Welcome to this blog which is intended to accompany a website on how Suffolk was defended during the Second War. The blog will describe my trips out and about looking for the remains of the Second War defences while the Website will concentrate on putting these into context.

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Monday, 10 April 2017

RAF Oulton Street pillboxes, Norfolk

Oulton Street airfield opened in July 1940 as a satellite of Horsham St Faith and was a base for Blenheims. Later, it was expanded and was home to both RAF and USAAF Fortresses.  Little now remains of the airfield, except part of the runways and a few huts. It is now all private farmland.

Above: Memorial to RAF Oulton Street and some of the remaining buildings.

At least two pillboxes remain of Oulton airfield’s defences. Both are octagonal and were built to house a Vickers machine gun, but are slightly different in design to each other. Both are unique designs, a feature that seems to be quite common to pillboxes defending RAF installations. The larger pillbox has a large but narrow embrasure for a Vickers and six rifle/light machine gun embrasures. There is a large semi-circular table for the Vickers tripod.  There are two parallel anti-ricochet walls either side of the Vickers embrasure. There is a low entrance protected by an ‘L’ shaped blast wall.

Above: The larger of the two pillboxes. 

The second pillbox is also octagonal but smaller. It to has a semi-circular platform for a Vickers machine gun, but this projects from the wall of the pillbox. There is a massive concrete overhang roof to protect this projection. There are only two rifle/light machin gun embrasures on the rear walls. It's entrance is also protected by an L shaped blast wall. 

Above: The smaller of the two pillboxes. 

Monday, 3 April 2017

Pillboxes at Brampton, Burgh next Aylsham and Aylsham: The FII Stop Line, Norfolk

A long weekend in Norfolk allowed for a bit of pillbox hunting. On the way up, we took in some of the defences of stop line FII, which uses the River Brue and the Broads as anti-tank obstacles (the Broads has little in the way of concrete defences, defence instead relying largely on the river patrols). However, crossings over the Brue between Wroxham and Aylsham are defended by pillboxes and anti-tank cubes. We visited some of the defences at Brampton, Burgh next Aylsham and Aylsham. This was a divisional stop line – i.e. it was intended to delay or act as a deterrent to enemy armour rather than halt it completely (corps stop lines and the GHQ stop line on the other hand were intended to bring enemy armour to a halt).

The bridge over the Brue at Brampton has the classic stop-line defences of anti-tank cubes and a mined bridge covered by a type 22 pillbox. The anti-tank cubes are 5ft square and block the immediate approach to the bridge from the sides; the two on opposite sides of the bridge have iron rails set into them to take further rails to block the road. The bridge would also have been prepared for demolition.

Above: View of the bridge at Brampton from one of the pillbox loopholes.

Above: The Type 22 pillbox at Brampton

Anti-tank blocks guarding the approach to the bridge from the flanks. Note the iron rails set into one of the cubes that would have taken a rail to block the bridge. 

The anti-tank blocks on the other side of the bridge. A block (hidden in the ivy) has rails set into it as well to take the road blcok 

One of the loopholes

The neat interior of the pillbox. 

The pillbox, anti-tank cubes and bridge at Brampton

At Burgh next Aylsham, eight anti-tank blocks also block the approach to the bridge from the sides, but there is no pillbox defending the bridge.

Above: The anti-tank cubes at Burgh next Aylsham

Above: The Burgh next Aylsham War Memorial

Aylsham is a nodal point and was defended by numerous pillboxes, of which at least three survive today. Of these, I was interested in a pillbox built onto a wall of a water mill – apparently constructed by the Ministry for Food to defend the water mill - and constructed by sandbags filled with cement. The most recent information on the internet suggested concern for the future of this pillbox as planning permission had been given for conversion of the old water mill into residential flats. I am glad to say that the pillbox is still extant.

Above: The pillbox constructed from sandbags on the end of a wall of the water mill at Aylsham.

Friday, 25 March 2016

34th Division Memorial, near Poelcapelle, Ypres Saleint

The 34th Division constructed a memorial dedicated to the 'memory of Officers, Warrant Officers, and men of the Artillery and Engineers of the 34th British Division who fought near this spot October-November 1917' next to a  to a German pillbox near Poecapelle. The 34th Division took part in the sixth and final phase of 3rd Ypres (22 October - 6 November), in an action designed to secure the high ground around Passchendaaele, taking part in the opening attack on  22 October 1917.

Memorial to 34th Div. artillery and engineers, near Poelcapelle, sited next to a German pillbox.

Anyone who has visited the battlefields of the Ypres salient will be well aware of the fact that the Germans made much use of concrete pillboxes. As trenches were impossible to dig, the defence was placed in strongly concreted "pill-boxes" in the ruins of barns and farmhouses. The average thickness was around 3 feet, which was proof against all except the heaviest of shells. The German pillboxes were not built to standard designs, but were rather adapted to their surroundings and the extent of the ruins on which they were erected. They were sited to mutually support each other and were quite capable of breaking up and delaying a line of attack. The 34th Division was tasked with attacking such a line of pillboxes. 

