Posted: 29 October 2011 18:26

Stone gatehouses, water-filled moats, dry ditches and burning oil - all Medieval methods of defending a town. In the case of Winchelsea, these were the chosen methods of defence in the 20th Century too.

If you already know Winchelsea, then you'll be aware of its location on high ground, its Medieval heritage and its grid system of roads. The location of the town means that the ancient military strategem of holding the high ground still rang true in 1940, when the town was designated as a Nodal Point.

The town sits on a promontory that rises up to a height of 30 metres out of low-lying marshland. This waterlogged terrain increases the value of the road network to the invader, and so roadblocks take on an extra significance that they perhaps do not have in other Nodal Points.

The nature of the landscape is such that you can't really bypass Winchelsea without taking on numerous water-filled dykes and ground not suitable for mobile warfare, whilst being shot at from the high ground. Not good if time isn't on your side - you have to fight through Winchelsea instead. It may take as much time (or longer) as crossing the marsh, but at least you get the roads and high ground under your control if successful.

Winchelsea has 'moat' defences in the shape of the River Brede and the Royal Military Canal, the latter being an artificial defence work dating from the Napoleonic Wars. In 1940, the Canal became a Stop Line and was defended by Type 22 pillboxes.

Medieval gateways still stand at three of the four roads that lead from the low marshland up to the heights.

Take a look at the map below; there's a lot of information on it. For now, just note the roadblock and flame jet locations; I've coloured the 50ft (15m) contour in pale green and the 100ft (30m) contour in red to emphasise the ground.

Roadblock Recce (34) - Winchelsea

A lot of these locations are self-explanatory; the A259 is the main road approaching from the west and has two blocks in quick succession, one situated on a bridge.

Further south, we again have two roadblocks and some interesting activity at the Medieval New Gate, seen below.

Roadblock Recce (34) - Winchelsea

The first block was either in or very near, the gateway. Given the narrow lane, the combination of hairpin rails in sockets and buoys indicates a hefty block. The documents show that this block was initially completed in September 1940, but a quantity of cylinders was added at a later date.

The photo below shows the scene from behind and to the north of the gate; the second roadblock was completed three days after its neighbour and was slightly larger in terms of obstacles, given the need to cover roadside verges. It was situated on the bend in the road.

However, we have yet another obstacle in this photo; an anti-tank ditch. To the right of the gate there is the Medieval "Town Ditch", which was part of the original fortification. However, the records show that the bank (possibly on the other side of the gate) was steepened to enhance the anti-tank defence. This work was completed on 26th August 1940.

Roadblock Recce (34) - Winchelsea

Moving over to the other side of Winchelsea, Strand Gate straddles the road from the north:

Roadblock Recce (34) - Winchelsea

Roadblock Recce (34) - Winchelsea

Strand Gate is on the top of the high ground and was the site of a block comprising 17 buoys, later bolstered with 18 cylinders.

The 1941 Roadblock Report calls for a series of hairpin rails to be added, although whether this was ever effected is not currently known.

Again, for such a narrow lane, this is a large number of obstacles.

By 1942, another layer of defence has been added in the form of a flame jet.

This fearsome weapon involved dispersing oil from a tank through a network of pipes fitted with jet nozzles and igniting it to produce a burning road surface.

This was expected to have a demoralising effect on the enemy, aside from the physical damage to tanks, oxygen starvation due to combustion and thick, blinding smoke.

The view from inside Strand Gate at right shows the nature of the road looking down the hill; narrow, with a steep drop on the right and a high bank on the left.

It was in this bank that the flame jet was installed.

The bridge over the Royal Military Canal was blocked to prevent access from Winchelsea Beach, but Strand Bridge was not blocked, but prepared for demolition instead.

Ferry Bridge was blocked to prevent Winchelsea being bypassed; there is no sign of any of the pimples, buoys or cylinders that were recorded here in 1941. It too, was scheduled for demolition, and is perhaps a parallel for the Roman Army technique of "burning your bridges".

The photo below shows the view from the bottom of the hill upon which Land Gate stands.

Roadblock Recce (34) - Winchelsea

Roadblock Recce (34) - Winchelsea

You can see the sharp hairpin bend that would slow tanks down (the speed limit here today is 15mph) before a slow ascent.

Again, flame jet apparatus would make the going difficult for the invader.

Having made it to the top, any surviving tank would then face a roadblock of pimples, buoys and cylinders, and possibly hairpin rails too.

The only surviving roadblock evidence I could find at Winchelsea was a solitary buoy at a nearby road junction.

This was probably one of the 18 originally at Land Gate.

Winchelsea is a fascinating example of a Nodal Point in terms of landscape and defences - and I haven't even discussed the Canadian Pipe Mines, flame fougasses, pillboxes, anti-aircraft guns and searchlight!

What stands out for me, though, is that Winchelsea should be substantially defended by Medieval stonework, wet moats, dry ditches and burning oil raining down on the invader - and all this in what was to become a nuclear war!

- Pete

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Anti-tank ditch

Ditch designed to hinder movement of tanks and AFVs. Ditches could be entirely artificial or existing ditches or natural features such as rivers, might be dredged, shaped and revetted to improve their effectiveness.


Buoys

Small concrete roadblock obstacle comprising a truncated cone with domed base. A hollow shaft down the centre allowed the buoy to be manhandled using a crowbar. Buoys were deemed of little value by 1941 and cylinders seen as a better solution.


Canadian pipe mine

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.


Cylinders

Reinforced concrete cylindrical obstacles with a shaft down the centre in which could be inserted a crowbar for manhandling, or a picket for barbed wire. Cylinders were 90cm high and 60cm wide and deployed in groups of three as a more effective alternative for buoys.


Demolition

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).


Nodal Point

Defended road junction(s), usually within a village/town with a Home Guard garrison intended to deny enemy use of the roads. Nodal Points were not to defend the village, but solely the road network. Category 'A' Nodal Points were to hold out for 7 days after invasion without outside assistance.


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.


Pimples

Small anti-tank block in the form of a truncated pyramid. Pimples were used to extend anti-tank obstacles and roadblocks and were intended for use on soft ground.


Sockets

Concrete-lined shafts dug into road surfaces into which rails or RSJs (hairpin or straight) could be inserted to form a roadblock. When not in use, a wooden cover was placed over each socket.


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.


Type 22 pillbox

A small hexagonal pillbox for six men not commonly seen in East Sussex, though a few still survive along the Royal Military Canal stop line.



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Hibbs, Peter Roadblock Recce (34) - Winchelsea (2017) Available at: http://pillbox.org.uk/blog/216689/ Accessed: 22 September 2017

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