How the canals of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire played a vital role in World War Two
PUBLISHED: 10:47 09 June 2014 | UPDATED: 13:12 09 June 2014
Our canals were fading as commercial good carriers by the time of the Second World War, but would soon have a vital role to play, reveals John Leete
‘Britain on the brink’ was how one commentator described the plight of the nation during the summer of 1940 after the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force.
By May 1940 Germany had invaded France during a campaign that had lasted just six weeks and by the end of June, the British Army had abandoned much of its equipment in Dunkirk and beat a hasty retreat across the Channel from the advancing enemy. Until now our island status had served well, but danger loomed. The Germans had two options available, either to lay siege to Britain and wear the country down through political and psychological warfare and limited military action, or to mount a full scale invasion.
In July 1940, Hitler issued a Directive which 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’. This was to be known as Operation Sea Lion with an invasion force ready to sail by 15 August 1940.
General Sir Edmund Ironside was Commander in Chief of Britain’s Home Forces. He had been appointed by Winston Churchill in May 1940 and whilst he had a large force at his disposal, it was inadequately armed and equipped and the men were poorly trained. His plan therefore was to set up a static system of defences to delay an invasion force and to buy time for the mobilisation of reserves.
Ironside reasoned that if the Germans could be delayed on the beaches and then further delayed as they tried to push inland, their timetable could be compromised and impetus lost to the extent that the British Army could mount a successful counter attack.
The coast along southeast England was quite well defended with anti-aircraft guns and troops. A secondary line of defence was to be added through the use of barriers or stop lines which utilised natural and man-made features such as railway lines and canals. Mile upon mile of anti-tank ditches were dug and concrete pillboxes and gun emplacements erected where the widest range of fire could be bought upon an advancing enemy. Known variously as Stop Lines or Anti-Tank Lines, their purpose was simple, ‘to ensnare and delay the Germans’ and to stop them ‘breaking loose’ as they had done during the invasion of France.
At the end of June 1940 more than 50 defensive lines had been constructed across England. The main stop line was certainly the longest and most important for it was created to protect London and the industrial heart of England. It ran from the Taunton in Somerset and followed the River Brue and the Kennet and Avon Canal to Reading, via London, Guildford and Aldershot to Canvey Island and Essex before running north to Yorkshire and Scotland. It was split into sections, one of which was known as Stop Line Blue. This ran east from Semington near Trowbridge and followed the length of the Kennet and Avon Canal to Theale.
Pillboxes and anti-tank gun emplacements, mostly constructed by local builders to a standard Ministry of Works design, were sited along the length of the canal, some roughly disguised as sheds.
Obstacles of various types, including ‘Dragons Teeth’ were placed on embankments and on canal bridges and much of the material used was carried on the canal. The most common type of pillbox was the small hexagonal type, such as the ones at Sulham Gap, north of Theale and by the canal near Newbury, and these were intended for us by lightly armed troops. Larger pillboxes were used by Bren-gun crews whilst crews equipped with two pound field gun were housed in even larger constructions with apertures for both the field gun and the Bren. An excellent example of this type can be seen at Dun Mill Lock on Hungerford Common.
In contrast, some 20 or so miles east of Hungerford by waterway is Burghfield and here can be seen an excellent example of a fortified building which stands only yards from the Kennet and Avon canal bridge on the Burgfield Road from Reading. The converted stable block would have provided an excellent all round defence, covering the roads on both sides and affording protection to the approach to the canal bridge. Some of the original embrasures (openings for weapons) can still be seen.
Manned by members of the Home Guard (known as the LDV until July 1940) these pillboxes and assorted fortified positions were thankfully never used in combat for after the decisive outcome during the Battle of Britain, Hitler changed his plans and Operation Sea Lion was postponed indefinitely. Nationally, 6,000 pillboxes survive, of which 150 can be found in Berkshire, many along the length of the Kennet and Avon Canal.
The Kennet and Avon, originally one of the nation’s industrial arteries like so many canals, fell into disrepair, was revived, became a vital part of the nation’s defence and today is part of our heritage, to be enjoyed not just for its beauty, but also for the service it gave in times of war.