AGES AHA was awarded a Local Heritage Initiative (LHI) Grant of £25,000 for a project known as “Project WW2”. LHI was a partnership between the Heritage Lottery Fund, Nationwide Building Society and the Countryside Agency.
This project used teams of volunteers, guided by a specialist in the field, to track down, record, photograph and assess for statutory protection, around 100 defence works, built to protect the towns and villages of Basildon and Castle Point from an expected invasion on the shores of Britain in 1940.
After a period of training in WW2 search and recording techniques, achieved through teaching seminars, the teams used rare and uniquely surviving wartime documents, 1940’s aerial photographs, wartime maps and the archive of local memory to trace and visit each site.
The project culminated in two comprehensive reports, one for each district, of Basildon and Castle Point. The reports included an individual record of each site as an historical overview with methodology. Where appropriate an assessment was made of importance and recommendations for preservation of selected sites. It is anticipated that following completion of the project the disseminated knowledge gained will enable the production of trail guides, leaflets and interpretative boards, and that the volunteers have the expertise to further increase public awareness of our local defence heritage.
The following is the summary report of the project published in 2007.
WORLD WAR TWO DEFENCES IN ESSEX
During the past two years (2005 and 2006), the World War Two Defences in Essex project and members of a local archaeological group A.G.E.S. (Archaeology Geophysics Enthusiastic Searchers) have been recording the wartime defence sites of Basildon and Castle Point. In the two adjacent Districts, 139 sites have been tracked down and documented, of which 42 still survive.
Basildon during World War Two
The District of Basildon had an important part to play in the defence landscape. Not only did its towns and villages stand four-square across a natural invasion route from the east coast to London, but its two arterial roads, the A13 and A127, both well-developed by 1940, would be inestimable prizes for the German panzer divisions.
Constructed in the months after Dunkirk, the GHQ Line was Britain’s major line of inland defence. It ran from the north of England, south to the Thames and then west to the Bristol Channel. In Essex, it came in at Great Chesterford, followed the path of the River Cam to Newport, bridged east to the River Chelmer and followed this waterway to Chelmsford. Here, with the absence of any natural barrier heading southwards, an anti-tank ditch was started, an immense undertaking which zigzagged its way back and forth generally following the route of the A130 until it terminated at Rivenhall Fleet on the Bowers Gifford marshes. Once again following a natural waterway, the defence line finally joined the Thames west of Canvey Island.
In its route across Basildon, the line entered the District just west of Battlesbridge, ran south bypassing Wickford, to the railway line at Shotgate. Crossing the railway via a cable barrier, it continued to the A127, already a dual-carriageway, which it in turn crossed via a huge road barrier. Running through the fields to the east of North Benfleet, it then crossed the A13 at Sadlers Hall Farm before exiting the District at Vange Creek. Like the rest of the line, the Basildon section was heavily fortified.
The main centres of population, in 1940, were Billericay, Wickford and, to a lesser extent, Pitsea. Following the national defence plan, these towns, to the west of the GHQ Line, were ringed by defences. Each of the access roads into the town centre would have been cut by a concrete and steel barrier, removable to allow friendly traffic to pass. Infantry positions would have guarded these, sometimes with a pillbox as a strong point.
Unlike the national lines of defence, these town defences would have been manned by the Home Guard. This sometimes under-rated force grew in the four years from May 1940 to become a significant factor in the defence of the country. In addition to local defence, Home Guards manned anti-aircraft guns and coastal artillery batteries. As volunteers, they were enthusiastic and, once the early shortages were overcome, were able to call on a variety of weapons. However, it was not until the end of 1941/early 1942 that they were issued with a gun which could knock out enemy tanks. This was the 29mm spigot mortar, a small artillery piece which could lob a bomb forward with little accuracy but to big effect. It was not without its risks, however, as the instruction manual recommended that fire be withheld until the tank was within 75/100 yards! Although the gun could be deployed on four splayed-out legs, it was more normally mounted in a purpose-designed concrete pit. This had a central pedestal surmounted by a stainless steel pin on which the gun was located. Around the pit, ammunition alcoves held the bombs.
There were around forty heavy anti-aircraft gun sites in Essex. Two of these were in Basildon District. One, ‘TN6 North Benfleet’, is a considerable mystery in that it is known to have existed, although shown in wartime records as ‘unmanned’, but its location remains elusive. The other, ‘TN10 Vange’, is not only well known and well documented – it was armed with four 3.7 inch guns in April 1940 manned by 59 Regiment, 164 Battery – it went on after the Second World War to become an upgraded cold-war site with anti-nuclear facilities.
As outlined above, the ground defences in the District fell very clearly into two categories, those of the GHQ stop-line intended to be manned by the regular army, and the town and village defences which were to be manned by the Home Guard. This distinction is reflected in the sharp difference in survival 60 years later.
Typically, defence lines ran through fields and along hedgerows between towns and villages. They avoided, in the main, built-up areas. Thus it is that after an initial period immediately after the war when the most obviously obstructive pillboxes and anti-tank obstacles were demolished, a great many of them were simply left to grow into the landscape, often covered in brambles or thicket but accepted by farmers and locals alike as part of the country scene. Presenting few problems, many of them still survive. So it is in the District of Basildon. Although nothing now remains to be seen of the anti-tank ditch, along the GHQ Line 51 pillboxes and anti-tank barriers have been recorded of which 31 still survive, the majority in good condition with little structural deterioration.
