Tag Archives: Severn Estuary

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



Dunball Island

Until about 1760 Dunball was a low lying promontory used for grazing animals in the parish of Easton in Gordano.  It was the most northerly part of Somerset.  Its position forced the River Avon to make a sharp turn to the north in order to reach the Severn Estuary.  By around 1770 the river had begun to cut a channel across the promontory, which meant that at high tide small boats could take a straight course from the Severn Estuary to Pill.  Over the next 90 years the channel, which became known as the Swash, deepened and Dunball became an island of around 20-25 acres in size.  The original North Channel of the River Avon began to silt up at the same time.

A gibbet was erected on Dunball in the 18th century.  Gibbets were structures on which the dead bodies of executed criminals were displayed as deterrents to existing or potential criminals. The remains of Dunball’s gibbet were still in existence when the Ordnance Survey surveyed the area between 1880 and 1882.  

A 1:10,560 scale first edition Ordnance Survey map dated 1884-1887 and showing Dunball and also the Swash and North Channels, can be seen here: http://www1.somerset.gov.uk/archives/Maps/OS61htm/0203.htm

In 1857 Dunball Island was bought by Mr John Cook Hooper, the landlord of the Marine Hotel in Avonmouth for £100.  He sold it to Bristol Corporation in 1860 for £856.  Between the late 1860s and the mid-1870s the North Channel silted up and then disappeared and Dunball became attached to Gloucestershire sometime after 1875. In 1894 Dunball and Avonmouth were incorporated into the City of Bristol.

Dunball’s short life came to an end when it was destroyed during the construction of the Royal Edward Dock and adjacent Graving Dock at Avonmouth between 1902 and 1908.  Dunball was still marked on the 1904 Ordnance Survey map but by this time it was no longer an island.  It had disappeared altogether by the time of the 1912 revision map.

A 1:10,560 scale second edition Ordnance Survey map dated c1900 and showing Dunball can be seen here: http://www1.somerset.gov.uk/archives/Maps/OS62htm/0203.htm