History in Dorset: World War II, Churchill and the Isle of Purbeck
Header image: © Copyright Mike Searle and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA
Overlooking Studland Bay, Fort Henry was built as the largest and strongest observation post in Britain during World War II. It was constructed by Canadian engineers in 1943 for the protection of the bay in the event of German invasion.
It was here that Exercise Smash took place in April 1944, the largest live ammunition practice of the entire war. During this trial run troops gathered to test new tanks, practicing launching and landing them on the beach in preparation for the attack on Normandy that would take place on 6th June: D-Day.
Winston Churchill, King George VI and General Eisenhower made the trip to Fort Henry to witness the preparations take place and live ammunition was used to ensure the practice was as close as possible to the real event. Studland Beach was picked as the test location because the sand here is similar to that of northern France. The VIPs were kept safe in Fort Henry which has concrete walls 90ft long and 3ft thick.
There's a National Trust Second World War walk that is great for stretching the legs down by the beach and leads you past Studland Bay's various points of interest. It is a nice circular walk that'll take you around an hour to complete.
Studland Bay was an important training ground for troops in the months leading up to D-Day and the walk will take you along the coast path, passing Fort Henry, before heading inland to curve past some of the area's other historic sites. You can begin and end your walk in the Middle Beach car park.
Find all the details here.
Little more than 10 miles away Tyneham is a ghost village just a short distance from the Dorset coast. During the war years many people were evacuated from their homes and the inhabitants of Tyneham, plus 7,500 acres of its surrounding heathland were evacuated. The War office commandeered the area for training purposes and firing ranges. What was supposed to be a temporary measure became permanent in 1948 when the Army placed a compulsory purchase order on the land. Its inhabitants didn't know they'd never return. The last person to leave left a note on the church door:
“Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.”
Because the area has been free from farming and development for so long wildlife has thrived, though there is a littering of target scrap and evidence of regular shelling. A lot of the buildings have fallen into disrepair, but the church and the school house are now museums. Footpaths across the ranges open over the weekends and throughout August, so you can explore for yourself. The village is full of history. It is thought to date back to Roman times and the oldest building is the 13th Century church of St. Mary. In 1943 time stopped still and this eerie ghost town has remained the same since then.
The area is part of the Lulworth Ranges and you can check the opening times for the walking routes here.
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