British 20th C, except portraits, Military History 45 Could anyone identify the location of this anti-tank ditch?

DOR_BRC_BORGM_01851
Topic: Subject or sitter

Richards was in the Royal Engineers at the time he painted this, but I cannot discover where he might have been stationed in 1939. I have done some basic research (newspaper searches etc) on the artist and turned up plenty of biographical details, but that is mostly to do with his D-Day jump and later death. Without his service number I can't get further in that regard.

However, does the painting itself give any clues as to where it might be?

Art UK: Two details from the picture are attached.

Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Entry reviewed by Art UK

45 comments

Keith Orford,

At the time of death, 5 Mar 1945, he was listed as a Captain (General List) SN 313191 according to his entry in the Commonwealth War Grave Commission. He is buried at Milsbeek War Cemetery, grave ref I.G.11. He was born in Liverpool. In the 1939 Register at the outbreak of the war his dob was given as 19 Dec 1919 and he was living at home in Wallasey with his parents and listed as an art student. I hope that might give you other leads.

Kevin Clarkson,

The stylised nature of the painting make if difficult to define the actual geography. The beach obstacles consistent with British coastal defence rather than German. I know a number of British units practised landings for D Day at Hayling Island and West Wittering. The Imperial War Museum has video on its website. I took a few screen grabs some time ago but did not capture the url. (Pictures attached)

Kieran Owens,

Richard's description of this painting runs as follows:

"(The) Painting deals with another coastal defence, the 'Anti-tank ditch'. Mile after mile along our coasts these ditches run. Sometimes they are on the coast itself, others are found farther inland. Other obstacles are the concrete road blocks, the wire fences and the tubular scaffolding fences."

The quote can be found here:

http://www.591-antrim-parachute.info/Richards-Art.html



Kieran Owens,

Oops, sorry Keith, I did not see that service number which you had posted earlier. Please accept my apologies for repeating it.

Osmund Bullock,

Are we sure that date given for the picture, 1939, is right? He was then still a civilian - according to the 591 Antrim Para Squadron website he was not called up/enlisted until April 1940; and I imagine that for anyone, civil or military, painting a view of coastal defences without official purpose and permission would have been strictly forbidden (though of course he may have managed to do it unobserved). And would such elaborate defensive structures have already been in place within four months of the declaration of war? Probably one for Kevin Clarkson...Kevin?

Since the painting was a gift to the Collection from HM Government, it seems more likely that this dates from Richards' period as an official war artist - and that did not commence until Dec 1943. Unless, of course, it was in HMG's possession because it had been confiscated by the authorities in 1939...

Kieran Owens,

The 591 Para Squadron website dates the painting and his notes on it to 1942.

Just to be clear: this is a view probably east across a south coast bay with a sandy beach and a long range of low ciffs beyond, and a small church at back centre: probably a low medieval square tower with a short spire perhaps set within its parapet ??

It also suggests either a hamlet very close to the coast or a surviving church that has lost the hamlet.

E Jones,

According an article in the Aberdeen Evening Express, The Advisory Committee offered Albert Richards a permanent job as a result of the artist sending his work to them whilst serving as a Private with the Royal Engineers.

‘War Through Artist’s Eyes’ was a book published in 1945 as a representation of the work of the War Artists as commissioned by the ‘War Artists Advisory Commission’

This book includes three examples of the work of Albert Richards.
* ” A Searchlight Battery on a Calm Sunny Day”
* ” A Camp in Essex”
* “ A Barn on Fire”

A searchlight battery is at the ‘Williamson Art Gallery and Museum’, on loan from the Imperial War Museum. If it is the same painting then it’s title may have been slightly shortened.

If the painting in question is an image of a camp, then could it be one of the paintings that he had sent the ‘War Artists Advisory Commission’ in the hope of being given work as a War Artist. Was he based with the Royal Engineers in Essex?

As a memorial to Albert Richards, The National Gallery held an exhibition of his work. It was opened on the 12th of April 1945 for a number of weeks. The exhibition showed 22 pieces of his war art, that was in the possession of the Advisory Committee. Could this painting be one of the pieces shown in the exhibition? As this one came from the same source. Could there be a list or programme somewhere in the archives of The National Gallery?

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E Jones,

There’s also some very interesting information in his file in the Imperial War Museum.

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Kieran Owens,

Attached are two articles relating to Richards. The first is that as mentioned above, from the Aberdeen Evening Express, of Monday 3rd April 1944, and the second (in four parts) is from the Liverpool Echo of Saturday 24th June 1944.

