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A soldier standing in front of the coastal gun battery at Dunwich Heath during the Second World war
A soldier standing in front of the coastal gun battery at Dunwich Heath during the Second World War | © IWM H4335

Dunwich Heath wartime trail

Today, Dunwich Heath is a peaceful wildlife haven nestling on the Suffolk coast. However, during World War Two (WW2) the heath was a militarised zone, forming part of Britain’s east coast defences and providing a vital army training area. The site has long since been cleared of its military structures to create the beautiful heathland which we enjoy today, but you can still see remnants of its past in some places. This trail will take you on a journey into Dunwich Heath’s military past, exploring some key areas of importance during the Second World War. We hope you enjoy the trail, but please help us look after Dunwich Heath by staying on the footpaths.

Accessing Dunwich Heath

This tranquil heath stands on the Suffolk coast and is open daily for most of the year. For access to this walking trail, you will need to be a National Trust member or pay the car park fee.

Total steps: 15

Total steps: 15

Start point

Start the trail by the flat clifftop area in the south-east corner of the car park.

Step 1

Built in May 1941, the battery’s two six-inch guns which were positioned here had originally been used on board WW1 Royal Navy vessels. After two years’ operational service at Dunwich Heath, the guns were moved to Landguard Fort at Felixstowe. The gunhouses were dismantled, but it’s possible that the underground ammunition store, now filled in, is on this site. Follow the coastal path north from here...

A soldier standing in front of the coastal gun battery at Dunwich Heath during the Second World war
A soldier standing in front of the coastal gun battery at Dunwich Heath during the Second World War | © IWM H4335

Step 2

The remains of a spigot mortar base are concealed beneath the vegetation here. The central pedestal for the gun, which launched a 20lb projectile, sat in a pit which was simply reinforced with wooden posts. This was one of many defensive infantry positions across the heath, surrounded by rolls of barbed wire, pillboxes and trenches. Follow the coastal path north for 300m...

Step 3

From the path, look east towards the sea: this was the site of a WW2 Diver Battery. Operation Diver began in July 1944 in response to the threat from V1 rockets, often launched from German aircraft over the North Sea. Anti-aircraft guns were deployed along the East Anglian coast in a narrow belt from Clacton to Great Yarmouth to defend against these fast, low flying rockets. An estimated 2000 V1s were prevented from reaching their targets by the Diver Batteries. A searchlight was also positioned near this point. Continue north on the coastal path for 200m...

Step 4

Take in the view from the path across to the cliff – Dunwich Heath was an important radar station and formed part of a vital chain of early Chain Home Low (CHL) radars which could detect low-flying enemy aircraft. It became operational on New Year’s Day 1940. Two separate gantries for the transmitter and receiver, each about 7 metres high, were positioned here close to the cliff edge. A later structure, the ‘Ground Grocer’, was also built near here in April 1943. This system jammed the radar signals of enemy fighter planes and hampered their night attacks. The radars and timber huts have long gone, but the concrete base of a building can be seen in the cliff face when viewed from the beach. Follow the path north for 190m until you reach the road... and cross over.

Step 5

Radar technology developed at a rapid pace and the radar site was soon moved to a new location to accommodate the growing infrastructure. The trail now takes you along the eastern side of the later radar station. Some of the concrete blocks from the fence line can still be seen along here. Turn left and walk south along the narrow path for 240m...

Step 6

As you pass this point, you will see the foundations from the guard room which stood at the entrance to the radar station. Continue walking south for 140m. When you reach point 7, turn to your right...

Step 7

The path ahead of you formed the south edge of a square of defences surrounding the radar station built here in February 1941. Enclosed with barbed wire and rows of concrete anti-tank cubes, the new Chain Home Low aerial and various operational buildings were positioned to your right. The new aerial sat on a single gantry and was powered by mains electricity. As technology improved, higher aerials were found to give better warning of low-flying aircraft. Early in 1943, Dunwich Heath became one of only five Tower Stations, its new 56 metre aerial dominating the skyline until after the war. Walk 250m until you reach the end of the path...

Step 8

The trail now takes you into an area used for military training in both world wars. The peaceful expanse of heathland here conceals a landscape scarred with anti-landing ditches, bomb craters and trenches. The earth bank directly ahead of you marks the site of rifle butts from a First World War firing range. Although no longer visible, trenches were dug here which were modelled on those in the battlefields of northern France. Turn right and follow the long, straight path north for 540m...

Step 9

Early in 1940, a huge area covering around 10 miles of coastline from Aldeburgh to the north of Dunwich village, and reaching approximately 3.5 miles inland, had been established as a military training area with thousands of troops practising here under live fire. In 1943, the Dunwich training area was used for ‘Exercise Kruschen’, a major exercise in which specialist equipment was tested in preparation for breaching the formidable defences of occupied Europe on D-Day. Bear left at point 9 and continue along the path for 370m...

Step 10

Note the deep trench running the whole length of this path. This tank trap was constructed to prevent tanks moving in either direction; it would hamper invaders who landed on the beaches from moving inland, and would protect the radar station from attack from the west. The trenches were later reused as a tank training area where the British Army practiced crossing the breach with ‘fascines’ – typically bundles of wood used to block the gap. This tank trap marks the eastern edge of a mock defensive position created for Exercise Kruschen. It replicated a typical German strongpoint known as a ‘Hedgehog’ since it bristled with defences in every direction. The pillboxes in this area were German in design so the army could practise their attacking manoeuvres. At point 10, follow the path around to the left and walk south for 700m...

Step 11

This area was the site of the WW2 Bunker Hill army defence post. A major heath fire here in the late 1950s detonated a large amount of unexploded ordnance. As a result, the army returned on two occasions to systematically clear the area. Very few WW2 structures remain at Dunwich Heath, but the ruins of one German-style pillbox have been converted into a protected roosting site for bats. Turn left and walk east for 140m...

Step 12

The ditch, named after Dunwich Heath’s first warden, Jack Docwra, was dug by the army c.1968. It forms Dunwich Heath’s southern boundary. When you reach point 12, turn right and follow the path down to ‘Docwra’s Ditch’. Keep left and head east along this path for 530m...

Step 13

As you walk along Docwra’s Ditch, note the expanse of reedbeds and wetland habitat to the south, which is now a nationally important RSPB reserve. Its existence is due to the deliberate flooding of coastal areas which were vulnerable to invasion in 1940. Newly flooded areas of marshland, stretching several kilometres inland, were created along the East Anglian coast – many of these remain today providing important wildlife habitat. Continue along this path for 250m...

Step 14

Areas where flooded land met higher, firmer ground were identified as ‘spurs’ which could provide invading forces with the only exit points from the beaches. Here, the rising slopes between the marshes and the cliffs were heavily defended with countless pillboxes and defensive positions. Today, some of the smaller trenches have been used to create hibernation sites for adders. Continue following the path east for 310m until you arrive at the beach…

Step 15

It’s hard to imagine that the quiet stretch of shingle beach was once entirely covered with defences to obstruct enemy invasion. Layers of obstacles including metal stakes, scaffolding frames, miles of barbed wire and thousands of mines stretched along the vast beaches of England’s south and east coast. A substantial clear-up operation soon after the war removed most defences, but some remain as testament to the importance of this area during the war.

End point

The beach marks the end of the trail. To return to Dunwich Heath car park, bear right as you leave the beach and follow the shingle path back up to the Coastguard Cottages.

Trail map

A map showing the wartime trail route at Dunwich Heath, with trail markers shown and facilities
The wartime trail at Dunwich Heath | © National Trust

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