Category Archives: Concrete Sniffing

Touring Military Engineering sites and Museums with an Engineering content.

World War(LL) Zed

Up to creasing tile height

A lot has happened in a month. The wall is now of a suitable height to deter Zombies, shambling or otherwise. De Fence budget (see what I did there?) costed in searchlights to allow work to continue into the night if needed. They kick out a massive 50 watts apiece. I’m still waiting for machine guns though.

No Zombies!

The right hand side last two bays are now finished, with creasing tiles to keep the wall dry, and a cement cap. The pillar is at creasing tile height, and if 1:100 scale, would be a mighty 190 metres tall ( or just under 1,900 hamburgers laid end to end, if you are American). I’m making the most of unseasonably mild weather to crack on with building, so wargaming is still on the back burner for a while. Normal service will be resumed as soon as the bad weather comes.

The creasing tiles are laid and the wall finished on bays 7 and 8 (the two right hand bays).


Filed under 15mm Miniatures Wargames, Concrete Sniffing, Off Topic

Book Review – Britain’s Island Fortresses

britain's island fortresses. Defence of the Empire 1756 - 1956 Britain’s Island Fortresses

Defence of the Empire 1756 – 1956

Bill Clements

This book catalogues the overseas defences of the British Empire. It is a story of the conflicting demands of cost and security across Great Britain’s naval staging posts for its far-flung commercial interests. Bill Clements’ book has successfully navigated a path through a complex story, without becoming too bogged down in detail, but equally without becoming bland. The race to maintain up-to date armaments is also charted as technology made older weapons obsolete; this in a time span encompassing the Seven Years’ War through to World War II.

Readers with an interest in WWII will find the chapters on Singapore and Hong Kong to be of particular value. The book is liberally provided with plans, line drawings and photographs to give a good representative  feel for the defences. The Islands of Bermuda, Jamaica, St Helena, Antigua and St. Lucia, Ceylon, Mauritius and Ascension Island are all covered too.

The book should appeal to anyone with more than a passing interest in the subject of coastal fortifications, and perhaps even provide inspiration for a bit of “concrete sniffing” on family holidays abroad. It sheds light on a forgotten part of Great Britain’s overseas history.

My review copy was provided by Pen and Sword Publishing.


Filed under Artillery, Concrete Sniffing

Unfashionable City Breaks Two – Rotterdam

Waterfront Skyscrapers

“You went for a holiday in a container port?” My team leader at work was bemused even after I explained it to her. Nevertheless, 21st century Rotterdam¹ has much to commend it as a city break and concrete sniffer’s destination.

Central Rotterdam

Central Rotterdam

Not as crowded as Amsterdam, and with  an impressive modern skyline, the Dutch have embraced the future with an enthusiasm that puzzles the British psyche.

Make It Happen

Suzanne Making it Happen en route to our Hotel

Rotterdam is easily accessible via Eurostar, with an efficient security check in that is not as onerous as most airlines. Legroom is generous. You are deposited into the centre of the city, which is stuffed with street art in unexpected places.

Wibbly-wobbly Skyscrapers with added Pigeon just outside the Station

Saluting Balcony with Golden Lions

Saluting Balcony with Golden Lions

Our hotel, tucked away in a mixed commercial district had a saluting balcony and excellent breakfasts, which consisted of pancakes with bacon, scrambled eggs and Stroop. If your sweet tooth is not sated , then pastries, cakes and toast with hundreds and thousands follow (or precede), all washed down with cups of strong coffee.

Golden Lions

Golden Lions

Windmills at Kinderdijk

Windmills at Kinderdijke

Of course, there are windmills, at Kinderdijke; well-preserved ones too. I personally think that the Dutch leave them standing as a bit of a laugh for the tourists. Why? Because to get to them, you have to walk past a really impressive set of three Archimedes screws that keep the polder dry. Maybe, it’s just me.

Archimedes Screw doing the Heavy Lifting Work

Archimedes Screw doing the Heavy Lifting Work

The Dutch are the unrivaled masters of Whimsy and Kitsch. Walk into a park that could be somewhere in Lord Nobby Nobb’s English country mansion, were it not for the huge rubber ducky in the middle of the Lake, or an enameled tin palm tree in a pocket park. Note the protective fence to stop cows nibbling the trunk!

