Posted: 17 August 2016 20:45
Seeing in the news today that excavations are to begin in the search for a "Nazi gold train" buried in Poland, I thought I would discuss some of the myths I come across relating to the war in East Sussex.
You may be able to detect from my tone some scepticism about the Nazi gold train, but this is by no means the first such rumour of "wonderful things" buried in perfect preservation. Just search online for "Burma Spitfires" or "Hitler diaries" and you'll see that sometimes, things are too good to be true.
I come across a lot of stories in my travels; many are pure fabrication, but some are based on a nucleus of fact that just needs some of the outer layers to be unravelled and disentangled.
I present below some of these whoppers and innocent misconceptions, as they need to be clarified and, where appropriate, shot down. I am aware that by posting them here, I may be helping to perpetuate some untruths, but fairy tales are part of our culture and these myths are interesting in themselves.
The story: A Churchill tank was bricked up in a secret chamber in Clayton Tunnel; in the event of invasion, the wall would be knocked down and the tank free to wreak havoc amongst the Germans.
Why it's a myth: I was told this story by a friend (who didn't believe it for one second), who heard it from somebody else and this is perhaps how most of these fallacies arise. This story is wrong on so many levels that I won't waste time explaining them all.
In a nutshell, even if the tank gets out of its hidey-hole, it has a railway cutting hundreds of metres long at either end of the tunnel, effectively trapping it like a rat in a barrel. I'll stop here as I could go on for ever...
The story: There are many variations on this; I have heard of consignments of Home Guard rifles and ammunition being thrown into village ponds. There is even a pond in Sussex supposedly with German helmets in it!
Why it's a myth: Stores such as weapons and ammunition were accountable and had to be returned when required. The Home Guard's firepower was often boosted by affiliation to the local Army units. The Lewes Home Guard Battalion reported that, thanks to Canadian assistance with supplies, they handed back more weaponry than they officially had on issue!
While such overstock may have lead to confusion with some caches being forgotten about (some AW bombs were unexpectedly found on a building site near Eastbourne in 2015), I find it hard to believe that weaponry would find its way into the local duck pond. If it became common knowledge that this was done, the local kids would have been trying to salvage it all! The only aquatic dumping of ammunition I know of was the Government's wholesale ditching of surplus stocks in the North Sea and Irish Sea after the war.
However, it is known that the Canadians did bury tanks (presumably during the post-war clean-up) on training areas on the Downs and this may be the source of some of the mythical arms dumping. I have one known location from an archive document, and of course, the Churchill tank at Storrington, (West Sussex) (photo below) was exhumed some years ago to prevent damage to agricultural equipment.
The story: Oil was to be pumped onto the water and set ablaze to incinerate German troops as they landed.
Why it's a myth: This is one of my pedantic myth-busts; although the Sea Flame Barrage was developed as a weapon, tested at Studland Bay in Dorset with film footage and photographs (below) to prove this, the weapon was actually developed to burn the oil on the beach, not on the water. There were two Flame Barrage, Land installations at Camber. I covered this in more detail last year.
The story: Following the Allied defeat in France, the only ground force in the UK was the Home Guard. I am often told that the Home Guard would have manned all the pillboxes and I have seen this in supposedly reputable TV documentaries too.
Why it's a myth: This idea does not account for the fact that Britain had a Regular and Territorial army before the war, and that 338,000 Allied troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk and other places in May-June 1940. There were also Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders based in the UK and available to confront invasion.
The Home Guard comprised units of men raised locally to defend their particular town/village by manning roadblocks and watching for German paratroops landing. The TV sitcom Dad's Army focuses solely on the Home Guard facing invasion while not emphasizing the presence of the Field Army. This has probably influenced the wider perception of the Home Guard and it also portrays the Home Guard as mostly old men, but hey - it's fictional! The Home Guard Auxiliary Units were a highly-secret resistance organisation, designed to come into operation after the invasion, but the battle would have been fought with the Field Army at the forefront and in command.
The story: I often have people tell me that all the pillboxes and other defences constructed in East Sussex in WW2 were built by the Canadians. If it happened in the county, then the Canadians were responsible.
Why it's a myth: Canadian involvement in East Sussex in 1940 was minimal; just two pioneer companies and one battalion from 1 Canadian Division in the Lewes-Brighton area. The bulk of defence works were constructed by British Army units and civilian contractors.
While there is a strong association of Sussex with the Canadian Army, people forget (or just don't know) that British units were the most prominent in East Sussex 1939-41 and 1944-45. 2 Canadian Division arrived in East Sussex in July 1941 and by the end of the year were in residence, handing over command to the other Canadian divisions in turn. In 1943 1st and 5th Canadian Divisions left for the Mediterranean, while 2nd, 3rd and 4th Divisions had left for France in June-July 1944. At least two books devoted to Canadian forces in Sussex have been published, perhaps reinforcing this myth.
The story: Rudolf Hess landed in Sussex to begin his peace mission.
