Bike The Battlefield
Reliving many a boy’s soldier fantasies, Harry Mount takes his trusty two-wheeler back in time to World War II
By Harry Mount
February 15 2023
Ahead of me, British tanks rumble through smashed hedgerows, firing shells out to sea. The horizon is dotted with the shattered hulks of German tanks that have been blasted to bits by small-arms fire. Machineguns rat-a-tat-tat to my right. The road beyond has a sign in German: Fur Lastkraftwagen Verboten (“Trucks forbidden”).
And my only means of escape is a flimsy old bicycle. No, this isn’t Germany in 1945, but Wales in 2021. I’m on a ridge, above the Castlemartin Training Area in Pembrokeshire – Britain’s most important live firing range for armoured fighting vehicles.
In 1938, 6,000 acres of Earl Cawdor’s estate – as in Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor, who also had a Welsh estate – were taken over by the Army in the build-up to the war. But from 1961 to 1996, it was the German Army that came here for tank-firing and gunnery exercises (of which more below). They don’t come anymore, but their relics remain – like that German road sign and the church of St Mary’s, Warren, on the edge of the range. A monument to Anglo- German friendship, the church has a Union Jack, a German flag, and a Welsh dragon flying over the nave. The organ, originally owned by Felix Mendelssohn, was repaired by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, the Munich defence company that built the Germans’ Leopard 2 tank. Three times – in 1988, 2003 and 2009 – the German and British Armies united to renovate the nave, tower and spire of St Mary’s.
Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve biked the Castlemartin Range Trail along the cliffs, part of the Wales Coast Path, thrilled by the remnants of military battles on all sides. My family has had a holiday cottage just outside the firing range since the early 1980s. Hooked on Commando Comics, I would gaze out of my window, transfixed, at the pink arc of tracer bullets curving over the range.
Then, as now, we played tennis to the sound of robins, blackbirds, and the whine of tank engines, which strain like a car going 30 mph in first gear.
Over the years, I’ve found four-inchlong bullets scattered on the ground and peeked inside those shattered tanks – British Chieftains and German Leopards used as hard targets, their armour perforated like Swiss cheese by machine-guns. To my utter delight, I once discovered a tank whose turret had been ripped clean off but whose body was intact, its Union Jack on the back as new as the day as it was painted.
The range can be dangerous – not for civilians, but for soldiers on exercise. Over the 80-plus years the Army has been training here, there have been the sad fatalities that come from mass exercises with live ammunition. Only this March, Sergeant Gavin Hillier of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards was killed during a live-fire training exercise at Castlemartin – the fourth member of the military to lose his life at the range since 2012. In 2017, two soldiers died in a tank explosion, which a coroner ruled was due to a design flaw. And an army captain was jailed in July 2018 after a 21-year-old soldier was killed by a stray bullet during a 2012 exercise.
Please don’t let this stop you coming – we can only visit when there’s no firing. I’ve always felt safe the hundreds of times I’ve biked the three miles from Stack Rocks (a nesting site for guillemots 50 metres out to sea) to St Govan’s Chapel – a tiny, 13th-century gem squeezed into a cleft in the rocks.
The German Army came to Castlemartin in 1961 as part of a NATO deal. The British Army of the Rhine trained in Germany, so the Germans, forbidden from fighting after the war, came to train in Wales. They left in 1996, once German Reunification and the end of the Cold War opened East German territory for training. Despite their leaving, the range is busier than ever these days; not just with Challenger 2 tanks but with Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles, armoured fighting vehicles, and reconnaissance vehicles. The range is also used by helicopters, jets and amphibious craft – the ‘danger area’ for firing stretches ten miles out to sea. In recent years, the range has been used for British Army training for overseas conflicts, complete with a fake Afghan village. This year, the Rifles and the King’s Royal Hussars have been on exercise here.
But you don’t have to be a war nut or cyclist to enjoy the coast path. There are six miles of tracks for walking. And, because the range hasn’t been intensively farmed for 80 years, it hums with untamed flora and fauna. In May and June, the cliffs turn pink and blue with thrift and squills. Guillemots, razorbills and choughs wheel overhead during the spring and summer nesting season. This semi-wild landscape is unique. Cows and sheep still graze here, but hedgerows are left to their own devices. Some have lost their hedges, leaving behind eroded grass banks; others have turned into long, straight woods as the trees in the hedges, flattened when cultivated, now burst free, upwards and sideways. The farmhouses on the range are now controlled ruins, their owners forcibly evicted in 1938.
The two summers between and after lockdowns were the busiest I’ve ever seen. Tourists park all the way down both verges at the St Govan’s Head carpark. At Freshwater West beach carpark in May, I saw a fight (only verbal) over a parking space for the first time.
Yet my daily morning bike ride over the range remains quite empty. High up on the flat limestone cliffs, you’re 80 feet above the beaches where all the holidaymakers want to go. I often pedal back and forth, alone, over the same stretch of path – two strips of stone chips either side of the grass, nibbled to a green velvet by rabbits and sheep. When I ride back, I often see my original tyre track in the dew, with no sign of another being passing by in the past half-hour.
How I feel for the farmers and their families who lost their homes 80 years ago. I feel selfish to adore this corner of Britain, made miraculously semi-wild and semi-deserted by the horrors of war. See the ‘Cycle Pembrokeshire’ page at pembrokeshire.gov.uk for the route and check the firing notices on gov.uk before your trip.
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