Engines of Change
Lord of the Hrungs
Editor Simon Denison
The Defence of Britain Project, now complete, has revolutionised our understanding of Britain's wartime defences. Simon Denison reports
The enduring image of Britain's home guard defences during World War II remains that of 'Dad's Army' - an amateurish and uncoordinated operation staffed largely by old men and incompetents; in short, a joke.
To some extent the image from the classic 1970s tv series fairly reflects Britain's lack of preparedness for hostilities in June 1940. But by the middle of 1941 the British mainland was nothing short of a fortress. The overriding outcome of the CBA's seven-year Defence of Britain project, which ended earlier this year, has been to show how thoroughly and effectively this country was fortified by quite an early stage in the war. The 'Dad's Army' image is a false one: had German forces managed to cross the channel in 1941, they would have found their passage blocked at every turn.
The Defence of Britain project has revolutionised our understanding of Britain's wartime defences partly because so little academic research had previously been carried out on them. To many archaeologists, the remains of World War II were too recent to be of much interest, while individual sites such as pillboxes, spigot mortar positions and anti-tank cubes were regarded by planners as eyesores to be removed at any opportunity.
The credit for changing popular and official attitudes towards these decaying monuments belongs to the small army of about 600 volunteers who walked or cycled thousands of miles to make field records of surviving remains. Much of the fieldwork was done during winter, as the lack of leaf and undergrowth cover revealed many sites that might otherwise have been missed. During summer, by contrast, many sites lie thickly camouflaged, particularly those on private land.
An aim of the Defence of Britain project was to record not only what survives today, but also as much as possible of what was built but no longer survives. So in addition to fieldwork, many site locations were gathered from published sources, air photographs, original documents, and oral testimony. The result has been the compilation of an impressive database of 20th century military sites which, although necessarily incomplete, is the first of its kind. In all, it holds records of 19,555 individual sites, divided between anti-invasion defence sites (13,777) and other types of military site (5,778). Of these, 17,434 are in England (12,464 anti-invasion); 737 in Wales (551 anti-invasion); 1,185 in Scotland (686 anti-invasion); and 199 in Northern Ireland (76 anti-invasion).
The best known and most readily identified type of anti-invasion defence structure is the ubiquitous pillbox. Roughly 28,000 are thought to have been built in Britain during the Second World War, and the project recorded 7,951 examples - of which about 6,000 survive, 47 of them dating from the First World War. Only 1,000 are recorded as being in 'good' condition.
The 5,778 'other' (not anti-invasion) types of military site on the database include, among other categories of site, 62 army camps, 75 prisoner-of-war camps, 780 air-raid shelters, 280 anti-aircraft batteries, 143 firing ranges, 158 decoy sites, 13 D-Day embarkation hards, 1,093 Royal Observer Corps sites, 124 radar stations, 68 sites connected with us forces, 145 searchlight batteries, and 95 military hospitals. A distribution map shows a very even spread of these sites across the British landscape.
According to Andrew Saunders, a historian of pre-20th century military fortifications and chairman of the project's steering group, the Defence of Britain database offers scholars 'huge potential for research' because it shows, for the first time, how all the many individual, unusual surviving structures in the landscape fitted into the overall defensive scheme. 'We can now see how complex the whole interlocking process was,' he said.
This has been achieved by linking each anti-invasion site (for which the information was available) to the 'strategic group' of which it formed a part in 1940-41 - for example the Taunton Stop Line, the RAF Biggin Hill defences, or the Worcester anti-tank island. In all, 869 strategic groups have been identified - but even this large figure represents just a fraction of the complex wartime arrangement.
The intensity of the militarisation of the British landscape in the Second World War, as revealed by the Defence of Britain project, cannot be over-emphasised. There was not one square foot of the UK that was not included in some military or civil defence scheme, according to the project's final report, written by database and archives manager William Foot. Roads were blocked, fields were strewn with obstacles, bridges were mined, factories, railways, airfields, and ports were protected, towns and villages the length and breadth of the country bristled with fortifications and with troops and weapons to man them.
It has been claimed that fortified defence lines, supported by defence in depth, were an outmoded concept in the face of a warfare of movement. In fact, according to the project report, this strategy was employed throughout the war, in particular by the Germans in the Italian and North-West European campaigns. The aim was not to stop the advancing forces entirely, but to make them pause and go elsewhere while reserves were brought up. It was a strategy that made military sense.
Across the country, new light has been shed on the way regional defences were organised. Worcestershire, for example, has long been regarded as something of a military backwater. Yet according to county archaeologist Malcolm Atkin, the project has revealed powerful defensive stop lines along the rivers Severn and Teme with towns like Worcester defended as anti-tank islands. Documentary research arising out of the project suggests also that Worcester was being prepared as a potential 'last resort' to hold against an invading German army. 'Plans were laid to move the Royal Family and the Government to a number of big houses in this area,' he said.