Why it's a myth: Hess landed in Scotland. Fact.
I was told this odd story by a chap who had been a child when Hess supposedly ended up in his kitchen, having been rounded up by his father with a shotgun. The story was regaled with a performance reminiscent of something Spike Milligan would be proud of, although it was not meant to be comedy - he really did believe it!
The story: During the war Friston and many other airfields were prepared for demolition in the event of invasion. After the war, the army forgot to remove the explosives and they are still live in the ground where the runways were.
Why it's a myth: Friston had two grass runways; in 1942 a series of Canadian Pipe Mines (long steel tubes of explosive) were buried beneath the airfield using special ploughing equipment. Had the Germans captured the airfield, the explosives would have destroyed the runways, preventing the Germans from using them.
Archive documents show that the mines had been laid by August 1942 but also removed soon after the war. The removal work began on 24th September 1945 and the Pioneer Corps had removed 222 pipe mines by October.
The story: Due to the grave situation Britain was in, the Army didn't have time to document defence works.
Why it's a myth: The Army did keep documents - it's just a matter of finding them!
Part of this myth can perhaps be traced back to Henry Wills, author of Pillboxes: A study of UK Defences 1940 (1985). In his introduction he wrote:
No doubt the pressure of work in 1940 prevented too much paperwork being filed, and the end of the Defence Regulations and the birth of the Property Services Agency in place of RE Works Services contributed to a clear-out of old documents....Even now, ten years after my first interest in pillboxes began, I have found few official records remaining...
We need to be fair to Wills here though; he was the pioneer in the study of anti-invasion defences. In his day, the National Archives catalogue was a series of bound volumes and not electronically searchable to the extent it is now. Something we know today (as a result of major works such as The Defence of Britain Project and Defence Areas Project) is that a substantial amount of documentation lies within the files of the Army units themselves; these are indexed only by unit name, which doesn't make the task of finding documents much easier.
However, some people still cling to the myth that there are no documents, but this is not Henry Wills' fault. In some cases I think it's an excuse not to do the hard work of archive research, but a secondary myth that springs from this is that there is nothing left to research. I occasionally encounter somebody, who, upon hearing about my work will say words to the effect of "I dunno why you're bothering - it's already been done!" closely followed by a couple of recommended book titles I already have. I can very definitely say that study of the subject has not "already been done" - to say that it is is to be fundamentally ignorant of the nature of history and archaeology. New evidence is always being uncovered, new interpretations and new technologies will always mean that the work will never be complete!
The story: The structure in question is a single underground chamber accessed by a hatch in the roof and it was built for use by the Home Guard Auxiliary Unit resistance unit.
Why it's a myth: It's actually an underground water tank built in 1936 to store water for the adjacent golf course! I get a couple of emails about this tank every year and its possibility of being an Aux Unit structure. There is a logical connection here, between underground room and top-secret wartime activity, but I think incorrect conclusions are arrived at partly because people want it to be part of the secret - it makes a good story! I wrote a piece on this in 2012 .
The story: A large site (now developed) at Isfield comprising Nissen huts and Romney huts was an army camp; a railway siding was added in 1940 and used during the Dunkirk evacuation. See this Sussex Express story from 2014.
Why it's a myth: The Sussex Express story falls foul of myth no.5 above by associating the Canadians with the Isfield site. I compiled a report on the known history of this site as part of the full archaeological report and came to the conclusion that the Canadians were nothing to do with the site. Archive documents show that far from being a "camp" involved with the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940, the site was actually a Royal Engineers Command Storehouse constructed in 1944. Both Army and Southern Railway documents prove that the railway siding was not installed until the end of July 1944. There were two army camps in the area, but these were for British troops marshalling in preparation for Operation Overlord. Documents show that these camps were closed down before the storehouse was open, thereby disassociating them. It may take some time for the Isfield myths to be acepted as such; I've had some heated debate on social media regarding it, but local legend seems to be more persuasive than archive research at the moment!
These are but a few anomalies I've come across in the past ten years and I've done my best to set the record straight(er) by posting the above. If you have heard any tall stories about East Sussex during World War Two, I'd be interested to hear them!
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 study based on 67 areas identified from the Defence of Britain Project database as good examples of areas where significant portions the defences still survived, the study of which resulted in William Foot's Beaches, fields, streets and hills.
A large project run by the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) 1995-2002, collecting data on 20th century military structures submitted by a team of some 600 volunteers. The result was a database of nearly 20,000 records which is available online. The anti-invasion section of the database contains nearly 500 entries for East Sussex.
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).
The codename for the Allied invasion of occupied Europe on 6th June 1944.
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.
Incendiary coastal defence work wherbey oil is pumped from tanks along a pipe network, released onto the surface of the sea and set aflame.
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Hibbs, Peter 10 Myths of WW2 Sussex (2023) Available at: http://pillbox.org.uk/blog/245137/ Accessed: 4 December 2023
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