The Bay Museum is a friendly museum situated on Canvey Island. Based in a degaussing station, it now offers a wealth of artefacts, books and displays focussing on Military history. Open from 10am till 4pm, the museum also organises trips to France and Belgium to experience the battlefields first hand. The museum is run by volunteers who always warmly welcome visitors and are never short of a war story!
EVENTS LEADING UP TO THE GREAT WAR
The Franco-Prussian War, of 1871, ended with the defeat of France, who was forced to hand over her Eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. This war was the prelude to a period of hostility in Europe that was to last until the end of the Second World War in 1945. In the European summer of 1914, two great European alliances found themselves in a state of fury against each other. The initial main protagonists were Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the one side, and France, the British Empire and Russia on the other. Against the backdrop of plumed and helmeted Emperors and Generals, both sides possessed, by way of machine guns and high explosive artillery, weapons of terrible destruction. The origins of this war lay in the complicated cocktail of greed, fears, prejudices and misunderstandings of the early 1900’s. In 1914, Europe was still widely perceived as the financial, cultural and political centre of the world. The major European powers, however, were engaged in an arms race. Each was trying to acquire colonial possessions in the under-developed world.
In the late 19th Century, Bismarck had forged modern Germany out of a collection of smaller nation states and in doing so had upset the balance of power in Europe. Using her strengthening industrial power, she had built up both an army and navy of formidable size and capability. The two former players, France and Russia, concerned at Germany’s intentions formed a defensive alliance in 1894. Great Britain, alarmed at the German navy’s potential threat to the British domination of the world’s shipping routes aligned herself with France, whose fear of German aggression was nourished by her yearning for the return of the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Russia, with its population of 125 million had a vast resource of manpower and massive landmasses, but she lacked the technological skills and an industrialised state. In 1879, Germany and Austria-Hungary had signed the dual alliance to help each other should the other be attacked.
Within this background of alliances stood two faltering empires, the glories of the Turkish Empire, now widely recognised as the sick man of Europe, were already only a memory. The Austro-Hungarian Empire consisted of a ramshackle collection of states in the South of Europe. Austria-Hungary was particularly suspicious of the independent country of Serbia, who she saw as the effective leader of an international Slav terrorist movement. This was fermenting unrest between the 23 million Serbs living in the Empires’ territory. By 1914, the tensions in Europe had reached a dangerous level and, the very alliances, formed to protect the peace, now sucked the great nations of Europe into war.
Now we must turn to the Balkans. The Turkish Empire was disintegrating, and Russia confronted Austria-Hungary, the ally of Germany, the other power seeking to move into her area of interest. Here in this cauldron, with their different nationalities, religions, and languages, an incident in a city called Sarajevo set alight the tinderbox and the world went to war. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the nephew and heir of Emperor Franz Joseph who had ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire since 1848. Ferdinand had chosen the 28th June 1914 to visit Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, and a part of his uncles’ empire. In Sarajevo that day, several young revolutionaries had come for assassinating the Archduke. One of these, a 19-year-old tuberculoid student called Gavrillo Principp was sitting in a café when the Archdukes’ car took a wrong turning and had to reverse back past him. Principp, seizing this historic opportunity fired two shots at 5 yards range, killing both the Archduke and his wife Sophie. These two fatal shots were the opening salvo of the Great War.
THE EVE OF WAR
In 1879, Germany and Austria-Hungary had signed a dual alliance to help each other should either be attacked. In 1894 France, Russia and Great Britain signed the triple alliance in the event of war with Germany.
On the 28th June, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in the city of Sarajevo.
All the combatant powers saw military action as the natural extension of diplomacy. With the exception of Great Britain, all the major European powers had large conscripted armies. A spirit of fierce nationalism and xenophobia was abroad. Events now took on a momentum of their own. Austria-Hungary took the pretext to punish Serbia for her assumed prediction to terrorism. She obtained Germany’s assurance that she would support her if attacked by Russia, whose inclination was to come to the aid of any fellow Slav country that was threatened. On the 23rd July, Austria-Hungary delivered a ten-point ultimatum to Serbia, whom she assumed would find unacceptable. Serbia was given only two days to reply and much to general surprise accepted eight of the points and asked the remaining two to be referred to the Court Of The Haig for arbitration.
In Britain, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey suggested that the issue could be resolved at the conference table, but his mediation proposals were only given halfhearted support by Berlin and not taken up by Vienna. France and Russia, as well as Germany and Austria-Hungary, now tried to convince Grey to declare Britain’s position if a European war were to result from the crisis. Both sides hoped their hand would be strengthened with a clear declaration that it would either fight on the side of the Entente or remain neutral. However, Britain, preoccupied with the Irish question, refused until the very end of July to commit to its allies. In the crucial last days of July, Britain’s decision makers were torn between the fear of either Germany or Russia winning a war on the continent. It would have had grave consequences for Britain if Russia had managed to win without Britain’s support. However, if Germany had won, Britain would have faced a Germany-dominated Europe. Grey was placed in a quandary until Serbia had responded to the ultimatum.
This conciliatory reply, by Serbia, found no favour with Austria-Hungary, who began to mobilise her armies. On the 28th July Austria- Hungary declared war on Serbia and started to shell Belgrade. On 31st July, Russia began to mobilise, on the same day, Germany, desperate to act before the full effect of Russian involvement became operational, demanded that Russia recall her troops. At the same time, Germany asked France what she would do in the event of a German/Russian war. Frances’ reply was to mobilise her reservists on the 1st August. The German fighting machine had already begun to move. On the 2nd August, she over-ran Luxemburg. The Kaiser had asked the Belgian King for permission to send his troops through Belgium into France. The king refused. Ignoring this Royal refusal, German troops crossed the frontier into Belgium on the 4th August, and on the same day Great Britain, who had guaranteed Belgium neutrality, declared war on Germany. The general expectation on both sides was the war would be over by Christmas. There were, however, to be very nearly five Christmas Days before these Christian nations were to end their mutual slaughter.