Mick Wilks, a Defence of Britain volunteer fieldworker and joint author (with Bernard Lowry) of a new book on the resistance preparations in the West Midlands (The Mercian Maquis, Logaston Press 2002), points out that the German invasion route is typically seen as coming from the South and South-East, across the English Channel. The new fieldwork around Worcester shows, instead, that an assault on the Birmingham and Black Country armaments factories was expected from the West, through Wales, via neutral Ireland. 'We found that all the defences on the Severn stop line pointed West,' he said.
Across the country, evidence from individual sites provides intriguing glimpses into how structures were originally used. Discoveries include surviving camouflage, vernacular building materials (often themselves used for camouflage), original furnishings such as gun mounts and supports, field telephones, or shutters to the firing embrasures, and even Second World War graffiti.
A number of pillboxes carry the scars of gun fire - probably the results of training exercises, or of tests of the effectiveness of British weapons against equivalent German structures. The project report records a pillbox near Hazelrigg in Northumberland, for example, where bullets are still embedded in the walls, and in the Sulham valley in Berkshire a massive anti-tank gun emplacement has been struck by a shell which nearly penetrated the reinforced concrete.
The project has also revealed a number of modern use of structures - as stores, bat sanctuaries, summer houses, animal pens, foundations for navigation beacons, cricket sight screens, ponds (spigot mortar pits), golf course tees (buried pillboxes), a pub cellar, a life guard hut, a fish smokery, an electricity sub-station, an ice-cream kiosk, a public lavatory (battery engine house), a bandstand base, a children's play pit, an incinerator, and a boat mooring post (spigot mortar pedestal). As the project report notes, the list could be 'almost as endless as the pursuits of man, finding himself in sudden possession of a well-built concrete structure, left by a now unconcerned military conveniently adjacent to house and property.'
Numerous stories have also been recorded about events taking place at pillboxes and other military structures, many of which lie overgrown in remote locations, and thus provide ideal sites for misdeeds. A pillbox near Folkestone, now destroyed, was the scene of the murder of a 16-year-old boy by a soldier in the 1950s. The body of a woman was found in a pillbox in the Wirral, also in the 1950s. The perpetrator was never caught. About 1970, another woman's body was found in an overgrown pillbox near Falmouth. In 1996, a further tragedy occurred when a young woman crashed her car into a pillbox at Selston in Nottinghamshire and was killed.
Other stories listed in the project report reflect some of the more dismal aspects of modern society. A pillbox in Leicestershire was used to store stolen goods. Many structures are vandalised and sprayed with graffiti. A pillbox near Paignton was used 'by drunks and druggies', according to the volunteer who recorded it, as was a pillbox in Suffolk until bricked up by the local council. The recorders of a pillbox near Grantham in Lincolnshire found evidence of solvent abuse and reported the site to the police.
Protestors against the widening of the A12 near Colchester occupied several pillboxes, even digging tunnels through the concrete floors. At Studland in Dorset, a pillbox had been used by voyeurs to spy on the nearby nudist beach. It was subsequently demolished. Many pillboxes also appear to have been used as rendezvous for amorous adventures - or so the graphic descriptions on the internal walls would have us believe.
Britain's defences in the Second World War were unprecedented in scale, but nonetheless form part of a continuing tradition of fortification in the landscape. This is revealed most clearly when modern defensive structures were inserted directly into ancient fortifications - often for good reasons of landscape command and camouflage. They were built into castles, abbeys, round barrows, Iron Age forts, chambered tombs, fogues, martello towers, and windmills.
Research has shown that the curator of Richborough Castle during the war regarded an anti-aircraft battery positioned within the monument as just the latest addition to 2,000 years of fortification, and any damage caused was justified on those grounds. In Folkestone, a pillbox was built into a Bronze Age tumulus. The central inhumation was destroyed.
The Defence of Britain project has not only advanced our knowledge, but has also underpinned the conservation of 20th century defensive sites. An assessment of the condition of surviving structures formed an integral part of the fieldwork, and no fewer than 1,510 sites were identified as under threat. Many were overgrown by trees and other vegetation. Other threats included spray-can vandalism, coastal erosion and building development. Sites continue to be lost.
However, the project has begun to check the rate of destruction by raising the profile of military sites in official circles. According to Doreen Grove, Historic Scotland's advisor to the project, several museums in Scotland are now staging exhibitions on defensive structures, and many local authorities have begun to take account of them in their local strategic plans. 'There has been a measurable change in attitudes,' she said.
The next stage will be the granting of statutory protection to certain sites. Information is now available to enable heritage agencies to assess the value of individual sites, and to select the most important for permanent preservation.
Simon Denison is the Editor of British Archaeology. The report of the project, from which much of the information in this article is drawn, will be published later this year.
For further information online, see www.britarch.ac.uk/projects/dob
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005