What was life like at Landguard Fort during World War II?
- Credit: Ella Wilkinson
Landguard Fort, off Felixstowe's Landguard Peninsula, has kept this country’s shores safe for hundreds of years. While 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.
It has played a significant role in protecting Britain during various wars and conflicts, including World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Disarmed in 1956, the fort is now Grade I-listed and open to visitors.
A number of rooms within the buildings are filled with fascinating artefacts galore – but did you know there are also volunteers who dress in period costume, explaining what life was like at Landguard Fort back during the war?
They include Katy Wright and Luke Fitchett, who both act as living historians at weekend, portraying figures from the Second World War.
Katy has been a volunteer at the fort for around a decade, first starting off within the maintenance team and working in the shop.
“I became interested in dressing as a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) because I wanted show what women wore throughout the war, and I want people - especially children - to ask questions on what I’m wearing,” she says.
The trailblazing ATS was the female 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 had its roots in the former Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) before merging into the Women's Royal Army Corps.
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At its peak, around 190,000 women were enlisted – and a number of them served at Landguard Fort.
“It’s something that has history in every household and needs to be told – otherwise it will be forgotten.”
When Katy is at the fort, she will don her ATS anti-aircraft gunner uniform – which consists of trousers and a short jacket – and answer any visitors’ questions they may have about fort life during the Second World War.
“The other ATS uniform would’ve consisted of a skirt and tailored shirt. All of the uniforms were made out of wool, worn with a cotton shirt and tie,” she adds.
But try to put yourself in the shoes of a serving member of the ATS, and imagine what life was like during that time.
Firstly, not every member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service actually lived at the fort. “I know some of the ATS did commute in on a daily basis. For example, we know some of the ladies travelled in from Dovercourt using the foot ferry every day,” she says.
And what exactly did the ATS do?
Throughout the war, the ATS covered a range of duties - ranging from mess orderlies, butchers, bakers, postal workers and telephonists, to drivers, ammunition inspectors and military police.
“We know the ATS worked in communication, telephone exchange and Morse exchange – these were all vital at the fort. With the anti-aircraft gunners, they worked as spotters or on the huge spotlights,” explains Katy.
Today, a number of artefacts from the Second World War can still be seen – including tunnels and munition stores, the barrack rooms, and a rare Mk.1 BOFORS 40mm anti-aircraft gun.
The former anti-aircraft weapons played an important role during World War II, and were credited with a number of kills including hit-and-run raids by German fighter-bombers and 73V1 flying bombs shot down.
With the servicewomen working long shifts, the fort would always be alert – and when one woman’s shift ended, another would start right after, with many sleeping on site in the designated sleeping quarters.
And when they weren’t working, they would often enjoy downtime either at the fort or at the nearby airbase. “I’ve since found out there was a social club/officer’s mess at RAF Felixstowe - which is now part of the Port of Felixstowe,” explains Katy.
“Having a social life was a huge part of their lives – we know there was a social mess at RAF Felixstowe where dances used to happen. They also probably would’ve gone to town for local social events, too.”
In terms of food, rationing was of course in full in swing at the height of the war, so the women were limited to what they were served at the fort.
“For women, their army rations home service scale consisted of 170g of meat, 36g of bacon or ham, 42g of butter and margarine, 16g of cheese, 56g of sugar, 7g of tea, and 28g of preserves. The male soldiers had a completely different scale of food measurement,” she says.
Elsewhere in the fort, you will find Luke Fitchett. A volunteer and living historian, Luke has always had an interest in wartime Britain. “My main interest was in the First World War, but I found the Second World War just as interesting after doing research on family members who served. My interest later grew as I was lucky enough to work as an extra in some wartime films and TV shows, too.”
On Sundays part of Luke's role is to greet people while wearing his royal artillery officer uniform.
“I based my impression on photos and first-hand accounts of officers who served in the Second World War, to make sure I portray them as correctly as possible,” he says.
Royal artillery officers are part of the Royal Regiment of Artillery – one of two regiments that complete the artillery arm of the British Army. Unlike the aforementioned ATS which has since disbanded, this branch of the armed services is still going today.
Back in World War II, those in the Royal Regiment of Artillery, as the name suggests, worked within anti-tank and anti-aircraft divisions. They found themselves in a number of roles including flying spotter planes, parachuting, manning guns, fighting as infantry, and building roads and landing strips – all depending if they were land, air, or sea-based.
Those at the fort would’ve operated the anti-aircraft batteries which were positioned around the fort and surrounding areas.
“A lieutenant would’ve been in charge of a platoon, overseeing day-to-day training and overseeing the soldiers’ duties,” he adds.
An average day in the life for a solider at the fort would begin with being woken up by reveille (a bugle call), signifying it was time to get up. They would then have breakfast before the officers and non-commissioned officers would gather to discuss orders of the day. After that, it was roll call, and soldiers were then told their duties for the day.
“Duties could include drill, cleaning weapons and artillery guns, guard duty, polishing boots and brass, or repairing uniforms,” Luke says.
This was the followed by lunch, more duties, evening inspection, dinner, and then free time. Popular soldier pastimes included writing in diaries, drawing, reading books and magazines, and playing cards.
“Life at the fort never stopped - there would’ve always been people on duty to defend it in case it was attacked.”
When soldiers did retire for the evening, they would’ve slept in barracks in the fort, or in the wooden huts that were all over the common.
“Officers would’ve had their own room, depending on rank, or potentially their own house nearby if they were wealthy enough.”
Landguard Fort is now open until the end of October - every day during the school holidays, and from Thursday to Sunday at other times.
As of this weekend, visitors to Landguard Fort can now make the most out of their excursion by also taking a trip to Felixstowe Museum thanks to joint weekend tickets. The new initiative provides entry to both attractions for less than the cost of two single tickets.
A joint ticket for adults costs £9.70 (concessions £9), and children aged five to 17 cost £5. Adults and concessions both save more than 10% when compared with the price of two separate tickets, and there is a small saving for children, too.
To find out more, visit landguard.com