In the summer of 1940, invasion of mainland Britain seemed a very real prospect. The evacuations from Dunkirk had left the army with a massive shortage of all kinds of weapons, particularly tanks and anti-tank guns. Until the armament factories could make up the deficit, a landing by German armoured divisions would be difficult, if not impossible, to stop.
However, while there was a serious weapons problem the one thing there was no shortage of was... concrete. Concrete for pillboxes, anti-tank obstacles and gun positions. During the following months, lines of concrete defences were constructed all over Britain, and a number of these ran through Essex - including the coastal ‘outer crust’, the Eastern Command Line, the GHQ Line and the Outer London Defence Ring. This latter line, one of three around the capital, completely encircled London; sometimes following rivers, sometimes a massive anti-tank ditch, it ringed London with pillboxes and road barriers. Curiously, around North London it more or less followed the path of the present M25.
In Essex, the anti-tank ditch started at the River Lea at Nazeing and zig-zagged its way across Perry Hill to Bumbles Green before swinging southwards through Epping Upland to Copped Hall. This entire section is dotted along its length with pillboxes - huge octagonal type FW3/27A’s with walls 3’ 6 thick. These powerful pillboxes were designed to accommodate up to 10 men with their weapons. In the roof was a central well, open to the sky, in which a machine-gun could be mounted as an anti-aircraft defence. With the shortage of automatic weapons, this would almost certainly have been a Lewis gun from the First World War - the sort of machine gun normally associated with WWI biplanes.
From Copped Hall southwards to the Essex boundary, and probably all the way to the Thames, the pillboxes have long since been demolished and there is no obvious indication of where the line ran. Dug wide enough and deep enough to stop tanks, there is now virtually no trace of the ditch.
However, aerial photographs taken by the RAF in the late 1940s show not only many of the pillboxes which have now been demolished but, unmistakably, the crop-marks and spoil remains left by the filled-in anti-tank ditch as it made its way, field by field, southwards.
From Copped Hall, the scar left by the ditch can be seen cutting through Epping Forest to emerge at Debden Green. Onwards it went, around the eastern side of Loughton – although this entire area has now been built over – to Debden Station. Here, for the crossing of the main railway lines, the ditch was interrupted and anti-tank blocks took its place. After following the road south to Rolls Park, the ditch struck out across country to leave the county at Chigwell Row. Throughout this length there were pillboxes at regular intervals and anti-tank barriers at all road crossings.
From its entry at Nazeing to its departure at Chigwell Row, nothing now remains of the Outer London Defence Ring anti-tank ditch. Except in one place. It is still possible to make out the remains of it in Epping Forest, although now not much more than a shallow, boggy depression. If you want to visit, park the car at Jack’s Hill on the B172 Waltham Abbey/Theydon Bois road. This was a crossing point, once with a road barrier. Walk southwards just 100 yards, not down the wide track known as Centenary Walk, but along a narrow path a few yards to the west of it. The wide depression that was once the anti-tank ditch is on your left between the path and Centenary Walk. On the north side of Jack’s Hill, the depression can be seen heading directly into the woods on the west side of the new, wide track. It eventually meets the Epping Road just west of Ambresbury Banks, an Iron Age fortification over 2000 years older than the World War Two defences.
© Fred Nash, ECC