Posted: 8 April 2009 14:16
I was so busy at the archives yesterday that I didn't have time to write about some interesting finds.
As I'm not hurriedly writing this whilst snatching a few minutes' lunch in the cafe, I've time to write in far more detail than I normally do.
I was flitting back and forth between various British and Canadian documents throughout the day, the former to try and find information on the Rye area.
I've now tracked down the date at which a sector reorganisation took place in East Sussex. The Canadians held three coastal sectors, roughly Newhaven - Cuckmere River, Cuckmere River to Norman's Bay and Norman's Bay - Camber/Broomhill.
The area from Fairlight eastwards was ceded to a British division, in effect allowing the three Canadian coastal sectors to become two, permitting the third brigade to move in behind them as a reserve.
The result of this is that for me to continue to study the defences of this area I need to fly along the paper trail of another division, which was something I was unsure as to whether I wanted to do. This problem has already arisen out of Lewes initially being outside my area until 1941, but published research indicates that documentation of the town exists in addition to what I've also found.
The Rye sector is slightly different in that it hasn't been researched (to my knowledge) and so I'm pretty much blind. I did some initial research into the division taking over, and established which infantry brigades were under its command.
The first brigade file was annoying as somebody saw fit to archive nothing of use relating to holding Rye, but managed to save a fabulously detailed scheme for the next sector they occupied inside Kent.
I struck lucky on the second brigade; very little documentation of interest but I got the name of the battalion in the Rye sector. I drew this file but to no avail aside from minor detail. I did, however, find that a change of brigades happened about 6 weeks after the boundary change, and so I repeated the process and tracked down the brigade diary in question.
I was relieved to finally find a scheme and then found that one battalion was holding Winchelsea - Rye, but Camber had been placed inside the neighbouring sector! This means twice as much paper to sift through. I wasn't complaining about the scheme though; it held plenty of detail I was previously unaware of, including a list of demolitions. The file also gave me the battalion taking over - more paperwork...
I tried drawing the file of one of the battalions, only to find access denied as it was already out being used - I've had this happen a couple of times before, but it always freaks me a bit to know somebody else has the file I'm after!
The above scenario describes why I was always wary of going outside of the divisions I'm concentrating on - it gets very messy as I have to cope with masses of material related to areas I'm not immediately interested in. A unit may be in East Sussex, but its HQ might be over the border in Kent and it becomes apparent that studying the defences because they're in East Sussex makes less sense than studying them as part of a military area. If I'm going to continue on this line I need to become familiar with parts of Kent; placenames are vital to understanding what you're looking at in these documents, as you can quickly get lost if the unit moves without making it obvious and it takes a while to realise they're now in a different region and your trail has gone cold.
Anyhow, I put these quandaries aside for another day as I had some Canadian documents on the way. First up was the diary of a Field Security unit which offered a fascinating insight into some of the things that went on, such as the use of an air raid shelter as an ammunition dump; while the entrance was guarded, a vent on the roof was left open. Another unit left trucks uncamouflaged in a field with keys in the ignition and a rifle unsecured. Other points reported are the cutting of a signals line, the discovery of sugar in a motorcycle petrol tank, civilians passing through a checkpoint whose ID cards were not in order, the discovery of communist literature at a bus stop and the general state of morale of troops being good.
More serious incidents also ocurred; some children were badly burnt by gaining access to a supply of AW bombs and throwing some around, while relations between troops and civilians in one town were understandably not good following an incident in which a soldier entered a house and indecently assaulted a woman.
A final point of note is a few cases of troops photographing beach defences against regulations. Frustratingly, these were all destroyed at the time; had they been archived then I would be a happy man!
The final (and perhaps most significant) find of the day was the discovery of a defence scheme for Hastings. This area is one of which I was hitherto largely ignorant; aside from the roadblocks and construction details of various defended posts on the outskirts, I had no documents detailing this defended coastal town.
A series of beautifully-drawn maps shows the location of defence positions along the coast line from Bulverhythe to Cliff End at Pett Level, including arcs of fire, artillery fire plan and the location and identity of minefields. The latter was enormously helpful in identifying a series of minefields, mostly at Fairlight.
A bonus was maps showing roadblocks and Canadian pipe mine craters in the local towns such as Baldslow, Ore and Silverhill, none of which I previously knew about. I haven't yet been to Hastings - I'll need to visit at least 19 roadblock locations in the future, but thanks to these new documents, I'll also be able to take in some of the defended areas too.
A glass phosphorous grenade similar in appearance to a milk bottle. The bottle held a quantity of white phosphorous (which ignites in air) in which a short strip of rubber was contained, designed to act as a thickener/adhesive to cause the phosphorous to stick to the target. The bomb was thrown against the target, the bottle breaking causing air to ignite the contents. The bomb could also be fired from the Home Guard's Smith Gun.
A speciality of Canadian Engineers, the pipe mine was designed to render roads impassable to enemy vehicles by blowing a large crater in them. Lengths of 3-inch steel pipe were inserted under a road either by using pipe-pushing equipment or by slant-drilling. The pipes were then packed with explosive and left in place until the road needed to be destroyed. Large amounts of pipe mines were used in a cross-hatch pattern under airfields, to destroy runways. The pipe mine was also known as McNaughton Tubing, after General McNaughton, commander of the Canadian Corps in the UK.
A military plan of defence for a specified area. Defence Schemes were issued at numerous levels. Defence Schemes were later known as Plans to Defeat Invasion on the orders of General Montgomery.
Term applied to a structure scheduled for demolition or already demolished. Walls and small buildings might be taken down to clear fields of fire or impede enemy passage by destroying a bridge. Some demolitions were not intended to be carried out until after invasion had begun, for example, certain bridges or road craters (pipe mines).
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Hibbs, Peter National Archives visit (2024) Available at: http://pillbox.org.uk/blog/216620/ Accessed: 5 March 2024
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