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AA sites of the Royal Gunpowder Factory

Long before the outbreak of war, as early as 1910, the likely targets of bombing raids had been considered.  The magazines and cordite factories, mainly grouped within easy flying range around London, were thought to be particularly vulnerable and, as war approached, they were given the highest level of priority, along with dockyards and weapons manufacturing plants, for the few available guns.

The Royal Gunpowder Factory at Waltham Abbey had been manufacturing explosives since the 17th century and it is known from surviving records at the Public Record Office that the site was among the first to be armed against air attack.  These "Approved Armaments" records were compiled by the War Office throughout 1914-1918.  They show the whereabouts and types of all the guns issued across the country.  Unfortunately, no more than a handful still survive but those that do provide us with a reliable, and immensely valuable, record at specific spot dates.  Thus it is known that four months before war came on 4 August 1914, the factory was defended by two Vickers one-pounder pom-poms and one of the first 3inch 20cwt guns.  This is reported as being "not yet mounted".  Nine months later, at the beginning of the Zeppelin offensive, two 6pdr Hotchkiss guns had been added.  These were essentially the same guns which lined the sides of World War One Cruisers, fired high explosive from the sponsons of MKIV "Male" tanks and, stretching their useful life forward to the Second World War, were emplaced in many pillboxes as anti-tank guns!

By February 1916, "Approved Armaments" had grown considerably and the deployed guns at Waltham Abbey were now listed under six separate locations, none of them identified other than by their names.  "Monkhams Hill" and "Cheshunt" are each shown with a 6pdr Hotchkiss, clearly those listed the previous year.  "Enfield Lock Water Tower" has the 3inch 20cwt gun which had been shown in the earlier listing as being "not yet mounted".  "Grange Hill" and "Crooked Mile" each sport one of the original one-pounder pom-poms.  "Hill 100" is shown as having a 3inch Q.F. (quick-firing) 5cwt gun.  This gun, just produced by the Elswick Ordnance Company, was an attempt to alleviate the shortage problem.  However, only fourteen were ever issued as a low muzzle velocity made them too inaccurate for the purpose.  Finally, as a travelling back-up, a 13-pounder gun is listed, which, mounted on the back of a lorry, ferried between the sites.

As a measure of how much "Waltham Sub-Command" had grown after two years, an analysis dated November 1916, again unearthed from archives at the Public Record Office, lists 409 personnel manning the anti-aircraft defences.  These include 16 officers, 26 Staff-Serjeants and Serjeants, and 150 Gunners, besides supporting Rangetakers, Observers, Telephonists and Cooks.  The Commandant warranted the only motor car while the two Captains had to make do with motor cycles.  The 20 bicycles were shared out between the Rangetakers and Observers.  Intriguingly, the number of "Gun Stations" is shown as five two-gun and two one-gun, a total of seven sites with twelve guns.  The identity of the sites is not shown but it is thought likely that the twin sites were Monkhams Hill, Cheshunt, Enfield Lock Water Tower, Grange Hill and Hayes Hill (of which more later) and the single sites Hill 100 and Crooked Mile, although this is by no means certain.

The final issue of "Approved Armaments" which has been traced comes in July 1917.  However, only Cheshunt and Enfield Lock are mentioned, both under Northern Sub-Command.  Whether Waltham Sub-Command as a separate unit had ceased to exist by that time is not known, nor whether the other sites under its control had by then been abandoned.  Northern Sub-Command was part of a broad swathe of sites protecting London from an attack from the north and it appears that the two Waltham sites listed had been incorporated into this more general anti-aircraft barrier.  By that time the 3inch 20cwt had been widely adopted as the standard weapon of AA defence and all the eighteen sites within Northern Sub-Command were equipped with it.

