The Bridgwater Stop Line (at the time called the Taunton Stop Line) is a line of World War 2 defences built in the summer of 1940 stretching from the mouth of the River Parret to the Devon Coast on the English Channel. For Bridgwater History Day 2020, Bridgwater Town Council Leader Brian Smedley researched it’s history and told the story including a fictitious German invasion and major attack on Bridgwater and the Stop Line. A film is available on YouTube and we reproduce the text here.
The Rise of Fascism in the 1930’s
In the 1930s Fascism was on the rise. Less than 20 years after the war to end all wars there was another one planned. And this time the British government appeared to be turning a blind eye and followed a policy of appeasement. It took the small somerset town of Bridgwater and a famous by election to change that policy
In September 1938 the British and French governments caved in to Hitler by signing the Munich agreement and effectively sold out Czechoslovakia for the promise of peace in our time. This was the reality of appeasement. But in Bridgwater a by election was held. The popular radio broadcaster and News Chronicle journalist Vernon Bartlett was elected on a policy of standing up to fascism, opposing appeasement and defending Czechoslovakia.
Hitler was not a happy Nazi and reportedly choked on his breakfast and vowed a terrible revenge on Bridgwater. Probably, Though, that’s not actually recorded. Less than a year later Britain was at war.
In September 1939 Germany invaded Poland and British troops crossed the English channel once again the British would have to stand up another countries dastardly empire building with their own empire…and the ..er…French Empire.
But things didn’t go well.
Despite the kind of valiant resistance you’d expect from the Poles, Poland was quickly conquered and ¼ of a million people had died, the majority being civilians. In the west the allied armies paused and for the next 6 months, stayed paused.
In England we were out of the range of these deadly German bombers. Especially Bridgwater in fact more people were killed in accidents during the blackout than in enemy action. But people were worried, as was the government. ‘The Bomber will always get through’ was the fear. ‘War will come from the skies’ said HG Wells. And people had witnessed the horrific bombing by the Fascists of Guernica in Spain in 1937 and now of a whole nation as Poland was blitzed into submission.
The Germans had conquered Czechoslovakia and now Poland. In April 1940 things changed as the Germans invaded and conquered Denmark . And then Norway, diverting British troops and the Royal Navy across the North Sea. Then in May a major offensive westwards . First neutral Holland fell within 4 days -by a combination of bombing, paratroops landing in the centre of cities such as Rotterdam and rapid tank attacks. The offensive continued into Belgium and British forces engaged
On May 10 the Chamberlain Government fell and Churchill became PM. The next day the Germans broke through the French lines at Sedan and split the allied forces. The British army was in retreat with only the sea to fall back on
Britain Stands Alone and Prepares for Invasion
Back in Britain the new Government started planning for a possible invasion. On 14 May Anthony Eden announced the creation of a Home Guard -Local Defence Volunteers -in fact an armed citizens militia -something no government had even countenanced before- but now they had to.
Crucial here was the socialist writer Tom Wintringham who had fought as an International Brigader in the Spanish civil war and as a result urged arming the working class under the slogan ‘a peoples war for a peoples peace’. Ironically he was never allowed to join himself as it barred Communists…….and of course, Fascists….probably for the best, that last one.
But this wasn’t the Dads Army of tv legend -large numbers of these volunteers were experienced veterans of world war one and knew how to handle weaponry.
In Dads Army you might have seen a motley bunch of shopkeepers and bank managers-but in the most the Home Guard was working class. In Bridgwater 6 platoons were created including 1 entirely from railway workers and one from cellophane workers
Now they had to organize and train them. Within a few days they were armed..well…with armbands.
But no matter how many armbands were issued, this wouldn’t stop Hitler. He wasn’t a terribly nice bloke at best of times and he knew he had to smash the British or at least make them submit and become a vassal state so that he could turn his real attention to the soviet union. ..and there were people in the British ruling class who thought..maybe that might not be such a bad thing…
And the British weren’t doing that well…..
