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Friday, 27 November 2020

Freiston Shore WW2 Defences Part III: The History

The final part of this three-part post looks at the history of the defences at Freiston Shore. Beware, its text heavy!

Frieston Shore is located on the west side of the Wash, on the stretch of coast between Boston and Gibraltar Point.  A sea wall, which was an earth bank  averaging 6 feet in height and 5 – 10 feet wide at the top, ran between the flat low lying land to the west and the saltings – a belt of marshy grassland intersected by numerous large and small dykes – to the east.  To the east of the saltings are the sands, through which the navigable Boston Channel ran. The sea only reached the bank normally at Springs and Neaps. At low water, the tide went out some two miles in places. At high water, the saltings were covered with between 2 to 4 feet of water.  The bank formed a natural defensive feature to command the beaches. The hinterland was some 7 feet below sea level and in places intersected by numerous drains which were effective anti-tank obstacles. Note, since the end of WW2, further saltings were reclaimed by building a new seawall in front of the one on which the defences were constructed along.

Along with other stretches of the coast, the beaches between Gibraltar Point and Boston (known as East Holland) were rated as particularly dangerous by the Admiralty, although exits from the beaches for tanks were poor.  However, Boston did have a dock about seven acres in extent and considerable port facilities which, if captured, could be used to disembark an invasion force.  The approaches to Boston were very vulnerable to attack from the shore and an emergency coastal battery was established at Freiston Shore to command these approaches and defend the beach from enemy landings. The most favourable time for an enemy landing was one hour each side of high water. In contrast, The Army considered that it was not practicable to land tanks on the coast between Boston to Freiston, because of the nature of the saltings.

 


 

Above: The saltings in front of the new sea wall, intersected by numerous small dykes that in the Army’s opinion would make it difficult ground for landing tanks.


Navigation along this stretch of the coast could be difficult at times. Numerous shoals are situated off the north Norfolk coast and the Lincolnshire coast which are dry at low water. Although channels lead to Boston, the Welland, the Nene and Kings Lynn, navigation was difficult without buoys and beacons – of which some had been removed –   for those without local knowledge (although it was reported that many German ships had recently traded with the Wash ports before the outbreak of war, and that there were therefore many Germans with considerable knowledge of the Wash).  The maximum draft for vessels using the channels at high water Spring Tide at Boston was 20 feet. Furthermore, before the time of high tide, currents set into the Wash and the period of slack water was brief. During northerly winds, there is a considerable sea in the Wash. In conjunction with the British mine barrier, these would form a barrier that would be very difficult – although not impossible – for shallow draft vessels to navigate. In conclusion, in periods of calm or westerly winds, an invasion force could be landed anywhere between Boston and Gibraltar Point, but prospect of success was likely to be outweighed by the risks the invasion would have to accept. Instead, if the Lincolnshire coast was the target for a German invasion fleet, it would likely head for the much more suitable beaches to the north of Gibraltar Point.  It was, however, thought that the Germans may try a landing in the Boston – Gibraltar Point in order to flood the land, thus protecting the flanks for an invasion on the much more suitable beaches further north or for one south on the North Norfolk coast. The British Army also had plans to flood the land for some distance inland of the bank between Gibraltar Point and Boston to deny the passage of this land to an enemy landing opposite this bank.

Having said all the above, the question of the suitability of the beaches for an invasion landing along the Lincolnshire coast was probably academic as It was very unlikely that any invasion fleet heading for Northern Command’s area would actually aim for south of Flamborough Head.  This was because any invasion fleet would not likely start from a base in Holland south of the Texel, as the Texel did not possess the facilities for an invasion port. Thus, if an invasion force was to set sail, it would be most likely from the German ports on the Jade, Elbe or Weser.  The natural line for an invasion fleet departing from Germany for Northern Command passes northward of a point situated 50 miles east of Spurn Point and it was assumed that any invasion fleet would follow this route.

Defence Scheme

In June / July 1940, the general anti-invasion defence policy for holding beaches suitable for enemy landings – as laid out in GHQ Operating Instruction No. 3 –  was as a ‘Crust’ with defences strong enough to stop raids and to hold up a full invasion for as long as possible to allow mobile reserves to move forward and counter-attack.  The reason for this was because of the length of the British coastline, meaning all beaches could not be held in strength. The defence of beaches suitable for enemy landings was to be based on emergency coastal batteries (old 6-inch naval guns mounted on holdfasts and given splinter-proof concrete protection) and other strong points at various locations along the beach consisting of light machine guns housed in pillboxes.

The 1st (Lincoln County) Division was tasked with holding the Lincolnshire Coast in June 1940. The 131 Brigade held the area from the River Nene – Fishtoft – Boston, with the 1/5 Queens Royal Regiment holding the right sector, of which the ‘Left Flank’ included Freiston Shore (‘A’ Company). The 131 Brigade’s Operational Instruction No. 1, 25 June 1940, stated that:

All defensive works will be commenced immediately. SPEED is essential.