Kieran Owens,

The fence-like structure in the painting is known as Admiralty Scaffolding or Obstacle Z.1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Admiralty_scaffolding

An extract, from the above, describing it reads:

"Tests in October 1940, confirmed that tanks could only break through with difficulty, as a result Z.1 was adopted as an anti-tank barrier for beaches thought suitable for landing tanks. As an anti-tank barrier it was placed at or just above the high water point, where it would be difficult for tanks to get enough momentum to break through the barrier. In some places, two sets of scaffolding were set up, one in the water against boats and one at high water against tanks."

This description would seem to match the two defensive lines as shown in this painting.

Eric Ravilious depicted the same sort of scaffolding in his "Drift Boat" from 1941:

https://thequietus.com/articles/23614-eric-ravilious-co-the-pattern-of-friendship-review



Jacinto Regalado,

What is the 1939 date based on? It does not appear to be on the picture (meaning the image we have of it).

Osmund Bullock,

Jacinto, as mentioned above, the date appears to be wrong - and certainly must be if the 'Admiralty scaffolding' was only being tested in Oct 1940. Oddly Eric Ravilious shows it erected the other way round, with the angled poles on the land side, bracing it against a force from seaward (which on the face of it makes more sense). I don't think there are two lines in place in Richards' painting - if there's a second one in the water (where it should be) I can't see it. The group in the foreground may be the beginning of a second line still being constructed, or it/they may be a pre-assembled section or sections awaiting placement.

Osmund Bullock,

Yes, Richards would appear to have it the wrong way round - all the online references (and pictures) I can find describe or show it as being fixed with the diagonal struts on the landward side. See, for example https://bit.ly/2W1aWSC & https://bit.ly/2WakWJB. The latter says it was also erected behind anti-tank ditches, so the foreground sections are probably going to be installed along the (LHS) edge of the trench once it is completed.

Osmund Bullock,

I can't see any sign of a catalogue or list of the April 1945 Nat. Gallery exhibition in their library or archive, nor in the National Art Library or elsewhere - there may not have been one because of wartime paper restrictions.

However, the three works by Richards held by the Tate (https://bit.ly/2vTSoZN) - all later scenes from 1944 and on paper - have catalogue entries that suggest that the ones shown at the NG may perhaps have been part of a larger exhibition of 'National War Pictures', held by the WAAC at the NG, but also at the RA in Oct-Nov of 1945. The catalogue for the latter (53 pages) is not in the RA's online collection, but *is* at the National Art Library (V&A) - see https://bit.ly/38w9ies. It's worth a look anyway.

Osmund Bullock,

It's impossible to tell if that's a church tower or not at this resolution. I think it might be a smaller (and closer) structure than that, and the 'low cliffs' sand dunes. If so, that would make East Anglia possible - and Richards was certainly working/stationed there early in 1942. Of the group of four (including ours) from that year - Richards calls them a 'set' in his letter of 25 April 1942 - one is of men constructing a covering for a gun-site, and is placed by the IWM at Marlesford, just inland from Orford on the Suffolk coast (https://bit.ly/2W5FQtj - scroll down to 'Associated places'). Richards describes how the men working on the site that freezing winter were "...exposed to the cold wind blowing in from the coast, no matter how many clothes were worn."

Another painting in the group dated 1942, showing the building of a hutted camp somewhere in Essex, is more puzzling. Richards says the build took three months, and was "a very pleasant form of work" - certainly it doesn't look very wintry; but the bitter cold that year lasted from mid-Jan to early March, with few breaks. I suspect that though he may have painted it early in 1942, it was based on sketches from the previous year - a 1941 watercolour also on the 591-antrim-parachute.info website is described as showing "...our arrival at Wimbush [sic], Essex - the site of the hutted camp." Wimbish is near Saffron Walden, a long way from the coast.

On the other hand, might the fact that the WAAC gave it to a gallery in Bournemouth signify that it is somewhere near there?

I wondered about Essex/ East Anglia Osmund, but it looks like a coast with deciduous trees close to shore which made me hesitate, albeit only based on very old Norfolk memories.

Louis Musgrove,

When I first saw this I did think it looked a bit Suffolky.Suffolk skies.And the North sea does look like that quite often! And there are still concrete cubes on the Suffolk coast Walberswick and Orford area. And it does look a bit like the view from Dunwich toward Southwold- there are deciduous trees at Southwold-but it isn't quite right for that !

Kieran Owens,

The attached might show the two lines more clearly. The first section of the second line is clearly placed in front of anti-tank cubes. The first line is clearly placed on the water's edge.

