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Exhibition: The ruins of WWII coastline defences

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Photographs focusing on the built remnants of World War II structures on the coastlines of Northern Europe have gone on display at London’s Anise Gallery

Landscape photographer Marc Wilson took a total of 143 photographs from locations on the coasts of the UK, the Channel Islands, Belgium, Denmark, France and Norway, with built structures ranging from pyramid-shaped anti-submarine barriers and to 170 metre wide U-boat bases.

Cramond Island, Firth of Forth, Scotland (2012). Photo: Marc Wilson.

Cramond Island, Firth of Forth, Scotland (2012). Photo: Marc Wilson.

Wilson described how the project was something of ‘an act of remembrance’ considering the family connections he had with the Second World War.

‘A relative flew with the RAF, and I have a mixed Polish, Romanian, Swiss and French background, so much of my family was directly caught up in the conflict on mainland Europe,’ says Wilson. ‘I wanted to create a body of work not just about the concrete objects but about the wider landscape they sit in, and the associated histories and memories.’

Wissant, Nord-Pas-De-Calais, France (2012). Photo: Marc Wilson

Wissant, Nord-Pas-De-Calais, France (2012). Photo: Marc Wilson

While many of the structures have been severely damaged by the elements over the last seven decades, some have been almost ‘engulfed’ by sand, trees and shrubbery, blending into the natural landscape.

‘Reaching each location often provided two very contrasting experiences; either a long search for these “objects”, shrouded in dunes or trees or camouflaged against grey rock, or being confronted by the hulking mass of an enormous blockhouse,’ says Wilson. ‘Either way, these objects seem to have become a part of the fabric of the landscape yet at the same time sit in it as an uninvited guest, completely alien with its surroundings.’


Abbot’s Cliff, Kent, England

Abbot's Cliff, Kent, England. (2010) Photo: Marc Wilson

‘Separated from France by only 21 miles of sea, Kent has often been threatened by invasion. During WW2, new anti-invasion defences were built, such as those at Abbot’s Cliff between Dover and Folkestone. Coastal batteries were established and earlier ones were re-armed. Cross-Channel guns, two of them nicknamed ‘Winnie’ and ‘Pooh’, were positioned on the cliffs at St Margaret’s near Dover as a response to the danger from German long-range guns in the Pas-de-Calais.’

Studland Bay, Dorset, England

Studland Bay, Dorset,England. (2011) Photo: Marc Wilson

‘In April 1944, after months of intensive planning and practice, a full-scale D-Day rehearsal for the Normandy landings was held in Studland Bay. ‘Exercise Smash’, in which live ammunition was used, was watched from Fort Henry, a nearby reinforced concrete observation bunker, by King George VI, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces General Dwight D Eisenhower.’

Portland, Dorset, England

Portland, Dorset, England. (2011). Photo: Marc Wilson

‘The Verne Battery was built in 1892 in a disused stone quarry on the Isle of Portland in Dorset as part of Britain’s coastal defences. Decommissioned in 1906, it was used after the First World War for storing field guns brought over from France, and during WWII to house ammunition in preparation for the D-Day landings. It also became an AA battery (anti-aircraft artillery). Thousands of gravestones were hewn from Portland Stone for the fallen Allied soldiers who died in both World Wars. It was also used to build the Cenotaph in Whitehall.’

Cramond Island, Firth of Forth, Scotland

Cramond Island, Firth of Forth, Scotland (2012). Photo: Marc Wilson.

‘An anti-submarine barrier, known as ‘the dragon’s teeth’, was built along the causeway between the village of Cramond and Cramond Island. Arranged in a long row, these pyramid-shaped concrete pylons – up to three metres high and spaced at 1.5 metre intervals – have vertical grooves in their sides into which were slotted reinforced concrete panels. On top of the blocks were fixing rings for large-diameter steel wire and anti-submarine nets.

Newburgh, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Newburgh, Aberdeenshire, Scotland (2012). Photo: Marc Wilson

‘A one-kilometre-long anti-tank wall was built across Newburgh’s sand dunes, 100 yards inland. This barrier consisted of a mound of sand, a deep ditch and a large wall made from steel scaffolding poles. It was designed to protect a gun battery up in the dunes from any flanking attack by tanks managing to get through the main defences on the beach.’

Lyness, Hoy, Orkney, Scotland

Lyness, Hoy, Orkney, Scotland. (2013) Photo: Marc Wilson.

‘Hoy is one of the islands encircling Scapa Flow, which was the Royal Navy’s chief anchorage during both world wars. On the hillside above Lyness stands the Wee Fea Naval Communications and Operational Centre. From 1943, this was the main base for, and controlled, naval operations in Scapa. It enabled direct communication to all defence sectors and then to the outside world. Lyness Naval Base was the site of the operation to salvage the German Fleet scuttled in 1919 during its internment at Scapa Flow at the end of WWI. It took eight years to raise 45 of the 52 scuttled ships.’

Haugesund, Rogaland, Norway

Haugesund, Rogaland, Norway (2014). Image: Marc Wilson

‘Haugesund, on the west coast of Norway, was defended by the naval battery (‘Marine Küste Batterie’) Bismarck. It comprised four 15cm guns, which could each fire a one tonne shell per minute up to a distance of 17 kilometres. The Kriegsmarine (German navy) and Luftwaffe used their bases in Norway to attack the Allied Arctic convoys bound for Russia. In 1943, Allied commandos from No 14 (Arctic) Commando took part in a raid – Operation Checkmate – on German shipping near Haugesund. They used canoes and kayaks and attached limpet mines to the hulls of the ships. During that raid, a German minesweeper was sunk. While waiting to be picked up by a Royal Navy motor torpedo boat (MTB), the commandos were captured, taken to concentration camps in Germany and executed.’

Wissant, Nord-Pas-De-Calais, France

Wissant, Nord-Pas-De-Calais, France (2012). Photo: Marc Wilson

‘Wissant means ‘white sand’ in Dutch (wit-zand). From the 7th to the 14th centuries, it was considered to be part of Flanders and the local language was called ‘Old Dutch’. During the Middle Ages, it was a major port of embarkation for England until, towards the end of the 12th century, it became silted up by the shifting sands. Some historians believe that it was from Wissant that, in 55 BC, Julius Caesar sailed for his invasion of Britain. During WWII, the Germans believed the Allies would regard Wissant, the closest point on mainland Europe to the English coast, as an ideal beach for an invasion. Situated between Cap Gris Nez and Cap Blanc Nez, it was heavily fortified with enormous bunkers, blockhouses, minefields, an anti-tank wall and long-range guns that could reach the English coast. In 2013, these German defences were removed by the local authorities.’

Lorient, Brittany, France

Lorient, Brittany, France (2014). Photo: Marc Wilson

‘The Brittany harbours of Brest, Lorient and Saint-Nazaire became bases for the German submarines that attacked the convoys bringing military equipment and food supplies from the United States to Britain. In Lorient, the largest of these U-boat bases, the Germans built three gigantic reinforced concrete structures on the Keroman peninsula. The third of these, ‘K3’, was 138 metres long, 170 metres wide and 20 metres high. It was protected by a double roof 7.4 metres thick that the Allies were unable to destroy, despite very heavy bombing. Floating armoured doors sealed the pens, from which the U-boats had direct access to the deep waters of the estuary.’

The Last Stand, Northern Europe. Photographs by Marc Wilson.
The Anise Gallery, 13a Shad Thames London, SE1 2PU.
Until 13 December 2014


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