Fortress Guernsey – Autumn 2013…

My pal Dr Trevor Davenport, a renowned German & Victorian Channel Islands fortifications expert dwelling on my beloved walking island of Alderney, (most northernmost island of the 7 islands that make up the Bailiwick of Guernsey, and the one from which you can see the coast of France in the shape of the Cap de la Hague), often tweaks me about my ‘apparent’ lack of interest in German heavy fortifications whenever I am over on that sceptred isle… and our discussions (invariably) turn to the actual construction of such concrete beasts across all of the islands.

But my reply is, (almost in a whisper as such words are almost heresy to the committed ‘bunker hunter’), that my overall interests on this subject are more to do with the actual story of the German occupation of the British Channel Islands, (which I addressed in some detail in my TV documentary Channel Islands Occupied), from the personal perspective of its civilian population and the German occupying forces. As such I feel that I am more of a student of this particular aspect of this incredible Second World War story rather than being ‘purely’ a bunker hunter or ‘fortifications wallah’ myself..!

But I always add the caveat that I am indeed also interested in the Organisation Todt construction of these incredible German concrete towers & bunkers in the context of the Occupation, especially as a number of these highly specialised constructions can only be found in this part of Adolf Hitler’s mighty Atlantic Wall. But I am willing to admit that after several continuous hours of inspecting such impressive, (and often rare), fortifications I find my interest wandering and I want to get to grips with other aspects of the occupation. This usually means getting stuck in at Richard Heaume’s superb Occupation Museum up at Forest or the brilliant Military Museum deep underground down at La Valette in St Peter Port, where Peter & Paul Balshaw’s incredible private collection of both German Occupation artefacts and Guernsey Militia is also on public display.

However, when it comes to fortifications, (and this should please Dr Trev no end and get me back in his good books,) when happily back on Guernsey I always head straight for the beautiful Pleinmont headland down in the south-east corner of the island and the mouth-dropping Batterie Dollmann; not only is this the site of the superbly restored gun emplacement within the Dollmann Batterie itself by the lads of the Guernsey Armouries, but is also the site of the breath-taking & almost awe-inspiring L’Angle MP4 Naval (Kriegsmarine) Range & Direction Finding position high on the cliff tops, which originally boasted an important Freya radar located up on its roof throughout the German occupation…

This haunting construction, (redolent of the beautiful superstructures of the infamous Scharnhorst or Gneisenau battle cruisers of the Kriegsmarine’s High Seas Fleet), is complimented by its sister tower, the equally haunting MP3 tower just around the headland to the right, (now leased by Richard Heaume and open to the public on certain afternoons throughout April & October).

Dr Trev will be delighted to know that both of these incredible towers, (Marinepeilstanden und Messstellen to give them their correct German military monikers and which are a peculiar feature of the Channel Islands, for nowhere else do they appear on the Atlantic Wall of Hitler’s ‘Festung Europa’) really do get my heart beating just that little bit faster whenever I am lucky enough to lay my eyes on them.

One of my favourites is Le Prevote on the island’s southern coast which was actually the first of these range-finding towers built early on in the occupation by Wehrmacht Fortress Engineers (before the Organisation Todt took over this construction work), and they based their design more on the many Victorian Martello Towers that dot the Bailiwick.

Former Deputy Director of Tourism major Evan Ozanne and myself at one point considered joining forces to buy this historic tower when it came on the open market some years back… needless to say this and the other main towers on Guernsey really capture my imagination, as does the superbly uncovered & fully restored gu-pit that sits squarely betwixt the two towers on Pleinmont’s headland.

It was on June 30th 1940 that the forces of the Third Reich invaded and took control the Bailiwick of Guernsey, (along with Jersey to the south and Alderney to the north), and it was to be an occupation of 5 long, hard years before the islands would once again be free.

However it was not until October 1941 that Hitler issued orders for the heavy fortification of these stunningly beautiful British islands; this was due in part to his fear of an Allied assault, for he wanted to ensure his massive propaganda coup on occupying a ‘little piece of Britain’ was secure, in addition to these islands being his planned stepping stone or launching pad to a full-blown invasion of Britain, just 80 miles to the North.

