On your trips out and about, do you sometimes spot random stuff – lumps of concrete, bits of iron, abandoned huts and sheds, strange buildings in the middle of nowhere and whatnot – and idly wonder what they are? Buildings that don’t look terribly old, but which aren’t in the first flush of youth, either. Stuff that seems abandoned, unused, and likely to be demolished or carted away as soon as someone can get around to it?
These aren’t the well-documented historic heaps and monuments – National Trust, or English Heritage sites – where their grand history is known and celebrated. No, I mean the lumps of stone and concrete and metal and rubble you stumble across, with no easy explanations as to why they’re there.
If you’re lucky, maybe there’s an obscure information board, or a clue on a map. But if you’re less fortunate, you have to start digging through the reference books and the records.
I stumbled across a number of such unusual fabrications over the past few months, and started to delve. And I realised that so many of these unheralded remains are leftovers from the second world war. Since the war was fought overseas, I’d not expected to find so much evidence of wartime activity on British soil.
“We will never surrender”
What I’d not taken into account was how real and imminent the threat of invasion was at the beginning of the war. We know the outcome, so it’s hard to imagine our parents and grandparents fear and uncertainty facing an apparently invincible German army, intent on total victory.
We all know Churchill’s iconic speech around the time of the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940, rallying a people and preparing them for invasion – and action…”we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields…”
Understanding how real that threat of invasion was helps make sense of the preparations the government made to defend the country.
“We shall fight on the beaches”
After the debacle at Dunkirk, Britain was left with an army in tatters, and little in the way of weaponry – most of it abandoned in France. With invasion expected, the government built compartmentalised defences that would give the army more time to remobilise. If any single part of the segregated defences fell to an invading army, the other sections had the chance to hold out, to give enough time to regroup, re-arm and fight back.
First, coastal defences all around the island of Britain were beefed up. Especially on the east coast, the nearest point to mainland Europe. It’s low, flat and open: easy pickings for enemy tanks. That’s why you see so many pillboxes on the beaches, especially around the coast in East Anglia. Pillboxes held between 6 and 20 armed men and had an inner wall, to protect against blasts from grenades.
The Essex Lozenge
Many are gradually being reclaimed by the sea, but there are still plenty around the coast. My adopted county even had its own unique design of pillbox, the Essex Lozenge. Its multi-sided design was ideal to command panoramic views around the county’s flat, mud-filled estuaries.
Hand in hand with pillboxes, beaches were heavily mined. If you walk on any beach in the south or east, chances are that it was mined during the war. Almost 2,000 coastal sites were laid with around 350,000 mines. A staggering number. They were laid during a race against time, so although the minefields were carefully cordoned off and their locations recorded, mistakes happened through haste.
There are reports of sheep and cows breaking through the cordons and being blown up. Inaccurate site records caused problems after the war, with the painstaking job of carefully neutralising and retrieving the mines. Tragically, many Royal Engineers – and civilians – lost their lives during the clear-up operations. Some mines had shifted with the movement of mud and sand, and so not all could be found and retrieved. There are probably many more out there – some beaches are still out of bounds. And residents of Southend-on-Sea are resigned to their beaches being cordoned off every few years or so, when yet another explosive device is exposed by winds and tides. Don’t go hunting for them, though.
“We shall fight in the fields and in the streets”
What if the enemy managed to penetrate the coastal defences and make their way inland? That’s where the compartmentalisation kicks in, with 50 “Stop Lines” constructed. The General Headquarters, or GHQ line, was the longest, designed to protect London. It ran across the country from Highbridge in Somerset, along the line of the Kennet and Avon canal. Skirting the south of London, it then ran along the northern bank of the Thames to Canvey Island. The line then headed due north, ending at the Humber in Yorkshire.
Pillboxes were built along the length of the GHQ line. That’s why you can still find so many pillboxes across fields, inland. If you spy a line of multiple pillboxes, you’re looking at the straight path of the defence line they followed. As an idea of magnitude, there were originally 400 pillboxes alone on the GHQ line in Essex on its journey north from Canvey, through to the county border with Suffolk at Great Chesterford. There’s still around 100 of that 400 still in place.
What if the enemy managed to make their way through the GHQ lines, and advanced towards the towns? “Dragons’ teeth” provided the last inland line of defence. This was the nickname of anti-tank installations, generally made of concrete, sunk into the ground. You can still see them scattered around the country, and you might wonder what on earth these random concrete lumps were used for.
The modest remnants of a set are still there, just south of the city of Chelmsford. There’s a really impressive set in Horsham in Surrey, intended to disrupt any invasion attempts on London from invasions along the south coast.
An aside: Czech Hedgehogs…
Interestingly, you find updated versions of dragons teeth in more modern warfare. “Czech hedgehogs” were anti-tank devices made of metal, so easily transportable. Originally used during the Allies’ advance in the Second World War, I recently read on Twitter that they’re currently being re-deployed by the Ukraine army, to deter Russian tanks.
…and Fresian horses
To prove that nothing’s new under the sun, the Romans used the Calthrop, not to stop tanks of course, but to impede the advance of the enemy’s cavalry. Similar in design to Czech hedgehogs, they’re small, easily portable, and lethally effective. When you threw them, they invariably landed point up. But it didn’t stop with the Romans…
In mediaeval Europe, you’ll find the cheval de frise, or Fresian horse. This was a series of spikes set onto a wooden frame, again used to stop cavalry. Similar devices were used as sea defences, to stop the advance of enemy ships. For example, during the American War of Independence, cheval de frise were planted in the Delaware River, to stop the advance of the enemy’s ships – the enemy being the British, of course.
