An explanation of some of the
wartime activities on Hankley Common
by Chris Shepheard
The Second World War has left many physical reminders in Surrey, particularly as there were such a large number of troops billeted here just prior to D-Day. Most of this evidence is in the form of pillboxes and other defence works, but did you know that we have the distinction of having a sea wall many miles from the nearest coast?
Just what is the story behind this strange artefact in the middle of Hankley Common, between Elstead and Tilford? Many walkers in the area have come across the strange structure amid the silver birch trees looking something like the ruins of Ankhor Wat in Cambodia, but very little has ever been recorded about it.
An article in the Ministry of Defence conservation magazine "Sanctuary" published in 1988 provides much information supplied originally by a Mr. Wood who was involved in the wartime trials with the wall.
During the summer of 1943, Mr. Wood, a Royal Armoured Corps driver/mechanic, was attached to the Fighting Vehicle Proving Establishment at Chertsey. His section was involved in the testing of assault equipment and was sent with a Churchill Mk.II tank to Elstead where he was billeted in a hutted camp with Canadian troops.
The task, over a period of several days, was to take the vehicle, which was equipped with a device called "The Onion" (or possibly "Double Onion"), across the common to the Lion's Mouth (SU883413). Here an area of obstacles had been set out to represent the defences thought likely to be found during a landing in Europe. These consisted of a large section of reinforced concrete wall, approximately 100m long and 3m high by 3.5m wide. In the centre of this wall was a gap, 6m wide, closed by a three section heavy steel girder gate running on rollers. To one end of the wall were several types of tank traps, including "dragons teeth", lengths of railway track set in concrete and wire entanglements.
|Some of the many dragons teeth of several varieties|
alongside the wall.
|A "hedgehog" of steel rails next to the wall|
showing signs of attck with explosive charges.
The Churchill "Double Onion", capable of placing demolition charges at heights up to 12ft,
on Hankley Common near to the wall. (Photograph coutesy of The Tank Museum.)
The tank was driven towards the wall and, on arrival, the framework was lowered to the ground against the obstruction. The vehicle was then backed off to a distance of some 100 feet, paying out an electric detonating cable as it went. The explosives were then detonated by the driver and the resulting effect can still be seen in the remains of the wall to this day, each of the two gaps created measuring some 3.5m in width. Obviously these resulted in considerable bangs which must have been heard throughout the district and it is thought that these could have led to claims against the War Department for ceiling collapses in nearby Tilford village which originate at about this time.
|One of the breaches|
made by the Double Onion.
Mr. Wood believes that the Canadian troops were responsible for building the "Atlantic Wall" here, and the commandant of the Longmoor military training area, under which Hankley now falls, has reported that raiding parties were sent across the Channel to accurately measure the real thing and bring back samples of the concrete to ensure the training version was as realistic as possible. This must have been quite an undertaking, especially as it was necessary to chip pieces off without being heard!
The wall as it stands today, showing one of the breaches created by the Double Onion
and damage from shellfire. On the right is the gap in the wall
which was to be closed with steel gates (see below).
Another inland example exists in Stirlingshire (NN838037), near the 1715 Sheriff Muir battlefield, again this was used in demolition tests. This second wall has recently been surveyed and found to be very similar in overall size although it tapers in section dramatically towards one end. The thickness of the wall varies from 3 metres down to 0.7 metres and a two metre deep ditch lies on the downslope side. Again concrete is scattered back a considerable distance from a single explosive created breach in the wall.
(From photographs held at The Tank Museum at Bovingdon in Dorset, we now believe that there were at least two other "Atlantic Walls" built somewhere in the British countryside. If you know, or think you might know, where they were we would be only too pleased to hear from you. Please email email@example.com with any information.)
As well as the two massive breaches blasted in the Hankley wall by the explosives there are also many marks made by shells spalling off concrete and snapping and twisting the reinforcement near to the surface. Other than this the wall must be very much as it was built, even though several more generations of troops have trained in the area which has provided military training since the inter-war period.
The Surrey Defences Survey, part of the Surrey Industrial History Group, aims to record all defence and associated works still in existence in the county. For further information please write to SIHG, Castle Arch, Guildford, Surrey or visit http://www.surreyarchaeology.org.uk/sihg. More information on the survey can also be found at http://www.chrispics.co.uk/sds.