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Sunday 27 September 2020

US Army Assult Training Centre - Woolacombe Area


Ever since obtaining a copy of Richard Bass’s book The Spirits of the Sand, I’ve wanted to visit this area. Like many other people our holiday plans changed this year, and this provided the opportunity to get to see some of the remains of the American Assault Training Centre (ATC) in the Woolacombe area on the beautiful North Devon coast. 


Above: Memorial to the ATC, Woolacombe.

The ATC was set up to train the American divisions selected as assault divisions for the D-Day assault landings. It had been hoped that the major part of this training would have be carried out in America, with a number of Combined Operations Training Bases established in the UK to serve formations in their vicinity to prevent large scale movement to and from bases. Although all US divisions received some form of training in the assault of fixed defences in America, the complexity of the proposed landings soon made it evident that the Americans would need facilities in the UK to test new ideas and techniques and apply them to the training of troops. Colonel Thompson was given the task of establishing such training facilities in England, and the ATC was born, officially activated on 2 April 1943. The site chosen for the ATC was the Woolacombe – Appledore area, an area originally considered by the British for Combined Operations training but rejected because of the frequent stormy seas. However, it was to prove to be the perfect site for the Americans, representing what they would find on the Western Coast of Europe at Omaha and Utah beaches.

 Above: British troops training in the Woolacombe area

To facilitate training, a number of training aids had to be constructed, and the remains of these are the focus of this blog. Perhaps the best known remains can be found in the dunes of Braunton Burrows; these are the concrete mock landing craft. A number of these were built to enable dryshod training in loading and unloading landing craft and the remains of eight of these can still be found (six Landing Craft Tank (LCT) and two Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel (LCVP).

 Above: Mock concrete landing craft, Braunton Burrows

The LCTs were built as a mock up of LCT Mk V, but were extended at the rear when it became known that the MKVI would also be used. On the extension of one of the LCT’s, an inscription reading ‘146th Eng, Co C, 1st Platoon’ can be seen, telling us who added the extensions at least.  The concrete mocks consist of the deck, walls representing the front of the craft and the ramp. The rest of the LCT walls were represented by steel poles to support corrugated iron sides, and the bases of the supporting steel posts are still visible. Metal loops can also be seen where troops could have practiced lashing down vehicles. The mock LCVP consist simply of the deck and ramp.  


Above: Top - one of the mock LCT.  Middle - practicing unloading dryshod. Bottom - inscription written into the concrete extension of one of the LCT.


Above: one of the mock LCVP.

The other impressive training aid that remains in the dunes is the ‘rocket wall’, a large concrete wall used for target practice by troops firing the M1 Rocket Launcher – commonly known as the Bazooka. This was an integral weapon of the Infantry Assault Team (IAT). The IAT was an innovation of the ATC, formed by nominally reorganising the assault battalion into three assault companies which were in turn made up of two assault sections or IATs. The reason for this innovation was that the IAT, made up of 30 men, fitted into a LCVP and thus could be landed as an intact  team. The IAT had the task of the reduction of pillboxes forming the initial defences. The Bazooka was the perfect weapon at close range, giving direct fire support against the pillbox loopholes as the demolition team moved in. The rocket wall was painted with squares, representing loopholes at which troops could practice their aim against at ranges of 50 to 75 yards. 


Above: Top - rear of the 'rocket wall'; note the smooth finish. Middle - the front of the 'rocket wall' showing the scars of target practice. Bottom - American troops practicing at the 'rocket wall'; note the painted embrasures on the wall.

Although I did not have time for a full explore of the dunes, I did come across other concrete remains. Their purpose is uncertain, although some may have been mock pillboxes on which troops practiced attacking. If that is the case, their walls are a lot thinner than those found at nearby Baggy Point.


Above: Remains of two other concrete structures in the dunes. I am sure a full search would have turned up more traces of the ATC.

Baggy Point was incorporated into the ATC for use in practicing the company assault, as it was found that the leap from individual and IAT training to a full scale battalion exercise was too great. To enable this training, further training aids were constructed in the form of mock pillboxes. At the point of the headland, a mock German strongpoint was constructed, consisting of at least three large mock pillboxes enclosed by the boundary hedge bank.  In the rear of these the mock pillboxes are much simpler, consisting of just a concrete wall with a sculptured embrasure. Only the mock pillboxes within the strongpoint at the point of the headland seem to have been subject to live fire; the other mock pillboxes are in good condition. A further mock pillbox can be found overlooking Croyde Bay. 



Above: Some of the mock pillboxes at Baggy Point. They very from simple walls to more substantial structures. Last image shows the troops practicing attacking a pillbox with a flamethrower. The two-man flamethrower team was part of the 30 strong IAT.


Above: Top - The mock pillbox at Croyde Bay. Bottom - the view from the pillbox overlooking Croyde Bay with Baggy Point in the background.

As well as the ATC, the area was also used as a bombing range for Wellington bombers to practice attacking U-boats. A floating target was moored off Morte Bay; bombers approached low over Putsborough, with a concrete arrow pointing towards the target. Three observation posts could check on the accuracy of the bombing by triangulation. Today, two of the observation posts and the concrete arrow still exist. 


 Above: How the the bombing range worked.




 Above: The observation post at Putsborough; note the concrete arrow in the third image down. Bottom  image is a war time aerial photo. 


Above: The other surviving observation post at Barricane Bay. 

The area also had a role in the battle against enemy ships and submarines in the Great War, when a Coastguard watch point was established at Morte Point. It was demolished in 1982, but a plaque has been erected on its former site, and the views from here are fantastic. 

