After the successes of German paratroops in the invasion of Holland and Belgium it was quickly realised that any seaborne attack on Britain’s shores would be preceded, in the opening hours, by an airborne assault on airfields in the area. It was estimated that with the aircraft and forces at its disposal, Germany, in the first 24 hours, could drop up to 10,000 paratroops on the South East. Any airfields taken could be immediately used to ferry in heavily-armed infantry to outflank and cause chaos behind the waiting beach defences.
The District of Rochford lies immediately to the north of Southend, guarding virtually every route out of the Borough. One of the best-known landmarks is London Southend Airport. First established as a landing ground for the Royal Flying Corps during World War One, Rochford Airfield was again requisitioned at the outbreak of World War Two and by 1940 had become an important fighter station. However, if it were to be taken by a surprise paratroop attack, this lynch-pin of local air defence could become an open door to the otherwise formidable coastal defences of Southend.
Nor would the airfield have been an easy place to defend. In many respects the District of Rochford presents something of a defensive enigma in that, for a coastal area, it has less to fear from a seaborne invasion than might be expected. This stretch of the coastline, north of Southend, is naturally protected by sandbanks and mud flats which have become the graveyard of many ships in the past. But the countryside itself is generally flat with wide expanses of almost perfect terrain for paratroops to land, assemble and attack.
The answer to the airfield’s defence came in... pillboxes. Lots of them. Hexagonal pillboxes, mushroom-shaped pillboxes, anti-aircraft pillboxes and some specially designed for the job. Between the runways, retractable pillboxes, known as Pickett-Hamilton forts, were emplaced in the grass. On the perimeter, pillboxes stood to the north, south, east and west. In the fields of the surrounding parishes almost every piece of open ground had its sentinel pillbox. In all, as many as fifty pillboxes were built within a radius of three miles from the airfield.
To the north-east, at Canewdon, the military had the same problem. Radar, which was to play such a vital part in Britain’s defence throughout World War Two, but particularly during the Battle of Britain, had been developed in great secrecy during the 1930s. At Canewdon, one of the country’s first ‘Chain Home’ stations had been established, one of five to track Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s flight to Munich in September 1938.
The site was split into two halves, the receivers set in earth-covered concrete bunkers a few hundred yards north of the transmitters. From each, the great pylons - those for the transmitters were 360 foot high - soared into the sky above the small village. However, the naturally open landscape which made the area ideal for the siting of a radar station made it, just like the airfield, particularly vulnerable to an airborne attack. Again, the answer came in pillboxes. In an area of less than one square mile, at least twenty-one of these squat machine-gun emplacements were constructed, guarding both parts of the site with inter-locking fields of fire from their loopholes.
Many German bombers passing over Rochford on their way to bomb London in 1940 must have regretted the choice of route as they were bombarded by at least seven heavy anti-aircraft gun batteries. Crossing the coast at Foulness, they would be met by the 3.7 inch guns at Fisherman’s Head, Ridgemarsh Farm and New Burwood, the lethal shells reaching up to 23,000 feet and beyond. Leaving Foulness behind, the guns at Great Wakering and Sutton would open up, each firing 25 rounds per minute. Seconds later, these would be joined by the batteries of Hawkwell and Rayleigh.
Later on in the war these sites, set up to combat the German bomber squadrons, would add their firepower to those formed up along the coast to counter the V1 flying bomb menace.
However, the defence of Rochford District during World War Two is not just about concrete and steel. It is about men and women; those of the A.R.P., Civil Defence and Auxiliary Fire Service; the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) and Parish Invasion Committees; the fire watchers and ambulance drivers. And it is about the Home Guard.
The Home Guard
1st Essex Battalion Home Guard covered the south-east of the county from Wickford to Foulness, including Canvey Island and Southend-on-Sea, until September 1942 when the latter became a battalion (16th) in its own right. The 1st Essex consisted of five companies: Canvey Island, Southend, Rayleigh, Rochford and Wickford. Rayleigh Company was commanded by Major W. T. Wormington with sections at Thundersley, Rayleigh, Hockley, Rawreth and Hullbridge. Rochford Company was commanded by Major H. Langdon Dowsett with sections at Wakering, Shopland, Paglesham, Stambridge, Rochford and Canewdon.
For officers and N.C.Os, courses on leadership and battle tactics were held at the Crown Hall in Rayleigh. Battalion field training took place in the meadows on the south side of Lower Road, Hockley, opposite The Dome, where two nights were spent under canvas. Firing ranges were built here and although there had been a chronic lack of weapons in the early days of the Home Guard, later in the war, when the problems had been overcome, “we were able to shoot Northovers, spigot mortars with operational shell, tommy guns, stens, Brens (‘borrowed’ from the Regular units stationed in Rayleigh at the time), Browning automatics and revolvers, of which there seemed to be a plentiful, if unauthorised, supply.
One night, Rayleigh Company were holding a Platoon Commanders conference at their headquarters in Love Lane when the meeting was suddenly interrupted by an air raid on the town. Blazing incendiary bombs were showering down and two crashed through the roof of the school next door. The loss of the school was averted through the prompt action of one of the Home Guard privates who grabbed a ladder, climbed to a high window and dropped into the school where he was able to put out the fires.
What Survives Now?
A surprising amount still survives at Rochford. Many of the fifty pillboxes which protected the airfield are still extant. Between the runways, two of the three retractable type, the Pickett-Hamilton forts, are thought to remain embedded in the grass. Around the immediate perimeter, six pillboxes still survive including a rare "mushroom" type and an even rarer anti-aircraft type FW3/23. The underground rooms of the battle headquarters, to co-ordinate the defence of the airfield, are still there. Within a three-mile radius as many as twenty-three more pillboxes still guard the open fields.
At Canewdon, not too much of the original radar station remains. The receiver site has been completely cleared and the site is now an open field. No one would ever know that momentous events were once tracked from here. Three hundred yards to the south, the bunkers which held the transmitters are still there. The huge 360 ft steel towers are gone, although their base plates remain. Interestingly, one of the towers did escape the oxy-acetylene cutter. It was moved to Marconi at Great Baddow in the 1950s and now stands high above the Chelmsford skyline. Of the twenty-one pillboxes which dotted the landscape around the Canewdon site, eleven still survive.
However, any bomber now crossing Rochford would have little to fear from the World War Two heavy anti-aircraft gun sites. Six of them have disappeared. Happily, the remaining site, at Sutton, has been declared a Scheduled Monument, its four concrete gun emplacements saved for posterity.
And the Home Guard? The Home Guard will always be with us, its comradeship, dedication and enthusiasm perpetuated by the archive of local memory.
© Fred Nash, ECC.