemanship and in the lore of this beautiful, awe-inspiring, massive & very ancient Forest…

It was also a wonderful place in which I too spent much of my childhood and now that my mum has sadly passed on, my dad & I content ourselves with regular trips down to this place of outstanding beauty and try to catch a glimpse of my mum’s spirit dancing in the dappled sunlight between the oaks and the silver birches on myriad sunny Autumnal days…

But as well as being such a historical and most beautiful place with a very long and distinguished history, in recent living memory it was also home to a number of RAF and American air-bases during the Second World War.

As I grew up and my many & varied youthful interests turned into serious ones relating to the 1939-45 war, I certainly became aware of two major airfields, the largest one being at Stoney Cross in the heart of the Forest, (a vast open space even today upon which I  took my first tentative steps behind the wheel of the family car when learning to drive), and a second, less evident, bomber & fighter field at the nearby village of Ibsley.

Flying from Southampton to the Channel Islands as I regularly do and looking down from a lower-flying 16 seater Aurigny Trislander, Stoney Cross, (which opened in November 1942, but has long since had its huge concrete runways dug up), is easy to pick out by the impressive outlines of its two former main runways. These were home initially to RAF Mustangs from January 1943 and then, in March 1944, firstly the USAAF’s 367th Fighter Group flying primarily Lightnings and thence in September 1944 the USAAF 387th Bomb Group flying B-26 Marauders who were, in turn, followed by RAF Stirlings & Wellingtons acting as Transports & Glider Tugs for the final big push across the Rhine into Germany.

Nearby RAF Ibsley just a few miles away to the north-west and on the fringe of the Forest is another former war-time airstrip that you can see from the air; in fact only recently when out on a jaunt and dad & I were wondering exactly where the air-strip may have been, we accidentally uncovered some remaining crew huts and a water-tower on a nearby farm when driving through this lovely small village’s back lanes.

Ibsley air-base also played host initially to RAF Spitfire & Hurricane Squadrons early on in the war and thence later to the USAAF 367th Fighter Group when it transferred across from Stoney Cross, firstly with its P.38 Lightnings and thence P.47 Republic Thunderbolts.

In fact dotted through the vastness of the Forest and down on its fringes you can still accidentally stumble across grass airstrips that were used both at the height of the Battle of Britain in 1940 and in support of the D-Day landings in 1944 as forward airfields, including Beaulieu, now home to the world famous Motor Museum). But in 1942 this was also home to RAF Typhoons and the medium twin-engined light bomber the Boston, (or ‘Havoc’ as they called it in America), until 1944 when the USAAF again moved in with their Thunderbolt fighters and B-26 Marauder bombers.

Seemingly many small-to-medium sized war-time airstrips sprang up alongside the huge concrete ones of Stoney Cross and it was upon one of these that dad & I stumbled by lucky happenstance last week when making our way down to Bucklers Hard, (another famous historical landmark, this time full of Nelsonian Royal Naval history). Backing up the car to catch further glimpses of the Solent through a gap in a hedge that we’d just trundled past, quite amazingly we noticed some little signs in a field that we have driven past on numerous occasions, but had never actually caught sight of before…

Pulling over to the side, I leapt out of the car, thanking my lucky stars that I had thought to bring my digital camera with me, intent on capturing some of the early stunning Autumn hues as the massive oaks and beeches turn to golden browns, golds and copper.

I was met by a small framed photograph of a Hawker Typhoon & pilot, (my favourite fighter aircraft, after the P40 Tomahawk for obvious reasons), and with incredulity began reading a larger framed sign that contained what turned out to be a the history of a forward fighter airfield that had supported the Allied D-Day Landings on the German Occupied coast of France back in June of 1944…

Judging by the map contained within the glazed frame, as we were standing there looking out across the field to the nearby Solent, the stretch of water separating the mainland from the Isle of Wight, I could see that dad & I were actually slap-bang in the middle of one of the two original landing strips from 1943 & 1944 – all those years trundling up this slightly off-the-beat road and we never knew..!

According to the legend written on the board, this was Needs Oar Point and it was constructed on farm land on Park Shore in 1943 by No 5004 Royal Air Force Construction Squadron, through levelling the fields, diverting ditches removing some hedges and trees and then laying Sommerfeld tracking and four blister hangers, which were added a little later. Accommodation was provided by the RAF commandeering several local farm cottages but the bulk of the station’s personnel were billeted under canvas at the airstrip’s perimeter.

