bournemouth beach ww2

Bournemouth Beach in WW2: August 1944

In July 1944, Bournemouth beach opened to the public again after being off-limits for most of the Second World War. People flooded back onto the sand and into the sea, despite anti-invasion defences remaining in place including barbed wire, concrete anti-tank blocks (Dragon’s Teeth) and Admiralty Beach Scaffolding. 

Press and photographers also visited, and on 19 August 1944, the Picture Post magazine published an article titled “The Seaside Takes Off Its War-Paint” featuring a selection of photos taken on Bournemouth beach and pier approach during this period. 

I’ve scanned the photos and transcribed the article below which was originally written by Colin Wills. I believe Wills was an Australian war correspondent who also worked for the BBC during the Second World War. 

children on bournemouth beach by the pier water in ww2

The Seaside Takes Off Its War-Paint

The war moves below the horizon. Its rumbling pass to the Continent. The coast of England shakes itself and looks round. The barbed wire is rolled up. Holiday makers and evacuees filter down through the tank-traps to the beaches – free after five years from the threat of enemy landings.

Opposite the beaches of Normandy, another invasion is taking place. This time, the British are invading their own beaches. The sands of Southern England bristle just as fearsomely as anything we encountered in France on D-Day, but now the fearsomeness has been neutralised, because, after four years of danger, a German invasion is no longer a possibility, and so the authorities have at last let up. 

bournemouth beach Second World War

One thing that has persuaded them to let up is the fact that our people, after these four incredible years, really do need a little extra relaxation, and, when it comes to relaxation, well, we do like to be beside the seaside. Particularly do Londoners like to be beside the seaside. Every August a strange restlessness creeps into their patient souls. The unpleasantness of London heat recalls the pleasantness of heat beside the sea. The damp cling of city clothes suggests the coolness of flannels or filmy frocks. The children dig out the rusting buckets and the mouldering spades from the lumber room, and Dad digs out Bradshaw from the cupboard under the stairs. 

couple sunbathing in bournemouth ww2

They have done these things every August for four years of war, and they’ve known that even if they could manage to get away, which was not easy, their uncomfortable journey would end in a fortnight of frustration. They would get as far as the flannels and the filmy frocks. They would breathe deeply of what Grandfather used to call Ozone. They would see the sea. But they would get no nearer to it than a grim tangle of barbed wire and an uncompromising row of concrete blocks. Beyond these barriers, between the trippers and the sea, there would be shouting sentries who looked and sounded dangerous, machine guns and heavier guns which also had a lethal air, and unseen mines which were the most discouraging influence of all. 

holidays makers on bournemouth beach near pier in Second World War

That was every August from 1940 to 1943. But now, in the August of 1944, with the potential invaders now become the invaded, with the end of the war no longer in any doubt, and- with the flying bomb making London even more uncomfortable for its all-enduring citizens, the authorities have at last decided to open some of the South Coast beaches. I have been down and swum from one of those beaches. It was the strangest experience I have had in five years of strange experiences. Having just come from Normandy, was extremely cautious about mines. Not so the half-naked citizens who swarmed on to the beach ahead of me. They had complete confidence in the Royal Engineers who had come in first and cleared the way for them – exactly as they went into the Normandy beaches and cleared a way for the invasion troops. 

boys playing on Bournemouth beach defences in WW2 possible sea mine

We picked our way through gaps in the wire… and after the high tides and storms of four years the wire was not as neat as when it was laid. Bits of it stuck up through the sand drifts, menacing our bare legs and our summer clothes. We found ourselves pleasant spots to lie in among the concrete emplacements and the iron bars and grilles. We picked our way across the dry sand – which still looked dangerous to me – and across the wet sand where children were building gigantic moated castles to make up for the emptiness of four sandcastle-less years. We gathered shells again… not the sort of shells we gathered on the beaches of Normandy, but wide-mouthed, whelks and razorshells and spiny cockles and banded Venuses. We gathered seaweed and driftwood and bits of enemy aircraft and bits of American K rations… and we gathered, on our shoes and between our toes, cloying smears and lumps of tarry fuel oil – the debris of un-numbered Channel convoys. 

And then, for the first time, we felt the sea about our bare feet. We exulted in it. We paddled, we waded… we took a plunge… we swam. 

beach defences and barbed wire on bournemouth beach

For the first time in four years the South Coast of England looked out on a smiling sea whose smile was not deceptive. For the first time in four years the sands knew another tread than the careful beat of uniformed sentinels. For the first time in four years the ancient English phrase came into its own again – “as happy as a sandboy.” They were so happy, those sandboys, those laughing little girls, those young women from blacked-out offices and war factories, those soldiers and sailors and airmen on leave, those old couples who would be able to write to sons abroad “Had a lovely holiday at the seaside.” 

You can see from the pictures how strange a scene it was. Beauty amid barbed wire – bare flesh against bare steel, light-hearted swimmers bathing in the same sea that carries the convoys. It is not yet a peacetime August, but it is an August on the verge of victory, an August which once more, after four dark years, allows the people who have endured so much to enjoy something fine again, to be once more beside the seaside; beside and in the sea which is at once Britain’s bulwark and her supreme summer delight. 

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