Site Visit – Brixham Battery
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- Last updated: 08/12/2016
Following the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk in 1940 and the surrender of France to German forces on 21st June, Britain stood alone.
The threat of invasion was great and it was expected to come at any moment. The problem was no one knew which part of the coastline would be attacked. To counter the threat a series of defences were built to cover the approaches, which were identified as high-risk. Among the defences hurriedly constructed were a series of strong points known as ‘Emergency Batteries’, which were armed with heavy guns to engage naval targets.
In total, 116 of these sites were built in 1940 and stretched from Scotland to Kent, along the south coast and then heading up to Wales from Cornwall. Today, only seven of these sites are still known to exist, and of this number perhaps only three are open to the public. The best preserved of these Emergency Batteries is located overlooking the harbour at Brixham in the very aptly named location of ‘Battery Park’. I had an information leaflet about the site on file and recently I called to ask about opening times. I spoke to Rod Hart, who I happened to know already because he organises the 1940s weekend at nearby Lupton House, and he very kindly invited me along for a visit.
There has always been an interest in the site, but it was not until the mid-1990s that a number of local enthusiasts began to survey the site and in 1999 they formed themselves into the Brixham Battery Heritage Centre Group (BBHCG). Their aim was to preserve the site and its buildings. In 1997 they had a stroke of luck when the site was classified as Grade II Listed. It was graded again in 2002 when the group opened a museum to display an exhibition of artefacts in one of the original buildings, which had been used as an Artillery Training School during the war. At the time the group took over the building it was being used as a storeroom by the local Brixham Town Council. This required a lot of work to make it fit for purpose, including replacing the asbestos roof.
Historically, the site has been used as a defensive location since the 16th Century, when the country faced invasion from Spain and guns were placed here in 1586, two years before the Armada. Over the centuries the site remained in use as a defensive position, throughout the Napoleonic Wars and into the late 19th Century when the Victorian army had guns in place. In 1940 it was only natural, therefore, that the position should again be fortified. This time the armament was heavier and in greater concentration than anything before.
The site covers an area of 14 acres, into which the army sited two 4.7 inch guns in concrete positions, 6-Pounder guns, searchlights, magazine stores for ammunition, generators, anti-aircraft defences including a 37mm gun, at least one Bofors 40mm gun and a rocket system known as a ‘Z Battery’. Buildings were erected and tunnels dug to turn the site into a self-contained defensive position, which included its own water supply. Around 120 men from the Royal Artillery of 378 Battery Southern Command were stationed here and later members of the 10th (Torbay) Battalion Devonshire Home Guard. Brixham town was attacked a number of times by fast, low-flying aircraft in ‘hit and run’ raids but the expected invasion never came.
On the day of my visit in early January there were a number of people looking around the museum; more people were enjoying walking in Battery Park, most of whom were unaware of its historical connections. For example, a seating area was once the Guard Room, but today only the concrete base remains. During the war there were no trees on site but when it was vacated after the war it did not take long for it to become overgrown. As a consequence, some of the features, such as trenches, soon became lost. However, the BBHCG has cleared away lots of rubbish to expose features such as the shell magazines and locations for the searchlights. In the 15 years, or so, that the BBHCG have been working on the site they has transformed it into one of the top-rated visitor attractions in the area.
The group is finding out things about the site all the time. For example, a previously unknown gun position was discovered recently by accident when one of the members was checking some ground and came across the intact emplacement for a 6-Pounder gun. The guns across the site have long been removed, but, even so, it makes you wonder what other treasures remain to be found on site.
A sketch map of the site has been prepared so you can walk the route, but to experience it completely and appreciate all the hard-work done on the site, an escorted tour is required. Rod very kindly took me on a walk around the buildings and it became obvious why the BBHCG is proud of what it has achieved. The members are all volunteers and between them they have a range of skills, which can be used to complete most of the work required. They also enjoy a good relationship with the local Town Council, which has just extended the lease on the site for another 40 years. With such a guarantee, the group can really develop the site and restore its full historical significance. There are tantalising traces of defences from earlier periods, but it was WWII that had the most impact.
