SMHS project: Withyham Project

20 Aug 2013

In June 2013, Withyham Parish Council approached Sussex Military History Society regarding the wartime pillboxes within their parish boundary.

Part of the GHQ Stop Line network passes through the Parish, and an estimated 60 or so pillboxes were constructed within the area in 1940.

SMHS is working with the Parish Council and local groups to gain access to as many of these structures as possible in order to clear them of undergrowth and rubbish.

Withyham Project

The General Headquarters (GHQ) Line

Stop lines were intended to halt the German advance should the invasion of Britain (known as Operation Sealion) have taken place. Stop lines comprised continuous anti-tank obstacles, making the most efficient use of pre-existing landscape features such as rivers, railway embankments and cuttings.

The GHQ Line was a national network of stop lines established by GHQ June - November 1940 to keep an invading German Army out of London and the industrial Midlands. There were many less important stop lines laid out, but those belonging to the GHQ Line were the most heavily defended.

The Newhaven - Penshurst Section of the GHQ Line

The line that runs through Withyham Parish was part of the Newhaven - Penshurst line.

Right: map showing the course of the Newhaven - Penshurst Section of the GHQ Line

From Newhaven Harbour the line follows the course of the River Ouse as far as Uckfield, where it jumps onto the railway line and continues through Buxted, Jarvis Brook, Eridge, entering Withyham Parish just east of Groombridge. The line continues to follow the railway north-west through the parish where it takes up the course of the River Medway near Ashurst before terminating at Penshurst in Kent.

Stop Line defences

Although stop lines were anti-tank obstacles in themselves, without supporting defence works it would be relatively easy for German engineers to build bridges across the rivers and gaps.

To prevent such breaches of the line, pillboxes were sited to guard key points, particularly road and rail bridges that would have been important objectives for the advancing German Army. Pillboxes also lined the course of stop lines to deter enemy infantry and engineers from forcing a crossing and outflanking the strong points.

The pillboxes that SMHS will be surveying, will, therefore, have been sited with a particular defensive task in mind and part of our methodology is to interpret the landscape, historical documents and local knowledge to determine why each structure was built where it was.

This is a key point that will come across as we progress through the project; each pillbox is an individual with its own specific task, but also part of an intricate network of defences.

Previous Surveys

The Council for British Archaeology's Defence of Britain Project (1995-2002) has previously recorded 44 sites (39 Type 24 pillboxes, 4 Type 28 pillboxes and one roadblock) in Withyham Parish, but more recent research by SMHS member Peter Hibbs (who runs the Defence of East Sussex Project) has revealed a 1940 list of about 60 pillboxes in the parish. Many of those and other features on this list have never been publicly recorded, and to date, six as yet unlisted sites have been visited; two of these were pillboxes that had been destroyed shortly after the war. Thanks to the documents at our disposal, we'll be able to comprehensively interpret the landscape in a way that hasn't been done before!

As these sites are already in the Defence of East Sussex Project's Concrete Evidence database, SMHS will be using the site referencing system in use.

Pillbox Types

We expect to encounter a variety of pillbox designs during the project; we already know that the most numerous will be the Type 24 Pillbox, followed by the Type 28 pillbox.

Withyham Parish Pillboxes

The Type 24 Pillbox

The Type 24 has six walls, although it is not hexagonal - the rear wall is almost twice the length of some of the others.

Graphic at right: 3D cutaway model of a Type 24 (thick-walled) pillbox surveyed in Withyham.

The door is in the rear wall in the standard design, although some variance from this is occasionally seen.

Two small embrasures (loopholes) flank the doorway, but the other five embrasures are designed for use with the Bren Light Machine Gun or the Boys Anti-Tank Rifle. These embrasures have an intricate design to accommodate the Bren tripod or the Boys rifle monopod.

The Type 24 Pillbox had two main variants; a thick-walled (1m thick) design and a thin-walled (30-40cm) type. The former was designed to be shell-proof, while the latter was only bullet-proof and did not have the complex embrasure design. The two variants are occasionally seen in close proximity as part of the defence of bridges.

Construction techniques vary along the GHQ Line; the Royal Engineers were overseeing the programme, but local building contractors were actually doing the work.

Shuttering techniques are the easiest to distinguish. Shuttering is effectively the 'mould' into which the wet cement is poured and two materials were employed; wood and brick.

Withyham Parish Pillboxes

The Withyham pillboxes have predominantly been shuttered with wood, which means the walls show concrete on the exterior - you can actually see the impression of the shuttering planks in the photograph at right. Close-up, you can even see the wood grain and saw marks preserved in concrete! The planks were removed once the concrete had set sufficiently and were probably reused on the next pillbox to be constructed.

Note the chamfered edge to the roof on this pillbox; a handful in this immediate area have this feature, but just 250m away the next pillboxes in the line do not have this, probably indicating a different building contractor at work.

At first glance, some Type 24s appear to have been built of brick, but this is only the outer skin of shuttering; the walls proper are of concrete. Brick shuttering is far more common further south in the GHQ Line, possibly because of a shortage of timber and an abundance of bricks from the local yards.

Some of the Withyham pillboxes have internal brick shuttering, with external wooden shuttering, as seen in the 3D model above. The intricate embrasures were all moulded using wooden formers.

The Type 24 seen here was the first one SMHS surveyed as part of this project - read more!

Withyham Parish Pillboxes

The Type 28 Pillbox

The Type 28 Pillbox was designed to hold a small artillery piece, in most cases a six-pounder Hotchkiss gun of the type mounted in some British tanks during the Great War.

In the event, a shortage of these weapons in 1940 meant that, although the pillboxes were built, guns were never actually mounted in the majority of them.

These pillboxes are found guarding the key bridges that cross the Stop Line, often with some Type 24s in close support.

Of concrete construction with brick shuttering, the Type 28 comprises a single compartment with a large doorway at the rear.

A concrete pedestal topped with a metal plate formed the holdfast upon which the six-pounder gun would have been mounted, behind a large embrasure.

Further south in the GHQ Line can be found a variant, known as the Type 28A pillbox. This had the addition of an extra compartment with rifle/machine gun embrasures which presumably meant that infantry could use the pillbox even if no Hotchkiss gun was mounted. We are not yet aware of any Type 28A pillboxes in Withyham Parish.

The Type 28 in the photograph was the first pillbox to be cleared and surveyed as part of the project - read more!

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