Every year, Sarah and her son spend a weekend in May in Swanage, a seaside town which still carries many of its memories of World War II. This year, they decided to focus on visiting the fortifications and other remnants of the war, combining a weekend at the seaside with historical exploration.

A concrete bunker on a cliff top with the sea in the background with sailing boats.
Fort Henry - where Churchill and Eisenhower watched the tragic practice exercise for the D-Day landings during World War II.

Historical Background

The south coast of England was expected to be the location of an attempted invasion by the German forces during the Battle of Britain. Codenamed Operation Sea Lion by the Germans, their plan was to invade the U.K. once Germany had gained naval and air superiority over the English Channel. Fortunately, they never did achieve either, and the planned invasion was called off in late 1940 and never revived. The English, who were aware that an invasion was a possibility even before war was officially declared, 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.

As the D-Day planning progressed, the coastline changed from defensive to offensive as buildings, factories and storehouses were built to manufacture the equipment and machinery used in 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, as have other D-Day sites across the UK.

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 and was the largest live exercise of its time.(List of D-Day sites in England)

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.

A concrete bunker from the side surrounded by wildflowers and with a view over the sea.

The concrete Fort Henry overlooks beautiful Studland Bay.

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 open to all. 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.

A boy standing on tiptoes looking through a narrow observation slit in a concrete bunker.
View from on high with wildflowers in the foreground and a beach and sea below in the background.

Peering through the observation slit, and the beautiful view you now get through it. It would have looked very different in 1944.

The bunker was 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 and not restored for tourists.

A rectangular flat memorial to the men killed in Operation Smash.

There are information panels, as well as a memorial to the men who died. We visited in May and 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 could see the base of the huge gun that once sat there, and rust patches all over the walls.

Studland Beaches

A series of concrete posts with sharp points going down a hill surrounded by wild plants.

Dragon's teeth, which were built in situ to prevent invasion by tanks, marching down the wildflower covered hillside..

The nearby area has a wealth of remnants from World War II. We explored slightly further in the area and found the Dragon's teeth, which were tank traps designed to prevent access to roads and to funnel tanks into ‘kill zones’ where the tanks could be picked off by the guns. They looked very innocuous to us, more like an ornamental feature for the nearby beach huts and picnicking families, their once deadly intent long gone.

A concrete pill box bunker on a golden sandy beach next to the blue sea.

A pill box with a view on the glorious South Beach, Studland.

On nearby South Beach is a pill box, resting haphazardly on the sand being lapped by the sea, a great place for small people to scramble over and explore. South beach is wonderful for kids, with cliffs to climb, a ‘hidden’ jungle of vegetation lining the back of it for intrepid explorers, the seashore is littered with shells to collect and just a single wooden shack selling refreshments. This beach feels off the beaten track and uncommercialised which makes it a real gem compared to nearby beaches.

A sandy beach and sea with buildings in the very far distance.

Miles of golden beach and blue seas make this a perfect place for a proper seaside holiday.

Knoll beach is a fantastic place for kids, with a huge stretch of fine white sand overlooking the blue sea, backed by sand dunes which are wonderful for children to charge around in and roll down, with yet more scrubland and vegetation behind that, where remnants of the war can be found entrenched in the overgrowth. The beach itself has a full array of cafes, ice cream sellers, water sports, beach huts and all that is required for a great day out for kids.

The visitor centre at Knoll Beach had a whole exhibition on Swanage and Studland in World War II, as well as exhibits from other shipwrecks in the area. There were objects salvaged from a Royal Navy Minesweeper which sank off the coast in 1917 after striking a mine, models of how the area would have looked under the coastal defences and detailed information boards and photographs of Operation Smash.

A boy lying on his back in a field at the top of a cliff overlooking a bay and a town.

Rolling down the hills and watching the sun go down over Swanage.

The exhibition had shown a small model of the World War II defences at Peveril Point and later that day we decided to visit it. On the southern end of Swanage Bay is the Swanage amphitheatre in a park and if you keep on going up the hill past that, you arrive on the Downs. These are high up with wonderful views over the town and a sheer drop over the cliff edge to the sea on one side. This is a great place for kids to run around and roll down the hills, which is what my son does every time we visit, and after he had tired himself out, we walked to the bottom of the downs and found Peveril Point.

Peveril Point

A concrete bunker overlooking the sea with a house behind it.

The World War II fortifications at Peveril Point are now lined with information boards and are a great place for leaping around!

Next to the coastguard station is the bunker where two naval World War II guns were installed to protect Poole Bay and about 100 men. The bunker was later fortified and enhanced, until the threat of invasion had passed. The bunker now is open access, with information panels all around the walls telling its story as well as information about the local wildlife, fishing, and the loss of over 100 Viking longships in the bay in 877. If you walk back to Swanage directly on the beach, you will find a multitude of World War II fortifications including remains of walls, slipways, more pill boxes and random concrete blocks that tell of how different this beautiful coastline once looked.

A sunset over the pier and beach.

Sunset over Swanage as you follow the coast path back to town.

A boy peering into a concrete pill box next to a wall.

There are more pill boxes dotted around on the coast path from Peveril Point.

A rusty hatch set into a concrete slab overlooking the sea.

We couldn't quite work out what this was, but as it was right next to the bunker at Peveril Point we could only assume it was connected to the World War II fortifications.

Swanage and Studland are fantastic places for kids, and a great way to combine learning history with exploration, nature and a good old fashioned seaside stay with crabbing, rock pooling, fish and chips, fun fairs, parks, arcades, swimming and ice creams. There is so much else to do in the area too. Just up the road is Corfe Castle, built by William the Conqueror in 1066, as well as the ghost village of Tyneham, which was forcibly abandoned in 1943 to allow troops to train for D-Day. Old Harry Rocks are a short walk away, as are the most beautiful wild garlic woods that have to be seen at their peak to be believed. We go in wild garlic season every year, just for these woods. Swanage really is the ideal pace for a historical holiday with kids that has something for everyone and will keep all generations happy.

Visiting Studland and Swanage

All the places mentioned in this article were free to visit, open all year round for 24 hours a day. For more information, visit the National Trust's page on Studland Bay >>

How to get there:

Swanage is just south of Poole and Bournemouth and can be reached using the link ferry from Poole (with queues if you go in peak season) or take the A351 from Wareham through Corfe Castle.

Parking:

There are plenty of car parks in Swanage with varying prices. Studland car parks are owned by the National Trust and are free to National Trust members, with standard parking charges for non-members.

Where to stay:

Being seaside resorts, there is a wealth of places from which to chose, from grand hotels to a youth hostel.