After an inspiring weekend, NAS member Clive Raymond reports on his experiences on the Discovering WWII Coastal Defences NAS course in April 2019.

Course participants examining the Valentine tank. Photo by Nick Reed

Overlooked by Old Harry, a distinctive coastal feature, half a dozen students and two tutors, Chris Kolonko and Nick Reed, assembled for a much anticipated NAS course in Dorset. The course was based at Swanage Pier, but participants also spent a lot of time out into the field studying the WWII coastal defences that stretch from the pier seven miles north to Knoll Beach in Studland. The participants were there to learn about the WWII coastal defences and preparations for D Day and there is plenty of archaeological evidence in the area to study.

Dorset was an armed camp, and the defences against German attack were vast in number and type. After being established very quickly, they evolved over time. Later, preparations were made for D Day. These included the live-fire exercise and D Day dry-run, Exercise Smash. This operation was viewed by King George VI, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower (Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces) from Fort Henry which was specially built for the occasion.

The NAS course was timed to coincide with the display of a Valentine amphibious tank such as those used in Exercise Smash. The course participants viewed a memorial to six soldiers who lost their lives when their Valentines sank in choppy water on that day.

Course participants learning about different defence structures. Photo by Nick Reed

Many of the WWII defences have either been removed or have become overgrown but there is still archaeological evidence remaining. Examples of the types of structures that can be seen are: pillboxes and associated trenches, observation posts, searchlight batteries, and tank obstacles. The use of aerial and other photos goes hand in hand with leg work when seeking hidden defences. There is also much information to be found in various archives.

On the party’s visit to Peveril Point, near Swanage Pier, they saw a number of surviving defences and had the opportunity to get hands-on. 

Participants getting hands on with their investigation of a pill box. Photo by Nick Reed

On Sunday, the class went to Studland, starting at Knoll Beach, and tried to trace some trenches among the trees. From there they walked to see a line of tank traps, and a pillbox right on the shore, and examined the huge observation bunker, Fort Henry.

The class was introduced to recording techniques and the format most useful for this field of study which includes adding information to the historic environment record and contributing to CITiZAN’s Interactive Coastal Map.

Over the weekend, the course participants learnt that features close to shore are only a part of a much deeper and layered defensive scheme and are an important part of our history to record and preserve.

Type 25 pillbox at Studland. Photo by Clive Raymond

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