Why Somerset's canals and disused railways (still) bristle with anti-tank defences: the Taunton Stop Line


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Somerset may seem like an unlikely place to find anti-tank fortifications from World War 2. The briefest glance at a map will confirm that when coming from Germany, you don't naturally pass through Somerset to reach the capital, or, really, any of the UK's most populated and industrialised areas.

But in late 1939 and early 1940, as Hitler's troops swept through continental Europe, a Nazi invasion of Britain was like a very real threat, and the notion of it coming through Somerset could not be so casually dismissed.

True, an invasion via the Irish Sea and Bristol Channel was deemed highly unlikely. But a scenario where German forces targeted Plymouth was considered quite feasible. Either as a diversionary manoeuvre to lure British forces away from the south east, or a bona fide attempt to capture HM Naval Base Devonport - which would not only be a devastating blow to the Royal Navy, but give the Germans somewhere perfectly designed to unload tanks, armoured cars, artillery and so on, that much quicker than if they assaulted some random stretch of beach. Such a force may be fairly distant from London, but would quickly sweep through an undefended West Country with dreadful ease.

In light of this threat, the Taunton Stop Line was devised - running across the full width of the peninsula. There was nothing unique or special about the West Country in being fortified like this. The Taunton Stop Line was one of over fifty stop lines planned for England, all having more or less the same aim and the same ingredients. The aim: to hold up advancing German land forces, including tanks, long enough for mobile defences to be deployed to meet them. The ingredients: pre-existing natural or man-made obstacles, such as rivers, canals and railways, reinforced with lots of concrete, obstacles and guns.

Specifically, in the case of the Taunton Stop line, authorities planned for 233 pillboxes, 61 medium machine gun emplacements, 21 anti-tank gun emplacements, 83 road blocks, 22 railway blocks and 46 locations such as bridges primed with demolition charges. The anti-tank obstacles consisted of about 24 miles of existing waterways, plus 7 miles of improved water obstacles, 11 miles of anti-tank ditches and 8 miles of artificial obstacles such as these concrete cubes known as "dragon's teeth".

At first I wondered how much use cubes like this would really be against tanks - surely they could ride up and over them without too much difficulty? This shows how little I know about tank warfare tactics of the 1940s - to ride over these a tank would be exposing its lightly-armoured underside to British artillery. Quite literally targeting their soft underbelly. This is where the pillboxes and gun emplacements came in - carefully positioned to take advantage of such situations.

But let's first consider the existing features forming the basis of the stop line.

In the north, the River Parrett between the coast and Bridgwater formed an ideal barrier. From there, the stop line followed the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal down to the village of Creech St Michael, just east of Taunton. Here, it swung off down the disused and abandoned Chard Canal until just north of Ilminster, where it picked up the Chard branch line of the Great Western Railway.. It followed this railway down to Chard Junction where the branch line met the West of England main line between Salisbury and Exeter. From here the stop line followed the River Axe past Axminster and down to the English Channel at Seaton. Coast to coast, the full line was about 45 miles or 75 km.

North of Bridgwater, the keen explorer of historical sites can find a series of pill boxes guarding the eastern banks of the River Parrett. Although, the riverside footpath was closed when I went, so I had to trek along a fume-belching, traffic-filled main road and across what felt like 700 miles of charmless industrial estates, in pouring rain because weather forecasts stitched me up, which was an experience so bleak I can only recommend the keen explorer of historical sites keenly explores somewhere else instead.

The pill boxes themselves don't provide much of an uplift in vibe, being thickly carpeted with litter. Still, if you do find one you dare even walk into, you can sort of pretend you're in a bird watching hide, there being plenty of bird life in the Parrett estuary, which is probably the nicest thing I can say about this particular expedition. There's a wall in front of the doorway to shield its occupants from bullets and blasts, which makes the interior very dark, and I also found them incredibly cramped vertically. However, I suspect they have filled up with mud from river floods over the years, and the true floor level is rather lower.

Things are rather more picturesque further down the line. The village of Creech St Michael sits a couple of miles east of Taunton on the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal. This was opened in 1827. As early as 1768 there had been various ambitious proposals to link the Bristol and English channels, allowing shipping to bypass Devon and Cornwall, but although numerous renowned engineers like James Brindley, William Jessop and Thomas Telford did surveys, none of these grand ship canals ever came to fruition. Even at a narrowboat scale, a coast-to-coast canal was never completed, but we did end up with the Bridgwater and Taunton.

