Shalford is a Member of the Hundred Parishes Society
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In a week’s time we will mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Although all the many planned public celebrations have been halted by Coronavirus, we can quietly contemplate some of the local heritage from those times. The first part of this message was submitted to all parish magazines as an article for their May editions. We do not expect many parish magazines to be printed again until the Coronavirus crisis is over although some will appear on their parish websites.
Many of us are familiar with pillboxes: those squat concrete buildings dotted around the countryside, often overgrown and merged with the landscape. Many will be aware of their connection to the Second World War but their origins go further back.
The purpose of the pillbox was to protect a gunner while offering him a good line of vision. The concept was developed in the First World War and first used in 1917. Early constructions were of a circular shape, hence the term pillbox. In the Second World War they were first used by the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders.
The last batch of pillboxes was built almost 80 years ago to resist a possible invasion of this country. Thousands were installed in 1940-41, many in coastal locations or in defensive lines across the south and east of England. Others were built to form a box around London, but stray examples appear in other places
Pillboxes varied from the one-man Tett Turret to big emplacements for two pounder anti-tank guns. The most common shape was hexagonal. The Royal Engineers decided on the sites and they were built to government specifications by local contractors, although in practice the work was often carried out by volunteers who were paid a “dole”. It is thought that about 15,000 were constructed, of which perhaps two-thirds survive.
Within the Hundred Parishes about 45 were built, mainly as part of a line stretching between Chelmsford and Cambridge, often beside the Chelmer and Cam rivers which formed a natural anti-tank barrier.
The pillboxes were virtually obsolete as soon as they were built, being designed for an invasion that never came.
In Great Waltham parish a “World War Two Trail” of around 4 miles passes thirteen surviving pillboxes around Hartford End with informative interpretation panels.
Another WWII trail passes through parts of Saffron Walden and Audley Park. Several interpretation panels along the route include one on London Road outside the Uttlesford District Council offices. Close to the panel is another survivor from the 1940s: an emplacement for a “spigot mortar”.
A mortar is a lightweight weapon that fires explosive shells. Thousands of spigot mortars were issued to the Home Guard in 1941 and 1942 in preparation for a possible invasion. Concrete bases were constructed at strategic defensive points, each topped with a round spigot upon which the weapon could be mounted and swivelled. Each position would be manned by three soldiers, crouching in a pit some three feet deep around the concrete gun emplacement.
Nowadays, these emplacements can be spotted because of the stainless-steel spigot. Only a few inches in diameter, the spigots are mostly still bright and shiny after nearly 80 years.
Other surviving spigot mortar emplacements can be seen around the Hundred Parishes in Newport (near the bottom of Sparrows Hill), Stansted Mountfitchet (in Church Road near the railway), with two beside the River Chelmer opposite the former brewery at Hartford End. I would be interested to hear of any others that survive within the Hundred Parishes.
I attach some photos of pillboxes and spigot mortar emplacements.
More information on the spigot mortar, pillboxes, etc can be found on the website of the Pillbox Study Group: http://www.pillbox-study-group.org.uk/other-wwii-defensive-structures/spigot-mortar/
Another source is the Defence of Britain database – where it’s possible to look-up individual pillboxes, etc, https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archsearch/record.xhtml.
Those of us who are ‘allowed out’ during the lockdown have been treated to exceptionally fine Spring weather. In particular, almost every one of my local woods around Stansted Mountfitchet has been putting on a spectacular display of bluebells.
The trustees wish all members a safe passage through the present challenging times.
Secretary to The Hundred Parishes Society