Tag Archives: Second World War

Steep Holm during the Second World War

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. 

Steep Holm Wartime Jetty
Remains of the wartime jetty 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.

South Battery Steep Holm
Steep Holm South Battery
Steep Holm Flat Holm from Rudder Rock Observation Post
Flat Holm from Rudder Rock Observation Post
Steep Holm Plastic Cladding
Remains of the plastic armour roof at Steep Holm South Battery

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.

Steep Holm Instrument Pillar at North Battery
Instrument Pillar at Steep Holm North Battery

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.

Steep Holm Railway Line up the ZigZag Path
Railway Line up the ZigZag Path
Steep Holm Railway Track to South Landing looking down on the Searchlight Post
Railway Track to South Landing looking down on the Searchlight Post
Steep Holm Winch Top of South Landing
Remains of the winch at the top of the path leading to the South Landing

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.

Searchlight Steps Steep Holm
Steps leading down to 208 Steps Searchlight Post on the North Coast
Steep Holm Searchlight Post South Landing
Searchlight Post South Landing
Steep Holm Generator House 2
Generator House: this powered the Rudder Rock and 208 Steps Searchlight Posts
Steep Holm Rudder Rock Searchlight Post
Rudder Rock Searchlight Post

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.

Further reading:

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



Royal Observer Corps Monitoring Posts

The Observer Corps was set up in 1925 but had its roots in the First World War.  The need for an organised early warning system was recognised when the Germans started aerial bombing raids on southern England using Zeppelin airships in 1915. A network of observers stationed at strategic locations was set up.

During the 1930s the number of observation posts was greatly increased until by 1939 the whole of Britain was covered by the network. During the Battle of Britain in 1940 the Corps plotted the positions of German aircraft and passed the information to the RAF.  To recognise the value of this work, on 9th April 1941 King George VI conferred the title Royal on the Observer Corps.  Women were allowed to join the ROC from July 1941.

From 1940-42 a network of 150 satellite posts was established to improve coverage along the south and east coasts of Britain as far north as Dundee and on the coasts of Lancashire and Cheshire.  Some of these posts were manned by the ROC but most were manned by the RAF, coastguards or Anti-Aircraft Command.

The ROC was temporarily stood down on 12th May 1945 but was reactivated in 1947 in response to post war threats from the Soviet Bloc. In 1955 the ROC was given responsibility for giving warning of air attacks in a future war and to measure radioactivity levels in the event of a nuclear attack. The above ground monitoring posts offered little protection from radioactivity.  Therefore a programme of works was developed to build a network of underground posts.  By 1964 1,563 underground posts had been constructed across the UK.  They were designed to provide satisfactory blast protection and to be able to be used self-sufficiently for a number of weeks if a nuclear attack on the UK had occurred. 

Cuts in defence spending reduced the number of ROC posts to 873 in 1968. With the final end to the Cold War and more cuts in defence spending the ROC was finally stood down on 30th September 1991.

In North Somerset ROC Underground Monitoring Posts were located at Long Ashton, Portishead, Clevedon, Bleadon and Winscombe.  The Winscombe and Clevedon posts have been demolished.  Remains of the Portishead and Bleadon posts can be seen from public rights of way. The Long Ashton post may still exist but it is not on a public right of way. 

Bleadon’s ROC Monitoring Post is now in the middle of a new golf course on the top of Bleadon Hill. It was built in 1959 and used until 1991. The access and ventilation shafts are both visible from a public footpath, which runs northwards from Roman Road. Grid reference: ST345 579

 Remains of Bleadon ROC Monitoring Post

The very overgrown and truncated remains of the access shaft of Portishead ROC Monitoring Post can be seen in a small area of waste land on the south side of Down Road.  It was built in 1964 but closed down in 1968. Grid reference: ST448 759

Remains of Portishead ROC Monitoring Post

A comprehensive survey of the remains of all the ROC Monitoring Posts in the United Kingdom can be found on the Subterranea Britannica website: http://www.subbrit.org.uk/category/nuclear-monitoring-posts

A comprehensive history of the Royal Observer Corps can be found on the Royal Observer Corps Association’s website: http://www.roc-heritage.co.uk/roc-history.html

Further Reading:

Attack Warning Red: The Royal Observer Corps and the Defence of Britain 1925 to 1992: Derek Wood.  Macdonald and Jane’s Publishers Limited, 1992