Decaying but potent, these ruins are a legacy of war on the landscape

Constructed when Hitler's armies threatened the future we now know, many of these scarred structures represented a last line of defence against invasion. This photographer spent five years documenting their last stand.

By Simon Ingram
photographs by Marc Wilson
Published 6 May 2020, 12:58 BST
Torcross, Devon, 2011: Marc Wilson: “‘Exercise Tiger’ was a large-scale rehearsal by US troops for the ...

Torcross, Devon, 2011: Marc Wilson: “‘Exercise Tiger’ was a large-scale rehearsal by US troops for the D-Day landings. It took place in the area around Slapton Sands and Torcross in 1944, where today many defences such as the pillbox pictured here can still be found. Alerted by heavy open-radio traffic between the Allies, German E-boats on a reconnaissance mission sighted a convoy of eight landing ship tanks (LSTs) travelling back from Lyme Bay to Slapton Sands. Torpedoes fired by the German E-boats sunk three of the LSTs. More than 900 US soldiers and sailors died during the exercise.”

Photograph by Marc Wilson

AT A GLANCE it's just another beach, or cliff, or headland on the edge of any northern sea: cold and hard, with big horizons, rocks oiled with salt and moisture. Let that glance linger, though, and you start to see them. A slot in a cliff that’s a little too straight to be natural. Boulders on the beach that, with scrutiny, aren’t boulders at all. That line of rocks exposed at low tide spaced with tell-tale regularity. 

During the European conflict of World War Two – which ended 75 years ago this weekend – the waters around the British coastline were both its saviour, and its warily-watched curse. Stealth attacks by sea could come from any direction, and not just across the 20-mile ribbon of the English Channel – which the Nazis never crossed, except by air, to bomb.

But as the war progressed, no outcome was certain. And in response to Germany's invasion of France in May 1940, as the shadow of Hitler’s armies began to fall closer to British shores, an array of unusual structures were built. 

Brean Down, Somerset, 2012. Marc Wilson: “Brean Down, a 19th-century Palmerston Fort 60 feet above sea level, was part of a chain of defences protecting the approaches to Bristol and Cardiff. Re-armed with a coastal artillery battery, it was also used as a test site for rockets and experimental weapons, such as torpedo decoys and the bouncing bomb designed by Barnes Wallis.”    

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Some are almost invisible. Others are singularly unsubtle and oppressive, breaking nature's organic lines with fantastical forms and impossible situations. Looking at their concrete walls, modern eyes may imagine dystopian barracks, crashed spacecraft or the entrance to some cloak-and-dagger lair.

But their true purpose was, for a generation, all-too dark: Searchlight emplacements, beach defences, listening stations like upturned plates, anti-tank blocks, ‘stop’ lines of concrete cubes, towering multi-storey artillery towers, or squat bunkers with horizontal slots just tall enough for eyes to see out – and just wide enough to swing-fire a machine gun.

When built these buildings were strategically situated. Now, most are approaching 80 years old, and redundant. Overrun by the landscape, they exhibit the signs of an elemental battering, with widening scars and deepening cracks, graffiti tattoos decades old. It is in every sense these structures’ last stand – before they, like those who remember using them for their intended use, vanish into memory. 

“My view is that this type of object is incredibly important in providing us with markers of our own history.”

Marc Wilson

The Last Stand is the title of a photo study by British photographer Marc Wilson – whose book of the same name comprises a collection of images and essays focussed on documenting the legacy of the war on the landscape. This ranges from bullethole-sprayed bunkers of the Atlantikwall on the continental coast, to the British defences the conflict itself never touched. 

 “My aim was to combine memories and the landscape,“ says Wilson, whose book of the project has just been updated for the 75th anniversary of VE day. “An attempt to make a document of these locations at the time they were photographed. A time [2010-2015] that itself has become a past as both human and physical elements change these landscapes. That is important to me.”   

Abbot's Cliff, Kent, 2010. Marc Wilson: “Separated from France by only 21 miles of sea, Kent has often been threatened by invasion. During WW2, new anti-invasion defences were built, such as those at Abbot’s Cliff between Dover and Folkestone. Coastal batteries were established and earlier ones were re-armed. Cross-Channel guns, two of them nicknamed Winnie and Pooh, were positioned on the cliffs at St Margaret’s near Dover as a response to the danger from German long-range guns in the Pas-de-Calais.”

