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Secret wall that played vital D-Day role in defeating Nazis

FROM a distance, it looks like an ordinary wall, but history is written all over it.

WONDER WALL:  Historian and archaeologist Dr Tony Pollard stands atop the replica of the Nazi's defensive wall at Sherriffmuir, near Dunblane. Picture: Julie Howden
WONDER WALL: Historian and archaeologist Dr Tony Pollard stands atop the replica of the Nazi's defensive wall at Sherriffmuir, near Dunblane. Picture: Julie Howden

Look closely and you can see the holes where explosives were planted and at one point there is a massive gap where it was blown apart by a tank.

The historian and archeologist Tony Pollard stands by the gap and explains the importance of it all: this wall, he says, helped defeat the Nazis.

The wall was built at Sheriffmuir, in the hills above Dunblane, in 1943 as preparations were being made to invade Europe. The problem was the Nazis had built a formidable line of concrete defences from Norway all the way to the Spanish border and if D-Day was to have any chance of success, the British and their allies would have to get over those defences.

Which is why the wall at Sheriffmuir was built: it was a way for the British forces to practise their plan of attack and understand what they would face. They shot at it, they smashed into it, and they blew it up as a way of testing the German defences ahead of D-Day.

"A lot of the training for D-Day was done at this wall," says Dr Pollard. "Training grounds like this were key in bringing units together that had never fought before and giving them real world experience. And we did something we should be proud of here, defeating Nazism."

The wall, which is about 262ft long and almost 10ft high, has not always been valued, however, and it is only now that attempts are being made to find out more about it.

Dr Pollard, who is director of the Centre For Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University, and Janice Ainslie, of Dunblane Museum, are leading a project to scan the wall and three others in the UK. The scans will then be used to create 3D models.

"I had been aware for a long time there was this amazing site up here that was a bit of a lost gem of Scottish history and played a key role in D-Day and everything that means," says Dr Pollard. "We found out there are other sites like it; there are only three other surviving sites that we know of, although there may be more."

The aim of Dr Pollard's project, which has attracted funding from the National Lottery and the Military Community Covenant, is to bring the lost gem to greater attention, but also to tell the story of how the wall was built and, in particular, the role played by a French painter and decorator called Rene Duchez.

It was Monsieur Duchez who got his hands on the blueprints for the German defences while painting the offices of engineering group TODT, which was were taken on to build the Atlantic walls. He hid the plans in a biscuit tin, which was smuggled to Britain and used as the blueprint for the wall at Sheriffmuir.

Mrs Ainslie is a huge fan of Monsieur Duchez and would like more people to hear about the valuable contribution he made to the war effort. "He was a guy who played the idiot," she says, "but clearly he was incredibly smart." She also hopes that as the Dunblane project goes ahead, more people will come forward and tell their stories of the war and the wall.

Dr Pollard says he was aware that many of these first-person witnesses were passing on and that the Sheriffmuir wall could act as a bridge to that time. "As an archaeologist, one of the challenges I have faced is persuading people these relatively recent sites do have a heritage value," he says.

He says it was perfectly natural that in the years after the wall, people wanted to move on but that sites such as Sheriffmuir have to be protected.

"It served a function, that purpose passes, then it gets forgotten and, initially, as with all wars, there is a desire to forget," he says. "But my job is to poke people and remind them."

Dr Pollard says that, as part of the project, he may also do some archaeological work at the site, in particular at the gun turrets at one end of the wall.

There was also a rumour that in an effort to recreate the conditions on the beaches in France, tons of sand were moved in and dumped in front of the wall and Dr Pollard says that, if that is true, there could still be pockets of sand to be found underground.

In the meantime, the aim is to create a virtual exhibition of the wall and the three others. Surveys will also be conducted at the other sites in Wales, Suffolk and Surrey.

"One of the reasons we have done the laser scan is that it gives us a forensic record of the damage," he says, "and we are hoping to be able to see what sort of weaponry was used."

Dr Pollard says he can imagine what it was like when the wall was in full use. There would be tanks approaching across the moor, there would be great explosions going off, and there would be thousands of soldiers training every day in preparation for D-Day.

We know now these preparations were a success, but the role of this humble wall near Dunblane has been forgotten. Over the next year, Dr Pollard is determined to change that.

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