The Germans, fearful of having to fight a war on both her Eastern and Western fronts had planned to deliver a massive right hook through Belgium into the heart of France to Paris, and knock France out of the war before Russia could mobilise her forces. The way would then be clear for Germany to turn her full attention to the Eastern Front with Russia. The French also had a plan, just the one that Germany had hoped they would make. It involved a predictable advance into Alsace and Lorraine, where the Germans intended to hold the French while they encircled them from the North.
The British Expeditionary Force had landed and concentrated in France by the 13th August. It numbered a mere 100,000 men, a fraction of the 1.5 million troops launched into France by the Germans, and the 2 million French soldiers who the British fought alongside. British troops numbered less than the 117,000 troops in the Belgian army.
At the time the British, alone among the great European powers had no conscripted armies. Although she had the most powerful navy in the world, her regular army numbered less than 250,000 men plus about 480,000 reservists and territorials. As the war developed, she had to undertake the Herculean task of expanding the army, the weapons and supplies to meet the vast military commitment of the Great War.
On Sunday the 25th August, 2013, a plaque was unveiled in the museum to commemorate Cpl Bill Sparks D.C.M., by local dignitaries including the Mayor of Castle Point. Many local councillors were in attendance.
Bill Sparks was one of two survivors, alongside Major ‘Blondie’ Hasler, amongst ten men who embarked on ‘Operation Frankton’. These commandos set out with collapsible canoes to plant mines on German ships in Bordeaux, canoeing through miles of water, in the black of the night, to the dock. Many canoes capsized, leaving the men to swim as a death sentence, whilst others were caught and executed by Germans. Only one canoe reached the target containing the two survivors. However, the men were only told what this suicide entailed after they had embarked on the HMS Tuna with the canoes on board.
Bill Sparks retired to Canvey Island in 1971, during his later life, because it was near the sea so he could practice canoeing, which had become a hobby of his. He lived initially in a council estate down Maple Way.
On Sunday 25th August 2013 at 13.00 hours the Mayor of Castle Point will unveil a plaque to commemorate Cpl Bill Sparks D.C.M. a former resident of Canvey Island. In attendance will be Councillors and local dignitaries. All members of the public are welcome to attend this ceremony.
From Sunday 12th of August onwards, BeyondthePoint.co.uk (creators of this website, who research and explore local historical remnants) are displaying an exhibition on Canvey’s history, through time. However, it focuses on what’s left of our history, and what you can go and see yourself. Covering everything from Upper Horse Island – a Roman Fort, to nuclear and wartime bunkers, even covering the illusive history of Canvey’s oil refinery which could have been, covering one fith of the Island’s land-mass. Featuring archeological finds, intricate models, and plenty of information and images, this new look on your island is an unmissable exhibition. The Museum is open every Sunday, with the display located to the left of the upstairs balcony door, so come and see it for yourself.
A plaque has been placed in the museum to remember the extraordinary and daring pilot Norman Lees, who served with some very important feats. He died in a spitfire crash at the Goodwood festival twelve years ago. Below is an image of the plaque to the left of the museum entrance, and an image of the Castle Point Mayor Jackie Govier unveiling it. A display of memorabilia dedicated to him can be seen in the museum for a short time too.
The Bay Museum was a Cold War defense building, planned and built from 1962-1963, as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which almost concluded with a nuclear missile exchange between NATO (USA, Britian, Canada, and other European countries) and the Soviet Union, today Russia and the surrounding part of Eastern Europe. With this incredibly close call, many nuclear defences were reinforced, and many more were added, such as Canvey Degaussing Range Station.
The DG Station would have sent out a wire loop out to the middle of the Thames, which still remains somewhere on the seabed to this day. A piece of the wire is on display in the museum itself. There would have been two of these loops, which would have ended at the Station wired up to surveillance equipment. These loops would have been used to pick up electrical signals caused by magnetism from passing ships. In the Second World War, magnetically-detonated mines were placed around the English shoreline (especially the Thames and other docks) by the Germans, which would detonate if a ship passed over one, interrupting its magnetic field, causing it to be set-off, creating devastating underwater shock-waves for ships. The DG Station, or ‘Canvey Loop’ as sometimes known, would have monitored to see if passing ships had a device (electrified wire loop) wrapped around them to demagnetize the ships and therefore make them immune to magnetic underwater mines. The ships co-ordinates would be measured from a range-finder on the balcony, plus other equipment inside, and marked for needing a ‘de-mag’ device to be fitted. As the Cold War never turned hot and no magnetic mines were emplaced by the Soviets, the station was never used, although still fully kitted out and put on standby by the MOD.
In the Cold War, both magnetic mines left over from WW2, and ‘to be deployed’ magnetic mines by Communist states/Soviet Russia, were a threat. Therefore the Degaussing Stations were constructed – not that many exist in the UK, and still just a few exist in the USA. The Bay Museum is undoubtedly the most suspicious and suitably-fashioned station in the country, with others simply being maybe an old house. One other can be seen in the walls of Coalhouse Fort, in Tilbury – a fort which saw dominant fortification in WW2.