The Shoebury Boom
We used a quite different form of river defence during the war. The Boom at Shoeburyness was a defence built to prevent German submarines from navigating up the River Thames to attack London. Originally, it stretched across to Sheerness in Kent. The first mile was a fence, the remainder a net hung from cables and chains which could be raised and lowered to let friendly shipping pass. The net part is now dismantled, but the fence still reaches around a mile offshore. It’s interesting to see that it’s not that tall in height – evidence for just how shallow the Thames estuary is.
There’s remnants of similar booms in other coastal locations like Plymouth, and on the Solent.
“We shall fight on the landing grounds”
Let’s return to the 1940s and the challenges of war. It wasn’t only a land-based invasion that threatened. The Luftwaffe of course attacked from the air. So a key part of the country’s defence strategy was to try to shoot down enemy aircraft – before they could reach their targets and drop bombs. The best plan was to try and destroy them before they even penetrated inland, and so you’ll come across old emplacements for anti-aircraft guns – or “Ack-Ack” guns, as my parents’ generation called them – all around the coastline.
Enemy planes came mostly at night, and we needed to locate them. Strong searchlights swept the skies, pinpointing the enemy aircraft. Here’s an old searchlight station, still standing, just behind a gun emplacement, at Shoeburyness.
But emplacements along the beaches were not sufficient. By the time the enemy planes were spotted, any that evaded the Ack-Acks would have reached their targets long before the RAF stations in the south could get fighter planes airborne.
The Maunsell forts
The solution was to place anti-aircraft stations out at sea. An impressive example of this is the series of Maunsell Forts, several miles out, in the mouth of the Thames Estuary, named after their designer, civil engineer Guy Maunsell. These were set up to confront the Luftwaffe planes flying towards London and using the Thames as a “signpost”.
Not only could the servicemen deployed on the forts try to shoot down the enemy planes, but by sighting them earlier than the coastal stations, they gained vital minutes in getting the message of an attack to the RAF.
The forts, redundant and rusting, still tower impressively on submerged sandbanks in the shallow waters of the estuary. They’re now deserted, other than a few nesting peregrine falcons. If you’re so inclined, you can visit them on a 3 hour trip from the sea end of Southend pier.
On the return trip from the forts, the skipper might take you past the site of the US-built liberty ship SS Richard Montgomery. In 1944, due to a piloting error, it drifted onto a sandback in the Thames, near to Sheerness in Kent, and got stuck. As the tide receded, the ship broke up and sank. Unfortunately, it was carrying 1,400 tonnes of explosives for delivery to Chatham, most of which are still in the wreck.
Even after almost 80 years, the explosives are still viable. If they detonate, it will be very bad news to residents in towns on both sides of the estuary. At the very least windows will break, and unstable structures may well tumble. Shrapnel from any explosion could even reach my part of Essex, which is around 15 miles away.
So we circled Montgomery with some trepidation, on the day of our trip to the Manusell forts. You can’t see much from outside the exclusion zone, other than parts of the masts, depending on the tide. But a salvage company has now taken the contract to first dismantle the masts, and then to try and safely extract the explosives – using remote robots, I hasten to add.
Rosie the Riveter
Incidentally, liberty ships have an interesting story. They were built mostly by women in the US, as part of the war effort. Like the SS Montgomery, many broke apart under stress, and blame fell on the women workers. To their indignation, their skills at welding were assumed to be inferior to men’s.
It was only after an in-depth investigation that the true reason emerged. The ship design was flawed. The new design used welds, causing excessive stress on key joints, as opposed to more traditional riveting. Also, the windows were designed square, rather than traditional round ships windows. This made them more prone to stress, and liable to crack . Rosie the Riveter was vindicated.
“Per ardua ad astra”
The last piece of the country’s defence jigsaw was the airforce. The job of the RAF was not only to destroy incoming bombers, but to launch counterattacks against the enemy in their own territories. This made our airfields a key target for the Luftwaffe. Their aim was to destroy both airfields and planes, to render the RAF helpless.
So airfields had to set up defences too – emplacements for Ack-Acks to target enemy planes, and pillboxes, to defend against invading soldiers. And what’s surprising is that much evidence of these defences are still visible.
Hornchurch Country Park in Essex, for example, stands on the site of the old RAF Hornchurch airfield, which played a key part in the Battle of Britain. The broad avenues between the trees are actually the old runways. On a walk around the park you can spot emplacements and pillboxes, as well as an emergency control hub, much of it built underground.
There’s also the rare remains of a “Tett’s Turret”. These were one-man structures, from which a soldier could fire at the advancing enemy, with at least some protection.
Hiding in plain sight
This has been a brief tour around the many remnants of the last war which I spotted and photographed, over a three or four month period. I found the first almost by accident, and then I went looking for others – and there they were. There’s inevitably many more, around wherever you live, if you care to look. That’s not even taking into account the Anderson shelters, the POW camps, the military hospitals dotted around – that’s for another post.
There’s even societies of like-minded folk, who photograph and catalogue their finds. Like the Face Book Pillbox Study Group, worth a visit if you’re interested – they cover a lot more than pillboxes. I hope that I’ve tempted you to look closer and ask the question: “what is that, and why is it there?”. The answer could be more intriguing than you’d think.