Rubber Ducky near the Zoo

Rubber Ducky near the Zoo


Enameled Palm

Enameled Palm

Then of course, there is Butt-plug gnome.

Cool Kid in Dordrecht

Cool Kid in Dordrecht

It only took Suzanne 48 hours to be Skyscrapered out, so we took the waterbus to Dordrecht and spent the day inside it’s medieval trace, watching a robot transcribing the first Dutch translation of The Bible, at the pace a monk would have done if he did it in one solid stretch without eating or sleeping. It was slow, relentless entertainment.

Robot Monk

Robot Monk

The lovely Mrs K’s instincts for a good cake shop, and mine for a quiet ramshackle corner bar did not desert us.

Lowlander Poorter

Lowlander Poorter tastes of liquorice and Vanilla

Dordrecht also has not one, but two Specialist Pirate Memory Game shops. This will only make sense to fans of Little Britain.

Specialist Pirate Memory Game Shop

Specialist Pirate Memory Game Shop

To be continued …

  1. YesthatPhil thinks that this post should have been called Rotterdammerung.


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Filed under Concrete Sniffing, Off Topic

Concrete Sniffing Along the Medway

Churchill AVLB

Churchill AVLB

The river Medway has a rich history for Naval enthusiasts and Concrete Sniffers alike. Suzanne is not averse to good-quality concrete, especially if it is mixed in with a decent walk and a meal. We started at Upnor Castle, which ticks all the boxes, having two good pubs nearby and a quaint Georgian street connecting them all. The castle is impressive and the dressing-up box is hidden safely away in a corner.

Churchill AVRE

Churchill AVRE

Upnor castle is famous for having failed to prevent the Dutch fleet from raiding Chatham Docks in 1667, and carrying off the Royal Charles. Fair do’s; we had ransacked the Dutch fleet previously and started all the grumpiness off by declaring the Navigation Act of 1651 in a move worthy of President Trump in full rant.

The Royal Engineers Museum is well worth a visit, and only 15 minutes away by car. It is well-laid out, the exhibits work and it is full of Stuff. The walls are information-dense, but that’s fine because military engineering is for grown-ups, and anyone having trouble reading the big words, is in the wrong museum¹. Notwithstanding, where else would do a Bank Holiday Bomb Disposal event? Cool! (Expecting an answer from Maj Tom Mouatt MBE here) 🙂

RE Diver

RE Diver

The other advantage of burying information on the walls in plain sight, is that it does not upset the rest of the Army: We learn that of the only two technical branches originally, (Sappers and Gunners), the top of the intake usually graduated into the Sappers. I was amused to find that in a specialist branch of the Army, my own specialities (Diving, Amphibious Engineering and Harrier Support) were buried away in the corners of the museum. It was somewhat unsettling to see events that I remember vividly to this day, reduced to a few dry lines and a black and white photograph containing familiar fresh faces from 36 years ago.

The sheer scale of the museum, from Gundulf², through the founding of military signalling, and aviation, the building of the Albert Hall and wars practically anywhere you can point to on the Globe, is overwhelming. Fifty five VCs and a long winding corridor stuffed full of medal drawers left me feeling rather numb.

Outside, the tank park is full of big toys, mostly with bridges on their backs or big shovels in front, or both. Sappers scorn long calibre 120mm guns, preferring bigger lumps of explosives and shorter barrels. The Churchill AVRE petard was not called a dustbin for nothing.

We stopped overnight in a very civilised YHA. No longer do you have to smuggle wine into your bunk room, but we did for old times sake.

Where Not to Stand When Firing

Where Not to Stand When Firing

Day two was a visit to Fort Amherst, the largest surviving Napoleonic artillery fort in Britain. It is a sprawling, multi-layered fort buried into the hillside.  The ramparts fight for air under creepers, trees and nettles. Volunteers are working hard to restore it to its former state, but we enjoyed the slightly run-down fin de siècle air of the place.

At the top of the Great Lines is the Naval Memorial for the Port of Chatham. Some interesting (to me) statistics:

Panels of memorials for WWI number 32 in total.