In fact, just as an aside, one of the tricks the locals used to play on the German occupying forces was to point north-east to Alderney just a couple of miles hence and tell them that was the Isle of Wight, which many German soldiers believed! The other trick that was perpetuated early on against the Germans, (or rather more of an omission in not telling the Kriegsmarine, as told in my documentary by the late Frank Stroobant), was just how high the tide came into St Peter Port.. and in contrast therefore, just how low it was on its ebb, so that initially Kriegsmarine minesweepers tied up at the harbour side were on a short hawser, thus when the tide went out these self same vessels were left, literally, hanging in the air… a rather jolly jape that caused great amusement amongst the locals, but which was soon punished by the occupying forces that had been made to look foolish… so it was not such a jolly jape after that!

However back to the fortifications of these wonderful islands and returning to my favourite area of Pleinmont where the Marine Coastal Artillery Batterie Generaloberst Dollmann covered a large area of the headland & where, in German military mapping parlance, it was designated the name ‘Westberg’. For as a part of the German occupation of the islands, all gun positions & fortifications were give German names as, in addition, were the island’s original 13 parishes.

In fact everything on the Occupation map of Guernsey was now given a permanent German moniker or military designation!.

So it was that Batterie Dollmann at Westberg was equipped with 4 WWI French 220 mm cannons that had been captured by the Germans during their attack on France and brought to Guernsey as a part of their fortifying process. In support of these large 22 kilometre range guns, 105mm field-guns, mortars, machine-gun pits & searchlights were deployed in defence of the headland; whilst criss-crossing this impressive coastal position were personnel shelters, ammunition stores & minefields to complete the picture of a very well defended stronghold..!

In the middle of all of this activity is an intriguing low, squat-like Command Post or Leistand that was originally built to a naval design, but then handed over to the army mid-way through construction and today, thanks to the lads of Guernsey Armouries, you can freely walk around the Batterie Dollmann gun-pit and explore the personnel slit trenches, bunkers & tunnels surrounding the site courtesy of their expert and dedicated restoration of this most important occupation site.

Indeed the gun barrel you see was recovered and sited onto a specially commissioned and re-built gun cradle using original blue prints from Krupps of Essen and the wheels, which for many years had been ‘gate guardians’ to a Boy Scout hut at St Sampson to the north of the island, were also acquired and re-matched to the cannon. So what you see today is a complete and accurate restoration of the original gun-pit over a number of years… a site which had lain filled-in by the Royal Artillery after the German garrison’s surrender in 1945, before the Guernsey Armouries got busy in recent years with their heavy excavators and uncovered the treasures you now see expertly restored and laid out before you now.

Likewise around the coast at about 800 yards or so is  the most impressive and highly evocative Pleinmont MP3 tower, standing almost on guard as it overlooks the famous Hanois Lighthouse , (which until recently was the last working example in British coastal waters). ‘Pleinmont’ as many of us simply refer to this most striking of all of the Bailiwick’s towers , has been lovingly cleaned and renovated by Richard Heaume. On certain levels he has also managed to restore original range finding equipment to several floors, (it being the case that each separate floor in these towers controlled their own separate heavy Marineartillerie gun batteries sited around the headland.)

However it is not just the Pleinmont headland that boasts a superb restoration of the island’s former original German gun positions and bunkers, for down at Fort Hommet, a striking promontory on Guernsey’s beautiful West Coast, more German bunkers and casemates have been, (and are in the process of being), restored to their former glory…

During the war the Germans renamed the Fort Hommet headland ‘Stutzpunkt Rotenstein’ and this particular area of the coast boasted some 12 fortifications all aimed at deterring Allied landings on the considerable amount of wide sandy beaches that this part of the island offers the tourist and sun-seekers of today…

Richard Heaume MBE opened up one of the casemates, which, with the assistance of his ‘trusty liegeman’ Ernie Gavey, (himself also an author of several superb books on Guernsey’s fortifications), is open to the public during the summer season. As you’d expect with Richard, he’s invested a lot of time & effort in recreating the many scenarios that you would expect to find in such a defensive gun position during the German occupation between 1940 and 1945.

