After the defeat at Dunkirk in May 1940, Britain was faced with the imminent prospect of invasion. To counter this threat, defences were hastily erected involving a complicated pattern of defence based on communication ("nodal") points, of which Hungerford was one. The prime purpose of these defences was to serve as anti tank obstacles using natural features such as canals, rivers and railways supplemented by pillboxes and gun emplacements. These were intended to prevent German armoured columns from "cutting loose" as they had in France. The Kennet & Avon Canal was part of a key "stop-line", and there are many surviving defences in and around Hungerford.
The threat of invasion:
By May 1940 Germany had captured France after only six weeks. The Third Reich expected Britain to surrender or negotiate terms. The Germans now had two options:
- to lay siege to Britain and to wear it down physically and psychologically through
limited military action and through political and propaganda warfare, which
would include the threat or bluff of invasion; or
- to actually invade.
After defeat at Dunkirk (27 May - 3 June 1940), Britain was therefore faced with imminent prospect of invasion. The British Army had abandoned most of its equipment in France. Preparations for invasion had to be made.
On 16 July 1940 Hitler issued Directive Number 16. It read, 'As England, in spite of the hopelessness of her military position, has so far shown herself unwilling to come to any compromise, I have decided to begin to prepare for, and if necessary to carry out, an invasion of England... and if necessary the island will be occupied.' Despite having no invasion plan prepared Hitler announced that an invasion force would be ready to sail by 15 August. The operation was given the codename "Sea Lion".
On 27 May Churchill had put General Sir Edmund Ironside, Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, in charge of organising Britain's defence. Ironside acted quickly. He had a large force at his disposal, but one that was poorly armed and equipped and generally poorly trained.
Ironside's defence plan:
In the circumstances, Ironside's only option was to set up a static system of defence which, he hoped, could delay German invasion forces after landing and so give Britain time to bring its small mobile reserves into play. If the Germans could be delayed on the beaches and then delayed as they pushed inland their timetable could be thrown off balance, they could lose impetus, direction and initiative and the British army might be able to counter attack effectively.
In addition to the "coastal crust" of armed defences, Southeast England was to offer a series of barriers or stop-lines utilising natural and man-made features such as rivers, canals and railway embankments, flooded marshland and woods. Thousands of miles of anti-tank ditches were dug. Along these lines he planned a series of concrete pillboxes, gun emplacements, anti-tank obstacles (hedgehogs, hairpins, cylinders, cubes, pimples ("Dragons' teeth")), trench systems, minefields and barbed wire entanglements.
These defences were known as General Headquarters Anti-tank Line, or "GHQ stop-lines". Their purpose was to ensnare and delay the German forces, to prevent an invading force "cutting loose" as they had in France.
By 25 June, Ironside's anti-invasion plan was complete and presented to the War Cabinet as Home Forces Operations Instruction Number 3. Over 50 defensive lines were constructed around England between late May and September 1940, whilst the Battle of Britain went on in the skies above. Not all were completed.
The main GHQ stop-line was the longest and most important, designed to protect London and the industrial heart of England. It ran from the Taunton Stop Line in Somerset, along the River Brue and the Kennet and Avon Canal to Reading, around the south of London south of Guildford and Aldershot, to Canvey Island and Great Chesterford in Essex, before heading north to Yorkshire and Edinburgh. It was split into several sections:
- Stop Line Green from Highbridge on the coast in Somerset, in a great arc running northeast to Trowbridge, Melksham, Lacock and Chippenham, and then northwest to Upper Framilode, Gloucestershire. The purpose was to defend Bristol.
- Stop Line Blue branched east from Stop Line Green at Semington near Trowbridge, and followed the Kennet and Avon Canal east to Theale near Reading). Pillboxes and anti tank gun emplacements were strategically sited along the whole length of the canal, and concrete obstructions placed across canal bridges. Much of the material used for these structures was carried on canal boats.
- Stop Line Red followed the Thames from Reading to Abingdon, then cut across country to Newbridge to avoid the huge Thames loop north to Oxford, continuing south across the Cotswolds to Great Somerford in Wiltshire.
- Eastern Stop line: from north of Edinburgh, inland and south along the east coast, around the east of London to meet the south coast near Eastbourne).
- There were many others, most especially the various concentric rings in and around London: The London Inner Keep, London Stop Line Inner (Line C), London Stop Line Central (Line B) and London Stop Line Outer (Line A). The Outer London Ring was the strongest and best developed of these, mainly because it could be constructed in open countryside.