After 1915 when the Royal Naval Air Service was founded, a high proportion of officer casualties were from the RNAS, something to be expected from a service operating state-of-the-art bits of unpredictable wire, string and canvas over unforgiving seas.

Panels for WWII number 158 (+/-2, this from my memory after driving home)

1939 – 8, 1940 – 20, 1941 – 32, 1942 – 49, 1943 – 30, 1944 – 22, 1945 – 5, 1946 – 1, then a final panel with added dates for previous years (presumably missing confirmed dead). To me this highlighted the more global nature of WWII, and 1942 as the naval peak in activity.

Belvedere Heights at Fort Amherst

Belvedere Heights at Fort Amherst

We missed the official guided tunnel tour, but wandered in through a promising entrance at the level of Belvedere Heights (see the grey door in the middle right of the picture above). Coming back out, we were asked by a tourist party if they were allowed to go in³. I assured them that they were, and we beat a hurried retreat before they met the real guided party coming the opposite way. Note to self – don’t visit any more attractions in Chatham looking like a retired Sapper officer.  We ran out of time for a visit to the Naval Dockyards, but if you want a grand day out, then there is plenty to engage your interest in the Medway Towns.

  1. See Infantry, or Cavalry. If the RAF are feeling superior at this point, just remember that the Sappers started the Royal Flying Corps.
  2. Humphrey de Tilleul, William’s engineer, brought a pre fabricated fort across the Channel which he erected at Hastings after the battle with Harold. He was succeeded as King’s engineer by a monk named Gundulf, who later became Bishop of Rochester. Among Gundulf’s better known works are the Keep of the Tower of London and the Old Barbican.
  3. The Bishop of Peterborough told me that if his clergy ever asked if they were allowed to do something, he would say “no” on principle. I take the opposite view, as I believe that God has a sense of humour.


Filed under Concrete Sniffing

Concrete Sniffing in Vienna

Vienna was not intended to be concrete-sniffing holiday, but the  Die of Fate rolled and came up with a six. The lovely Mrs K (Suzanne) had booked us an apartment in a residential area between the Danube and the “Donau Kanal“, which meant that we were on a rather large island outside the old city walls, but near to the Augarten park and railway station. Our morning walk took us through the park and cafés into the city centre. We could have taken the tram, but then we would have missed this:

The Leittürme were smaller than the G-Türme!

Even Suzanne was impressed. We have both seen Flaktürme before in the Ruhr, and to find one looming unexpectedly over the trees in a park was a surprise. Then we walked around the corner and saw this:

It reminded me a little of the Emperor Dalek from the ’60s as it sat there with a squat malevolence that time had done nothing to diminish. Naturally, the locals had dialled it out of their mental landscape and only tourist such as ourselves gawked and photographed it.


This larger GefechtsTurm had come off second-best with time*, so part of the lower balcony had been removed post millenium, and steel cables girdled the structure, having pulled  the upper platform a good  metre or so out of alignment. The towers operated as a pair, with the L-Turm controlling fire for the G-Turm. Three such pairs protected Vienna in a triangle.

The Viennese, being pragmatic folk, have turned one Turm into a climbing wall, and another that sits rather inconveniently in the centre, into a Sealife Centre.

The rest of the holiday was filled with excellent Age of Enlightenment sights, food, and a concert in the Anna Kirche that need not concern us here, other than to say that Vienna is well worth a visit even without the concrete.

*And the attention of mischievous children,  who set fire to 2,000 flak rounds that still remained in the tower in 1946, the little scamps!


Filed under Concrete Sniffing, Off Topic, WWII

A Civil Day Out

Lawrence of Arabia Ambushes a Turkish Train in the Arab Revolt

Newark is a splendid place to spend an afternoon, with a plethora of small eating and drinking establishments, and the “National Civil War Museum”. In the same descriptive vein, NQM is the Nation’s “Most Comprehensive WW2 Wargame”.*

Lest this review sound as if the place is not worth a visit, I should hastily add that it is, but that what you find is an excellent local museum that covers the sieges of Newark, and sets it in the context of the English Civil War.** When we visited, a Lawrence of Arabia exhibition was on, which was fun. Who doesn’t love the film? 28mm Figure fans will enjoy the diorama of a train ambush.

