Monday, 20 May 2013

The corner of a Scottish field that will be forever Normandy

The 'Atlantic Wall' stands a few metres from the Sheriffmuir Road

Not so much a blog post as an article. I recently stumbled upon a largely forgotten part of Scotland's WWII history in the hills above Bridge of Allan and Dunblane. It became doubly poignant when I discovered that my maternal grandfather would have trained here almost a century ago with the 4th KOSB before they set off on their fateful mission to Gallipoli in 1915.

“Go, go, go!”
Screamed on by their officers and NCOs and covered by machine gun fire from amphibious tanks, assault engineers of the Third Division leapt from their landing craft into the shallows and sprinted up the beach. The three hundred metres that separated them from the objective was lashed by bullets and shrapnel as the German defenders raked the charging soldiers with fire from MG-42 machine guns and rifles and showered the assaulting troops with grenades. Mortar bombs and heavy shells from artillery batteries far inland crashed down among them.
By the time they reached the first obstacle their lungs were bursting with the effort of carrying their heavy packs of explosives across the deep sand. As bullets chipped the concrete around them, they desperately packed their pre-prepared charges into every recess and chink they could find, before squirming back to the minimum safe distance. A few hundred metres away a specially-modified Churchill tank lumbered up the beach and placed a massive metal frame against the obstacle before retiring, unreeling a command wire behind it.
Inside one of the five bunkers
Simultaneous flashes of white light and an enormous, ear-splitting crash. Huge jagged chunks of concrete spattered down among the attackers, but it was done. Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had been breached. The road to Berlin was open.
But this wasn’t the summer of 1944, it was the autumn of 1943, the landing craft were flimsy wooden replicas, the sand they’d crossed was foot-deep heather and the rugged landscape wasn’t the Normandy coast of France, but a windswept Perthshire hillside. Only the Atlantic Wall was real and so sturdily constructed that it remains to this day, a forgotten, battle-scarred monument to the men who trained here to blast their way through the real thing and were destined never to return from the war in Europe.
The wall stands three metres high, three wide and more than eighty long - a solid barrier of steel-reinforced concrete - but its massive bulk is almost lost in the bleak vastness of Sheriffmuir, near Stirling, two miles north of the battlefield where Jacobite and Hanoverian forces fought out a bloody score draw in November 1715. A formidable anti-tank ditch makes it difficult to approach even to this day and the moorland is cut with shallow gullies, the remains of trenches created to replicate the obstacles the attackers would face when they burst from their landing craft on to Sword beach between Ouistreham and Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer on the left flank of the Normandy invasion. The trench network is backed by five substantial concrete bunkers, one of them a mass of shattered concrete and twisted metal, and the wall itself is pockmarked by shell hits and cratered by explosive charges. At the western end a huge explosion has created a three metre breach and scattered jagged pieces of concrete across the heather.
A breach probably caused by one of Hobart's 'Funnies'
To its front is the rough ground the attackers would have had to cross, pockmarked by shell holes and scattered with trenches and fox holes and beyond the Sheriffmuir road shallow depressions in the heather reveal the positions of the ‘landing craft’. The five bunkers are strategically placed to create an interlocking field of fire that would have hammered at the men as they made their approach to the target.
Seventy years after the event, it is eery to walk over the Scottish hillside where men trained for the greatest amphibious operation the world had ever seen. The attackers would have been the soldiers of the Third Infantry Division, based in Scotland and training to assault Sword Beach. They included the veterans of famous Scottish regiments like the 1st Battalion Kings Own Scottish Borderers, men from Galashiels, Hawick, Melrose, Jedburgh, Kelso and Selkirk, who had been evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk four years earlier and were determined to avenge that slight. The division’s shock troops were the hard-fighting Commandos of First Special Service Brigade, led by the charismatic aristocrat Lord Lovat, whose primary task was to secure the Orne bridges. Lovat had already decided that his personal piper Bill Millin, who would pipe them ashore on D-Day.
Nothing was left to chance by the planners who worked on Operation Overlord, the invasion of German-occupied France, and this section of the Atlantic Wall replicated on bleak Scottish moorland would have been the culmination of a sophisticated intelligence operation carried out in conditions of the utmost secrecy.
Murray Cook, archaeologist for Stirling Council, explained: “You have to remember that everyone who would have worked on this, trained on it or even had knowledge of it would have had to sign the Official Secrets Act. It was a vital part of the intelligence war against the Nazis and could be crucial to the success of D-Day. In a way it was a bit like Bletchley Park, where they broke the German Enigma codes. If the Nazis had been aware of what was happening at Sheriffmuir it could have given them a hint about the location of the invasion.”
Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had its genesis in his decision in 1940 to abandon Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain, and turn his eyes east to Soviet Russia, but the scale and ambition of the defences multiplied after the entry into the war of the United States in December 1941. The work was carried out by the Todt Organisation and by the time of the invasion more than 17,000 bunkers and bombproof shelters had been constructed for the defenders using the latest ferro-concrete technology, plus hundreds of heavy artillery batteries. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was appointed to oversee the work in 1943 and Wehrmacht engineers laid millions of mines and sited what became known as Rommel’s Asparagus, steel obstacles tipped with explosives to destroy tanks and landing craft. Hundreds of thousands of slave labourers, prisoners of war and petty criminals from all over Europe laboured on the project, working under engineers from Germany and the Occupied territories, but the Nazis also used local contractors.
