During the Second World War, every town, village, and resident was asked to “do their bit” in the pursuit of victory. However, Studland Bay in particular had a vital role to play in Britain’s defence.
Raids from above weren’t the only risk. In 1940, Adolf Hitler’s plan to invade Britain, known as Operation Sealion, was gathering pace. A large-scale landing of enemy forces was planned against the country’s coastal towns and villages, as well as its ports.
In preparation, instead of the sweeping stretches of white and golden sands that we’re used to today, Studland Bay’s beaches were covered with reinforced concrete blocks. Known as dragon’s teeth, these were obstacles designed to interrupt the movement of tanks and mechanised infantry in the event of a landing. Some of these can still be found today, between Middle Beach and Fort Henry, and at Bramble Bush Bay. Along the coast at Swanage beach, metal poles and wire barriers were embedded in the sand in an attempt to repel invaders.
Observation posts, pillboxes and gun emplacements were also erected to keep watch for enemy attackers. In 1940, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Dorset, laying bricks to help build a pillbox machine gun post at Sandbanks in Poole. Gun emplacements were built at Ballard Down and Peveril Point, which had the advantage of offering (as it still does today) outstanding views over the bay.
Despite the fact that many evacuees sought shelter in Studland and Swanage, the area wasn’t entirely safe. Like many coastal towns, Swanage fell victim to “tip and run” raids, as Luftwaffe bombers sought to lighten their load of bombs before heading back home. Between 1942 and 1943, there were 20 civilian deaths and many more wounded; the worst incident being on 17th August 1942 when bombers swooped over Old Harry Rocks and the beach to attack the town and promenade, while also firing machine guns at terrified onlookers.
Preparations for invasion again fell on Studland Bay in 1944. However, this time, the location was used to rehearse Britain’s operation to retake Normandy in France: a mission code-named Operation Neptune, but most often referred to as D-Day.
Studland was chosen as an ideal location for D-Day rehearsals, due to its close resemblance to the beaches of Normandy. Here, during what was known as “Exercise Smash”, troops trained using live ammunition and amphibious craft. Bunkers and observation posts were built (many of which can still be found on Studland Heath), and mock aerial attacks were carried out.
In spring 1944, Winston Churchill returned to Dorset to watch the exercise, accompanied by King George VI and the Allied generals General Dwight Eisenhower, General Montgomery, and Acting Admiral Louis Mountbatten. During his visit, Churchill even found time to visit Knoll House for afternoon tea – taking a welcome rest from inspecting military bunkers. Once back on “official business”, his prestigious group observed the action from Fort Henry, a concrete bunker and observation post that was designed to protect the VIPs with three-feet-thick walls, floor and ceilings.
It's fair to say that Exercise Smash didn’t go to plan, with six tanks sinking to the seabed and six men tragically losing their lives. Fort Henry still stands today, accompanied by a memorial to those who died. To visit, follow the South West Coast Path from the Middle Beach car park.
Other more unusual traces of this chapter in Studland’s Bay’s history can still be found today – often with dramatic consequences. Though almost 80 years have passed, live ammunition used in the D-Day rehearsals is still found on the beach, with official advice being to avoid touching it, and to report it immediately to a member of National Trust staff.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Dorset in the Second World War, you might like to visit in Bovington or browse the archives at >span class="s2">Dorset History Centre. Or why not combine a stay at Knoll House with a few days spent exploring the area, as you seek out the traces of our local history for yourselves? And of course, if you’d really like to follow in Winston Churchill’s footsteps, do find time for an afternoon tea while you’re here.
Images courtesy of National Trust.