The Directorate of Fortifications and Works (FW3) at the War Office was set up under the Directorship of Major-General G.B.O.Taylor. Its purpose was to provide specific pillbox designs to be constructed throughout the countryside at defensive locations.
The pillbox building programme started in May 1940, and continued through the summer months while the Battle of Britain was fought out in the skies above. The construction rate was frenetic – by the end of September 1940, 18,000 were built.
There were seven standard designs by FW3, often modified during construction under the direction of the area commands. Occasionally, a 'one-off' type was designed to the War Office standard by the Command and Corps Chief Engineers.
The FW3 pillbox design concept was to provide a simple 'fieldwork standard' that could be constructed very quickly. Most designs consisted of or incorporated some of the following features:
- Minimum of Bullet/Splinter Proof protection
- No attempt was made to provide living accommodation
- Some designs were enhanced to Shell Proof standard
- Simple Blast Walls to protect open entrances
- External flat side walls with rectangular or polygonal shape
The most common type was a small hexagonal pillbox intended for use by lightly-armed troops. Larger hexagonal pillboxes were designed for crews using Bren guns. The largest were rectangular with a wide opening through which a "two-pound" field artillery piece could be fired, with a smaller Bren gun chamber built to one side.
The use of common designs with standard sizes for doors, loopholes and flat sides made it easier to 'mass produce' items for concrete shuttering and hence the speed of construction. However, with the general countrywide lack of material it was often necessary to use bricks as the shuttering. This often fools the casual observer into believing that the whole structure is constructed of brick. Closer examination often reveals the integral reinforced concrete 'back-bone'!
Who manned them?
The Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) had been raised on 14 May 1940 (by Anthony Eden, Secretary of State for War) and comprised men too old or too infirm to join the regular army or in protected trades and thus exempt from conscription. On 23 July, the force became known as the Home Guard, after Churchill coined the phrase during a BBC broadcast.
By the end of July one and a half million men had volunteered, a huge figure which reveals the seriousness with which ordinary people took the threat of invasion in the summer of 1940.
The Home Guard also had rifles, grenades, knives, petrol bombs, flame throwers.
For a variety of reasons, including the impressive resistance shown by the RAF during the Battle of Britain, Hitler changed his strategic plans, and Operation Sea Lion was postponed indefinitely on 17 September 1940. The threat of Germany invasion of England receded. The 18,000 pillboxes were never used in combat. About 6,000 survive, 150 in Berkshire.
There were several pillboxes in and around Hungerford. From east to west:
Denford Mill: Near the road between Denford Mill and the bridge across the canal stands a classic hexagonal pillbox.
Dun Mill Lock: (at the east end of Hungerford Common). The anti tank gun emplacment and accompanying pillbox were designed to mount a 2-pounder anti-tank gun which could be transported between either site. It contains a divided chamber for the protection of the supporting infantry. There were also additional defensive provisions which have been removed, including large square concrete road blocks, and a "hedgehog" (vertical rails plugged into concrete sockets on the roadway - see below). In addition to the large aperture for the 2-pounder, the small Bren Gun chamber is visible.
Sewage Pumping Station: This pillbox remains on the north side of the "swing bridge" at the end of Station Road. It stands on private property, and is obscured by the fence and foliage.
Near Kennet Bridge across A4: This pillbox was removed many years ago.
Hungerford Town Lock: This pillbox was removed (with great difficulty!) when the Kennet & Avon Canal was restored at Hungerford in 1974. It stood on the north side of Hungerford lock. No sign remains.
Coblers Lock, west of Freeman's Marsh: The foundations of this pillbox were revealed during restoration work to the area in the autumn of 2015.
Near Highclose Farm: A pillbox remains north of the railway to the west of Highclose Farm.
In addition to the pillboxes, it was necessary to adopt a strategy to impede any invading troops using bridges across the canal. Many techniques were adopted, including 'dragon's teeth', 'cylinders', 'hairpins' and 'cubes'.
Evidence of the planned use of 'hedgehogs' on the main canal bridge in Hungerford High Street could be seen when the tarmac surface collapsed into the 'hedgehog' sockets in 2009. (See Photo Gallery). The road surface was renewed in 2010, and no sign is visible thee now. The remains of hedgehogs can be seen, however, on many other rural bridges over the canal.
Gun emplacement in High Street:
There was a major gun emplacement near Church Lane which was designed to take a 6-pounder gun, and this was accompanied by permanent concrete road blocks and a "hedgehog" under the railway bridge.
- Ramsbury At War, Roger Day, 2004.