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Defence of Harwich

At Harwich in 1940, the threat from the air quickly became a reality with raids not only from the Luftwaffe, but also from the Italian aircraft flying from airfields in Belgium.  Barrage balloons hanging in the sky above the harbour became a familiar, if somewhat eerie, sight and a variety of anti-aircraft weapons, from World War One Lewis guns to heavy ‘ack-ack’ guns, pointed skywards.  On the coast at Dovercourt, near the swimming pool, a battery of 3.7 inch guns added their considerable weight to the anti-aircraft defences from camouflaged concrete emplacements.  Interestingly, this site later saw the addition of a ‘Z’ battery – a battery of multiple rocket projectors which, on the approach of enemy aircraft, could launch a spectacular shower of small rockets skywards, to result in the quite literally explosive sight of anything over a hundred airbursts.

The major coastal artillery positions were at Landguard Fort on the Suffolk side of the estuary and Beacon Hill on the Essex side.  Between them, the heavy guns of these two fortresses had long protected the area from a seaborne invasion.  Embedded in concrete emplacements, the two huge 6 inch guns at Beacon Hill could hurl a one-hundred-pound shell almost seven miles out to sea.  By the summer of 1940, these had been buttressed by the addition of a twin six-pounder battery capable of firing at a rate of up to 120 rounds per minute.  Across the mouth of the estuary between Landguard and Beacon Hill, a naval defence boom sealed the river.  For in-shore defence, particularly against fast-moving craft, a battery of quick-firing 12-pounder guns in brick and concrete casemates faced across the harbour from Angel Gate.  One of these still survives, together with its coastal searchlight emplacement for defence against a night attack.

Defence against land attack

While a seaborne frontal assault was a threat faced by the coastal defences, there was a similar danger of attack on the town’s landward side.  If German forces were landed along the coast, the town could fall, not to an attack from the sea, but to an armoured thrust on its rear.  To meet this possibility, the Stanier Line was conceived.  Completely cutting off Harwich from a western approach, this formidable two-and-a-half-mile long defence line with its chain of concrete anti-tank blocks, pillboxes, gun emplacements and anti-tank ditches crossed the peninsula from the shoreline at Dovercourt to the River Stour at Parkeston.  Over 800 massive concrete blocks, each five feet high and five feet across, formed the backbone of the line in a virtually continuous string from the coast to Ramsey Creek.  From here, the creek itself was used as a ready-made anti-tank barrier conveniently backed up by a disused railway embankment running parallel to it.  After half a mile, the line left the creek to resume its chain of concrete blocks for the last few hundred yards to the river.  Long since filled in, an anti-tank ditch ran the length of the line, sometimes in front of and sometimes behind the blocks.  Many a golfer will have driven his ball up and over the slight depression across the fairway at the far end of the Parkeston course.  It is no obstacle now, but as an anti-tank ditch in 1940 it had bigger fish to fry.

A variety of infantry and artillery pillboxes punctuated the path of the line, some of them armed with 75 mm guns sent from America.  A road barrier at Dovercourt All Saints church guarded the main crossing point into the town and in the northern sector a cable-type barrier could be raised to block tank access along the railway line into the Parkeston area.

Not surprisingly, Harwich was one of the most heavily defended towns in Essex.  Beacon Hill, with its gun emplacements, observation posts, pillboxes and coastal searchlights, closed down in the mid-1950s, and is now a Scheduled monument.  Some of the Stanier Line anti-tank blocks still remain, although the majority were removed in the years after the war.  There is no trace of the original position of the road barrier outside All Saints church, but the rusting cable of the railway barrier, set in its concrete anchorage blocks, still guards the main line into Parkeston Quay.

© Fred Nash, ECC