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Dengie peninsula, Essex, 2011. Marc Wilson: “In the eventuality of a German landing, Burnham-on-Crouch on the Dengie peninsula would have offered a short and undefended passage to London, by-passing the defences of the Thames and the Medway. This fortified minefield observation and control tower – a two-storey hexagonal tower, ten metres high, surmounted by a cupola – was built on the edge of an open field adjacent to the sea wall, in order to control the estuary minefield that defended the River Crouch.” 

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Lossiemouth, Scotland, 2011: “A line of defences ran along the Moray coastline between Cullen Bay and Findhorn Bay through the Lossie and Roseisle forests. Anti-tank blocks ran the full length of this part of the coast, forming a barrier with the pillboxes that were placed between them at regular intervals. Some of the defences were constructed by a Polish army engineer corps stationed in Scotland. Kazimierz Durkacz, a medical student who joined the Polish forces, wrote: “At first, we used wood to make the moulds for the large concrete blocks and then a combination of corrugated iron and wood... I remember mixing concrete with a shovel.”” 

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Lines in the landscape 

In Britain alone, thousands of these structures were built. In addition to the so-called coastal crust, the network of ‘pillboxes’ and obstructions that comprised the nation's hardened field defences ran deep into the country as if punctuating a map of strategic arteries – along waterways, at airports, by bridges.

The many that remain chillingly recount that their functions ran every stage of an invasion scenario – from troop training and early warning systems, to tactical defences and gun emplacements for ground combat.

Since then, the elements – as well as human encroachments – have waged war, particularly on the coastlines. But however caught between land and sea, or structure and rubble, these almost uniformly unappealing defences retain a power, and a memory of a time when nobody's future was certain.  

Les Lands, Jersey, 2013. Marc Wilson: “Thirty thousand German troops were garrisoned in the Channel Islands, which had been invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940. Although of no strategic importance to Germany except for propaganda value, and believing that the British might try to recapture them, Hitler gave orders that the Channel Islands be turned into “impregnable fortresses” Due to their heavy defences (including the defences at St Ouen’s Bay, Jersey, and a fort at Les Grandes Rocques), the Allied forces by-passed them during the invasion of Normandy in June 1944.” 

Photograph by Marc Wilson

“It was always meant to be more than a simple photographic recording of the structure alone,” Wilson says. “Rather one that combined the elements of the object, the landscape and time to provide a key to unlock the stories behind.”

Beginning with a test run of images shot on the eroding, sea-battered Norfolk coast in 2010, Wilson began researching and visiting locations to photograph. These were not just around Britain, but on the facing edges of the European mainland from Norway and Denmark to Belgium and France, down as far south as the Franco-Spanish border. Once decided on a location and composition, he would decide on a suitable time of day and tide height, and photograph it “in a fairly rigid manner.”

Wilson says he deliberately avoided naturally thrilling light to avoid distraction from the structure’s own atmospheric texture, describing the feelings in the pictures as “sombre emotions [that] needed no extra dramatic effect… all the drama was already there.” 

“It is those feelings that I try to communicate with my photographs,” he says. “Those of a past in the landscape, and a ‘now’ only possible because of what those who have gone before us fought for and sacrificed.”

While the bulk of the work is on British soil, Wilson chose not to focus on just side of the conflict; many of the defences he photographed were built by the aggressors. “It was always important for me to create a balanced discourse,” he says. “The human stories behind all the locations have equal importance, and viewers will be able to draw their own view and conclusions – and of course from the knowledge they bring to the work themselves.”  

‘Markers in history’

As the 75thanniversary of World War Two’s end approaches and passes, those who fought in the war itself are dwindling in number; most may never see the next major anniversary. With this fragile thread to living memory dwindling, The Last Stand perhaps takes on added resonance – particularly when considering the environmental attrition of many of the coastlines on which they stand makes their continued existence temporary, at best. 

“My view is that this type of object is incredibly important in providing us with markers of our own history,” Wilson says. As the living tellers of these stories pass away, these objects, places and their photographic documents become ever more important – to provide that key to the human past of a land.”

A photographic book of The Last Stand by Marc Wilson is available now.


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