Posted: 3 August 2013 20:52

During my research I have uncovered numerous references to writers and artists associated with East Sussex in some way and so I thought I'd document some of these links.

Some links are tenuous, but hopefully my reasoning will justify their inclusion in this basic list. This first post in the series is centred around the Ashdown Forest area.

East Sussex wartime writers and artists

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Conan Doyle is the first tenuous link I'm going to attempt to establish with World War Two Sussex. This may seem to some to be overly optimistic, given that one of the greatest crime novelists of all time died some nine years before the outbreak of war.

The photo at right is of the statue that was unveiled at Crowborough in 2001.

On a personal note, it is an (as yet, unproven) family legend that my great-grandmother was a member of Conan Doyle's house staff.

Conan Doyle lived in Crowborough from 1907 until his death in 1930 and it's his house, "Windlesham" that forms the wartime link.

The war diary of No.1 Canadian Mobile Bath Unit for 8th September 1942 records that:

Lt. Calver sent to 2nd Group Ordnance Workshop at Crowborough to recce for site for bath location. Cement drive at garage of Conan Doyle's home found to be satisfactory.

The diary records a bath parade being carried out four days later on the 12th.

On the 29th, the very same mobile bath unit's shower lorry was involved in a road traffic accident. Having driven out to Newhaven to bathe an infantry unit, only to find it out on exercise and unavailable, the two shower operators decided to go to the pub instead.

They then stopped off at a British Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) battery in the neighbourhood, where they picked up some bottles of cider.

On the way home, the lorry veered off the road and knocked a hole in the wall of a cowshed near Firle.

Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured, but the men were subjected to Courts Martial. It didn't need Sherlock Holmes to solve the case...

Denis Sefton Delmer

Born in Berlin and fluent in German, Sefton Delmer's career in journalism brought him into close contact with Adolf Hitler during the 1930's. This made him an ideal recruit for the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) to conduct black propaganda broadcasts to Germany. Black propaganda is conducted in such a way as to disguise the origin and intentions of the information. Delmer's team thereby broadcast to Germany from a studio in Milton Bryant, Bedfordshire, pretending to be a German radio station in various guises.

In 1942, construction began on the Ashdown Forest at Kingstanding on a complex to contain what became known as Aspidistra. Aspidistra was one of the most powerful radio transmitters of the time, imported from the USA. The name was taken from the popular song of the time 'The Biggest Aspidistra in the World' sung by Gracie Fields.

The remote studio meant that Delmer's operatives were not broadcasting in Sussex, but via Sussex, although studio and transmitter were physically connected by cable. A Foreign Office document of August 1942 claimed that Aspidistra would "bring the voice of Britain to the people in any area within the radius of a thousand miles from Sussex."

The transmitter equipment was housed underground; the photo below shows the entrance tunnel.

East Sussex wartime writers and artists

There were a few above-ground buildings, used as workshops, laboratories and offices. Some of these interiors had a strong art deco influence; the photo below shows post-war insignia of the Diplomatic Wireless Service (DWS) run by the Foreign Office.

East Sussex wartime writers and artists

Delmer ran several stations via Aspidistra; Atlantiksender was intended to undermine U-Boat crew morale by exploiting their isolation.

Soldatensender Calais was aimed at the German forces in France. A mixture of news, music and sports helped make the listener more receptive to the propaganda items when they occurred. For example, when Delmer's 'German' station berated malingerers and gave details of how a particular man made himself temporarily lame to avoid duty, it was, in fact, surreptitiously telling German soldiers how they could do the same.

Soldatensender attempted to undermine the morale of German troops before and during Operation Overlord by placing emphasis on the greater importance of the Russian front, giving the impression that the forces in France would be deemed expendable by the German High Command when the Allied invasion came.

East Sussex wartime writers and artists

In March 1945, Intruder operations began. German transmitters in areas threatened by Allied air raids would shut down when the bombers were near, in order to prevent the broadcasts being used as a means of navigation.

The equipment in the circular switch house at right enabled Aspidistra to rapidly change frequencies and hijack the airwaves left vacant by German transmitters that had shut down.

By knowing in advance where the Allied bombers would be flying, a watch could be kept on the transmitters that would be affected.

The programmes being broadcast at the time could be picked up by Aspidistra, and, once a transmitter shut down, Aspidistra would almost without hesitation, fill the gap in the airwaves by rebroadcasting the real German programme from unaffected transmitters back to Germany to maintain continuity. The German transmission would then be faded out and the black propaganda would go to work.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office continued to use Aspidistra until 1982 and it later became the proposed regional seat of government in the event of nuclear war. The facility is now used by Sussex Police for training.