On the other hand, the Home Guard defences of Billericay, Wickford and Pitsea have suffered severely. After the war, and in fact during the latter part, there was an understandable urgency to clear away the concrete and steel from the towns. Access routes were still partially blocked by anti-tank cubes and pimples, pillboxes at the road edge were obvious traffic hazards and a spigot mortar pit in the pavement was a clear danger to pedestrians. It can been seen from 1960 aerial photographs that across the county, fifteen years after the end of the war, very little survived of the town and village defences. In Basildon District, the project has successfully tracked down the great majority of the Home Guard locations detailed in War Time Contraventions 1968. These show that both Billericay and Wickford were defended against attack from all directions. In Billericay 17 sites are documented but only one, a spigot mortar emplacement out of harm’s way on a railway embankment, still survives. In Wickford 14 sites are detailed. None survive. Similarly, the three sites at Pitsea are gone.
The heavy anti-aircraft gun site, ‘TNIO Vange’, continues to survive well. The four gun emplacements are still extant although now covered in soil and grass. Many of the ancillary buildings still exist including the 1938 Operations Room, the Gun Stores and the Cooking and Dining Block. After World War Two, with the advent of the ‘cold war’, the site was upgraded with the addition of a huge Anti-Aircraft Operations Room. This ‘anti-nuclear’ A.A.O.R. was one of only three to be built in Essex.
Castle Point during World War Two
In World War Two, Castle Point lay at a particularly critical location. The position of Canvey Island overlooking the estuary of the Thames made it a natural place from which to defend the river against invasion by enemy surface raiders, at the same time fortifying the island against a sea-borne attack on itself. Immediately north of Canvey Island, the towns of South Benfleet, Hadleigh, Thundersley and Daws Heath all lay on the direct route from the potential landing beaches of Southend-on-Sea to the capital. From the air, the Thames provided an unmistakable signpost leading the German bomber pilots to the docks, warehouses and industry of London’s East End.
These then, were the triple threats from sea, land and air which confronted the District.
To counter the sea-borne threat, the two 6-inch naval guns which had first been installed during World War One were re-activated at Deadman’s Point on Canvey Island. Here, they lay in massive concrete casements, 40 yards apart, dominating any attempt by German warships to breach the defences. At night, coastal artillery searchlights swept the river from emplacements alongside the guns. Close by, at Scars Elbow Point, quick-firing 6-pounder guns which could fire at over 100 rounds per minute waited to stop any forays by torpedo boats. Along the Canvey Island shoreline pillboxes, anti-tank obstacles, beach defences and machine-gun positions were constructed.
North of Benfleet Creek, the towns were fortified by road barriers of concrete and steel with pillboxes and infantry positions covering all the major access routes. As at Basildon, these town defences would have been manned by the Home Guard.
Essex was home to around 40 heavy anti-aircraft gun sites, four of which were in Castle Point. From ‘Furtherwick’ and ‘Northwick’ on Canvey Island and ‘Hadleigh’ and ‘Jotman’s Hall’ on the mainland, 3.7-inch and 4.5-inch guns could launch their shells well over 20,000 feet into the sky. Later, ‘Hadleigh’ would be equipped with even larger 5.25-inch guns. These power-operated ex-naval weapons were capable of reaching up to an astonishing 40,000 feet.
Castle Point today
Of the 50 sites – coastal artillery batteries, pillboxes, road barriers and heavy anti-aircraft gun sites – recorded by the project, nine have survived to some greater or lesser extent to the present day. The 6-inch coastal artillery casements at Deadman’s Point were demolished many years ago, together with their accompanying searchlight emplacements, and the subsequent reshaping of the seawall has meant that nothing now remains of the former weapons area. Until recently some of the huts and other structures in which the crews lived and worked still stood. These included two 140 foot long billets, four air raid shelters, the Officers’ Mess and a rare FW3/23 pillbox. However, these have now also been demolished leaving just three small buildings to mark the site.
At Scar’s Elbow Point 6-pounder site, the area has long been cleared – gun casements, searchlights and accommodation site – leaving a solitary ammunition store by the seawall.
Of the pillboxes which stood along the Canvey Island shoreline there is no trace. However, in five such cases their footprint can still be seen where the seawall follows a hexagonal shape. Inland a Type FW3/26 pillbox still stands west of Haven Road. This type of pillbox, a simple square design with a loophole in each wall is surprisingly rare in Essex. North of Canvey Island, three pillboxes have survived – one overlooking Benfleet Creek and two, in good condition, south of Hadleigh.
In World War Two terms, road barriers are notoriously bad survivors and, like many places in the county, none of those recorded have left any remains.
Of the four heavy anti-aircraft gun sites, one has never been traced, that at ‘Jotman’s Hall’. At each of the remaining three sites there is a different configuration of survival. At ‘Furtherwick’, four gun emplacements, the command post and an on-site magazine all still survive beneath heaped soil and grass. At ‘Northwick’, three gun emplacements, the command post, on-site magazine, gun stores, sewage disposal unit and pump house still survive together with eleven brick-built accommodation huts for the garrison. At ‘Hadleigh’ a great deal still survives of both the 4.5-inch and 5.25-inch gun sites. Elements of the 4.5-inch gun emplacements, command post and on-site magazine remain as buried features, together with a second free-standing on-site magazine. The gun store is still extant plus three ancillary buildings. At the 5.25-inch gun site the heavy concrete emplacements still lie extant beneath infilled soil and grassland. To one side, the post-war Operations Room/Generator Block, built when the 5.25-inch site was upgraded at the start of the Cold War, still stands.