On 19th May General Gort gave the order to save the British Expeditionary Force and by the end of the month the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ had happened where the whole army-plus quite a lot of french and Belgian troops -had been whisked to safety…sadly without their equipment. The British army actually had some of the best light tanks and heavy guns in Europe. But now they were…well, ‘in Europe’ and the army was ‘back home’. Weapons, fuel, rations, medical supplies and crucially lots and lots of transport vehicles were all in the hands of the enemy
And with the fall of France the enemy was now on the English channel and England was no longer out of range of German bombers and British shipping easier target for German u boats, but Churchill was having none of it as he said in his many biographies ‘his whole life was leading up to this moment’
Stop Lines are Prepared
On 27 May the Home Defence Executive was formed and General ironside weas told to find a way of defending against an invasion….and without very much mobility….he came up with ‘stop lines’ such as the Taunton one (which we’re calling the ‘Bridgwater one’..because in fact Taunton wasn’t even in it)
These were lines of static defence which protected first the landing points but….should they not hold – then secondary defence lines..such as ours… and finally the GHQ line itself to protect London and the industrial midlands. So the enemy…and our own people…knew we meant business. Coastal defences were thrown up-such as this pebble dashed pillbox at Porlock Then the strongline itself–From Bridgwater to the Devon coast a secondary stop line was created along the line of the River Parrett- Along the Bridgwater Taunton canal-which ran alongside the river creating a no-mans land betwixt the two hinging on the canal, river and rail confluence of Creech st Michael. Here the old Chard canal was re-excavated and linked to the river axe and then down to the coast.
If this line failed to hold the levels would be flooded and troops would fall back to the final GHQ stop line covering Bristol . This would run from Highbridge to Glastonbury via Godney along the river Brue to Frome. On joining the Kennet and Avon canal…..and .with its HQ charmingly set in the Bekynton tea shoppe in Wells
On 1st June the police were armed – a big psychological moment for the British people
On 4th June Churchill gave his stirring rallying speech ‘we will fight them on the beaches, in the hills, in the streets, on the landing grounds’…essentially giving away all the British plans….and , turning to a colleague famously-but quietly-adding ‘ and we’ll fight them with the but ends of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got…’
On 13 June the ringing of church bells was banned-only to be rung again in time of invasion
On 14 June Paris fell and Churchill announced ‘the battle of France is over and we expect the battle of Britain is now to begin’ – Hitler knows he has to break us in these islands if he is to win the war.
War Comes to Britain
The Germans started to assemble invasion barges along the channel ports. U boats roamed the shipping lanes of the Atlantic attacking supplies, Ireland remained neutral, its ports and harbours potentially dominating the western approaches. Neutral states, however hadn’t fared well so far in this war….what if they should come from the west….? The Bristol Channel was fortified
On June 30th the first British possession was taken as the Channel Islands were occupied by the Nazis
By July Britain was being bombed and the RAF fighting desperately to hold off superior numbers
July 18th Burnham on sea was hit with 2 people killed and 70 homes damaged. And to prove that no one was safe, some bombs also hit the villages of Mark and Cossington.
Bridgwater hadn’t seen much evidence of war so far. Although within days of war breaking out 800 children has arrived by train from London and shepherded into Eastover school, issued with a bottle of milk and given a medical and then to be rationed out to local residents for their safety as London was expected to be bombed sooner rather than later.
On 1st August 1940 the first bomb hit Bridgwater. A massive landmine landed at Bankland farm out at Fordgate creating such an impact and leaving such a crater that in the early morning light the first responders were surprised to see hundreds of elvers hanging glittering from the trees
On 14th August Heinkels were intercepted over Puriton Hill on their way to bomb Cardiff and one crew found itself parachuting into the arresting arms of the Bridgwater home guard who inflicted 1 casualty- in fact one Herr Flick.
24th August the air raid sirens sounded in Bridgwater itself as 200 incendiaries were released over the brickyards by Cranleigh Gardens, Colley Lane and across the river into Southgate Avenue where 3 houses were destroyed and 7 people killed including ARP warden Len Wilkins as he was putting his boots on and housewife Daisy Balham found the next day seated in her chair in her under stairs air raid cupboard peeling beans for Sunday dinner
Bridgwater had faced its first act of war-but would it be the last? Nope.
Hitler knew that if he was to defeat Britain he would have to land troops here and to do that he would have to destroy the RAF so that his forces could roam freely across the skies and facilitate landings – but he would also need to sweep the Royal Navy from the English Channel.