Priority was to be given to beach defences. A single Dannert wire fence was to be constructed along the whole front.

The 3 Brigade moved up to the Lincolnshire Coast in July 1940, relieving the 131 Brigade. The Brigade’s Operational Instruction No. 10 stated that ‘In the event of enemy landings from the sea the battle will be fought out on the beaches.’ There was to be no withdrawal – each post was expected to hold out at all costs and to the end.  Each forward battalion was to use its Carrier platoon and one company to form a mobile reserve. The battalion in reserve was to be provided with buses to act as a mobile reserve. The Forward Defended Localities (FDLs) were to run along the sea wall.  The priority of work was to prepare section posts, which were to be provided with overhead protection against machine gunning from the air and dive bombing.  They could be revetted in concrete if this did not delay pillbox construction.  Pillboxes were ‘to be sited and constructed along the front, initially spaced at 4,000 yards apart and thereafter being thickened up as quickly as possible.’ Internal fittings were also to be provided by the Royal Engineers. No more pillboxes than could be manned were to be built and the proportion of pillboxes to trenches was to be 50 percent. Later, instructions were issued to limit pillboxes along the sea to company battle HQs only. It was essential to camouflage the pillboxes, as in the flat natural landscape, their sharp outline made their position obvious. If no other particular camouflage scheme existed for individual pillboxes, they were to be earthed up. It was suggested that the mud form local drains was deemed most effective for altering the colour of concrete and sods from the drains could cover the spoil.

A triple Dannart wire fence was to be sited some 150 yards in front of the FDL posts, the governing factor being that the fence should not be covered by water at high tide. As more wire became available, wire was to be completed around all section posts in the FDLs and around each defended locality as a whole.  In building the defences, care had to be taken not to weaken the sea wall, with digging not to cut through from front to rear of the bank or any excavation to be made at the front of the bank. Plans were also made to obtain surprise by siting Bren gun detachments (not to exceed one detachment per platoon) out on the saltings where the tide allowed, but no further than 600 yards from the sea wall.  In the rear of the sea wall, a ditch ran north from the current RSPB car park, which was made into an anti-tank obstacle. The ditch pull-over, which was left for communication purposes, was prepared for demolition.

The 1st Battalion Duke of Wellington’s, part of 3 Brigade, took over the forward pillboxes from the 1/5 Queens.  Battalion HQ settled into Wrangle House. The Battalion held a front of 14 ½ miles, which included Freiston Shore. Work started immediately on the defences, although was held up at first through a lack of stores.  On 7 to 8 September, active service routine was put in place following receipt of the code word ‘CROMWELL’. The role of the defended locality at Freiston Shore was to provide the local defence for the Emergency Coastal Battery (see below).

At first, accommodation for the troops manning the FDLs was probably under canvas, issued from an Ordnance Dump established at Boston Docks until Nissan huts could be provided. The provision of water tanks, cooking shelters, drying rooms etc all needed to be provided as well. Some may have been billeted in the Marine Inn, which still exists today as a ruin.

In 1941, the Lincolnshire coast was held by three brigades. In February, the allotted sectors were: Right ‘A’ Sector – 212 Brigade, which included Freiston Shore; Centre ‘B’ Sector – 204 Brigade; Left ‘C’ Sector – 205 Brigade.  The 10th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, part of 212 Brigade was the battalion responsible for holding the sector of the coast which included Freiston Shore.  The Battalion held the Wrangle sub-sector, with three companies forward and one in reserve.  The Freiston Company (‘D’ Company) held the area which is now the RSPB Freiston Shore reserve with one platoon. By now, the defences were manned only by double sentries at night or in foggy conditions except in cases of ‘sudden alarm’ when full manning would be ordered. Much work had been done on the defences, and the wire obstacle now consisted of a triple Dannert fence. Instructions still specified that no digging was to be done on the sea wall without previous engineer advice as any breach in the sea wall ‘would be a major calamity resulting in the ruination of thousands of acres of the best agricultural land in the country.’

It seems that the Brigade ordered a re-sighting of defences for all round defence; this was a common theme during consolidation of the defences after the invasion scare of the summer of 1940. Prior to June 1940, virtually nothing had been done to prepare Britain to meet an invasion. After the fall of France, when everyone expected Hitler’s next move to be the invasion of Britain, defences were prepared in a hurry, and given the long length of the British coast line, they naturally took on a linear nature. In the case of the defences at Freiston Shore, it was thought that very few of the defence posts could now be used, except those that had a role to fire out to sea.  In detail the reorganisation for the platoon holding Freiston Shore was as follows:

Use two existing posts on the sea wall – these must be loopholed for flanking fire. One post – breastwork to be built to cover rear. Existing wire is too far out and must be bought in and thickened up to double apron and concertina. Knife rests to be made for road and tracks.

