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Anti-invasion and Coastal Defences

Along the Yorkshire coast an English Heritage-funded Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey has discovered and recorded a number of First World War pillboxes, or blockhouses, often mistakenly thought to date from the Second World War.

Infantry blockhouse
Infantry blockhouse (pillbox), Spurn Point, East Riding, Yorkshire © Roger J.C. Thomas

The German threat

At the beginning of the First World War, just as in the Second World War, there was a very real fear of German invasion. Prompted by these fears, many Victorian coastal forts were modernised. On the threatened east coast new defences were added, for example the 9-inch battery at Spurn Point, East Yorkshire - a site now being lost to coastal erosion.

Half a million men were retained in Britain for Home Defence.

Lines of defence works, including the first concrete pillboxes in England, were established at likely invasion points in Norfolk, Essex and North Kent and bicycle battalions were created to provide a mobile force capable of reacting quickly.

The areas between London and the coast were given fixed defensive lines of trenches with gun positions. To the north and east were three lines, including the Maidstone-Swale Line where 8 miles of anti-invasion trenches were dug by Royal Engineers.

Soldier standing in trench
Anti-invasion trenches, Boys Trench, Keycol Hill, Kent. The anti-invasion lines stretched between Detling (close to Maidstone, Kent ) to the Swale and Sheppey crossing. Then along the north coast and high ground of Sheppey from Sheerness to Shellness. The mainland section mainly comprised several lines of trenches and wire entanglement supported by hundreds of machine gun positions, pill boxes and buried redoubts and other strong points. Positions for artillery were allocated to the rear. The Swale was crossed by pontoon bridge, the Medway entrance was boomed and the whole of the Sheppey north coast had battery and artillery positions that could turn inland and provide covering fire as well as against amphibious landing. © Royal Engineers Museum

Little consideration had been given to the possibility of naval bombardment of east coast towns. In December 1914 Great Yarmouth, Scarborough, Whitby, and Hartlepool were attacked, but only Heugh Battery, Hartlepool, fought back. These attacks spurred the construction of new coast artillery batteries to defend the Tyne, the Humber and Harwich, together with the defended submarine base at Blyth, Northumberland. The nearby Blyth Battery survives virtually intact, as do two remarkable gun towers at Sheerness, Kent.

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Anti-Invasion/Coastal Defences

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Defence Electric Light Emplacement, Blythe, Northumberland This structure, opened in 1914, housed searchlights to illuminate the sea off the east coast to spot German warships and U-boats. Listed Grade II. (Ioe 236083/14650/02)
  • Godwin Artillery Battery, Spurn Point, East Yorkshire, 2009 The ruined remains of a coastal battery that housed 9 inch guns, built in 1915 on a narrow spit of land to defend the port of and the Humber Estuary against attacks by German warships. (NMR 20933/001)
  • Haile Sand Fort at the mouth of the Humber Estuary, 2006. One of two coastal forts built in 1915 and manned by army personnel to defend the Humber Estuary against attack by German warships. Listed Grade II. (NMR 20617/017)
  • Bull Sand Fort at the mouth of the Humber Estuary, 1998. The larger of two coastal forts built in 1915 and manned by army personnel to defend the Humber Estuary against attack by German warships. Listed Grade II. (NMR 17096/043)
  • Cliffe Fort, Medway. One of the 19th-century forts along the Thames Estuary that was used during the First World War to defend the approaches to London from attack by hostile naval forces. The fort is Scheduled. (26604/008)
  • The ‘Great Naval Mystery Tower’, Southwick, Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, 1920 The tower was built during the war to defend the country against U-boat attack. The unfulfilled plan was to use a line of eight such towers to form a boom across the Straits of Dover. Only one was completed, just before the end of the war. In 1920 it was towed to the Isle of Wight where it was sunk over the Nab rocks to become the Nab tower lighthouse. It is still in operation in 2014. (OP25301)
  • First World War armoured train carriage. Constructed at Swindon Railway Works, such carriages would have formed part of a specialist train that carried troops patrolling the east coast to repel any enemy invasion. © Swindon Railway Museum
  • Interior of First World War armoured train carriage. The troops travelling in these carriages would have had to stand or lie down. The ‘loopholes’ along each side were for firing rifles. © Swindon Railway Museum
  • Centre Bastion – anti-invasion defence, Kent. During the early part of the First World War, there were very real fears that England would be invaded. As a result, extensive anti-invasion measures were put in place by Royal Engineers in a 10-mile area of Kent, stretching from near Maidstone, through Swale and on to Sheppey. These included lines of trenches, barbed wire entanglements, pill boxes and hundreds of machine-gun emplacements. © Royal Engineers Museum
  • Hendry Lunette Stockbury, anti-invasion defence, Kent. Machine-gun position designed to fire along the trench. © Royal Engineers Museum
  • Mud Row pill box and warden, anti-invasion defence, Kent © Royal Engineers Museum
  • Spider’s Castle, anti-invasion defence, Kent. Machine-gun emplacement. © Royal Engineers Museum