Shifting Sands Exhibition Train Ambush 1

The museum exhibits give a good Royalist, town-centric view of the conflict, which is fine, because where else would you go to find out stuff about the sieges of Newark? There is also a rather nice exhibition regarding battlefield medicine and surgery, including an interactive exhibit that allows you to use a musket ball extractor on a suitably gory arm. The ball probably hit the brachial artery from its location! The claim that advances in medicine would not be equalled until WWI are overstated though, (anaesthesia in 1829, inoculation in 1796 and nursing in the Crimean War all spring to mind. Proper Anoraks can visit the two-room Museum of Anaesthesia at the Royal College of Anaesthetists opposite the BBC to have their senses thoroughly deadened.

As has been commentated on previously, by others; museums nowadays are interactive experiences to keep the kiddies happy, so we were in our element! Kiddies learn that armour is heavy, and the Governor’s mansion can be destroyed with one ranging shot and one shot for effect by a heavy gun that has digital sights. Adults are left wanting a more balanced view, and more stuff to look at. A diorama of one of the sieges shown on the website was not in evidence. Cromwell was the ghost in the building (Visit Huntingdon for the opposite treatment).

One of the interactive displays gave a good flavour of the shifting balance of power through the war(s) without detail such as town names. Chandler did it better with a few maps, without having to swat kids away that squeeze between you, aimlessly press a couple of buttons, then who wander off to the next exhibit that makes cannon-shot noises. This leaves you back at the default menu, trying to recover the events of 1643 on the interactive timeline.

Honestly, curators, having to press a touch screen to bring up pop-up boxes is not a good way to scan information, I do it for a living, so I have an opinion! We went on an uncrowded Sunday, a crowded one would have been worse. Information was there, if you took the time to read a lot of  typeface on boards in a relatively dimly lit main room (but I can do that in a book). It seemed to me that there was a disconnect between the hard information and the interactive stuff

My idea for an interactive display, is a set of stocks that lock for a pound a minute. Anyone can add coins when your child is in there. Proceeds to widows and orphans! In the Tudor Hall, Prince Rupert was holding forth in full cosplay; we gave him a miss. So, in summary, the museum is worth a visit if you are passing, but should be titled the “Civil War Sieges of Newark Museum“.


Newark Castle is also worth a visit – the river facade is impressive,  I expected it to feature more in the museum though. The river walk is pleasant, with pubs clustered around the town lock (what could possibly go wrong?) There is a nice micro brewery tucked away behind the riverfront, and an excellent teashop by the old post office behind the market square. We scoffed, quaffed, then came home.

*It isn’t.

** You are firmly corrected and told that they were the British Civil Wars, covering Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The NHS conducts this sort of rebranding exercise for fashionable diseases all the time.


Filed under 15mm Miniatures Wargames, Concrete Sniffing, Off Topic

Button Counting and Concrete Sniffing in the Netherlands

Extreme Mountain Biking in GelderlandCycling

Suzanne has long wanted to cycle on the Continent. Holland is civilized, cycle friendly, stuffed full of good restaurants and flat; so the choice of where to go was easy. Gelderland over on the East of Holland is not much visited by the British, which is puzzling, as the cycling is excellent. We hired two local Dutch cycles for the week, basing ourselves in LOCHEM.

We soon discovered that although we were reasonably cycle fit by UK standards,  grannies with panniers full of shopping kept overtaking us, and small children too (two to a bike with the pillion sitting on the cycle rack)! By the end of the week as we got the hang of the more relaxed Dutch gearing, the grannies were at least puffing a bit as they continued to tear past us on their way to their fit, active ’90s. The area has a well-marked network of cycle tracks with excellent signage. Junctions are numbered and all route signs point towards  the relevant junction number.

A Typical Forest Cycle Route in GelderlandCycle Helmets are not CompulsaryThe Cycle Path is on the Left

On larger roads, cyclists have their own lanes that they share with mopeds and mobility scooters, but not motorbikes. Some suburban streets are marked up as cycle streets with “cars as guests”. Drivers seem more patient than in Britain. All in all, your chances of being taken out by a 40 tonner are far lower than in the UK.