The board also states that aircraft maintenance was provided by mobile workshops based on the back of heavy RAF trucks, whilst airfield cover & protection was undertaken by  the Royal Artillery who manned heavy anti-aircraft guns sited south of School Cottages whilst the RAF Regiment manned lighter ack-ack guns (40mm Bofors), based just down on the nearby shoreline..

The completed airstrip was to become the temporary home to the RAF’s No 146 Wing, 84 Group, Second Tactical Air Force and on the 10th & 11th of April 1944 it opened its two runways up to welcome in over 100 RAF Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers of 193, 197, 257 and 266 Squadrons and immediately began flying the very hazardous low-level missions over France in advance of Allied Forces on the forthcoming D-Day Landings.

On D-Day 6th June, and for 4 weeks thereafter, these 4 fighter squadrons flew regular ‘Rhubarbs’ (low level strafing missions over the invasion beaches), then further such sorties against trains, vehicle convoys & enemy strong-holds in support of the advancing forces, including attacks on several Wehrmacht HQs.

In July 1944, one month after the successful invasion of Hitler’s ‘Festung Europa’ the Typhoon squadrons then moved to nearby Hurn Airstrip, (now Bournemouth International Airport and the only former New Forest war-time air base in use today), for two weeks before transferring across the Channel to new airstrips built in the Normandy countryside from which they would continue their strafing war against the Third Reich from newly liberated fighter bases now established in France!

Finally the board states that “In 1945 the land was returned to farming and the tracking and hangers removed; and now this Commemoration panel is placed at the point where the North-South runway crossed the road. It is placed here as a tribute to all concerned with the Liberation”

So it was that with the ending of the long war in Europe in May 1945, the heavy Allied bombing campaign of 1943 & 1944 followed by the low level RAF and USAAF raids over France and Germany in support of the advancing troops finally ended and so all of the various concrete and grass strips dotted across The New Forest, (with the exception of Hurn) were slowly run down.

By 1946 had all been returned back to their previous pre-war owners, with nature allowed to reclaim the spaces that had formerly throbbed with heavy fighter & bomber aero-engines… and now you’d find it hard to even believe the huge amount of men, material & aircraft that operated in this beautiful part of southern Hampshire..but if you look closely, (and indeed know where to look) the signs are all still there before your eyes!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

Festung Alderney Revisited…

Perhaps not surprisingly when it comes to the story of the Channel Islands’ German Occupation, it is usually the two main islands of Guernsey & Jersey that continue to garner most of the interest in the incredible war-time history of these Crown Dependent islands…

However on the quieter & smaller island of Alderney to the north, volunteer occupation enthusiasts have nevertheless been much more active in recent years and as that regular visitor, I have often been able to wander around this relatively well-kept secret in the company of Dr Trevor Davenport, long-time resident and author of the excellent fortifications book Festung Alderney (and willing interviewee in my TV documentary), to catch up on the latest developments.

In the many happy years since I first set foot on Alderney to film its part in ‘Channel Islands Occupied’, I was always aware of the very impressive German fortifications dotted around this stunningly beautiful  island, but it is only in the company of somebody who really knows the place well that you will finally get to see and hopefully discover a whole host of other hidden treasures!

For me, however, one of the more intriguing little Alderney stories did not involve a German bunker, but the fate of the rather impressive military headstone that had been erected after the war in the German cemetery at Valongis, next to Alderney’s Strangers’ Cemetery on Longis Road, the garrison’s war dead having originally been buried in the graveyard of St Anne’s picturesque little church up in the centre of town.

It actually first came to my notice when reading Winston G. Ramsay’s definitive photo-led book ‘War in the Channel Islands – Then and Now’, which contained a picture of the headstone as photographed by the book’s author in 1979: sadly it had been somewhat unceremoniously dumped over the cemetery wall in 1961 shortly after the remains of 70-odd Wehrmacht & Organisation Todt personnel were exhumed and repatriated back to Germany.

It was to be many years on that I would actually first see this worn but very impressive headstone for myself, still in its casually discarded position and on each of my many subsequent trips to Alderney I always sought it out and stood quietly before it, wondering what tales it could tell!

So it was with no small frisson of excitement, that on another subsequent visit back to the island that I wandered once more into the small cemetery to come face-to-face with the headstone, now completely refurbished and restored to a prominent position at the top end of the Longis Road Strangers’ Cemetery, standing as a quiet sentinel under the trees.