A Tobruk shelter machine gun post
Among them were members of the French Resistance. One, René Duchez, a painter and decorator from Caen, was a member of the Centurie network. He applied for a painting job at a German headquarters and managed to steal a plan of the Cotentin section of the Wall, which was then sent to London by fishing boat. Eventually more than 3,000 documents were sent to MI-6 in London who were able to create a master blueprint of the entire Normandy coastal defences.
Throughout 1942 and 1943 pressure grew from the Soviet Union for a landing in northern France. Once the decision was made that it should be in Normandy, detailed planning could begin to put 39 Allied divisions, more than one million men, on the beaches during the summer of 1944. Nothing could be left to chance and training began immediately on methods of breaching the Atlantic Wall. Just how effective would the Allied explosives be? How much would be needed? How could they be delivered?
The answer was to secretly replicate sections of the Wall and allow the assault battalions to attack them under realistic battle conditions.
In late 1943 or early 1944, work began at Sheriffmuir, probably by 294 Field Company of the Royal Engineers, who constructed a similar mock-up near Muthil, in Perthshire. The site at Sheriffmuir was ideal, part of the Whitestone Firing Range, remote and isolated, but at the centre of Third Division units billeted across Stirlingshire, Perthshire and Fife.
“Sheriffmuir has been a military zone since medieval times,” Mr Cook explained. “The clue is in the name, which identifies it as a place where the local Sheriff would have mustered his troops in the event of an emergency or for regular weapons training. There are trenches dating back to World War One, when the troops who went to Gallipoli in 1915 trained in the Stirling area.”
Now the training could begin in earnest.
Captain M. A. Philip, Brigade Signals Officer for 185 Brigade of the Third Division, remembered later: “We began some Combined Operations exercises, pretty primitive at first, known as ‘dryshod-exercises’. A road or some other suitable landmark represented the coastline, and if you were on one side of it you were technically afloat and on the other side on land again. Men and vehicles were fed across the ‘coastline’ at specified intervals to represent landing craft discharging their contents.”
Full battalions of soldiers would have trained to disembark from their landing craft and cover the three hundred metres of beach to their objective, clearing out trench lines and under live fire from the bunkers. But the key role would have been played by the assault engineers whose explosives would be used to blast a hole in the wall and allow the follow up troops to work their way inland, to take the city of Caen, Third Division’s ultimate objective. The marks of their attempts, many of them futile, are still obvious, but the training was hugely important.
The effects of high explosive on a concrete bunker
“The lessons learned here would undoubtedly have saved lives,’ Mr Cook said. “This is a fantastic monument and a reminder of an event of genuine world significance. D-day was the moment when the tide turned and it started at places like Sheriffmuir. The Sheriffmuir Atlantic Wall is a monument of national importance that contributed to this country’s finest hour when Britain stood against the Nazis.”
He revealed that the whole area is littered with the detritus of war; bullet casings, shell fragments and pieces of hand grenade. But he thinks that the most obvious damage to the wall was done by machine rather than man.
“We believe the large breach in the wall was probably created by one of what were called Hobart’s Funnies, special tanks designed for specific tasks.” Hobart’s Funnies was the nickname for tanks modified by Major General Percy Hobart, and included Scorpion flail tanks to clear mines, Crocodile flame-thrower tanks, tanks with bridges for crossing obstacles, and bulldozer tanks. The tank most likely to have been used against the Sheriffmuir Wall was the fantastically named Double Onion, a Churchill tank fitted with a metal frame that held two massive explosive charges designed to go off simultaneously. The tanks drove up to an obstacle, laid the frame against it, then withdrew to detonate the bombs at a safe distance.
After the “dryshod” exercises came “wetshod”, beginning in Galloway, where work was also going on to build the strategically vital Mulberry Harbours, then the Third Division Battle School at Moffat, and culminating in full scale landings from the sea. An entire section of coastline around Nairn and Forres on the Moray Firth was evacuated and the residents rehoused while the men who would assault Normandy took part in live firing exercises as close to the real thing as their commanders could devise. A similar operation by US forces destined for Utah Beach - Exercise Tiger - cost the lives of almost eight hundred men when the assault ships were attacked by E-boats off Slapton Sands. The Scottish exercise was less costly. Nine Duplex-Drive amphibious tanks - another of Hobart’s Funnies - sank in the heavy swell and one man was lost. The sunken tank is now a designated war grave in the waters off Burghead Bay at Findhorn.
When the “wetshod” exercises were complete, the men of the Third Infantry Division were as ready as they would ever be. In the months to come they would be transported down to their embarkation ports on the south coast and on the afternoon of 5th June they sailed for Normandy.
That evening, General Sir Alan Brooke, Churchill’s Chief of Staff, wrote: “I am very uneasy about the whole operation. At best it will fall so very, very far short of expectation … At the worst it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war. I wish to God it were safely over.”
By the afternoon of the following day - D-Day, 6th June - Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had been breached, at enormous human cost, and the road to Berlin truly was open.
“There’s no specific monument in Britain that celebrates Britain’s contribution to Operation Overlord,” Murray Cook said. “But the Sheriffmuir Atlantic Wall stands as a poignant and very evocative memorial to all the men who trained there and who took part in the D-Day landings and perhaps never returned.”

