On 16 September 1952, S J Bassett of the Naval Intelligence Department filed a memorandum. He records that in August 1946 the Joint Intelligence Committee had received a request from the US Chief of Naval Operations for a topographical survey of Britain’s coastline and beaches 1. With the advent of the Cold War, the Americans feared that Britain might be invaded by Russian forces. Information about Britain’s beaches would be vital for an American counter invasion from the sea.
According to Bassett, Chiefs of Staff Committee approved a comprehensive coastal survey in August 1946. It would gather information about onshore and seabed conditions, beach gradients and sea depth. The information, that is, that would be essential to mounting a counter invasion.
The survey was given the code name ‘Operation Sandstone’. In 1951, the Chief of Combined Operations, Major-General Godfrey Wildman-Lushington, reported that work was progressing on the survey. However, beach reconnaissance methods were ‘slow, costly and not applicable to areas to which we had no access’ 2.
Nevertheless, Operation Sandstone continued into the mid-1960s. By then most of Britain’s coast had been surveyed. It’s not easy to find out a great deal about the organisation and methods of the operation. Its secret nature meant that recorded discussion was minimal. There are a few administrative files in ADM 326, where the records are now held, which mention occasional discussion by the Joint Intelligence Committee.
Writing a detailed history of Operation Sandstone would be difficult. On the other hand, the records of the survey include many thousands of photographs, maps and pages of description. They provide a rich record of the coast as it was in the 1950s.
These records are now held in catalogue series ADM 326.They are generally organised by the area covered. For example, the 41 files between ADM 326/1070 and ADM 326/1100 cover the Norfolk coast between King’s Lynn and Cromer. This section is divided into 12 beaches, designated with the letters A to L, but they are not given a name.
Perhaps some of our readers might be able to identify Beach B, which appears in the photographs that follow. I think this is around Snettisham, but I’m not entirely sure.
For each beach, the surveyors numbered observations points on a map as shown in this image.
A description of each point marked on the maps is also given in ADM 326/1074. For example, surveyors described point 4 as ‘80’ gravel beach laced with wooden piles to form groynes. Obstacles to wheeled vehicles and tanks – surmountable by personnel. Gradient 1:12 soft sand and gravel. See photo no. 4”.
We find the associated photograph number 4 in file ADM 326/1086 under the heading ‘main tracings’.
Similarly, another photograph shows the wooden piles in tooth patterns extending seawards in the centre of the beach as described at point 5.
I am mystified by what might be a grid reference with an MR prefix in these photographs. It seems not to correspond to the Ordnance Survey National Grid or the older Cassini grid system, which I believe was in use at that time. The ‘point’ photographs are accompanied by wider ‘pan’ photographs. These show the wider scene, though it is more difficult to see the detail.
The section also includes a set of vertical aerial photographs, which appear to cover the whole coastline in a set of overlapping views. The photographs are of good quality and a substantial amount of the immediate hinterland is included. The photographs here are also of the coast between King’s Lynn and Cromer.
The series also includes a set of ‘oblique’ aerial photographs. These were taken at an angle to the vertical as the camera moved along the coast. Again there is overlap of around 50 per cent, so that all of the coast appears once in the more detailed foreground of one photograph, as well as in the background of another. They seem to be taken from a lower altitude.
The aerial photographs are numbered, making them easy to put in order. To link these with the ‘point’ photographs of beaches would take a good deal of work, but would be possible. Because each photograph has an overlap with the following one, they present a continuous picture of much of the British coast.
Operation Sandstone finished in 1966, but not before it had produced a rich photographic and descriptive record of the British coast. The survey was fortunately never required for its original purpose and its records remained in storage. Following an extensive conservation and cataloguing project at The National Archives, they were made available to the public.
They might yet have an important role for environmental studies, as they give a comprehensive picture of the coast as it was in the 1950s. Assembled and presented digitally, they might provide an important marker for coastal change over the last sixty years. We would also be very interested to know if any of our readers can identify the places in the photographs.