Upon further investigation, I learned that a small group of German visitors to Alderney had also seen the previously discarded headstone and expressed a wish to see it restored to a standing position and in full view of passers-by; happily The Alderney Society stepped in and a superb job was undertaken in restoring it to its former glory.

Now clearly bearing, in German, its St John, Chapter 14, Verse 20, inscription: “Because I live, you shall also live’,  the stone was been set into an attractive small enclosure, clearly visible through the cemetery gates from the Longis Road, where it now stands alongside a second, much smaller memorial stone.

Some mystery surrounds this other headstone, which was actually discovered more recently on nearby Clearmount Farm where it was covering a drain opening! Originally set in a wall up at the States Airport, the slightly less clear inscriptions are to Obergerfreiters Hohendahl & Theiss and Gefreiter Galda who were originally thought to be killed in an Allied air-strike against the German-held airport whilst they were manning a Flak Battery on February 4th 1942.

Despite further investigation, Dr Davenport can find no reference to any air-raid on that date amongst Allied Air-Force bombing records and therefore believes another story may hold true… so this one must go down as ‘an investigation still in progress!’

The Alderney Society and the island’s Wildlife Trust were also active in uncovering & restoring Alderney’s first German bunker to open to the public; high above the cliffs due south of St Anne in an area known as ‘Quatre Vents’ was a Luftwaffe 20mm flak Battery that originally protected the town from low-level Allied air attack and within that battery was a small radio-signals unit set in a fortress-standard bunker.

One of only two such bunkers known to have existed throughout the whole of the occupied Channel Islands, the battery was named ‘Millionaer’ by the local Luftwaffe gun-crews, believing that the stunning house in whose grounds they were sited had actually belonged to a very wealthy pre-war local!

Having walked over the top of it in blissful ignorance for many a long year, it was a nice surprise when Alderney’s Wildlife Trust acquired this signals-bunker and, with the further help of volunteers began a period of sympathetic restoration through the reconstruction of wooden floors, a complete re-paint job, original doors re-oiled and the replacement of the concrete wall’s inner wooden linings, as would have been the case when it was built by the Organisation Todt around 1943.

Now open to the passing public both as an excellent Countryside centre offering fantastic bird-watching facilities and as a war-time historical display centre, though not strictly a military museum as such, it is nevertheless an excellent restoration job which will give the avid ‘bunker hunter’ an idea of life as lived by Alderney’s German occupying garrison.

Local volunteers have also been busy with spades & shovels uncovering a maze of slit trenches and air-raid personnel shelters up above the Mannez & Berry Quarries amidst the site of the former 88mm Flak Battery ‘Hoehe 145’  situated on the high ground at the north-eastern end of the island and in the shadow of the island’s very impressive MP3 range-finding tower, dubbed ‘The Odeon’ . Other work on Alderney’s hidden German fortifications took place down at Fort Doyle by Platte Saline where what was, to my mind, merely a nettle-covered hillock under my walking boots, actually emerged as a superbly laid out crew personnel-shelter with associated slit trenches running hither & thither.

In the course of the German’s original construction programme the only Nazi concentration camp ever to be constructed on British soil, Lager Sylt, was established close by the island’s small airstrip and which housed mainly Russian slave labourers, who were working on fortification construction, also under German Organisation Todt engineers.

Strangely, there were also several Frenchmen, who having survived the harsh conditions of their incarceration, I actually witnessed at a military memorial service at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 2000 when, as a journalist, I was invited to join a group of American Combat Veterans of the US 79th Infantry Division returning first to the D-Day beaches of Normandy thence to Alsace-Lorraine.

Run by SS Bau-Brigade 3, evidence of Lager Sylt was all but destroyed by the Germans in 1944, however today the gate posts stand as a poignant sentinel against the open sky and in recent years a plaque marking the camp and its part in the occupation of Alderney was affixed to one of the two posts.

Now cleared of the original scrub that over-ran it, this windswept memorial to the dark days of the island’s German occupation can easily be accessed by the public.

Barely a 40-minute flight from the South Coast’s Southampton airport in one of Aurigny’s distinct 3-engined Trislanders, the living, breathing evidence of Nazi Occupied Britain is very much still on your doorstep and so a visit to the oft-overlooked island of Alderney will not only introduce you to a place of breath-taking, windswept beauty that will take you back to how mainland Britain looked and felt in the 1950s and earlier…

…and if you keep your eyes open, it will also throw up some new German Occupation reminders that have been well hidden from public view since 1945..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013