As a cargo canal it was never particularly successful, and by 1866 the Bristol and Exeter Railway bought it out. Commercially speaking, they were actually more interested in buying the company for its Bridgwater dock, than the canal per se, although the Act of Parliament facilitating the purchase demanded they maintain a "good and sufficient water communication" between the two eponymous towns. They opened a branch line to the dock in 1871, from which point cargo docking at Bridgwater - such as coal and slate from Wales - would mostly travel by rail, rather than canal.

By 1907 the canal was effectively closed as a cargo operation, but it remained in pretty good condition. In the 1930s apparently the kids of Creech St Michael used it for swimming lessons.

But in the 1940s the Taunton Stop Line added its rather grimmer stamp on this idyllic rural scene. Just west of the village, a pillbox was built inside the lock keeper's cottage - the cottage has now mostly decayed away, leaving this bizarre hybrid of domestic brick and military concrete.

Besides this oddity, pillboxes of the standard designs are frequently spaced along the canal. This one defended the Charlton pumping station, which supplied the canal with water from the nearby River Tone, now a private home. Peering through the slots in the pillbox, it appears the owners use this pillbox the way the average homeowner might use a shed or garage…

A little further along the canal, this very overgrown pillbox is easy to miss, guarding this bridge. When using a canal as a military barrier, bridges were an obvious weak point. One of the first acts in the 'construction' of the Taunton Stop Line was to demolish all the small bridges over the canals and rivers of its route which were deemed expendable. Eleven were removed in July 1940 alone. More important bridges that were relied upon by locals, like this one in Creech St Michael, were prepped with demolition charges. You can barely make out some discoloured patches here where the hollowed-out chambers for explosives were refilled with different bricks after the war. The refilled chambers are far more obvious at this bridge I didn't manage to visit, but some kind soul uploaded to Wikipedia.

From the 70s to 90s the canal was gradually restored and reopened for leisure, and as you can see, it's really rather nice. It even hosts a sculpture trail, the Somerset Space Walk: the Sun is here at Maunsel Lock, which I might've mispronounced, with the planets to scale along the towpath. On this sunny spring day the canal itself was hosting some kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders, and the towpath was busy with walkers and cyclists, being part of National Cycle Route 3.

The Chard Canal was not so fortunate. Opened in 1842, it was an impressive engineering achievement with three tunnels and 4 inclined planes, but it was even less commercially successful than the Bridgwater and Taunton, and closed in 1868. Abandoned and thoroughly derelict, no leisure-based revival ever came, so while major structures like this embankment persist in the landscape, you can no longer follow the canal, even on foot, let alone by boat.

It met the Bridgwater and Taunton near that fortified lockkeeper's cottage, and the Taunton Stop Line swung off down it toward Ilminster - thus, ironically, completely failing to protect its namesake town.

Here at Wrantage, a pillbox stands on the abandoned canal embankment overlooking the main road through the village. A pair of concrete anti-tank cubes are visible beneath it, and this garden wall is a small remainder of anti-tank concrete too. In the farmland nearby another pillbox is surrounded by cows. The gradient upon which they graze is the lower slopes of Crimson Hill, soon rising so steeply as to necessitate the Chard Canal diving through an 1800-yard long tunnel. You can just about see the north portal through the trees here, with a row of concrete anti-tank cubes on the hill above the tunnel.

At the top of the hill sit two gun emplacements, with a commanding view towards Creech St Michael. These were apparently for Vickers machine guns and they are visually distinct from the pillboxes in that the loopholes have this 3D stepped effect, but being clueless about guns and stuff I have no idea why. Perhaps someone in the comments will know.

Near Ilminster, the Taunton Stop Line swapped from former Chard Canal to the Chard branch of the Great Western Railway.

Donyatt, just west of Ilminster, is a typically charming South Somerset village, but a tiny one; nevertheless, it used to have its own railway station. Well, a halt if you want to be pedantic about it. The line closed in the 60s and is now a public footpath and cycle path (Sustrans Route 33 to be precise), which is nice as it lets you see all the old features legally and conveniently. From the railway itself, the platform, signage, a GWR bench and a signal remain, joined by a statue of a young wartime evacuee. On the crest of the cutting you can see another row of dragon's teeth.

On the other side of the bridge, instead of cubes, we find these angled concrete posts.

Just south of the halt, we find the trackbed flanked by these two large concrete blocks with notches. The general aim of the stopline was to stop Nazi forces crossing it, but it also made sense to have provisions against them travelling along the railway. Disused sections of rail could be lifted into these slots. Similar arrangements were built on roads to allow for roadblocks to be created at short notice, too.

