Steep Holm during the Second World War
The refortification of Steep Holm and neighbouring Flat Holm began in July 1941 to protect convoy ships lying at anchor in the Bristol Channel waiting for high tide to enable them to unload their cargoes at the various ports along the Severn Estuary.
On Steep Holm two jetties were constructed, an iron one at the Landing Beach on the east coast and a smaller stone one at South Landing.
Two batteries were built on the top of the island. Steep Holm North was on the site of the Victorian Summit Battery in the north west of the island and had clear views across to Flat Holm and Lavernock Point on the Welsh coast. Steep Holm South was on the site of Garden Battery in the south east of the island, which had views over the whole of Bridgwater Bay. Each battery had two separate emplacements for 6 inch ex-Navy guns. The batteries were roofed with “plastic armour”, which was a bituminous cement mixed with flint and granite chippings.
A rocket launcher was constructed at Split Rock Battery. Observation posts were built at Rudder Rock and Steep Holm South Batteries.
Two instrument pillars were built, one at each battery. Royal Artillery spotters mounted their Depression Range-Finders on them, which enabled them to observe targets and correct the fall of fire. They were surrounded by blast walls.
The remains of the inn and Cliff Cottage were demolished to make way for a narrow gauge railway, which was used for winching wagons of sand, cement, supplies and equipment up the Zigzag Path from the Landing Beach to the summit and across the plateau to Steep Holm North Battery. A separate track was also laid from the South Landing up to the summit. The railway track used had been captured from the Germans on the Western Front during the First World War. Three winch houses were built at the top of the three sections of the Zigzag Path. An open winch was constructed at the top of the path down to the South Landing. Indian soldiers with mules transported stores from ships to the summit of the island until the narrow gauge railway was completed. The mules were later used to pull the wagons along the level sections of the narrow gauge railway.
Up to 300 men were stationed on Steep Holm during the construction phase. Officers were housed in the Victorian barracks but lower ranks had to live in tents until Nissen huts were constructed.
Four searchlight posts were built around the island: at South Landing; above Calf Rock; above Rudder Rock and on the north coast to the north east of Steep Holm North Battery. The purpose of these was to look out for German E-boats sailing up the Bristol Channel. The top of the island was too high to allow the searchlights to pan across the sea, so the searchlight posts were built low on the cliffs. Long flights of concrete steps had to be built to reach two of them. There were 120 steps leading down the Rudder Rock searchlight post and 208 steps down to the post on the north coast. The posts and the steps to them were painted with zebra camouflage to disguise them. Two Generator houses were built to power the searchlights.
Two 3,200 gallon water tanks were erected on the top of the island, one for fresh water and one for salt water. Water was pumped up to the summit from a supply ship.
The refortification of Steep Holm was completed by October 1942. However the ex-Navy guns were never needed against enemy ships and they were useless against air attacks.
By the end of 1943 the threat to ships in the Bristol Channel had reduced significantly, so the island was relegated to “care and maintenance” status and most of the troops were moved off the island.
After the end of the Second World War German prisoners of war dismantled and removed most of the railway winches and trolleys and demolished the wartime piers.
Steep Holm at war: Rodney Legg. Wincanton Press, 1991
The Steep Holm Guide and Trail. Published by the Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust, 2014
Steep Holm’s Pioneers: Stan and Joan Rendall. Published by the authors, 2003