Kindly being invited to do a guest post, I thought I would outline how back in 1940 Britain was totally unprepared for Invasion due to defence and the armed forces largely being neglected during the 1920’s and 30’s. I will outline the national defence strategy based around a continuous anti-tank barrier and the defence of the beaches, with Suffolk as an example.
This is only the briefest of outlines but if it proves to be of interest then maybe future posts with more details?
At the end of the First war, Britain probably had the best equipped and trained army in the world. As further war was considered unlikely, for the following 20 years spending on the army was neglected. When it was obvious that Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler had failed, the politicians woke up the threat to Britain and set in progress a rearmament programme. In 1939 the government doubled the size of the Territorial Army to 340,000. However it took time to gear up the production facilities for new armaments and the additional TA forces had to be trained and equipped.
The threat of aerial bombing in any future war had been recognized and measures put in place to deal with it (ARP Act 1937, Civil Defence Act 1939) but the actual threat of invasion seems just not to have been taken seriously at all. During the Phony War, it was considered an invasion by sea could not take place without parachute troops first being dropped to cause disruption and seize vital communication routes/ports etc. Destroy the paratroop forces and invasion would be impossible.
Territorial Troops deployed to Suffolk in Nov 1939. Defence strategy seems to have been based upon defending key communication routes by strong points, and destroying any airborne forces that attempted to seize them. Nothing in the way of defences was developed except the odd weapons-pit. The beaches were to be defended by light machine guns and anti-tank rifles only! One counter-attack force based in the Melton area had virtually no transport (an ambulance would have been used to carry one of its platoon weapons into action).
The events in France in May 1940 changed things – Britain was now the front line and invasion a very real possibility. Britain found itself with no defences, hardly any weapons (most having being destroyed or abandoned in France) and still a poor state of training in the TA. With this state of affairs, CIC Home Forces General Ironside considered that he could not hold the coast line in any strength and hence decided to concentrate his main defence on protecting the capital, London, and the industrial Midlands by constructing a continuous linear anti-tank barrier – the GHQ anti-tank stop line. Of course the enemy was not to have an unopposed approach to the GHQ line. The coast was to be held strong enough to repel raids and to disrupt as much as possible a full scale invasion (referred to as the ‘Coastal Crust). Further stop lines were planned between the coast and the GHQ line to further disrupt and canalize the enemy’s advance; once the direction and intent of the enemies attack were known, counter attacks were to be made using mobile reserves. The GHQ and other stop lines were to form a continuous anti-tank obstacle, utilizing natural features (e.g. rivers), man made features (e.g. railway cuttings/embankments) and where no obstacle existed, by digging anti-tank ditches. These obstacles were to be covered by infantry and anti-tank weapons, many housed in pillboxes.
The Coastal Crust – Suffolk: Suffolk was within the area of command of 11 Corps, Eastern Command. The 55th Division, a first line Territorial Division was now the front line Division in Suffolk in May 1940. Defence strategy was based around the following:
Infantry Posts: The defences were only developed to a linear strip along the length of the coast. Defences consisted of section posts sited to cover the main exits from the beaches. Section posts could either be just trenches or a combination of a pillbox and supporting trench. Sections of beach not covered by posts were to be included in the arcs of fire of the artillery.
Coast Artillery: On the outbreak of the war, the only coastal artillery covering the Suffolk coast was the guns in Harwich. In May 1940 a number of Emergency batteries were planned. These consisted of vintage First War Naval 6” guns, at first mounted in sandbagged posts although later brick gun houses with concrete roofs were constructed to protect the batteries from dive bombing. The primary role of the guns was to engage invasion barges and protect the ports/harbours of Felixstowe, Southwold and Lowestoft.
Field Artillery: There was an acute shortage of modern field guns and as with the Coast Artillery a number of First war guns were bought out of storage. These included 4” guns mounted on Lorries to form mobile anti-tank guns. The role of the artillery was to cover the beaches and the exits from them.
Beach Obstacles: A series of obstacles were constructed. Concrete tank blocks were placed to prevent tanks from exiting the beach, anti-tank and personnel minefields laid and iron spikes (‘dragon’s teeth’) set in concrete laid below the high tide line to rip out the bottoms of barges. Between May and November 1940, 558 Field Company, RE constructed 7153 anti-tank blocks, 175 pillboxes, 6,313 dragon’s teeth and laid 7,200 mines mostly between Benacre Ness and Aldeburgh.
Stop Lines: A number of stop lines were sited in Suffolk although only the Corps Line (or Eastern Command Line) was to provide a continuous anti-tank obstacle. As for the GHQ line, natural features were utilized were possible and where none were available, ditches were dug. Again the obstacles were covered by many pillboxes. The Home Guard was to form the garrison of the stop lines until reserves moved up either to hold the Corps Line or use the stop lines for forward bounds in counter attack (although in reality in 1940 no reserves of note existed in Eastern Command). Inland towns/villages where main road networks passed through or converged on (known as nodal points) were also to be defended by the Home Guard to deny the road network to the enemy.
Many Field Commanders were unhappy with the static linear nature of defences planned by Ironside. On 19th July Ironside was replaced by General Alan Brooke. The defence strategy changed in emphasis to a mobile offensive role of counter attack troops. German invasion forces were to be slowed and delayed by a series of ‘anti-tank localities’. Work on the GHQ line was halted. But the very nature of beach defence meant that linear defence was unavoidable. The development of defences in Suffolk from 1941 could be the subject of another post.
For more information, go over to Daves blog below