Heading down the railway towards Chard we find mostly more of these same features, repeated: another pair of blocks with slots… another pillbox… more rows of diagonally slanted concrete posts.

The bridge at Knowle St Giles is rather unique though, with this gun emplacement built into the eastern abutment. The stop line was issued with 16 six-pound guns taken from First World War tanks, which required steel gun mountings mimicking the tank fixture they were intended to be mounted upon. I'm not a military tech kind of guy but I'm guessing this metal thing here, which I didn't see in any other pillboxes or gun emplacements, was one of those 16.

Elsewhere, mobile 2-pound anti-tank guns were supplied, to be towed to various pillboxes as appropriate.

One of the most remarkable things about the Stop Line is just how fast it went from concept, to policy, to being built, to no longer being policy. In fact, the change in policy was so fast I actually said that sentence in the wrong order - much of the construction occurred after official strategy decided there wasn't much point in constructing it.

In the late 1930s General Edmund Ironside was pushing 60 and seemingly destined for cushy semi-retirement postings, but when the war broke out he was recalled to more meaningful service, and found himself announced as the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces on the 27th May 1940. He set about devising a strategy for the defence of Great Britain. By the end of June his plan had been approved.

The 551st and 552nd Army Troops Company Royal Engineers took charge of the works, with civilian contractors like John Mowlem throwing their labour behind the effort. One company from the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Service helped to re-excavate the Chard canal - this group consisted of European refugees from the Nazis, including Jews and political dissidents.

Compared to peacetime megaprojects like roads and railways, construction was astonishingly rapid. Surveying was done by the end of June, and the defences were under construction as of early July. In September an audit of the stop line found about a quarter of the planned pillboxes and gun emplacements had been completed, though less than half had been camouflaged.

However, as fast as this construction was, the change in policy was even faster. Ironside was dismissed from his post on the 19th July, made a baron and retired quietly to Norfolk, as his notion of defensive stop lines had lost all support by this point. One Brigadier reported his Commander "hates the idea of them ... They do not enter into his plan of defence in any way whatsoever because he looks upon the holding of lines as something which is quite out of place in modern tactics". The Vice Chiefs of Staff and even Churchill himself similarly criticised the stopline strategy. In the military and political climate of summer 1940, the glaring problem with static, linear anti-tank defences inspired by France's Maginot line was that the Maginot line had just been proven… pretty much useless.

Still, the Taunton Stop Line was not entirely cancelled, and work progressed into the middle of 1941, when the stop line strategy was ultimately deprecated: the six-pound guns were re-allocated to coastal defence; many roadblocks were dismantled; and emphasis shifted to creating 'anti-tank islands' around major settlements or crossing points on or near the Stop Line, such as Bridgwater, Creech St Michael, Ilminster, Chard and Axminster.

This prompted yet more pillboxes, cubes, etc, and work continued on camouflaging all these defensive structures. Appointed to oversee the camouflaging process in 1940 was a Captain Godfrey Baxter, who had had a peacetime career in West End theatre as actor and director. In September he was joined by a new assistant, Oliver Messel, who had an even more illustrious show business background. A top set designer and costume designer for West End, Broadway and Hollywood productions he had a couple of Oscar nominations to his name. Sources almost invariably use the word 'flamboyant' to describe him and his work, which is presumably partly a sort of dog whistle to the fact that his social connections allowed him to live an openly gay lifestyle at a time when this was illegal, but also, presumably, because he was in fact flamboyant.

His designs for the Taunton Stop Line were accordingly inventive and theatrical. Following the doctrine that the best camouflage was to merge believably into the landscape context, he sketched out a variety of tumbledown cottages, traveller's caravans, gothic ruins, public lavatories, cafes, chicken sheds, haystacks… Audits confirm many pillboxes were indeed camouflaged as some sort of shed or farm building, although it seems the more fanciful and extreme of these designs generally remained unrealised. Policy quickly turned against such extravagant approaches to camouflaging, citing concerns that flimsy theatrical props and additions could, in bad weather or under enemy fire, end up dislodged, blocking the firing loopholes or causing a fire hazard.

Messel was released back into the theatre and film industry to create morale-boosting productions, and most pillboxes ended up with a far more simple and basic camouflage treatment - a coat of paint, often smeared with daub of cow dung and mud, perhaps some foliage and netting. