World War II: British Beaches

World War II British beaches
Figure 1.--Here families at Bagnor Regis are interupting their beach fun to fill sand bags just as Europe was posed to descend into war (August 30, 1939). Bagnor is one of the Channel beaches south of London. It was in the area a year latter thst the Germans were planning to land. The photograph was captioned, 'A new beach passtime.' Notice the two boys wearing their school shorts with snake belts. Source: Imperial War Museum.

The British began preparing their beaches for war during the Phoney War. We are not sure just what was done during the phoney war, but we notice images of civilians filling sand bags just before the Germans launched the War. The activity at the time was probably more to prepare sand bags for protecting city buildings than defending the beaches. The beaches were a major source of the sand. Of course sand did nit have tobe used. Many sand bags were filled with dirt. With France in the War, the British Channel coast was still a rear area. Even so, the beaches had to be patrolled to some extent to guard agsinst spies and sabatouers who could be landed by U-boats during the night. We believe that civilians continued using the beaches for the rest of the summer, but our information is limited. Many of the city children of course were evacuated. After the fall of France, this changed dramtically (June 1940). The British Channel beaches became the front line of the War rather than the rear areas they had been in Wotld War I. They had to be fortified against the expected German invasion--Operation Sea Lion. The British set about building concrete landing traps, barbed wire barriers, scaffolding all along the coast, but especially the southeast coast where the Germans were expected to land. The Army also began laying mines in large numbers. Artillery was at first very limited as most had been left behind at Dunkirk. Large areas of the sea front was sealed off for about 3 years. Piers were an important part of British beach resorts. The Army even demolished parts of the piers at Hastings, St. Leonards, Eastbourne and Brighton to ensure that the Germans could not make use of them when the landings began. Plane spotters were positioned at or nearby the beaches. People along the southeastern beaches saw the Luftwaffe German air armadas crossing the Channel and then RAF pursuit of the raiders trying to reach their French air bases. Small beach areas were finally reopened for swimming in the summer after the D-Day landings(1944). Digging up the mines after the War was a major project.

The Phoney War (1939-40)

The British did not begin preparing their beaches for war during the Phoney War. We are not sure just what was done during the phoney war, but we atre not yet aware of any major beach projecrts. Here we see images of civilians filling sand bags just before the Germans launched the War. The activity at the time was probably more to prepare sand bags for protecting city buildings than defending the beaches. The beaches were a major source of the sand. Of course sand did nit have tobe used. Many sand bags were filled with dirt. With France in the War, the British Channel coast was still a rear area. Even so, the beaches had to be patrolled to some extent to guard against spies and sabatouers who could be landed by U-boats during the night. We believe that civilians continued using the beaches for the rest of the summer, but our information is limited. Many of the city children of course were evacuated. As far as we know, no serious work was undertaken to harden the beaches until the fall of France (June 1940).

German Occupied France (1940-44)

After the fall of France, thecsituation on British beaches changed dramtically (June 1940). The British Channel beaches became the front line of the War rather than the rear areas they had been in World War I. Hitler after defeating France expected the British toi sue for peace. He was prepared to offer what he saw as generous terms. When the Briutish refused, it became apparent that an invasion would be necessary to defeat the British. The Wehrmact services were discussuing the shape of tghe invasion--Operation Sea Lion. OKW before the Battle of France had not prepared a plan for invading Britain. The dimnsiona of the victory in the West came as a much of a surprise to senior German commanders as it did to the French. With control of France, the Germans rushed to cobbel together invasiion plans to complete their victory and end the War. No one unified plan emerged, but two different concepts for Sea Lion. Both OKM and OKH produced their own plans which were radically different. And of course both were predicated on OKL quickly achieving air superiority over southeastern England. The plan eventually hammered out for Operation Sea Lion pleased no one. After the Luftwaffe had destroyed the RAF, the Germans would land 160,000 German soldiers along a 40-mile coastal stretch of southeast England. Paratropp drops could be part of the invasion. but as in D-Day, a beach landing was needed to bring in large number of troops and heavy equipment including tanks and artillery. Thus the British had to fortify the beaches against the expected German invasion--Operation Sea Lion. The British set about building concrete landing traps, barbed wire barriers, scaffolding all along the coast, but especially the southeast coast where the Germans were expected to land. The Army also began laying mines in large numbers. Artillery was at first very limited as most had been left behind at Dunkirk. Large areas of the sea front was sealed off for about 3 years. Piers were an important part of British beach resorts. The Army even demolished parts of the piers at Hastings, St. Leonards, Eastbourne and Brighton to ensure that the Germans could not make use of them when the landings began. Plane spotters were positioned at or nearby the beaches. People along the southeastern beaches saw the Luftwaffe German air armadas crossing the Channel and then RAF pursuit of the raiders trying to reach their French air bases.

Final Year (1944-45)

Small beach areas were finally reopened for swimming in the summer after the D-Day landings(June 1944).

After the War

Removing the barbed wire and most of the barriers was a relatively easy matter. The mines were a very different matter. Digging up the mines after the War was a major problem. Not all of them were crefully recorded. And there was a huge number. A reader writes, "Immediately after the War, many beaches were 'off limits' because they hadn't been cleared of mines. Our first seaside holiday after the war was in North Cornwall, in an unmined area." Anothger British reader tells us, "There was a terrible accident during 1955 in Dorset. A group of boarding school boys were on the beach. Robert Key was a 10-year old boy in 1955. The Second World War had ended ten years previously. The war was far from Roberts mind that day.He attended a boarding school near Swanage. He was looking forward to the weekend. He and 20 boys from the school went with a teacher down to Swanage beach. it was Friday May 13th. Robert was with a group of 7 pupils who that afternoon on the beach. He described what happened. 'We were building sandcastles, digging holes in the sand, making dams and so on. I was building my castle with a chap called Richard Dunstan.' One other boy had found what looked like a tin of spam stuck fast between two rocks. It looked like a tin of spam. Unknown to the boys it was an unexploded WW2 mine which 10 years after the war ended had been washed up from the sea. One of the boys saw it about 2:00 pm. He called to his friends who also went to look. There were five of the boys examining the object. They tried to open their discovery. Robert and his friend had also looked at the object which had been found but lost interest and walked away. The boys had found a World War II mine. Unfortunately they did not know and did not understrand the danger. They were about 10 meters away from the rest of the group when suddenly there was then an explosion. All of the boys who were around the mine were killed. Robert and his friend Richard were blown into the sea, but survived. The boys were under the care of a well liked male teacher who taught French.There was no blame attached to the teacher who had suppervised the children that day. ccording to the documents held at the Imperial War Museum the beach had been cleared three times before being granted a clearance certificate in 1950, At the time a de-mining officer told the inquest that as expert he would have allowed boys to walk across the beach. The inquest discovered that while 117 mines had originally been lain. At the end of the clearance operation 58 mines could not be accounted for."







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Created: 6:20 PM 12/19/2011
Last updated: 6:50 AM 12/20/2011