For more about Sefton Delmer, including his book Black Boomerang, go to:

East Sussex wartime writers and artists

Major William Ogilvie, M.B.E.

Major Ogilvie was an Offical War Artist and responsible for the watercolor at right, which comes from volume 1 of the Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War.

The piece is captioned 'Ram II tanks of the Headquarters Squadron of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division training in Ashdown Forest, September 1942.'

I've not yet fully researched the exercise depicted, but in late August, the Divisional Ordnance Workshop had to extract one of HQ Squadron's Ram tanks "that was mired very deep in marshy ground."

Leaving at 16:00, the Scammel tractor did not return until 01:00 the next morning, giving an idea of the sorts of problems the Ashdown Forest could create for tanks.

This, and a few other works by Ogilvie can be seen at:

A.A. Milne

The connection that Alan Alexander Milne had with Ashdown Forest needs no explanation other than it formed the backdrop to his Winnie-the-Pooh series of childrens' stories.

A memorial to him and illustrator E.H. Shepard stands near Gills Lap (Galleons Lap in the books) as seen in the photo below.

East Sussex wartime writers and artists

East Sussex wartime writers and artists

According to Wikipedia, Milne was a Captain in the Hartfield and Forest Row Home Guard and so he would have witnessed the army takeover and use of 'Pooh Country' as a training area.

The stories take place in '100 Aker Wood', which, in real life, is Five Hundred Acre Wood.

Documents from 1942 reveal that an armoured division was, in the event of invasion, to use Ashdown Forest as a concentration area prior to being deployed against the enemy.

Five Hundred Acre Wood was earmarked for a Light Field Ambulance unit to form up; the photo at right shows one of a handful of slit trenches in the area to be occupied.

A contemporary of A.A. Milne, Derbyshire childrens' author Alison Uttley wrote about one of her characters, Hare, joining the Home Guard. Sadly, Milne's characters didn't follow him into uniform, despite having devised a potential anti-tank weapon.

I refer, of course, to Pooh and Piglet's Heffalump Trap.

East Sussex wartime writers and artists (1)

The aforementioned trap appears in the 1926 book Winnie-the-Pooh, in which a Very Deep Pit is dug into which a heffalump is supposed to fall.

The photo at right shows the place thought to have been the inspiration for the heffalump trap; the red shaded area marks the line of the path around a sudden drop in the landscape.

Unfortunately, the only entrapment is that of Pooh and Piglet in the 1928 book The House at Pooh Corner; Christopher Robin effects a rescue.

Pooh and Piglet discuss the trapping of a heffalump as though the pit will be dug as the beast is about a foot away, thereby surprising it, and causing it to suddenly fall down the hole.

East Sussex wartime writers and artists

This concept is actually not too far divorced from the Canadian Pipe Mine of WW2; explosives inside metal tubes pushed under roads would be detonated to effect a 'surprise roadblock'.

An advancing tank would then fall into the resultant 9ft-deep hole in the road.

Near the entrance to the car park at Gills Lap is a pair of cylinders as seen at right.

These formed part of a more conventional means of stopping tanks; their efficiency against heffalumps was never tested...

- Pete



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Canadian pipe mine

A speciality of Canadian Engineers, the pipe mine was designed to render roads impassable to enemy vehicles by blowing a large crater in them. Lengths of 3-inch steel pipe were inserted under a road either by using pipe-pushing equipment or by slant-drilling. The pipes were then packed with explosive and left in place until the road needed to be destroyed. Large amounts of pipe mines were used in a cross-hatch pattern under airfields, to destroy runways. The pipe mine was also known as McNaughton Tubing, after General McNaughton, commander of the Canadian Corps in the UK.


Reinforced concrete cylindrical obstacles with a shaft down the centre in which could be inserted a crowbar for manhandling, or a picket for barbed wire. Cylinders were 90cm high and 60cm wide and deployed in groups of three as a more effective alternative for buoys.

Operation Overlord

The codename for the Allied invasion of occupied Europe on 6th June 1944.

Slit trench

Small, narrow trench designed to provide protection against shrapnel and other battlefield hazards. Technically distinct from a weapon pit (which was intended soley as a defensive position) slit trenches were also used as defence works.

War diary

A record of events kept by all units from the point of mobilisation. A diary's contents vary enormously from unit to unit; some give detailed entries by the hour on a daily basis while others merely summarise events on a weekly/monthly basis.

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Hibbs, Peter East Sussex wartime writers and artists (1) (2024) Available at: Accessed: 17 July 2024

The information on this website is intended solely to describe the ongoing research activity of The Defence of East Sussex Project; it is not comprehensive or properly presented. It is therefore NOT suitable as a basis for producing derivative works or surveys!