Swanage is a lovely seaside town on the south coast of England with golden, sandy beaches and plenty of amusements, making it the perfect place for traditional 'bucket and spade' holidays.
It also played a crucial role in the defense of the UK against a possible German invasion during World War II, the remnants of which are still scattered across the beaches and coastline of the area.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF FORT HENRY
During World War II, the south coast of England was anticipated to be the location of an attempted invasion by the German forces during the Battle of Britain. Codenamed Operation Sealion by the Germans, their plan was to invade the U.K. once Germany had gained naval and air superiority over the English Channel.
The English, who had been aware that an invasion was a possibility even before war was officially declared, had hastily erected as many fortifications as they could to delay any attack. Concrete gun emplacements, turrets, defensive traps and all manner of fortifications shot up along the south coast.
Fortunately, the Germans never did achieve either; the planned invasion was called off in late 1940 and never revived.
Over the latter years of the war and as planning for D-Day progressed, the coastline fortifications changed from defensive to offensive as buildings, factories and storehouses were built to manufacture the equipment and machinery used for the landings. This also transformed the coastline with new concrete constructions sprouting up at great speed.
Studland and Swanage, right next to each other on the Dorset coastline, have retained some of their fortifications which can still be visited today.
OPERATION SMASH AND FORT HENRY
The planning for D-Day involved full scale exercises to test out the equipment and prepare the troops for the battle ahead. Studland was selected as being similar to the Normandy beaches, and so Operation Smash took place on 4th April 1944, just six weeks before D-Day. It was the largest live exercise of its time.
Fort Henry was built overlooking the bay, a reinforced concrete bunker where Churchill, Eisenhower, Montgomery and the King could stand and watch the action unfold. The new Duplex Drive tanks were being tested, which were designed to sail from the landing craft to the shore. During the exercise, the weather changed and seven of these tanks sank in the bay, killing six soldiers.
Lessons were learnt and during the actual landings, the tanks were released much closer to the shoreline, inevitably saving lives.
You can see the only remaining Duplex Drive tank, and plenty of other World War II tanks, at the Bovington Tank Museum, a 30 minute drive away.
Peering through the observation slit, and the beautiful view you now get through it. It would have looked very different in 1944
Fort Henry is still there, perched on the top of a small cliff between Middle Beach and South Beach, with magnificent views overlooking Studland bay and the sea. Now a Grade II listed building and owned by the National Trust, the fort is free for all to visit. Measuring 90 feet long, with walls and ceiling 3 feet deep, there is a narrow slit across the whole bunker wall overlooking the bay, where the observers had an excellent view over Operation Smash.
The bunker is fun to explore, being divided into segments, and my son ran as fast as he could several times through the bunker, clambering around and peering out of the observation slit.
We both enjoyed the sense of walking in the footsteps of Churchill et al, it somehow seemed more immediate than in other sites we have visited, probably because the fort has just been left as it was and not restored or presented for tourists.
There are a couple of information panels, as well as a memorial to the men who died. When we visited in May, there were wildflowers everywhere; it was hard to believe that such a beautiful location had been the scene of battle and death.
Right behind Fort Henry is a concrete gun turret from the earlier stages of the war when the threat of invasion was still real – they had built the fort right in front of it as it was no longer needed. Here you can see the base of the huge gun that once sat there, and rust patches all over the walls.
Nearby you will find Dragon's Teeth which were to prevent tanks from invading the country, as well as several gun turrets, slipways and a bunker at Peverill Point which once contained two naval guns.
VISITING FORT HENRY
How to get to Fort Henry
Postcode: Bh19 3AX (Middle Beach car park)
Public Transport: Bus is the only viable public transport option. Bus times >>
Parking: You can park at Middle Beach car park. It is free for National Trust members or £3 for 2 hours, or £5 all day
When is Fort Henry open?
The site is open every day.
How much does it cost to visit Fort Henry?
The site is free to visit.
Are there any facilities at Fort Henry?
There are no facilities here but there is a café at Middle Beach which is only a few minutes walk away.
Which is the nearest town to Fort Henry?
Swanage is the nearest town. It is a lovely place to visit - you can find more information here>>