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New website plots eastern region coastal defences

PUBLISHED: 15:00 13 November 2009 | UPDATED: 15:14 06 July 2010

Emily Dennis

They were the frontline of Britain's defence in the Second World War and guarded the region's coastline as the threat of invasion loomed large.

Now many of our wartime relics, such as hastily-built trenches and pillboxes, have all but melted into the landscape.

They were the frontline of Britain's defence in the Second World War and guarded the region's coastline as the threat of invasion loomed large.

Now many of our wartime relics, such as hastily-built trenches and pillboxes, have all but melted into the landscape.

But a new project being developed by the University of East Anglia (UEA) seeks to bring the past back to life by virtually recreating Suffolk's wartime defences on a website.

Walberswick: Coastal Defences of World War II is a unique reconstruction of the defences built during the 1940s on the Suffolk coast, and the launch of the website comes ahead of the 70th anniversary of one of the largest construction projects in British history.

The website features virtual reality videos of the emergency coastal defence batteries, field artillery, trenches and pillboxes, as well as historical photographs and war diaries of the battalions whose job it was to construct the defences from May 1940.

Under the threat of German invasion in the summer of 1940, the creation of a defensive 'coastal crust' saw hundreds of miles of beaches closed off to the public and fortified with barbed wire, minefields and gun emplacements.

The South and East coasts were thought to be most vulnerable to invasion and it was quickly established by the military that tanks could land on many of Suffolk's beaches, while the wide flat expanses of heath inland were thought to be suitable for paratroop landings and armoured warfare.

Many of the defences were cleared after 1945 and today the visible remains of the 'coastal crust' represent only a fraction of the original structures put in place in 1940, and so the new website will allow visitors to see how the coastline was transformed during the Second World War.

Project leader Dr Robert Liddiard of the School of History at UEA, said: “The traces of this defence landscape are now only visible archaeologically and it is sometimes difficult to visualise the impact of these works on the British coastline. We tend to overlook the fact that 70 years ago this was the frontline of Britain's defence in the Second World War.

“The remains of pillboxes, concrete blocks and gun emplacements often sit uncomfortably alongside beach huts, footpaths and bird watching hides.

“Although they do not have the antiquity of the Roman shore forts, medieval castles or Martello towers, and were once considered an eyesore, World War II defences are now recognised as a significant archaeological resource and an important part of the history of the defence of Britain.

“Walberswick is an important landscape containing a wealth of historical archaeological information on World War II defence, which has enabled us to recreate the military environment of 1940.”

The Walberswick website is the culmination of work by Dr Liddiard, researcher David Sims, and computer modeller John Williams from UEA's school of computing sciences.

It provides a comprehensive insight into a brief, but intensive, period of activity, and allows users to explore the defences via a series of video 'flythroughs' that take viewers into a range of different structures, such as an emergency coastal defence battery, complete with guns, gunners, observation post and searchlight emplacements. Other videos will show the hastily-built trenches and pillboxes that made up the bulk of the defences.

An interactive map enables the user to navigate through archive documents sourced from the Imperial War Museum, while the war diary of the 2nd/4th South Lancashire Regiment describes what it was like for the men stationed on the coast.

Entries describe events such as a visit by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, air raids and bombings, as well as the bodies of British and German airmen being washed up on the beaches, and the sinking of a naval vessel and the crashing of a British plane in the sea off Southwold.

As part of the project the team is keen to speak to people about their memories or experiences of the coastal defences, whether during the war or in the decades afterwards. They can contact Dr Liddiard at rob.liddiard@uea.ac.uk

To visit the website go to www.walberswickww2.co.uk


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