Above: Top - memorial plaque at the site of the WW1 Coastguard lookout. Bottom - the view from the lookout, with Woolacombe Bay and Baggy Point in the distance.

All in all, a fascinating place. The whole topic of ‘Driving the Germans out of their Concrete Emplacements in Western Europe’ is my next area of my focus after Building the Gort Line, and who knows, perhaps a second book!

Friday 11 September 2020

Outer Bristol Defence Position (Stop Line Green) - Dulcote area

Completely new territory for me today, a brief visit to some pillboxes on the Outer Bristol Defence Position (Stop Line Green). The Position ran from Highbridge in the south, in a ring approx. 20 miles from Bristol to a point on the River Severn six miles south of Gloucester in the north. Dulcote lies in the sector from Upper Godney to Dinder, where the anti-tank obstacle was the River Sheppey stream which was only a partial obstacle and needed improvement and an artificial obstacle in places. Much of the Position was enclosed, including the Dulcote area, and would have been expensive in troops to hold. In fact, it was calculated that 16 divisions would be required to hold the whole Position, and that serious attacks could not be repelled for any length of time. 

Above; some of the artificial anti-tank obstacles - anti-tank cubes on Constitution Hill, not in their original position and sockets for anti-tank rails blocking the track up to Dinder Wood. Their was also an anti-tank ditch which has been infilled.

The Position was in effect a last ditch position, and was intended to keep Bristol Port open just long enough for potential evacuations. There are two main types of pillbox on the Position - bullet proof Type 26 Square pillboxes and shell proof Type 24 pillboxes. There are no pillboxes on the Position built to house anti-tank guns; one can only assume that at the time it was calculated if the Germans got this far, they would have all been lost in action. The two pillboxes visited today are Type 24's, constructed using red brick shuttering.

Above: Type 24 pillbox on the heights of Constitution Hill, overlooking Glastonbury Tor. Inside is a standard Bren embrasure with a small table to support the tripod.

Above: the second pillbox visited today.

Wednesday 9 September 2020

Santon Downham military remains

During a recent visit to The Brecks,  a pleasant walk around Santon Downham revealed  some interesting  military heritage of both World Wars.  First was the village war Memorial, in the form of a silhouette of British soldier that will be familiar to anyone with an interest in the Great War. 

Above: village war memorial 

The bridge that crosses the Little Ouse was erected by the Canadians  as part of the logging line  from High Lodge to the sawmill near Santon Downham. This was part of the forestry operations set up by the Home Grown Timber Committee (set up in November 1915), which had powers to compulsorily purchase standing timber. No. 126 Company, Canadian Forestry Corps began to arrive in the Santon Downham Estate in April 1918. During WW2, the bridge was guarded by a spigot mortar, an example of the local hexagonal design within a raised concrete emplacement.

Above: bridge erected by the Canadians as part of the logging line.

Above: WW2 spigot mortar emplacement guarding the bridge.

Tuesday 8 September 2020

7th Armoured Division Memorial - Thetford Forest

The 7th Armoured Division moved down from Casoria on 20th December 1943 to embark for Britain following its role in the Italian Campaign. It docked at Glasgow on 7 January 1944, and was soon on its way by train to Norfolk for training and recreation.  The 131 Brigade were billeted relatively comfortably in the Kings Lynn while the 22nd Armoured Brigade  were 'less fortunate' to be billeted in the Brandon area.

Above : Memorial to the 7th Armoured Division: The Desert Rats, Thetford Forest.

According to the Divisional History:

“Our misgivings had already been aroused by the publication of an article in "Country Life" which, while attributing the district considerable importance for both archaeology and ornithology, made it clear that it possessed few, if any, other amenities. "Country Life" was right. Eager watchers, at the windows of the long troop trains, saw flat black fenland give way to sandy heath; Brandon station gave a glimpse at least of houses and a pub; but the Troop Carrying Vehicles into which we detrained carried us inexorably away from this brief vision of paradise, farther and farther into the waste, depositing us mercilessly into groups of decayed Nissen huts, clustered beneath the tall pines. The 4th County of London Yeomanry were perhaps the most unfortunate, the greater part of their camp having been constructed well below the water-level for the district, and they glared enviously at their neighbours, perched on their sandy islands above the waste. NCOs complained of the inadequacy of one hut for their Platoons or Troops; Colour Serjeants enquired bitterly how they were expected to put the stores into "that there 'ole there", and deep inroads were made into the coal stocks before it was discovered that this commodity was, in England, severely rationed. “

Evidence of the camp can still be found in the pine forest today.

Above : Concrete bases in the area of the camps cook hut still visible in the forest.

Above : Concrete base where one of the accommodation Nissan huts once stood.

Above : Two reconstructed Nissan huts.

The Division spent its time in England resting and training for the Invasion of Europe. This required re-equipping with new, and in some cases unfamiliar weapons and vehicles. 

Above : Cromwell tanks of the 7th Armoured Division, Thetford Forest, one of the vehicles the Division had to learn how to handle.

Training was also required in Combined Operations at the Divisional School at Yarmouth. Training areas were restricted, ranges inadequate and often distant, requiring anxious battles for rail-flats. 

Above :  Combined Operations - tanks of the 7th Armoured Division  landing from LST on the Normandy beaches on 7 June.

I also came across a much less known camp site which accommodated men from the Polish 3rd Carpathian Division after the end of WWII near Knettishall Heath.

Above : Memorial to 3rd Carpathian Division.