This includes a superb crew room with bunk beds & mannequins recreating ‘down time’ of a Marineartillerie crew during the war. Indeed not so long ago, enthusiastic battle re-enactors came over from the mainland to spend a weekend living & sleeping in this bunker, (all in kit, which must have caused a slight storm amongst the locals). But not so unpleasant as you might think as the expertly crafted O.T. fortifications, with their wood-lined crew rooms, were known for being cool in summer and warm in winter.

Actually that reminds me, for the opening sequence of my documentary Channel Islands Occupied, we dressed our sound-man Simon ‘Woody’ Wood (he the later technical genuis responsible for superb studio production of Tomahawk’s Third Reich Musik CDs) up in one of Richard’s original greatcoats & helmet and stuck a rifle in his hand and had him stand-to in one of the coastal bunkers, in a moody silouette, as if on coastal look-out..!

As we had hoped, this turned out to be a most evocative opening shot for my documentary when later viewed in black & white; but after taking the shot the crew & I just could not prise him out of this original garb and after we ‘cut’, Woody marched determinedly around the headland for a jolly… only come to face to face with a poor lady innocently walking her dog… and the look on her face was a picture… oops, so sorry madam!

But back to the plot and less than a 100 yards away from Richard’s exciting case-mate, the lads of Festung Guernsey have also again been very busy on their own accord, with the uncovering and restoration of a 5cm Machinengranatwerfer M19 automatic mortar bunker. According to weapons expert and Festung Guernsey member Terry Gander, the M19 was designed as an anti-personnel weapon and the mortar itself was mounted in a steel cupola, level with the ground, with only the muzzle of the weapon visible and at full stretch it could fire 120 rounds a minute… enough to cause any invading force assaulting from the sea a major head-ache..and then some!

Only 4 of these M19 mortar bunkers were built in Guernsey during the German occupation and sadly after the war, all were extensively damaged by explosives during the great scrap drive of the 1950s when mainland companies came over to recover as much metal from the former German fortifications as they could, damaging or totally destroying many fortifications in the process.

Happily Festung Guernsey, as a part of their personal remit to uncover and restore as many of Guernsey’s German fortifications as they can, (at which news Dr Trev is doing hand-springs..me too in fact), began excavating this M19 bunker in March 2010 Sadly the crew-room proved to be shattered and a very large crack (resulting from the scrap men’s less than careful work), was seen to run from the turret room to the rear wall. However despite the bunker being flooded the rest of the bunker seemed to be in generally good order, so thanks to the ever-willing band of volunteers, this restoration of another of the island’s important German defensive positions has preserved it for future generations interested in this most incredible story of World War Two.

Likewise over my weekend I was pleased to visit Richard Heaume’s stunning German Occupation Museum at Forest to catch up with the man himself and to check that the 20′ version of my Channel Islands Occupied documentary was still playing OK in his small cinema (it was!) and to again wander around this superb museum and re-capture that first excited feeling I had some 30 years ago when first I happened upon it and share those feelings with my dad, who was certainly most appreciative of what he saw…

Likewise I was also able to get down to the Balshaw brothers superb museum at La Valette down in St Peter Port, (my first visit for some years) and though I sadly missed catching up with the lads, I was quite amazed to see their new frontage. Not so long ago you had to walk up a grass bank then down some steps into the opening of their former U-Boot refuelling tunnels that are set back in the cliff but now, after some obviously major excavations, you can walk right in from road level to this most extraordinary museum.

Once again it was fantastic to see so much of  the brothers own personal collection beautifully displayed in these very evocative tunnels and to be able to introduce my dad to to this terrific museum here on Guernsey with its very evocative location & setting down in these impressive German tunnels. What was supposed to be for a long weekend off to relax and show my father the sights & sounds of Guernsey actually turned into yet another part-working trip as I came across more stories, which I plan to pen in forthcoming Blogs, meantime I hope you will enjoy this further Guernsey German Occupation update. Visiting these beautiful islands for you, gentle reader, is such a tough job…but somebody has to do it..!

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