A typical guided tour around the site takes around one hour, but when enthusiasts like Rod and myself get together this can extend much longer. Our first point to visit was one of the gun floors where a 4.7 inch gun was installed. It has been altered over the years and even used as a seating area for tourists. There is a room behind that part which is sealed off, and the BBHCG hope to break into this, refit it with equipment and open it for visitors. A short flight of steps leads down to the ammunition store in one of the tunnels on site, which will also be opened.
Rod then led me on to the next gun position where the group has completed a lot of work, including the opening up the crew quarters like they intend to on the first gun position. Going through a security door it was like stepping back in time and entering a world of 70 years previous. Original fittings such as door handles and light switches have been retained and authentic tables and chairs have been installed. The original woodwork has rotted away over the years and this is being replaced. The walls are being painted and other features such as the woodstove for heating has been installed.
Moving to the other end of the gun position, we entered the tunnel where the shells were stored. From here they would have been taken to the guns to fire on an approaching enemy. Other similar positions along the coast here would have provided overlapping fire to defend the area of Tor Bay and the towns of Brixham, Paignton, Torbay and Torquay.
The BBHCG has completed a great deal of research which reveals the guns used on the site were actually built under licence by Japan before the First World War. It is a fascinating site and the group has lots of plans for further projects, such as opening the shells stores with replica ammunition. The on-site searchlights have also gone, but where they stood and the buildings can still be seen, and the whole site is a great place for military history enthusiasts to explore.
We made our way back to the Artillery Training School where the museum display is located. Some of the original fittings such as notice boards have been preserved and this is where troops would have received classroom instruction. The building serves well in its function as a museum and artefacts range from personal documents such as photographs and letters through to weapons used by the Home Guard. On display is an Oerlikon 20mm as used to arm trawlers to defend themselves against air attack. This particular item was donated by the crew of a Brixham trawler who had caught it in the boat’s nets. Brixham is a fishing port, and the BBHCG benefits when the crews of the boats snag wartime objects in their nets because they often donate the recovered items to the museum.
In one corner of the museum is a finely detailed model, showing how the site looked during the war and by studying it you can see how the place functioned. From the ceiling, models of German aircraft are suspended and represent the types used as instructional aid for aircraft recognition. Uniforms, equipment and other items of kit show how soldiers and the Home Guard were equipped. These are from the collection put together by members of the BBHCG. Everywhere I looked there was an object on display and yet this is not a cluttered exhibition. Bits and pieces from Home Front, such as respirators (gas masks) are reminders that this was a location served by members of the Home Guard who were local civilians living in the town at the bottom of the hill.
Visitors are allowed to handle items and this provides a better understanding of things. Indeed, people are actively encouraged to touch items to get a feel of things. There are weapons used by both the Home Guard and regular army, such as rifles, shotguns and machine guns, along with grenades and bayonets. A very fine example of a Vickers machine gun makes a display all on its own and looking under shelves reveals yet more objects such as radio equipment. High on the wall are helmets painted according to the role of the wearer, such as Warden or ARP, models of V1 weapons, warships and yet more aircraft line shelves.
For its size, this is a well-rounded collection of things that militaria collectors are interested in. Members of the BBHCG enjoy displaying their acquisitions and the museum is lucky in having people like them who are so generous in sharing their finds.
The Brixham Battery does not receive any funding and relies on donations and fundraising events such as its special living history weekends which features 1940s or other periods. When the site hosts a 1940s event the re-enactors in full period uniform, complete with weapons and other equipment, interact with visitors and add realism to the experience. By combining re-enactment, collecting, restoration and preservation the BBHCG has turned the Brixham Battery into a unique site.
I have visited German bunkers in France and the Channel Islands, which have been turned into museums and they work well. To see this being put into practice in England is groundbreaking and other similar sites could learn a lot by studying what they have done.
The site will be hosting its next wartime event on 8th May, VE Day, details of which and dates of other events can be seen on the website at: www.brixhambattery.net.
I am most grateful to Rod and all the other members of the BBHCG for being such gracious hosts during my visit. Congratulations on what you have achieved so far and long may you continue.