John Hellis, 14th September 2010
World War 2 and Somerset's part in it
As the nation remembered the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, our first speaker of the new programme reminded us of some of the other crucial events of that pivotal year. John Hellis has made a particular study of the defences that were set in place to counter the possibility of a German land invasion. Fortunately this event never took place, but John left us in no doubt that it would have produced acts of heroism equal in scale to those of RAF Fighter Command.
The background to the story was the situation in which Britain found itself after the evacuation of the Allied Forces from Dunkirk. Operation Dynamo, as it was known, was completed by 4 June 1940. Although more than 338,000 Allied soldiers were rescued, the losses of vehicles, guns and supplies were enormous.
The day after Operation Dynamo was set in motion, General Edmund Ironside, Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, was placed in command of the anti-invasion defences. Given the dire shortage of equipment he devised a static defensive system, based on a network of fortified lines of concrete pillboxes and other associated features. Highbridge in Somerset was the starting point for the Taunton Stop Line which ran south to Seaton and also for the GHQ Line which ran eastwards towards London.
The Taunton Stop Line was intended to contain any invasion from the southwest. Although the southeast might have been a more obvious target it was necessary to cover all eventualities and the South West peninsula would have had many advantages for an invader. After all, four years later Operation Overlord was to take the less obvious route through Normandy.
The main feature of the Taunton Stop Line was the pillboxes of which there were hundreds located at intervals of about three hundred yards. Tactically viewed as "stationary tanks", they were mostly machine-gun emplacements, later reinforced by 13 Defensive Islands, which allowed the line to be reinforced if breached.
The scale of the building operation can be judged by the fact that in a period of three months, between July and September 1840, somewhere between 18 and 20 thousand pillboxes were built. Each weighed around 100 tons and they were built by local contractors to a broad specification drawn up by the War Office, but frequently adapted to suit local materials and circumstances.
They were extremely basic, not at all spacious and often not particularly well built. We saw examples of pillboxes where there was no door at the back, the only way in and out being through the loophole at the front. The implication of this was that once under attack there was no escape. Effectively the defenders would have been committed to a suicide mission. The individual pillbox may have been able to hold out for a day and the whole line for perhaps a week, buying sufficient time for heavier forces to be mobilised from the interior.
In answer to the question of whether pillboxes were really worth conserving, John suggested several reasons for valuing them. Seventy years after the event there is no official record of where they were sited and, of the original 22000, fewer than 6000 remain. Future generations would be as interested in WW2 defences as we are in Roman military remains. Indeed there are striking similarities between the tactical role of the Stop Lines and Hadrian's Wall.
Only by recording them now can we preserve the information about how they were designed to relate to one another and operate in action. Apart from their intrinsic interest, conserving them is at the very least a memorial to the many personnel in the Home Guard who lost their lives in the War and to the many more who stood ready to man the land defences if necessary.
As well as the pillboxes there are other local sites with WW2 associations. The Stop Lines were designed to hold an enemy who had already landed but there was an obvious need to prevent them from landing in the first place. Those low-lying areas of beach and estuary where invasion would be targeted were designated as the "Coastal Crust". Most of us will have seen features related to the defence of the beaches and with the vagaries of tidal action more become exposed from time to time.
Steep Holm was heavily defended and artillery from several periods can still be seen there. "Once a good military site, always a good military site". John reminded us of the role of HMS Birnbeck as part of the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development, otherwise known as "The Wheezers and Dodgers". It made its contribution with the development of the "Bouncing Bomb" used by the RAF against the dams on the Ruhr, several new kinds of anti-submarine depth-charge, and important work on techniques for destroying the magnetic mines which had an impact on our shipping as devastating as that of the U-Boats.
Further Reading: John recommends the following publication, to which he has contributed a chapter:
20th Century Defences in Britain (Practical Handbooks in Archaeology) Council for British Archaeology 1996 ISBN Bernard Lowry, John Hellis etc
John also suggests a visit to www.pillbox-study-group.org.uk, to which sightings of pillboxes can be reported. He says that it's better to include reports of the obvious ones rather than risk having one slip through the net unreported.