Posted: 10 February 2008 22:48

Tonight's Time Team episode investigated the anti-invasion defences of Shooters Hill in London which was on one of the capital's stop lines.

I have mixed feelings about this programme; unfortunately my video setup failed, so I've only seen it the once, but I can recall a few points that come to mind.

The archaeology was conducted using the usual methods along with aerial photographs and oral evidence. For me, what was missing from the whole affair was written documentary evidence.

To be fair, I think I remember a couple of references to there being "no paper trail", but an opportunity was missed by not expanding on this and discussing the possibility of documents in the local records office or National Archives. (Again, they may well have filmed something along these lines but left it out of the final edit.) Was there no German intelligence material (mapping, aerial photographs, etc.) that could assist?

To move on to some of the conclusions, I'm not sure that I totally agree with all of them.

The 'shrapnel shelter' is supposedly to protect only against falling splinters from shells fired by a local anti-aircraft battery. This is an unusual supposition to make; if AA guns are firing at aircraft that could potentially drop bombs, wouldn't a conventional air raid shelter be required? It was said that the shelter was at the bottom of a garden. If you only need to protect against shrapnel, then staying indoors would probably be safer than exposing yourself to the danger by going outside to the shelter!

Another oddity is a structure in a garden that is initially described as an air raid shelter. This hypothesis is then ruled out by the discovery of numerous electrical fittings, and suddenly it becomes an operational base for a Home Guard Auxiliary Unit (a secret resistance organisation). I'm certainly no expert on these bases, but the structure stood prominently above ground (despite having a rockery on it) and had full-size doors; a world away from the completely buried bunkers with small camouflaged entrances and escape exits that are known to have been AU bases in Sussex. It may well be an air raid shelter that was occupied as a command post by the Home Guard or Regular Army; Spike Milligan's artillery unit in Bexhill had a switchboard set up in an air raid shelter in a school.

Confusion is caused by the spigot mortar pedestal; the impression is given that the pintle is the 'spigot' which gave the weapon its name. (The spigot is actually the 'firing pin' of the weapon). It was also incorrectly stated that the army rejected the spigot mortar; they were issued to the army, who then developed the later Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank (P.I.A.T.) from it.

Some interesting Home Guard reconstruction was shown, but it was a pity that the spigot mortar wasn't also shown on the excavated pedestal being served by its crew.

Some of the tactical discussion was a bit basic, and the camera spent too much time in close-up shots of toy soldiers and tanks than really trying to describe the relationship between the sites. The programme's promotional tagline was "What would have happened if Hitler had invaded the UK?" This focus on invasion was not typical of the end product; only the spigot mortar pedestal, a removed pillbox beside a pub and the flame fougasse (or 'fugas' as the Time Team website mispells it) were clearly anti-invasion sites; the rest were either civil defence-related or not adequately identified one way or another.

All in all, the excavations were not as interesting as they might have been and I feel that the apparent lack of documentary evidence is partly to blame for this.

The programme 'blurb' states:

Time Team identified a number of sites in the area to tell the story of what might have happened in 1939-45. But is this archaeology? That's one of the many questions they had to answer over the three days of their investigation. The answer is that with so many of the written records from the second world war destroyed, archaeology perhaps gives us the best chance to understand such surviving remains before they disappear.

While some documents did not survive the war, I think the fact that there was no time to fully document everything that went on during the invasion scare was a point that should have been given a few seconds of discussion in the programme.

Archaeology may provide the best chance in the absence of documents in some cases, but I'm surprised that absolutely no documentation could be produced. It seems that the oral evidence located much of what was found and, as outlined above, I'm not sure that archaeology alone provided satisfactory answers.

- Pete

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Pillbox

Generic term for a hardened field defensive structure usually constructed from concrete and/or masonry. Pillboxes were built in numerous types and variants depending on location and role.


Stop line

A physical continuous anti-tank barrier, normally a river and/or railway line, often defended by pillboxes. Stop line crossings (roads, railways and bridges) were to be made impassable.



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Hibbs, Peter Time Team at Shooters Hill (2017) Available at: http://pillbox.org.uk/blog/216542/ Accessed: 22 November 2017

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