The Studland Fire and WWII

Now, as the long awaited rain falls.. the summer seems a long way off. All that hot dry weather.

Back in August, sunlight amplified through a broken bottle or an injudicious BBQ caused a sudden gorse-fire which swept across the Studland Heath in Dorset. It caused some unusual sounds as the flames ate up the vegetation and scorched the ground surface.

One of the earthwork gun pits exposed by the fire.

Were those sudden cracks and bangs gun shots and small detonations?

It turns out they were…because when I reached the fire site there were munitions experts sweeping the blackened area with detectors and piles of explosive bits were being placed in a secure area for safe disposal.

Ollie, our WWII specialist at Studland, showed me the extent of the burned area. He’s discovered that this piece of coastal Purbeck land was already a military practice area in 1936.

When the war came, it continued to be used.

From 1939-41 pill boxes, gun emplacements and mine fields were created to defend this vulnerable piece of coast against German attack. Oil tanks were built with pipes running into the sea ( a defensive system known as FOUGASSE). The idea was to ignite the sea as the enemy tried to land to make an impenetrable wall of flame. Locals complained that the system was not particularly beneficial. When an offshore wind blew, everyone on land was choked and blinded with smoke and fumes.

Then, as the threat of invasion waned, Studland became an invasion practice area, particularly to train soldiers in the art of coastal attack. Initially, in 1943, for the Italian landings at Salerno and later for the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches in June 1944.

As we walked across the burn site we could see that the gorse had once shrouded a 1944 time-vault. There were gun pits, slit trenches banks and ditches and the impact pits from exploded ordinance. Tread carefully…1 in 10 didn’t go off.

It looked like a battle site and the training was supposed to simulate real war. Here the British and Canadian troops taking part in Operations Pirate, Savvy and Smash exchanged live ammunition fire. Exploded shell and bullet fragments were everywhere. There was evidence for artillery rounds lobbed from Royal Navy vessels in Studland Bay and machine gun bullets fired from aircraft.

Amongst the charcoaled sticks of gorse were more personal items like a military mess-tin with utensils, a cap badge and a Coca Cola bottle. The bullet casings had the date of manufacture stamped on them. Mostly 1942-43.

A spork and part of a mess tin jutting from the gorse.

Ollie has been delving into the WWII records for Studland and found the daily diary of the Canadian unit of engineers who came to Studland to clear a minefield and build an observation bunker. Their work was made more difficult by live firing onto the dunes and heath by the Navy. One engineer lost his life when he stepped on a mine.

The building they completed in 1943 later became known as Fort Henry and it is said that Montgomery, Eisenhower and George VI observed the D-Day practices from there… but this has not yet been confirmed by contemporary documents. The long concrete bunker sits close to the cliff edge… blocking the field of fire from an earlier phase defensive gun emplacement.

Fort Henry observation bunker. Did the VIPs come to watch the D-Day practice landings here? The gun emplacement behind it is left over from the earlier coastal defence phase of the war. Photo snipped from the drone digital video created by Downland Partnership

In a few years it will be undermined by the sea. How significant is it? Should it be allowed to fall over the cliff or should it be pulled inland? These are difficult and potentially expensive questions to answer. Meanwhile, the Downland Partnership have been commissioned to complete a digital record of the structure so that it can be seen and measured inside and out from every angle. It is preserved by record at least.

Artillery and rocket fragments, machine gun and rifle rounds exposed by the fire.

In 1944, the soldiers who occupied these military remains, left this pretty piece of England for the beach landings in Normandy. Strange to walk amongst these traces. How has this archaeology stayed here like this for so long… while generations of holiday makers in the intervening years have splashed happily in the sea and made sandcastles on the beach… just a short distance away.

Across Studland Heath there are many groups of WWII structures and earthworks. We have commissioned a high resolution LiDAR survey to record them all and the pattern of trenches will now be mapped in detail for the first time. These will be plotted with the WWII evidence revealed by the fire.

The terrain LiDAR plot of the Six Bronze Age round barrows on Studland Heath cut by WWII slit trenches

In the ashes, I tried to imagine how this quiet area, much valued for its wildlife, was once crowded with military activity and noisy with the sound of explosions.

2 thoughts on “The Studland Fire and WWII

  1. This is absolutely fascinating. Do you have any more details or photos of the Coke bottle that was found?

    I found your blog by accident tonight, whilst researching the Studland Circles – I went off at a tangent and happened upon this article. I’ve spent a pleasant couple of hours reading through some of your posts about Purbeck. I am passionately interested in local history (especially Studland), and in local bottles in particular. I met with Nancy a while back, who showed me the witch bottle that my uncle, warden Terry Gibbons, found near Eastington Farm.

    If there is any way I can become involved with NT local archaeology as a volunteer, I would be very interested in doing so. Also, I wanted to ask – a survey/report you wrote in 1995 is quoted in many articles I’ve read. Was this available to the public, or an internal document?

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