The strong construction of the pillbox can be appreciated in these two images. The pillbox was part of the same defence line of pillboxes as the two in the German Langemarck Cemetery. 

"Pillbox" fighting required great initiative in junior commanders. The method of attacking in waves would, and did fail against pillboxes. New tactics were required. The tactics adopted by the British in the summer and autumn of 1917 now involved the sections of a platoon advancing in file, giving the chance of overwhelming a pillbox by the co-operation of the nearest sections while the rest continued their advance. Each platoon was to push on until it was held up by the organised resistance from a pillbox. One section was then to manouvere into fire positions and rake the pillbox with Lewis gun and rifle gun fire, occupying the attention of the pillbox garrison. The neighboring sections then moved around the flanks and rushed the pillbox as the fire section kept up its sustained fire on the pillbox loopholes. A plentiful supply of phosphorus bombs was usually provided for pushing through the loophole and igniting the interior of the pillbox.

This was a difficult enough task in good ground conditions, but almost impossible if troops were 'floundering' in the mud, when they were easy targets for the German defenders or if the pillbox loopholes could not be subjected to fire because rifles and Lewis guns became jammed in the mud.  The 34 Division had mixed success and was relieved by the 50th and 57th Divisions on 23 October.

One can appreciate the difficulties of attacking such pillboxes, and the wide fields of fire this particular one enjoyed.

The Divisional Artillery however remained. The Divisional History records:

'They [the Artillery] had a very rough time in the muddy margins of the Broembeck, and they lost heavily, but they did right good service. The 152nd Brigade covered our front on the fatal 22nd, and fired seven thousand eight hundred and fifty-eight rounds on that day. An ordinary day's shooting was about two thousand three hundred rounds. After our departure they covered the fronts of the divisions that relieved us, and on the 26th they took their share in the attack by the 14th, 18th Corps and the French Army'.

The pioneers were also temporarily detached from the division to assist in laying railways through the newly captured ground. On 26th October, the Division received the following telegram from 5th Army:

'The 34th Division has shown the greatest pluck during its short stay in the 5th Army. Ill fortune and bad weather have prevented its operations being rewarded with complete success, but, despite this, the Division has contributed to the successful coarse of the great battle now in progress. Not the least of its achievements has been the fine work of its Pioneer Battalion on light railway construction'. 

During October, of only which 16 days were spent in the forward area, the Division had a total of 303 Officers and Other ranks killed, 1,089 wounded and 405 killed. 

Nearby is a small neglected private memorial to a French Brigadier of the 2e Regiment Chasseures, whose name is now hardly legible. The 34 Div. memorial is well known on the Ypres 'tourist' circuit, but I wonder how many people take the time to visit this memorial, or even realize the French took part in 3rd Ypres!

Above: Small private French memorial to a Brigadier 2e Chasseurs.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Some Somme British pillboxes

All remaining British pillboxes in the Somme area  date from 1918, after the lines had stabilized after Ludendorff's Spring Offensive, which commenced on 21 March 1918.

The German 1918 Spring offensive swept over the old battlefields of the 1916 Somme Offensive, with the Germans taking the dominating Serre ridge again.  A prominent feature in the area was Jeremiah Hedge, which behind the  the Germans had established dugouts and machine gun posts. If the Germans could be driven off this high ground back into the valley below, the British front line would be more secure and the opportunity for the Germans to resume the attack in this area on the high ground would be denied to them. The task of taking Jeremiah hedge fell to the New Zealand Division, which completed the task on 30 March. The German Offensive died down in Somme area in early April as Ludendorff turned his attention to the Lys for Operation Georgette.  In Jeremiah Hedge, a British observation post can be found, constructed during the summer of 1918, giving excellent views down the valley towards Serre. Excavation has shown that it was a variant of the Moir pillbox design, constructed partly from pre-cast concrete blocks and concrete poured in-situ.

Above: British observation post, Jeremiah Hedge.
Image 1- the prominent feature of Jeremiah Hedge.
Images 2 to 4 - the front of the observation post.
Image 5 - rear entrance to the post
Image 6 - view from the observation post looking down the valley towards Serre.

A standard 3rd Army pattern observation post constructed during the summer of 1918. One of several of this pattern in the area - I posted about another example at Bienvillers last year. This example is in good condition.

Above: Standard 3rd Army pattern observation post, Berles-au-Bois.

At Bienvillers can be found the remains of a British machine gun post built in the summer of 1918. An unusual structure, it appears to be only partially complete - it lacks a roof - and is made of a mixture of mass brick work and concrete. It seems to have a concrete front and embrasure, with mass brick side and rear walls. The remains of another brick wall is nearby.  Was it never completed, or perhaps a roof of elephant iron covered with earth or sandbags was provided? Whether brick was used to aid the camouflage of the post as a building or because it was an easily available material when concrete resources may have been prioritized for the GHQ Line I'm not sure. Mass brick work of 7 ft was said to be proof against 8" shells -  the walls were are  not quite that thick, perhaps being only built to be proof against 6" shells.

Above: British machine gun post, Bienvillers-au-Bois.