My fascination with military fortifications began when I was a child, watching soldiers training for D-Day on the Scottish coast. I am just old enough to remember a time when the military concrete that still can be seen along the coasts of Great Britain was newly poured—and shrouded in secrecy.
My ever-patient wife is quick to remind me that she can’t remember that far back. Be that as it may, for the last forty years she has indulged my interest in military archaeology from Malaya to Minsk and Normandy to Berlin, besides becoming very familiar with the vast array of World War II sites closer to home. Nearly seventy years on, the passage of time and the impact of nature make the amateur World War II archaeologist’s task a demanding one: very little is offered up on a plate. But striking off the beaten path to search out intriguing physical traces of the war on one’s own is part of the adventure and reward.
We live in Northumberland, a county bordering Scotland which has a long history of savage warfare and invasion. After the fall of France in 1940, Britain stood alone against the threat of Nazi attack. While the most likely invasion route was across the narrows of the English Channel, the entire eastern coastline was the scene of extensive, hastily improvised defenses. To this day, the beaches of Northumberland bear witness to those desperate days. The concrete obstacles to Nazi tanks form a haunting juxtaposition to the more monumental castles erected centuries before on the very same beaches to guard against marauding Vikings.
The planners of Northumberland’s 1940 defenses assumed that German forces would cross from Scandinavia, land, and swing south beyond the coast toward the industrial heartland and population centers of England. The defensive plan was built around a multilayered defensive “crust” that, while unlikely to prevent a landing, could buy critical time for the deployment of mobile reserves.
The first layer of the crust—now long vanished—consisted of arrays of towering, tubular-steel scaffolds erected below the highwater mark to hamper landing barges. Like the “Rommel asparagus” of the Normandy beaches, these were festooned with barbed wire and hung with mines.
Next came strings of barbed wire entanglements. Behind them ran lines of concrete blocks, linked by heavy steel hawsers. Although many of these blocks now lie buried beneath the constantly shifting dunes, I frequently come across them on my walks on the beach near Bamburgh Castle. The blocks were cast in place by the thousands to create hasty but effective antitank obstacles.
The beach itself retains a powerful feeling of remoteness, wildness, and vulnerability. To the south of the castle runs a perfect strand along which families stroll and horses gallop occasionally. You are likely to have the beach to yourself. One significant pillbox stands high atop the dunes about a mile southeast of Bamburgh. Roofless, its walls crazily tilted, it shows the effects of time and its hurried construction. But by looking through the loopholes in the walls that still stand, it is easy to picture the commanding presence this strongpoint held over the beaches to the north and south. Nearby may be found the remains of sandbagged positions for its supporting infantry.
One of my favorite parts of the beach, where I often walk with my dogs, runs north from Bamburgh Castle to Budle Bay and beyond. A variety of major and minor fortifications dot this stretch. A similar tour of the German defenses along Utah Beach in Normandy would quickly point up the almost perfunctory nature of what Britain created from scratch—besides reflecting a bit unflatteringly on British “industry standards” of the time. The West Wall it is not. Still, nearly twenty thousand pillboxes were erected nation-wide in a matter of a few months in the summer of 1940, a remarkable feat.
A few of the surviving concrete relics between Bamburgh and Budle Bay really are gems of the art of military improvisation. The beaches running north from here are almost perfect for a landing force, and at the north end of Bamburgh golf course stands a substantial concrete emplacement and gun house for a four-inch ex-naval gun, covering the approaches to Holy Island and Ross Sands. With a range of around nine miles, this gun would overlap the fire from a similar emplacement at Scremerston, on the southern outskirts of Berwick-upon-Tweed to the north, to engage any invasion fleet. The Budle Bay complex was protected by infantry in ancillary fire trenches nearby.
The principles of overlap and mutual support are seen in microcosm in a cluster of fortifications about a quarter of a mile north of Bamburgh Castle. A specialized pillbox, a fine example of making do, mounted a World War I tank gun—a six pounder Hotchkiss—to bring heavy fire onto the beach and approaches. Around this key position are infantry fire trenches and a complex of other pillboxes mounting rifle-caliber weapons and light or medium machine guns. They take some finding in the windswept sand dunes.
The defensive crust, of course, demand ed more than just fortification of the waterline. A second line of pillboxes com manded tracks and roads about a mile inland. Towns and villages on roads to the south and river crossings were also heavily fortified. Major rivers became “stop lines.” Large concrete blocks installed at the sides of bridges and along roads and railway lines (tanks could drive on railroad tracks as easily as on roads) were bored with a series of holes to receive steel railroad ties that could quickly slide into place to form a removable tank obstacle. Similar sockets, about six inches square, were cut directly into road surfaces and bridge decks, allowing rails to be inserted vertically to create a “hedgehog” roadblock; sadly, many of these have now been obliterated by repaving. Driving west through Belford, one can see pill boxes on the rocky ridge to the north of the town, dominating the old A1 trunk road.
The logic behind the placement of these defenses is elusive now that only fragments are left. But it is incredible that anything of this remarkable history of Britain’s loneliest hour remains to be seen at all. Local folklore has it that in 1945 farmers were paid the handsome sum of £5 (about $200 in today’s money) to dis mantle each pillbox or emplacement left on their land, part of the nationwide post war cleanup. But the money was often pocketed and the work left for another day…which never came.
If this is true, amateur military archaeologists are deeply in their debt.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.