NOSTALGIA: Unexploded bombs at Beachy Head and the part the Canadians played in the Second World War
A historian from Eastbourne has come up with a possible explanation behind the discovery of an unexploded shell at Beachy Head last month.
Elizabeth Wright from Hampden Park writes, “During the Second World War much of the downland around Belle Tout lighthouse was requisitioned by the War Department as a military training ground. Canadian troops moved in and were billeted around the area from July 1941 in the run up to D-Day.
“The gunners began training on a temporary range extending from Belle Tout towards Birling Gap. In the autumn of 1941 a light railway was built which crossed the valley formed by two hills, finishing in a deep dug-out.
“James Donne reported in the ‘Sussex County County’ magazine, ‘Inside [the dug out] there was an old car – minus tyres- and the back wheel was used as a winch to tow a life-sized target of a tank along the rails’.
“This consisted of the flat outline of a tank made from tubular steel covered with black hessian. Being somewhat on the light side, it was often blown over by strong winter winds and the men returned to their unit without firing a shot. The cable used to pull the trolley was sometimes severed by a shell and there was a long wait until men turned up to splice it together.
“Michael Ockenden, in his book ‘Canucks by the Sea - The Canadian Army in Eastbourne during the Second World War,’ wrote, ‘In the confined space of the Belle Tout dug-out, the car engine pulling the targets often overheated. Mechanics had their work cut out to ensure it kept running, and warmer weather made things intolerable. On March 15 it was noted:- Men punched a hole in the rear of the Belle Tout engine room to keep everyone cool’.
“Naval ships occasionally turned up to practise shooting at the truck on the cliff top track, guided by signalling instructions.
“Retired coastguard Garry Russell said, “For years afterwards when we climbed up and down the cliff face, as part of our job, we came across hundreds of shells embedded in the chalk.
“After the war, a long lease for Belle Tout lighthouse was granted to Dr Edward Revill Cullinan and his wife Joyce. On starting repairs to the boundary wall, reusing the scattered stones, he inadvertently cemented a live shell into the stonework. An inspection of the property revealed this dangerous situation and a further investigation recovered many more shell cases and further unexploded bombs lying amongst the rocks, which were attended to by the bomb disposal team.
“On February 5 1986 the BBC bought Belle Tout lighthouse to use as the backdrop for a proposed film series The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, a 1983 novel by Fay Weldon. Well known actors Dennis Waterman, Patricia Hodge and Julie T Wallace played the main characters.
“The lighthouse was transformed into an ‘ivory tower’ by the addition of a large stage set on the front of the building. Landscape gardener David Wells was awarded the contract to put in a garden full of flowers because, he said, ‘There was very little plant life surviving; most were laid prostrate owing to the strong winds. Just ivy and elderberry and a brave climbing rose which later produced a single fragrant pink and white bloom. The garden pond needed to be altered into a five feet deep swimming pool. We used a small digger to shape the site but when we returned after a night of torrential rain, we found some shiny metal objects that had been scraped up by the digger blades. We discovered that they were five inch artillery shells used by the Canadian Army during the Second World War. We informed the bomb squad – who shut the site down. Several sack loads of live shells were unearthed, lowered to the beach and detonated. The massive explosion blew seagulls higher than they had previously experienced! The BBC was furious (hold-ups were costly) but after a day the area was declared safe and the bomb squad departed.
“In a letter to the Eastbourne Herald, Barry Earthrowl said, ‘The unexploded shells that walkers periodically find at the foot of the cliffs are British anti-tank shells.....the guns were sited a little way inland and were trained on moving targets in the shape of silhouettes of tanks, running along a temporary rail track along the cliff edge. They were firing a mixture of high explosive shells and armour piercing solid shot rounds, and those that failed to hit the targets flew safely over the cliff edge, plunging into the sea or onto the foreshore, depending on the state of the tide. There was no danger to the public at the time because under wartime restrictions the south-east coast was closed and sealed off as a part of the anti-invasion precautions’.
“Also in the area at the time of filming was coastguard Garry Russell who said, ‘While we were there in our coastguard capacity, we made arrangements to meet a Navy vehicle just east of Belle Tout. They had a load of ammunition they wanted to get rid of, consisting of 17 five and a quarter inch shells stuffed with high explosives and weighing about one centum weight apiece. We lowered these shells to the beach and while we were doing this the BBC film crew were working on the extension on the side of the lighthouse.
“‘I went over to warn them that when the shout went up everyone would have to get back inland. The road was closed both east and west. I took cover under the rescue trailer because it was made of sturdy steel. There was an enormous thump as this lot went off on the beach. The whole of Beachy Head shook and you could hear metal whizzing up in the air and bits of red hot metal were becoming embedded in the road and all around. After about 30 seconds I got out from under the trailer as another massive whoomp went off and I could see the aftershock of blast waves in the water going out from the cliff face. There was an enormous crater left on the beach and the cliff face had a good clean. Then, from the bushes surrounding a nearby farm, two naked women came rushing out. There was red hot metal flying everywhere and they hadn’t got a stitch on.’”