By Geoff Moore: www.thetraveltrunk.net
Zeroing in on central Wiltshire, England for a weekend escape to the country has opened my eyes to a time in history that when I lived there seemed to have pass me by.
Staying in Marlborough, a town with the widest high street in the UK and a well-known public school has helped to improve my wartime education no end.
When I lived near the town, way back in the 60’s, I had no notion that the fields that I played in and the canal I fished in were planned to be killing fields for Nazi’s in 1940.
The General Head Quarters Line or GHQ Line which used the east to west running Kennet and Avon Canal as part of a key static defensive line should have Hitler’s troops been ordered to invade the South coast of England and if they got a foothold.
This would have been the line drawn in the South of England where it was likely that a different battle of Britain was to be fought, this time on the ground.
The battle site would have been the place where had it failed then the jack-booted march to the Midlands would have been next for the invading army and Britain’s industrial heartland its next target.
What started as a series of canal walks over a weekend break ended in a history lesson for me.
With a proliferation of World War II bunkers, pillboxes and anti-tank structures to be found along the canal it starts to become obvious that something was afoot. And a quick Internet search soon reveals more of the story.
In my childhood the bunkers and buildings were generally off limits as scary dark places but on this latest trip I was starting to spot a number and with torch in hand, investigate them more fully.
Most are located within a shortish walking distance north of the canal and from those pillbox vantage points in 1940 the fields of fire would have rained down on the assaulting troops and tanks as they closed in on the canal from the south.
With the GHQ line ‘Blue’ running from Reading in the east to in the west Bradford on Avon a front of around 60 miles was established. Scattered along that section there are literally hundreds if not thousands of structures most were built shortly after the evacuation from Dunkirk.
This was a time when Britain was at it most vulnerable to attack. It had left a massive amount of its armour and equipment on those beaches of Northern France and an invasion certainly feared as operation ‘Sea Lion’ was in the planning by the Germans.
Hastily built defences were ordered and constructed by local contractors working to pre-designed War Department plans. Mainly they were to be staffed by ‘Dad’s Army’ or Home Guard volunteer soldiers.
In all there was around 7 different basic designs some suited for anti-tank guns, mortar, machine or ‘Bren’ gun positions.
With a central anti-ricochet and deflection wall to stop direct fire into the entrance and also from random incoming rounds entering through the narrow outward firing slots and bouncing around injuring the other occupants.
My first encounter on this trip was in fact a triple treat nearby to today in the 21st century the well-known but different invaders of crop-circle enthusiasts.
This hot spot central meeting location that is the Barge Inn at Honeystreet near Alton Barnes is a good starting point.
A short stroll back over the canal bridge and along a private road on the northern side, then into the field at the end. Almost opposite the pub it is possible to find not just one but three pillboxes two in the middle of the field and one next to the canal itself.
Other structures such as anti-tank cylinders can be found often adjacent to the entrances to bridges that cross the canal although many have been removed over time.
The canal would have been a major obstruction to the invading army too. And no doubt the whole length of its southern side would have been mined for sure if needed. But it had fallen into disrepair and was not the water filled obstruction that it might have been as you see it today walking along its now tranquil towpath.
Getting enough water into the canal was always a problem and the pumping station at nearby Crofton, itself and industrial heritage gem today and well worth a visit, although closed in the winter. It may well have been a bombing target for the Germans in advance of their invasion in order to keep the canal as dry as possible.
However with further heavier artillery assets bearing down on the approaching invaders coming up from the south this section of Wiltshire could have been the major killing field. Criss-crossed by fire from those bunkers, pillboxes and probably from longer range guns from cover behind the high chalk downs 2 miles away it had all the makings of a classic military confrontation which in the end never happened.
The canal today carries a stream of narrow boating holidaymakers and enthusiasts from London to Bristol. It once carried vital goods in the 19th century for export and import east and west and even today it carries another high-speed stream. Broadband via fibre cables that run along under its towpath that were installed some years ago.
A week-end get away that turned into a history lesson that maybe at the time of my youth when I lived at Stanton St Bernard I just did not understand or indeed appreciate. However in later life you comprehend much better and ponder what may have been!
Travel photographer, writer and blogger Geoff Moore has been a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers for 10 years and has traveled the world for over 30 years.