The best of Dorset in words and pictures

How Arne Saved Holton Heath

The sacrifice of one Purbeck village, Tyneham, during the last war is well-known. Less familiar is the story of how another, Arne, suffered to protect a vital military installation. Here it is recounted by Jeremy Archer.

The Church of St Nicholas, Arne

The church of St Nicholas at Arne still holds regular services

During World War 1 the writer, Rebecca West, visited the Royal Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath, on the edge of Poole Harbour. Here was carried out the dangerous work of preparing the propellant for shells used by the Royal Navy. She later wrote, ‘The world was polished to a brightness by an east wind when I visited the cordite factory…. It consists of a number of huts…connected by raised wooden gangways and interspersed with green mounds and rush ponds. It is of such vital importance to the State that it is ringed with barbed-wire entanglements and patrolled by sentries, and its products must have sent tens of thousands of our enemies to their death. And it is inhabited chiefly by pretty young girls clad in a Red-Riding-Hood fancy dress of khaki and scarlet.’

A view across the Arne Peninsula, Arne

A view across the Arne Peninsula, with a yacht sailing up the River Frome towards Ridge

The appeal of Holton Heath was the fact that if the unthinkable should happen and there was a major explosion, civilian casualties would be kept to a minimum at such an isolated spot. Serviced by the railway that ran between Poole and Wareham, and with its own station, Holton Heath was a perfect choice. It continued to produce cordite between the wars (ten workers being killed by an explosion in 1931) and was at full stretch during World War 2 – the difference being that now it was within reach of German bombers and a natural target for them.

Less than three miles to the south-east of Holton Heath, on a peninsula that projects into the waters of Poole Harbour, lies the village of Arne,. The first documented mention of the village was in 1285. The parish church dates back to about that time, but there are two Bronze Age burial mounds on Arne Hill, as well as evidence of Roman occupation. The village belonged to Shaftesbury Abbey, the wealthiest Benedictine nunnery in England, until the Abbey was destroyed by Thomas Cromwell in 1539. Arne was never a very large village: in 1894 the population was just 123 and the parish comprised 2668 acres, together with 2209 acres of water and foreshore. Such a small population struggled to support the Village School, which opened in 1832, only to close ninety years later.

The former schoolhouse, Arne

The former schoolhouse is built from distinctive local brick and has a now-unused Victorian postbox set into the near end of its front wall

The normal flight path for German bombers on the way to Holton Heath lay directly over the Arne peninsula, making Arne Heath an ideal site for anti-aircraft guns. A battery of four 3.7″ guns from 56th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery was sited on the highest ground on Arne Heath, just behind the village itself. Meanwhile a single, smaller anti-aircraft gun was dug into a gunpit next to Shipstal Point, from where there is a fine view across Poole Harbour. A prefabricated camp was constructed to accommodate the forty or so men who manned these anti-aircraft guns, together with the associated observation posts and range-finding equipment.

However, the authorities had another cunning plan. At the beginning of World War 2, three so-called ‘Starfish’ decoy sites were constructed, under the auspices of the Air Ministry, to protect Holton Heath. One of them was by Bank Gate, near the village of Arne, on land belonging to Slepe Farm. It was heavily guarded by soldiers, who kept a close eye on inquisitive visitors from their sentry box. A network of tar barrels and pipes carrying paraffin could be set alight to make it appear from the air as if bombs were exploding and buildings were on fire, thus encouraging Luftwaffe pilots to release their bombs over open countryside rather than on a strategic target.
Harold Toms’s father, who lived in Wareham, was one of the Home Guard sentries who manned the decoy site at Arne. His son explained, ‘Unfortunately, no-one told the local Fire Brigade about the decoy sites and on the one occasion that it had to be used, the Fire Brigade turned up to put out the flames which had been deliberately set. My father and his mate had to threaten to shoot the firemen if they attempted to enter the site.’

A male sika deer against a backdrop of some of Arne's impressive treess, Arne

A male sika deer against a backdrop of some of Arne’s impressive trees

It is a story which may well have improved with the years, but what is certainly true is that on that night of 3/4 June 1942, the decoy sites averted a potential disaster at Holton Heath. The official historian wrote of Arne, ‘Indeed, so well did it play its part that many crews came low to bomb it without detecting the imposture.’ In his book, Arne – A Purbeck Parish in Peace and War, Terence Davis tells of the aftermath: ‘The whole thing went up like a factory engulfed in flame and led the Luftwaffe away from their real target. It had worked very, very well, but at a price, the complete devastation of Arne.’

The following morning, no fewer than 206 bomb craters were counted on the Arne peninsula, while many more bombs fell into Poole Harbour. William Joyce, alias Lord Haw Haw, the Irish-American propagandist based in Berlin, claimed that Holton Heath had been badly hit – but it never was. The fires burned at Arne for the next six weeks and a village with dwelling names redolent of the English countryside – Keeper’s Cottage, Slepe Farm, Dairy House, Middlebere Farm, Coombe – became almost uninhabitable. As a result, the decision was taken to evacuate Arne: those villagers who remained were given just a month’s notice, until 10 August 1942, to leave their homes.

Much of the area between Arne and Studland Bay to the east was designated a battle range in the build-up to D-Day, because of its striking similarities with the Normandy beaches. Thousands of American soldiers carried out realistic, live-firing exercises on the low-lying areas of the Isle of Purbeck. In the process, huge quantities of munitions were used and a significant proportion failed to explode. From Easter 1943 until long after the end of the war, naval personnel from HMS Purbeck were responsible for bomb- and mine-disposal in the area. According to Wallace Clark, who was based at Rempstone Hall during 1945/46, a number of lives were lost during these hazardous operations.

As early as 27 January 1945, it was reported in The Times that Swanage Urban District Council ‘would view with considerable alarm and regret’ the retention of ‘the Arne and Tyneham areas, beautiful parts of Dorset, as battle-training areas after the war’. Unlike Tyneham, Arne was not retained by the military, but the village never really re-established itself after the war and much of it lay derelict until the late 1950s. Nevertheless, the tiny church of St Nicholas still hosts services, Arne Farm has been re-built on a different site and Keeper’s Cottage is now a toy museum.

On 25 November 1954 The Times reported: ‘The other [national nature] reserve declared yesterday is nine acres of Big Wood, Arne, Dorset, one of the two known places in England which show the natural transition from dry woodland to salt marsh.’ Since 1966 the major part of the Arne peninsula has been in the care of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and is celebrated for its lowland heathland, which is rare in Europe, and its wildlife. The explosives factory at Holton Heath closed after World War 2 and the site became an Admiralty research establishment. In the late 1990s the military left the site altogether. Peace has returned to the place that Rebecca West described as the ‘home of nothing except death’.

 Long Island and Round Island, Arne

Long Island and Round Island provide a sheltered anchorage off the Arne Peninsula

Dorset Directory