Britain was alone -neither the USA nor the Soviet union were in the war at this stage and the German army had already conquered 9 countries including France-which it had failed to do in 4 years and now did in 4 weeks. How easy would Britain be? Would ironsides ‘stop lines’ work….?
On September 7th the church bells rang out across southern England -it was the signal for invasion.
Massive German air raids hit the final RAF bases within range of the channel and then concentrated on the channel ports backed up by the recall of U Boats from the Atlantic
The RAF was destroyed and those elements that weren’t were compelled to withdraw to the north of England
The Royal Navy was bottled up in its home ports and excluded from the channel by minefields and submarine activity
The code word Cromwell was issued….incidentally a last minute change of plan as the original code word ‘Caesar’ unwisely had referred to someone who had successfully conquered England..
German paratroopers quickly landed in the south downs and backed by cross channel heavy guns seized key ports at Newhaven and Folkestone.
100s of German barges filled with troops and heavy weaponry were towed across the channel without hinderance from the royal navy or RAF , landed on the Kent Sussex coast and immediately headed for London
But the line held- Britain had been reinforced by American weapons and commonwealth troops – the GHQ line was holding to the south of London and the royal navy and RAF were regrouping
Hitler launched his secondary plan ..code name ‘Harpoon’ where decoy actions in East Anglia and south west England now became actual flanking movements
Paratroopers landed in south Devon securing the Exe estuary and allowing a landing facility for German troops and tanks which quickly -seized Exeter -cruelly changing every X in Exeter into a swastika.-and then heading north and east along the A38 and A30
A diversionary force engaged defences at Chard bt couldn’t break through but the main thrust would come at Bridgwater – which – if it fell – would open the quickest route to Bristol and the industrial midlands, divert British troops from the south eastern GHQ line and London would be taken.
Churchill and King George would be clapped in irons and thrown in the tower and Wembley stadium turned into a museum for German Footballing triumph….unthinkable
The Somerset stop line stretched from the widest part of the river in the north where a diamond of pillboxes surrounded the barrage balloon hangar on the Pawlett Hams and then running along the east side of the river Parrett.
In Bridgwater itself the western half of the town would be evacuated and in fact bombed by the RAF to prevent it being easily occupied, whilst the eastern part of the town – from river to railway line (in fact the present day boundaries of the Eastover ward) fortified as an ;’anti-tank island
and then the line of the canal south through somerset bridge down to Creech st Michael, more pillboxes, anti-tank traps and Bridges mined and ready to be blown on the approach of enemy forces- still visible today.
And of course we all know now the great battle of Bridgwater turned the course of the war- the Germans were repelled with heavy losses.
The successful policy of interior lines and a mobile reserve meant that the British were able to rapidly switch reinforcements to key areas –
And while the Bridgwater defences held the royal navy retook the channel and cut supply lines-the British army counter attacked and swept to victory across the south west peninsula and heroic actions at Wiveliscombe, Bishops Lydeard and Spaxton are now remembered by every school child across the country on ‘Bridgwater Day’-September 22nd…my birthday..and coincidentally that of Arthur Lowe.
But there was tragedy….including the infamous ‘Highbridge unpleasantness’ whereafter artichokes were never grown locally again for fear of the flashbacks……
And for Hitler, waking up to the name Bridgwater on his front pages twice in his life time was too much so he shot himself 4 years earlier than planned and the war ended a lot sooner than everyone thought it would
……………….Of course it didn’t
Lets go back to September 7th
What Actually Happened
On Sept 7th the church bells did indeed ring out…and the code word Cromwell was issued…..BUT…..the massive German air-raids in reality changed focus from the RAF to the cities and in one stroke took the pressure off the British Airforce which regrouped and had famously won the battle of Britain by mid-September
The Royal Navy never lost control of the English Channel…nor would it
To make things worse the German army didn’t have the resources for a major amphibious operation and field commanders constantly advised Hitler against an invasion -General Halder saying ‘it would be like putting my men through a sausage machine’. And that’s not a good Saturday afternoon.