Emplacements and Gun Rings

Any field survey of Waltham Abbey’s World War One gun sites could do no better than to start at "Monkhams Hill".  This lies immediately to the east of the Royal Gunpowder Factory North Site which it overlooks.  On the top stands what may be the original 6pdr Hotchkiss emplacement, a raised platform of brick and concrete measuring 37 feet by 29 feet.  On the west corner, one of the two brick shelters still survives, while in the centre a six-foot-diameter steel gun mounting plate is still embedded in the concrete surface.  However, as with much of this subject, there is a question mark.  It can be seen from the brickwork that although constructed in the First World War, it was clearly repaired during the Second.  Close to the emplacement there are the base remains of WWII accommodation buildings.  Was the emplacement re-used, for another gun, during the Second World War?  In which case the mounting plate is not for a Hotchkiss but for another gun entirely.

It is known from the records that the other 6-pounder allocated to Waltham Sub-Command was emplaced at "Cheshunt".  But, where was this?  Although a WWII heavy anti-aircraft gun site stood west of the A10 Great Cambridge Road, there are no known records showing the location of the earlier site.  However, it was finally discovered, like many "lost" sites are, from old aerial photographs.  The same shape as that at "Monkhams Hill", it lay on the west side of the River Lea, just north of Cadmore Lane.  After the Second World War the area was given over to gravel extraction and nothing of the site now remains.

"Enfield Lock Water Tower" was another which presented problems in its location, until it became clear that it referred to the water cooling towers at Brimsdown Power Station.  Aerial photographs from the 1940’s - these are the earliest available - confirmed it.  There the site was, in a field totally dominated by the power station and its cooling towers.  Once again, the familiar shape of a "Monkhams Hill" emplacement could be seen but this time there were a number of other enclosures, and at least one overgrown circle, possibly the gun mounting ring for the 3inch 20cwt gun referred to in the historical records.  By 1947, however, all had gone, to be replaced by the industrial buildings of Bilton Way.

"Grange Hill" on the other hand, is very different.  From the summit, virtually all of the South Site is laid out as a panorama, and embedded in the grass are the remains of three AA emplacements, the largest of them 20 feet across.  Although the World War One records only once identify "Grange Hill" individually, with a one-pounder pom-pom, it is known that most major sites evolved to accommodate 3inch 20cwt guns, usually two.  From the size of the concrete aprons and their indentations - the steel mounting rings themselves have been removed - it is apparent that two of them did indeed hold these guns.  The third comes as a surprise, a physical confirmation of WWI sites being used again during the Second World War.  It is an emplacement for a 40mm Bofors gun, one of the best-known of all World War Two anti-aircraft guns.  First produced in Sweden and then under licence in Britain, this light, quick firing weapon was employed throughout all theatres during World War Two and would have been a natural choice against low-flying aircraft attacking the Royal Gunpowder Factory.

"Hayes Hill" is something of an enigma.  Two anti-aircraft gun "holdfasts" - the steel mounting plates - are embedded in an ovoid concrete base on the summit of this low hill.  One is clearly that for a WWII 40mm Bofors, just like that at "Grange Hill".  The other is a mystery.  It is much larger than the Bofors, approximately 5 feet square, and has a number of locating studs upstanding.  Both holdfasts may, of course, have been emplaced during World War Two - there is no mention of the site in the WWI records - but equally, and again like "Grange Hill", the site may have been established during the Great War for one gun and re-activated with the Bofors 25 years later.

In locating and identifying these sites, "Hill 100" is an interesting example of how cartography can provide a vital clue.  Immediately to the east of Waltham Abbey South Site there is a low hill, shown by Ordnance Survey maps to be exactly... 100 feet high.  Initially the site of one of the few 3inch 5cwt guns in the First World War, the hilltop is locally remembered as an active anti-aircraft gun site in World War Two.  In 1946, however, the site was cleared and the field returned to agriculture.

And, finally, "Crooked Mile".  Just like the others, there was no guide other than the name.  The Crooked Mile is a road leading north from the centre of Waltham Abbey.  Aerial photographs from the 1940’s, not for the first time, came to the rescue.  In a meadow between the road and the North Site stood the now very familiar shape of the platform, with its shelters.  By 1960, however, it had been demolished and the area is now light woodland. 

© Fred Nash, ECC