See also this link to the New Forest National Park page, which outlines the placing of this type of scaffolding in the sea along the New Forest’s coast by the Wiltshire Regiment at the height of the war in 1940-41:

https://nfknowledge.org/contributions/admiralty-scaffolding-eroding-on-hordle-beach/#lg=1&slide=6

Osmund is correct is stating that Richards has painted the scaffolding the wrong way around, as the 3-D model of its use at the above link shows.

See also:

https://heritage.suffolk.gov.uk/Data/Sites/1/media/wwii_guidebooks/ww2_guidebook3_orford_to_felixstowe.pdf

https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/eh_monographs_2014/contents.cfm?mono=1089011

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Kieran Owens,

P.S. On the above-attached image, I am not suggesting the single prominent scaffolding structure in the foreground is as yet in place as a second line. It would appear that Richards has depicted it by way of illustrating how each unit looked or was constructed.

Louis Musgrove,

Having looked at the maps in the three guides to wartime suffolk as per Kieran , there are only two places where you get cubes and scaffolding and ditch close to the beach- and they are Minsmere and just north of Benacre.

Brenda Lambourne,

If the structure in the distance is a church spire, it is one more typical of the south coast than East Anglia.

Martin Hopkinson,

If Peter is correct that is a south facing coast it is most unlikely to be an East Anglian one. The terrain favours West Sussex/East Hampshire is the most probable coast - west of Bognor - perhaps Selsey Bill
Identification of the building in the distance is the key.

Kieran Owens,

WWII defence specialist Chris Kolonko is a Community Archaeologist for the Coastal & Intertidal Zone Archaeology Network. Based on documentary source material, he has written to say the following: "The first anti-invasion defences didn't appear until April 1940 following the invasion of Norway. Also, Z1 scaffolding wasn't tested until December 1940 at the earliest. It wasn't until Spring (ish) 1941 that Z1 was employed in the field." He has also agreed with Osmond's observation that in the painting "the Z1 is orientated in the 'wrong' direction if it was sited for defending the beach in the background." More about Chris's research and experience can be read here:

https://chriskolonko.wordpress.com

As the 591 Antrim Para Squadron website specifically states that this painting is dated to 1942, is there any reason to doubt that detail? It would be useful to see the document from which they quote Richards' notes, to see if his 'anti-tank ditch' entry is dated therein by him. That year would fit in with his time as a Sapper with 286th Field Company R.E. (3rd April 1940 - mid 1943).

It might also be worth noting that, as part of the British Eastern Command in 1939, which covered (with a few specific locational exceptions) the counties of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, the 286th Field Company R.E. was based in East Anglia at the Royal Engineers HQ on Ashburnham Road, Bedford. If one aspect of the Company's remit was to take care of engineering matters from there to the eastern coastline, it might help confirm that the painting was made, as variously suggested above, somewhere along the Suffolk coast.

https://bit.ly/2TY6ph9

Martin Hopkinson,

Minsmere has a ruined Chapel of St Mary, all that remains of the Premonstratensian Abbey , which was relocated in the mid 14th century to Leiston.
Benacre , five miles north of Southwold, has a mediaeval church ,St Michael, with a tower. It is further from the coast.
Minsmere does seem to be a possibility if this is Suffolk

Brenda Lambourne,

The chapel at Minsmere is very much ruined and does not have anything like a tower tall enough to be visible at a distance. Benacre has a square tower with no spire.

Osmund Bullock,

Marion, could we see a close-up, at the highest-res available to you without too much trouble, of the structure that may or may not be a church? And it would be even more helpful if that close-up could extend somewhat to the left and right, and a little down, as per the attached.

I doubt much will emerge - it's a very small section of paintwork, just 2½ inches high & less than 4% of the the visible image by area. In any case I think Richards was more interested in shapes and colours than in physical accuracy; but it's worth a try, at least.

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Kieran Owens,

An informative article on the erecting of Admiralty scaffolding in the Suffolk area can be read here:

http://pillboxes-suffolk.webeden.co.uk/scaffolding/4537170173

The article records that the Admiralty "identified the beaches at Felixstowe (4 miles), Aldebrugh to Thorpeness (2 miles) and Thorpeness to Lowestoft (18 miles) to be part of the first allocation."

Kieran Owens,

The article also mentions the following:

"Military Training Pamphlet Part III Obstacle states that sand/shingle would slow tanks down approaching the obstacle sited above the HW mark. If used as a road block or an inland anti-tank barrier, natural obstacles or a ditch dug in front of the scaffolding should be used to slow down the tank speed."

