The pillboxes on the Canal formed defences against possible invasion during WWII
The Big Picture
In May 1940, after the evacuation from Dunkirk it was feared that Hitler’s forces would soon invade England. A top-level survey was undertaken in order to make a detailed plan to build lines of defence to delay an invading army. In remarkable time work began to build thousands of pill boxes, anti-tank obstacles and gun emplacements that would form a series of stop lines between Bristol and Kent. The static stop lines were to be put in place to provide limited protection to vulnerable points and would be designed to delay the enemy to allow mobile reserves to get into place to delay further and destroy what they could.
The lines relied on natural obstacles like rivers, canals, high ground and marshes together with railways and cuttings. The plan was agreed a month later and construction started almost immediately. Royal Engineers assisted by local construction firms and casual labourers worked tirelessly and under a constant threat of Luftwaffe reconnaissance. However, it is uncertain exactly who built the St John’s positions. There were apparently about 20,000 pillboxes, weapon emplacements and obstacles built during this phase of the war.
The St John’s Pillboxes
The Basingstoke Canal was part of the series of defensive lines and St John’s still retains the remains of two pillboxes right beside Kiln Bridge (above and left). There are also a few remaining examples in the area: a small bulletproof pillbox and other defensive positions at Curzon Bridge in Pirbright and a well-preserved pillbox at Brookwood Bridge below Lock 15. Finally, close to Monument Bridge in Woking there is a mortar position still visible.
Kiln Bridge was locally important as it was a canal crossing and it was also thought that invasion gliders could land on the Lye. Apparently, there were poles and wires put up to prevent gliders from landing.
There were 3 pillboxes in the Kiln Bridge area but one was demolished in favour of a car park. The two remaining boxes are converted buildings. The conversion would have meant reinforcing the walls and inside providing X or Y shaped brick walls to defend against ricocheting bullets and shell splinters. The “loopholes” or firing ports allow weapons to be brought to bear over a wide arc of fire whilst providing the firer the maximum protection.
The larger pillbox is directly on the canal below the Cutting Edge barber shop and a few doors down from Bellini. It has 5 loopholes and covers towards St John’s Lye. The second is right next door to the barber shop on the roundabout, facing downstream towards the St John’s Flight of locks. It is difficult to imagine exactly how the pillboxes would operate as there is not a full picture of the other weapons and obstacles that would have been nearby. The pillboxes were probably manned by local volunteers from St John’s although troops from the close by Inkerman Barracks could have been involved. The local volunteers would have used whatever weapons they could lay their hands on! Tree growth and housing density would have been different then. The pillboxes would certainly have provided observation of any enemy approach and would have brought fire to bear if possible. They would have been in contact probably by a land line (or runner) to a headquarters close-by who would coordinate incoming information and pass up the chain so that decisions could be made where to deploy the mobile reserves. The plan was never tested as the invasion never came but we will never know how much of a deterrent all this turned out to be!
Sadly, most of the eye witnesses are no longer with us and the old photo albums have moved on. So, it has been difficult to build a full picture of the context of the situation at Kiln Bridge in the 40s. I have done my best, using some fact and a little imagination!
I must acknowledge the help I have received from Tim Denton (Author of Wartime Defences on the Basingstoke Canal*) and the Pillbox Study Group. I have also used information and the B&W picture from historian Iain Wakeford (writer of Local Defence Volunteers/Woking History Society) and been assisted by David Rose. Local St John’s residents have been invaluable – Cllr Graham Cundy and Ken Halls. Roger Cansdale, the Society’s own archive was very supportive! Finally, thanks to Seb Jones at the Surrey Historical Environment Record.
Richard Kelly, Basingstoke Canal Society Volunteer
*Tim Denton’s booklet Wartime Defences on the Basingstoke Canal is obtainable from the Society’s online shop, or from the Canal Centre, price £4.50 incl. p&p.