Accommodation for platoon already exists at MARINE INN. This locality acts as protection for 6” guns until such time as they are moved.

By July 1941, the Brigade had again reorganised its sector. ‘A’ Sector was now held with only one Battalion forward (known as the ‘Beach Battalion’, the other two battalions in reserve). The platoon locality at Freiston Shore seems to have been abandoned, and relocated to North Point – as suggested by the reorganisation outlined above because of the intention to move the Emergency Battery to Skegness.

The remains of the Ruck pillboxes at the southern end of the RSPB reserve could relate to concrete shelters mentioned in the 1/5 Queen’s Royal Regiment War Diary similar to ‘”Anderson Shelters” supplied to the civilian population and today the C.O. in conjunction with an R.E. Officer, sited concrete “Barrack Rooms” to be cast “in situ” which will accommodate about 6 men in bunks & have latrines & cookhouses. They will provide the “hutted” accommodation for the coast watchers during the winter.’  They were also used as stores for ammunition and explosives. 

321 Coast Battery

Two 6-inch Mk VII guns and two Naval PIII mountings arrived at Freiston Shore on 31 May 1940, and 321 Coast Battery was formed to man the guns.  The role of the Battery was to defend the beaches and the approaches to Boston (Boston was a port where preparations were to be made for immobilisation and demolition of port facilities if it was likely the port was to fall into enemy hands). By 4 June, the concrete emplacements and holdfasts had been completed. The battery was built onto the bank that bounded the saltings.  On 6 June, both guns were mounted and No. 1 searchlight sited and tested, with No. 2 searchlight in place and tested on 7 June. The Battery’s primary role was to engage ships at up to 8,000 yards range, with a secondary role to fire on the beaches as long as this did not interfere with its anti-ship role.

Firing took place on 18 June to test the mountings, four rounds fired from each gun. To test the stress from firing on the roof, one round from each gun was fired on 25 August.  For comparative calibration, five rounds were fired from each gun on 14 September. Further firing took place – one round from each gun – for the Master Gunners inspection on 17 September.

On 8 December, the Battery was ordered to mobilise for overseas service, apparently to a tropical station! The date for mobilisation came and went, as sufficient stores and the non-arrival of personnel meant it could not meet the required establishment for an Examination Battery stationed abroad. The Battery reverted to Northern Command Control, with seven days notice of War Office Control and a further seven days notice should the Battery be required for embarkation.  By 12 January 1941, the mobilisation of personnel was complete, but the full quota of stores had still not been received.

Camouflaging the gun positions, by erecting false bungalows, was completed on 17 December. On 10 March, four Nissan huts were completed for the Battery’s accommodation. However, on 1 April, a site for a new battery position was reconnoitered, two miles north of Skegness. All engineer construction at Freiston Shore ceased on this day.  On 2 April, the gun sites were chosen at the new Battery site. In the meantime, the Fresiton Shore position continued to be manned and a practice fire was held on 14 April, with nine rounds fired from each gun.

On the night of 20 October, a Scammel arrived for the removal of No. 2 gun, which was completed, along with searchlight No. 1 and by 25 October both were in action at Jacksons Corner. The removal of No. 1 gun and No.2 searchlight and ammunition was completed by 30 October at 3:30 am and Jacksons Corner was fully operational.

The reason for the change of battery position is not given in the Battery’s War Diary; although the plans to move the guns were drawn up almost immediately after they had been installed. Given the unlikely possibility of an enemy landing between Boston and Gibraltar Point for the reasons outlined above, it seems obvious that, along with the part-time Examination Battery at Gibraltar Point, the approaches to the Wash by the Boston and Lynn Deeps would be much better covered here than at Freiston Shore while at the same time providing additional cover to the more vulnerable beaches from Gibraltar northwards. It seems that 321 Coast Battery was not replaced (there is certainly no location of a Coastal Battery at Freiston Shore in Northern Command’s War Diary for 1942).

During its stay at Freiston Shore, 321 Coast Battery only had a few moments of excitement. On 2 January, a Blenheim bomber crashed and exploded on mud flats two miles from the battery position. A rescue party was formed and three crew were rescued, the fourth sadly was dead.  Further excitement was provided on 15 February when a salvo of bombs was aimed at the Boston Channel Pilot, but the ship was undamaged.  At 0:25 a.m. on 29 April, illuminating flares were seen at about 20,000 yards away, fired by patrol vessels trying to locate an enemy E-Boats operating in the area. On 11 July, several bombs were dropped between the battery and Boston at 2:23 a.m. and 3:25 a.m. and on the nights of 23 and 25 July, several explosions were heard out to sea. 

 Further posts to follow on the other areas studied as part of the Sabbatical research.