In the context of the above, could Richards in this paining be anticipating an attack coming from left to right, with the ditch being the first encountered obstacle and the cubes and scaffolding being the second and third. If this is this case, are we sure that the area to the right of this painting is the sea? If it is not, why would Admiralty scaffolding be used at all? And if it is, does it make any sense that it is being protected from a landward threat?

Kieran Owens,

The same website gives a very comprehensive review of the construction and use of anti-tank ditches:

http://pillboxes-suffolk.webeden.co.uk/anti-tank-ditches/4537159718

The section records that "The main period of ditch construction was from autumn 1940 to spring 1941 – in October 1940 there were 320 excavators at work in Eastern Command. Ditches were dug to improve the obstacles guarding the main routes inland from beaches and some towns were given all round ditch defence (e.g. Lowestoft and Aldeburgh). Some planned ditches were never dug (e.g. a planned ditch to run around Leiston). A ditch at Westleton Walks/Dunwich Heath would appear to have been sited next to a natural steep slope to enhance the obstacle. The Eastern Command Line relied almost entirely on natural obstacles or railway cuttings/embankments."

Jacinto Regalado,

Could the "church" really be some sort of vessel near the shore?

Osmund Bullock,

Before suggesting that the scaffolding seems to be depicted back to front, I naturally considered the possibility that the defence might have anticipated an attack from left to right. But since I was unable to come up with any logical reason why that might be so, I dismissed the idea. As you quoted for us, Richards' own description of the painting apparently starts, "Painting deals with another coastal defence, the 'Anti-tank ditch'. Mile after mile along our coasts these ditches run...". If we are not looking at a beach at the edge of the sea (or at least a big estuary) on our right, then Richards' vision was a very weird one - and if *that* is so, then there seems little point in analysing what we see in the picture for clues!

The least unlikely explanation to me is that Richards was not personally involved in the erection of this or any other Z1 scaffolding; that he saw, and was perhaps engaged in, the fairly straightforward digging of an anti-tank trench (the title and primary subject of the painting); that he looked at and probably sketched some assembled sections of Z1, displaced or not yet in place; and that when he came to work everything up into a painting the following year, he invented the detail of what he had seen only vaguely in the distance and - not being an actual engineer or scaffolder himself - got it wrong.

Jacinto, I'm far from convinced it's a church tower, but I can't see it being part of a ship. See (blurred) blow-up attached. Let's hope a proper close-up will make things clearer.

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I am sure it is not a ship and 95%-plus that it is a church: before troubling anyone for a further image detail look at the very clear one that is the first of the two originally provided by the Russell-Cotes at top, which also shows there are a few distant figures towards the background. Richards's eye might have been partly attracted by the strong colour of the red earth in the trench,perhaps with some water pooling in ruts at the bottom. It looks more like clay than (for example) the flinty and fairly rapidly draining brown earth of the coastal bits of Suffolk I know. As we are scratching for topograpical clues that might be another.

Louis Musgrove,

I have looked at Richards war paintings and they are impressive and accurate ish.The scaffolding does appear to be the wrong way round if the beach is to the right.But there does seem to be a shiny bit of water to the right???? I have found a wartime picture of Minsmere beach and the scaffolding there is correct-flat side to sea. So -a mystery.

Brenda Lambourne,

Another possibility: could that be Southwold in the background? There were certainly anti tank cubes on Walberswick beach, and looking north in the distance you would see (on slightly raised ground) the roofs of Southwold with its lighthouse tower, which is in the middle of the town.

Osmund Bullock,

Pieter, I don't think those two jpg detail images at the top were originally there or surely we'd have noticed them? I suspect Marion has edited the intro to include them: one (an extended png version is attached to her post) is exactly what I asked her for yesterday - Thank you, Marion!

Well, we'll be arguing about what the close-up(s) show till the cows come home, but my reading of the close-up(s) is rather different to Pieter’s - I'm now 95% sure it *isn't* a church tower! Must dash now, but I’ll write more later.

Whaley Turco,

The artist was good and getting better with every painting. Then he gets killed a month before the wars end. This is sad. As for the anti tank structures, he might have just sketched them in the middle of construction. The Painting has that look. Like it's an ongoing project they are working on and not a finished one. Maybe they were going to roll them over the top of the ditch as part of a multi layered deterrent. My guess is they were trying to set up pre sighted fields of fire. In other words channel the enemy to a known spot where they could pre concentrate weapons for the most effective fire. Because once they were off the beach it was all over. As everyone learned after D'Day.

Martin Hopkinson,

Could it be a temporary wartime structure? The ruined church at Minsmere was used at this time in some way as part of the defenses

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