In the summer of 1940 Britain faced a desperate situation. The defeat of the Allies in France and the subsequent evacuations across the Channel from Dunkirk had resulted in a third of a million men escaping from German hands. However, this achievement was not without great cost. Whilst the major part of the British Expeditionary Force had been saved to fight another day, almost all of their equipment, armour, vehicles and heavy guns had been lost.
Faced with the possibility of impending invasion and the prospect of fighting the German armoured divisions with few tanks and little anti-tank capability the problems confronting the Chiefs of Staff were considerable. The blitzkrieg campaigns in Poland and France had amply demonstrated the dominance of tanks on the battlefield. If German armour was landed on the shores of Britain it would be extremely difficult to contain, let alone destroy.
In those early days, it was thought that an invasion could equally come on the East Coast of Britain as on the South Coast. Essex could have been an inviting target. Like the South Coast counties, it was within fighter aircraft and dive-bomber range but, unlike those counties, if offered a short cut to both London and the industrial Midlands through relatively flat countryside largely free of natural anti-tank obstacles. During the summer of 1940, the county was feverishly fortified against attack - with multiple lines of anti-tank defence, with strong points around towns and villages, with pillboxes, gun emplacements, road barriers and anti-aircraft gun sites.
On the coast, there are few natural harbours north of the Thames. Harwich, at the mouth of the River Stour, offered a vital deep-water anchorage to Allied shipping. To guard this precious port against air, sea or land attack was a major priority for the defence planners.
The District of Rochford could have felt itself particularly vulnerable. Not only did it guard the back-door to coastal Southend but Rochford airfield and Canewdon radar station would surely be among the first to be attacked by paratroopers in the first hours of an invasion.
Inland, multiple lines of defence were rapidly constructed. Around the capital there were three concentric lines. The outer of these ran through west Essex from Nazeing to Collier Row. In the absence of a convenient river on which to base the anti-tank defences, a huge ditch was dug, up to 20 feet wide and 12 feet deep. Behind this, concrete pillboxes were sited every 200/300 yards with interlocking fields of fire.
To many people during World War Two, the roar of ack-ack guns in the night epitomised Britain hitting back; to show the enemy bombers that they were not going to get it all their own way. Across the country, anti-aircraft batteries fired millions of shells and Essex, sitting across the route to London, was home to a great many of them.
One of the longest lasting secrets of the war was the role of Britainís decoy bombing sites - dummy airfields, docks, railway yards - built to persuade German bombers to drop their loads on the open fields of the decoy rather than their intended target. At least one report, on the effectiveness of these sites, remained under wraps for forty years, until it was eventually released from its Top Secret classification in 1985.
On 14 May 1940, Mr Anthony Eden, the Secretary of State for War, gave a BBC broadcast. He asked for "large numbers of men between the ages of 17 and 65 to come forward... to join a new force... the Local Defence Volunteers". The effect was immediate and overwhelming. Even before he had finished speaking, queues were forming at local Police Stations throughout the country. Within 24 hours, over a quarter of a million men had volunteered for service in what was soon to be renamed... The Home Guard. In company with every other county, Essex responded in huge numbers to the call to arms and, during the following four and a half years, the men of this remarkable organisation were to secure their own place in the history of the county.
© Fred Nash, ECC