Friday, 3 May 2013

The real Iron Men

Russ, Ben and Tony at Housesteads Fort

At some point this afternoon four intrepid authors will reach the end of a six-day, 83 mile march along Hadrian's Wall, a massive achievement in its own right, but add in the fact that three of them did it wearing authentic Roman uniforms and carrying swords, shields and spears, braved blisters, back ache and helmet head, and it is truly monumental. Oh yes, and they've raised over £12,000 for charity.

I was fortunate to be able to join Ben Kane (Spartacus and Hannibal), Russ Whitfield (Gladiatrix), Tony Riches (the Empire series) and the incredibly informative Mike Bishop, author, publisher, archaeologist and font of all knowledge on the Wall, for the fourth day of their trek and it left me in awe of their stamina, courage and comradeship. By day four, they were collectively in pain from head to foot, but in true legionary style just got the head down and put one foot in front of the other.

They'd learned a few things along the way: that an eight pound helmet will rattle your brains if it's not properly padded: that hob-nailed sandals are like ice skates on rock: that a shield has a hundred ways of hurting you on the march: and if a 'friend' offers you the use of his fifteen pound chain mail armour you should tell him to stick it where the sun don't shine.

Mike Bishop leads the way over one of the many ups and downs
Day Four took in the thirteen mile plus stretch from Once Brewed to Chollerton, and begins with a hundred foot vertical climb up a rock stairway (see hobnails above, and think about the effect of a huge shield on a windy day). But it is also the finest, and most scenic stretch of the Wall, with the monument snaking its way over hill and valley and clinging to the very edge of breathtaking crags. I even had a deja vu moment at Sycamore Gap, when I realised I'd seen the tree a dozen times in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves! I wasn't the only guest, Colin and Lynette, from Cardiff, were with us for the whole stretch, and we were joined by William and his mates from Australia for part of it. Along the way we met a host of characters, including a platoon of Gurkha soldiers, who were astonished to meet three men with large spears, and generous beyond compare when they discovered that they were walking for Combat Stress and Medecin Sans Frontier

It's hard going, though, with some tough climbs. By the time we stopped for lunch in a sheep pen (to get out of the biting wind) decorated with the remains of one of the previous owners, I would have sworn Russ was going to finish the day requiring the services of one of the two charities, perhaps even an ambulance. Yet by mid-afternoon his brightly coloured shield had disappeared into the distance and I have an enduring image of the Duracell Bunny. The next time I saw him was when he stopped to rest at Chesters fort, half a mile from the finishing point at Chollerton.

We'd based ourselves at Corbridge (I can highly recommend 2 The Crofts B&B for a warm welcome, comfortable rooms and a hearty breakfast) and the town's excellent Forum Books, run by the innovative Helen Stanton, had organised a talk and signing for the evening. Over forty people gathered above the local Italian restaurant to listen to us (yes, I did feel a bit of a fraud) talk about books, writing and the challenge of walking the wall. Highlights were the spontaneous (probably) 'I am Spartacus' moment (for Spartacus, substitute Ben Kane), Mike's revelation that the nails on Roman sandals were ergonomically placed (a la Nike) to make the most comfortable walking, and Tony's announcement that it's not a good idea to rub (non-standard) vaseline on your nether parts on a tourist bus route.

It was a great night and a big success. A privilege to be there and meet so many generous people and a greater one to be allowed to take part in a small way in the adventure that was the Romani Walk.