What happened to Landguard Fort during WWII?
Landguard Fort, off the Landguard Peninsula of Felixstowe, has protected the coasts of this country for hundreds of years. Although there have been a number of fortifications here since the reign of King Henry VIII, the current fort was built in 1744 and modified in subsequent years.
He played an important role in protecting Britain during various wars and conflicts, including World War I, World War II and the Cold War. Decommissioned in 1956, the fort is now Grade I listed and open to visitors.
A number of rooms in the buildings are full of fascinating artefacts – but did you know that there are also volunteers who dress up in period costume, explaining what life was like at Landguard Fort during the war?
Among them are Katy Wright and Luke Fitchett, who both act as living historians on the weekends, portraying characters from World War II.
Katy has been a volunteer at the fort for about a decade, first as part of the maintenance team and working in the workshop.
“I became interested in dressing as a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) because I wanted to show what women wore throughout the war, and I want people – especially children – to pose questions about what I’m wearing,” she says.
The pioneering ATS was the women’s branch of the British Army during World War II and played a vital role during the conflict. Formed between September 9, 1938 and February 1, 1949, it has its roots in the former Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) before merging with the Women’s Royal Army Corps.
At its peak, approximately 190,000 women were conscripted – and a number of them served at Landguard Fort.
“It’s something that has a story in every home and needs to be told or it will be forgotten.”
When Katy is at the fort, she will put on her ATS anti-aircraft gunner uniform – which consists of trousers and a short jacket – and answer any questions visitors may have about life at the fort during the Second World War.
“The other ATS uniform would have been a tailored skirt and shirt. All uniforms were wool, worn with a cotton shirt and tie,” she adds.
But try to put yourself in the shoes of an active member of the ATS and imagine what life was like in those days.
First, not all Auxiliary Territorial Service members actually lived at the fort. “I know some of the ATS were moving daily. For example, we know that some women came from Dovercourt using the ferry on foot every day,” she says.
And what exactly did the ATS do?
Throughout the war, the ATS covered a range of duties – from mess attendants, butchers, bakers, postmen and telephone operators, to drivers, ordnance inspectors and military police.
“We know that the ATS worked in communications, telephone exchanges and Morse exchanges – all of these were vital to the fort. Together with the anti-aircraft gunners, they worked as spotters or on the huge searchlights, ”says Katy.
Today, a number of World War II artifacts can still be seen, including ammunition tunnels and magazines, the barracks rooms and a rare Mk.1 BOFORS 40mm anti-aircraft gun.
Old anti-aircraft weapons played an important role during World War II and were credited with a number of casualties, including hit-and-run raids by German fighter-bombers and downed 73V1 flying bombs.
With servicewomen working long days, the fort was always on alert – and when one woman’s shift ended, another began right after, with many sleeping on site in designated sleeping quarters.
And when they weren’t working, they often enjoyed downtime either at the fort or at the nearby air base. “I have since found out that there is a social club/officers’ mess at RAF Felixstowe – now part of the Port of Felixstowe,” says Katy.
“Socializing was a big part of their life – we know there was a social mess at RAF Felixstowe where the dances took place. They would also likely have gone into town for local social events too.
In terms of food, rationing was of course in full swing at the height of the war, so women were limited to what was served to them at the fort.
“For women, their home service scale of military rations consisted of 170g meat, 36g bacon or ham, 42g butter and margarine, 16g cheese, 56g sugar, 7g of tea and 28 g of preserves. The male soldiers had a completely different scale of measuring food,” she says.
Elsewhere in the fort you will find Luke Fitchett. A freelance and living historian, Luke has always had an interest in wartime Britain. “My primary interest was World War I, but I found World War II equally interesting after researching family members who served. My interest grew later as I was lucky enough to work as an extra in some wartime movies and TV shows.
On Sundays, part of Luke’s role is to greet people while wearing his Royal Artillery officer’s uniform.
“I based my impression on photos and testimonials of officers who served in World War II, to make sure I represented them as accurately as possible,” he says.
Royal Artillery Officers are part of the Royal Regiment of Artillery – one of two regiments which complement the artillery arm of the British Army. Unlike the aforementioned ATS which has since been disbanded, this branch of the armed forces is still in operation today.
During the Second World War, members of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, as its name suggests, worked in anti-tank and anti-aircraft divisions. They found themselves in a number of roles, including piloting observation planes, parachuting, arming cannons, fighting as infantry, and building roads and airstrips – all depended on whether they were land, air or sea.
Those at the fort would have operated the anti-aircraft batteries that were positioned around the fort and surrounding area.
“A lieutenant would have been in charge of a platoon, overseeing day-to-day training and supervising soldiers’ tasks,” he adds.
An average day in the life of a soldier at the fort began with being awakened by the alarm clock (a bugle call), signifying that it was time to get up. They then had breakfast before the officers and NCOs met to discuss the agenda. After that it was roll call, and the soldiers were then briefed on their duties for the day.
“Duties may include drill, cleaning weapons and artillery barrels, guarding, polishing boots and brass or repairing uniforms,” says Luke.
This was followed by lunch, more chores, evening inspection, dinner, and then some free time. Popular pastimes for soldiers included writing in diaries, drawing, reading books and magazines, and playing cards.
“Life at the fort never stopped – there would always have been people on duty to defend it in case it was attacked.”
When the soldiers retired for the evening, they slept in barracks in the fort or in the wooden huts that dotted the common.
“Officers would have had their own bedroom, depending on their rank, or potentially their own house nearby if they were wealthy enough.”
Landguard Fort is now open until the end of October – daily during school holidays and Thursday to Sunday at other times.
From this weekend, visitors to Landguard Fort can now make the most of their excursion by also visiting the Felixstowe Museum with joint weekend tickets. The new initiative allows access to both attractions for less than the cost of two single tickets.
A joint ticket for adults costs £9.70 (reduced £9) and children aged 5-17 cost £5. Adults and concessions save over 10% over the price of two separate tickets, and there’s a little savings for kids too.
Learn more at landguard.com