Cycle Friendly Street in Holland

“Yes, yes,” you say, “but what about the button counting?”

Button Counting

In the area that we stayed, it was the custom for various princely estates to display their colours on the wooden shutters. The inner button counter in me was not sufficiently diverted from Grolsch* beer to collect the full set, but here are some to give a flavour:

Heraldic Window Shutters in LochemEstate house displaying Livried window shuttersThe Dutch have a cheerful attitude to souping up carsLuchtmuseum

I can confirm from original source material that Trebian’s Gnome Army uniforms are 100% accurate. Expect an Osprey to follow. This little fellow is just outside Holland’s largest Maze (which is very small and neat).

Primary Research for Peter Pig's Gnome Army

Concrete Sniffing

LOCHEM is the site of a lesser-known 43rd Wessex Division Memorial. Their main one is on Hill 112 at CAEN. I had not realised, or gone looking for, the connection to the Sherwood Foresters in St Mary’s church Bottesford, where I grew up

43rd Wessex Division Monument in LOCHEM43rd Wessex Division Monument in LOCHEM - Subunits

The Open Air Museum just to the north of ARNHEM is well worth a visit**. We drove along the RHENE, contemplating just how miserable a swim would have been on an autumn night. After an overnight stop in OTTERLO, site of the last large battle in Holland, we visited the Kröller-Müller sculpture park and its collection of bizarre and often baffling sculptures. General de Wet’s statue lives here on a sandy heath in the Hoge Veluwe National Park***.

On our way home, we stopped overnight in GORINGCHEM, another throat-clearing town that still has a medieval town plan and a Vauban style trace****.The picture below illustrates how low the earthen glacis is. It runs from the right of the gate across the base of the windmill. Missing are the willows or poplars that would have been planted on the glacis to stabilise it, then have been cut down to make gabions in an emergency. Sight lines have been eroded since the 18th century.

The City Walls of GORINGCHEM

GORINGCHEM is slap in the middle of the ‘new’ Hollandse Waterlinie, an 85km long defensive area some 3-5km deep combining defensive works and planned inundations. In deference to Chris Ager and Airfix, I posed in front of a cannon. Concrete sniffing accomplished, we came home.

Cannon on the City Wall at Goringchem

Language Notes

Hallo is the universal greeting. After that it gets difficult very quickly!

Asking politely “Spreekt U Engelsk?” usually elicited the response “a liddle bit,” followed by excellent English. The best response was in a seafront restaurant at the Hook of Holland: “Of course, I went to school.”

Advice is to speak English. German and French are less popular  even though German is well understood on the eastern border. Several times people would come up to us to enquire if we were lost as we consulted our map, and we were always at pains to thank them.

Bizarrely, one local told us (in relatively halting English) that he was a retired German teacher. Bizarrely, because he had taken me for German initially, and I had asked him in German where the cycle route out of town was. He quickly worked out that I was not a native German speaker and flipped over to English out of politeness, even though his German was much easier to understand.

My attempts at speaking Dutch were met by bafflement and the encouraging cheerfulness that adults display when children are trying hard. I like the Dutch and plan to continue my assault on their beer and language in equal measure.

Concrete Sniffing Accomplished!

* to pronounce the ‘G‘ imagine a Scottish lo’CH‘ starting with a silent G and finishing with all the phlegm in your throat nicely cleared. The ‘sch‘ comes out as a long ‘sss‘. Pointing also works!

** ARNHEM was a bridge too far for us to fit in as well. The open air museum only qualifies as a concrete sniff by virtue of the memorial for refugees evacuated from the museum during the war. It is home to the National Airline Sick Bag Collection  however. This is housed in the ceiling of a replica airline cabin. I really am not making this up – look, here’s a picture. Unmissable!

The Dutch National Airline Sick Bag Collection

*** de Wet, one of the ones that trounced us in the Boer War. Moving swiftly on …

**** Pronounced gCHorCH’m by the locals. Have a cough drop after getting it right!


Filed under Concrete Sniffing, Off Topic