Posted: 16 November 2012 09:49

Documents recently lead me to locate a training area used by the Royal Engineers (RE) in 1939-40. Part 1 of this series examines road-making and an anti-tank ditch in this area.

The documents give us a few tantalising snippets of information, but it's not until you piece all of these together from disparate sources and add some fieldwork into the mix that the picture begins to emerge.

The RE Field Companies involved were quite active in this area in the early months of 1940, including digging trenches and setting up barbed wire entanglements. Subsequent posts will investigate some interesting extant features.

The anti-tank ditch actually predates the initial invasion scare of May 1940 and was constructed by the RE on a training exercise - at night!

However, we're going to look at a couple of things before we get to the anti-tank ditch.

Road making

First of all, we need to quickly look at the events of 1st April 1940; No.1 Section of the company were engaged on gardening leave to contribute to the Dig for Victory campaign (rationing had begun in January), No.2 Section were having inoculations, while No.3 Section were engaged on road making.

No.1 Section probably had the better day, raking and hoeing their plots under the watchful eye of Lance-Corporal Thumwood. However, these 'fieldworks' have no known surviving archaeology, and, on account of my own painful memories of army tetanus booster injections, we'll investigate No.3 Section's activities instead:

RE Training Area (1) - Roads and anti-tank ditch

Road making carried out on a road badly cut up by frost and traffic... Work included scarifying and shaping and was carried out under supervision of the Divisional Engineer of East Sussex County Council.

The winter of 1939-40 was particularly harsh and it's easy to see why the road needed renovation; the other sections took turns at progressing the work, which appears to have ended about April 15th.

Part of the road is seen in the photo at right; the wheel ruts show that you can just get two vehicles side-by side on it.

It's interesting that the County Council oversaw the work; although the RE did have specialist road construction companies, the Field Companies literally were the Jack of all trades. The company involved was a Territorial Army unit; exactly one year before, on 1st April 1939, TA units were ordered to move from peacetime to wartime strength. The problem for the Field Companies was their need for tradesmen from bricklayers to plumbers and carpenters and men skilled in any branch of engineering. Such men, however, were often in reserved occupations which meant they were needed to stay in their civilian trades, making recruitment that much harder. Training opportunities such as road making were therefore of immense value; the Company probably gained some valuable experience as a result.

Working routine for night exercises
Reveille 15:00
Breakfast 15:30
Parade 20:45
Dinner 21:00
Works 21:45 - 01:45
Tea 02:00
Works 03:00 - 06:00
Supper 06:30
Lights out 07:00
Reveille 15:00

Night Operations

Secondly, in order to work at night, the daily timetable had to be revised according to the table at right:

The Company had been doing a lot of night working in 1940. In January it had undertaken a night wiring exercise in which it had laid out 220 yards of barbed wire fencing. From the war diary entries, it appears that the fence was triple dannert (concertina) wire, set out in a zig-zag formation.

The exercise seems to have gone well, the work being carried out quietly, aside from too much talking from the men!

Night route marches by compass feature regularly at this time as well; as we shall see in a later post, the British Army was preparing itself to indulge in trench warfare, and so was accustoming men to working silently in the dark in no-man's-land.

The Anti-tank ditch

We now come to the anti-tank ditch itself; the war diary describes the preparatory stages:

Stores were dumped...approximately 300 yards from the site in a sunken road under cover of trees, at dusk. The route to the site and to the work itself were taped at the same time. The party marched to the dump and stores were rapidly and quietly carried to the site. Work done was good, considering the darkness of the night.

The stores were dumped about the point in the photograph above; this section of the road had presumably been resurfaced by this time.

Taking a grid reference from the documents, I sloshed my way though ankle-deep muddy puddles in constant rain to try and locate the ditch. As it was situated in woodland, I had a feeling that it might still be evident, especially as the work was based on an existing ditch.

The wood in question was in many ways unforgiving in terms of earthworks; full of drainage ditches, deep vehicle wheel ruts and boundary banks, potential WW2 features are everywhere. Most second glances at disturbed earth or lumps and bumps ruled out the possibility of WW2 archaeology.

However, walking along a path, stepping over a fallen tree and taking a detour on the advice of my GPS receiver, I found myself looking at a bank and ditch. I instinctively started snapping away with my camera, only to find that I was in the wrong ditch!

I scaled the bank to find the real anti-tank ditch behind it - there appeared to be two parallel ditches, separated by the bank.

The photo below shows the ditch as seen from the top of the bank; the worked section is 31m in length, although the existing ditch is much longer.

RE Training Area (1) - Roads and anti-tank ditch

The profile of the ditch is still evident; the ditch face on the left in the photo below was that worked on by the engineers to make it vertical. This face was then revetted, although no evidence of this could be found. Either the revetment was brushwood hurdles that have since rotted away, or, if corrugated iron was used, this might have been salvaged and reused elsewhere during the subsequent invasion scare.

RE Training Area (1) - Roads and anti-tank ditch

The diagram below comes from Manual of Field Engineering Vol.II, 1936 and shows the profile of anti-tank ditches. The 'Natural Ditch' is probably what the engineers were aiming at producing. The use of the term 'Tank ditch' as opposed to 'Anti-tank ditch is of interest!

RE Training Area (1) - Roads and anti-tank ditch

Now compare the cross-section I surveyed below and the dimensions and shape are comparable with that of the manual. The shape of the ditch has obviously changed due to erosion, subsidence of unrevetted walls and tree growth over the past 70 years, but it's still recognisable as an anti-tank ditch. The 'vertical' face (on the left) was certainly harder to clamber up, though not impossible.

RE Training Area (1) - Roads and anti-tank ditch

Two sub-sections (about 32 men) were engaged on Monday 8th April, with the other sub-sections of No.3 Section working a second shift on Thursday 11th.

The work went well, apart from one of the sentries capturing the Section Commander when he approached from an unexpected direction! Cocoa was prepared under cover at the stores dump on the road and carried out to the working party without any mishaps. At first light, the detachment withdrew, leaving the tools at the dump for unit transport to collect. The only criticism overall was the accuracy of throwing spoil from the ditch onto the heaps, but given the night-time conditions, this was not surprising.

This ditch is important in many ways. Firstly, we know exactly when it was created to the hour - 21:45 until 06:00 on two separate days, and this dating accuracy is unique in my research so far.

The ditch predates the invasion scare that started just four weeks later on 10th May 1940, when construction of the real thing began. We also know it is a training ditch - all the other anti-tank ditches I know of to date were dug as part of the anti-invasion defences.

This is an example of an entirely hand-dug ditch; others, such as the section I surveyed at Crowborough two years ago, were predominantly machine-dug and to newer specifications. By October 1940, new ditch designs had been published that were twice the size of the specification given in the 1936 manual. The disastrous Battle of France had obviously caused a drastic rethink on what was required to stop modern tanks.

Without the documents, even if I had located this ditch, I could have stood in it and easily not identified it as anything military on account of its short length and strange placement.

By knowing that the area was used for training it is easier to interpret unusual features as being of military origin, even if they can't be explained beyond doubt. As we shall see in subsequent posts, there are many strange features on this training ground...

- 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.

War diary

A record of events kept by all units from the point of mobilisation. A diary's contents vary enormously from unit to unit; some give detailed entries by the hour on a daily basis while others merely summarise events on a weekly/monthly basis.

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Hibbs, Peter RE Training Area (1) - Roads and anti-tank ditch (2024) Available at: Accessed: 17 July 2024

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