General Allenbrooke in his diaries also clearly said he would have used mustard gas without a moments hesitation-even on the beaches
The German navy was the most fearful of even attempting an invasion – they knew the weather in the channel was totally unpredictable and really not the best conditions for towing flat bottomed river barges even the smallest of distances. And in fact barge conversions wouldn’t be finished properly until mid-September by which time windows of good weather were becoming less and less accessible.
And they knew that even a couple of British minesweepers and destroyers in amongst them would have caused chaos amongst the troop carriers before they even got to the beaches
Never mind the fact that there was a full 6 hours of difference in high tides from Lyme Regis to Dover
And of course militarily and economically Britain didn’t ‘stand-alone’ at all, The British Empire covered 1/3 of the globe and we had no end of access to raw materials and manpower.
An entire division of Canadians were in Britain already and 500,000 US Enfield rifles and 900 75mm field guns in the hands of the now uniformed home guard-who themselves number 1.5 million men.
Incidentally, at Sandhurst in 1974 they did attempt to ‘wargame’ a German invasion and while the Germans did land they still lost. In fact the Germans own wargaming of 1940 concluded that there was such a small window of opportunity for invasion-in fact 22 September to 6 October that all arms of the service were urging a summer 1941 invasion….however Hitler was far too absorbed with his plans to invade Russia by then anyway…which he did, and by Xmas 1941 he was at war with both Soviet Union AND the USA….and doomed.
A Massive Infrastructure project
So why the stop lines?? Well, of course it ‘might’ have happened. My very realistic scenario shows this only too well. But really it was all about turning Churchill’s speech into action – bringing the possibility of invasion home to the people no matter how remote. Pillboxes along the canal and by the railway station are powerful symbols of ‘what if’…..what if they did come>? Well, we’ll be ready.
The stop lines were built within a month- a massive infrastructure project -showing that such things are possible – co-ordinated by military planning and resourced by large and local building contractors -in this case John Mowlem’s and Charles Brand -meeting at a get together at County Hotel Taunton and under the chairmanship of Mr Stansell dishing out lucrative contracts and built by masses of manpower – of which Britain had no shortage – not only did we have our own workers at the ready we had thousands of European refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. And we had the raw materials
And in Bridgwater the canal was no proper defence. You can wade across it. Temporary bridges could have been thrown down and crossed at ease , never mind blowing up the existing bridge -and you can still see the charge placements in the bridges now – the river Parrett on the other hand a more formidable crossing with its tides and deep mud. Although recently uncovered documents do show that the high command had given orders that should Bridgwater be attacked the west part of the town could be sacrificed-and bombed by the RAF.
I would also add that the Germans had earmarked Lyme Regis as the western landing point not Exmouth- but I couldn’t use that in my scenario as they would have totally missed the western stop line and avoided Bridgwater altogether
But if the Germans had invaded and the Nazis had taken over Britain they had darker plans in place.
British Fascist leader Oswald Mosely would have been installed as puppet dictator, Blenheim Palace-Churchill’s ancestral home- would have been turned into Nazi HQ, 300,000 British Jews would have been eliminated along with a hit list of some 3,000 political opponents on the ‘special search list’ including Clement Atlee, Noel Coward, Sylvia Pankhurst, HG Wells, Ernest Bevin and Bridgwater’s own Vernon Bartlett. Even poor old Chamberlain was on it…however, what an oversight, he’d left off Gracie Fields., George Formby and Vera Lynn…we could have rebuilt society no problem!
So…spoiler alert…..Britain wasn’t invaded….but the stop lines were real…and they’re still there. Well most of them…often thanks to the farmers who were paid a fiver a head to remove them, and who instead pocketed the fiver and left them there.
Today you can walk the canal and river bank and see the pillboxes. There’s 2 at Bridgwater station on the planned anti-tank island. And there’s a restored one in Creech St Michael-now a ‘bat sanctuary’
An apt reminder of why they were built
Thanks to Eugene Byrne, Richard Gaskell and Martin Grixoni for help with research and role play.
Further local historians whose works provided sources included Roger Evans and Mac Hawkins.
Some items of Photography are Courtesy of Andrew Powell-Thomas, who is author of ‘The West Country’s Last Line of Defence: Taunton Stop Line’ Amberley Publishing 2017. Andrew is a Somerset author whose works can be found here.