Our 'greatest hour' in the Surrey landscape


Landscapes have hidden faces waiting to be discovered. This article is the result of a voyage of discovery embarked upon after finding a World War II structure lurking in a English field.

The great historical geographer W. G. Hoskins said that the British landscape was the result of man rather than nature. We have been changing our environment since the invention of agriculture in post Ice-age Britain. The rolling hills of Surrey show a domesticated charm of coppiced woods and patchwork-quilted fields nicely trimmed with hedges. It is a landscape we can feel comfortable with as it wraps us in a rural dream of rose-covered cottages.

One day, while lost in country lanes between the A25 and the A246, I noticed a relic of the Second World War squatting toad-like in a field. The incongruity of the pillbox and its site stuck in my mind, a mental itch waiting to be scratched.

Local history is a field full of mushrooms waiting to be picked and eaten, and the pillbox proved to be a mushroom of platter size. The first clue regarding the pillbox came in a new book being produced by Graham Collyer and David Rose using material from the archives of the Surrey Advertiser, namely "Guildford: The war years 1939-45". A whole chapter is devoted to the pillboxes under the guise of the GHQ Stop Line that dotted our landscape "from Kent to Somerset, and from the Thames estuary to the Wash". It was created to stop Hitler in his advance across our green and pleasant land if he had managed to pass the barrier of the Channel and invade our shores. In the words of Messrs Collyer and Rose "Constructed rapidly on what was a shoestring budget, its aim, in the event of an invasion, was to slow down the first wave of enemy motorised columns while giving precious time for reserve troops to arrive."

In winter our gardens sleep, and the leafless trees reveal the wider landscape to our eyes. It seemed a good time to chase the GHQ Stop Line across Surrey, working out the reasons for their locations. I went back to that first lone pillbox in a field at Combe Bottom, Combe Lane (OS Landranger series 187, grid reference TQ 067486). From Combe Lane you get a clear view of the structure; however, a green lane off the metalled road leads you to the back of it. This green lane is well hidden by high banks populated with trees. Visions of 'Dad's Army' characters going up it with leafy twigs in their helmets as extra camouflage, on route to sentry duty at the pillbox, sprang to mind. You can enter it by clambering up the slope and carefully manoeuvring yourself into the opening, partially blocked by trees less than fifty years old. Inside it is dry and sound. It does get visited from time to time as the beer bottles on the floor testify to. You can lean on the wide ledges made for the guns and look out over the Surrey countryside; they give a clear view across the A25 to Albury Park. It would have controlled access to three of the roads traversing the North Downs heading for London between Guildford and Dorking.

The Combe Lane pillbox, photograph by Judy Farncombe

Crossing the A25 trunk road you enter an area liberally dotted with G.H.Q Stop Line structures. East Shalford Lane has a large pillbox designed to accommodate an anti-tank gun as well as Bren guns. This meant that it has a very large opening where the anti-tank gun would have been fired from, and a correspondingly large opening at the back so that the soldiers would survive firing it!

Now the front opening looks at a tree, but if it were removed you would see that the sight line was intended for the bridge crossing the Tillingbourne River. Assuming the main roads would be fiercely defended, these structures would stop the German Army's motorcades from flanking the defenders using the country lanes. My accompanying war expert assured me that some of the major campaigns on the continent (The Ardennes) were fought over similar terrain.

The idea of tanks and men moving up the winding lanes was not so ludicrous as all road transport would have travelled up similar routes. The East Shalford pillbox perches halfway up a slope covered in trees. You can get to it by walking across a boggy field or by using the footpath going up the slope and then following the tree-lined brow and dropping down the slope to reach it. The boggy route is shorter but requires stout waterproof footwear.

The third pillbox we visited was at Halfpenny Lane, on the rise up from Chilworth Manor and on route to Guildford. It has gun sights covering the lane in three places. This one still has metal faces on the windows for the Bren guns. It is not hidden by any undergrowth and is easy to reach across a field.

Opening for Bren guns in a World War II pillbox, photograph by Judy Farncombe

The outside of a gun emplacement, at the Halfpenny Lane pillbox, photograph by Judy Farncombe

 

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In C. Alexander's work titled "The G.H.Q. line: Pillbox defence line of 1990", held at the Surrey History Centre in Woking, he tells us that the actual siting of the pillboxes was the task of Officers from the Royal Artillery and seemed to have been haphazardly done. The defence line was established along waterways, on higher ground and natural strong points. Individual pillboxes were sited from visual considerations, a rough field of fire was determined and the direction in which the pillbox would have to face established. If the contractor pointed out a reason why it could not be built, it was moved to a more convenient location. Trees, bushes, scrub and other obstructions to the field of fire were removed during construction. This publication also gives important information regarding the conception of the line. It had been put forward in Operation Instruction No.3 by General Edmund Ironside, Commander-in-Chief of Home Forces. He presented it to the Chiefs of Staff on June 25th 1940. The plan consisted of a three-tier system of home defence. They were coastal defences along 500 miles of probable invasion beaches, with infantry divisions devoted to them. Stop lines and nodal points set behind coastal regions and extending up to fifty miles inland; and the G.H.Q anti-tank defence line, a fixed line of continuous anti-tank traps and obstacles supported by pillboxes. This carefully sited line being set fifty miles behind the south and east coasts, with a G.H.Q. Reserve of three infantry and one armoured division deployed behind it.

As the fascinating story of this ingenious defence of our land began to unfold I realised that we have a precious relic of the Second World War in our midst. Our very own Maginot Line hidden in the landscape. What was being done to protect this little known treasure? Chris Shepeard of the Surrey Industrial History Group said that the G.H.Q. Stop Line has not yet been scheduled for protection. There are an estimated two thousand sites across Surrey and until a survey has been completed they will remain unlisted. This is due to the desire to only list the best examples within such a plethora of riches.

The 'Defences of Britain' Survey was started in 1990 and is held at Duxford, Cambridge and those parties involved in finding the relics report them there; and also in the case of Surrey, to County Hall. Surrey has chosen to protect two pillboxes, as they have become the habitats of rare bats.

The pillbox at Halfpenny Lane, by Judy Farncombe


From time to time planning applications are made regarding sites containing remnants of the Stop Line and then County Hall gets in touch with those involved in the Surrey Defence Survey team. They then report back to County Hall regarding their findings. Sometimes permission is given to destroy the item concerned. In one case, the new student village in Farnham, the contractor lived to regret it as it took five days and much heavy machinery to destroy a pillbox.

I hope that some of this wonderful and inventive defence system gets protected under the law. We often hear people going on about the War, and here is a chance to save a relic of it for future generations, an inventive answer by our 'make do' and impoverished grandfathers to a fearful future. Do not let us lose it through short-sightedness.

©Judy Farncombe 1999

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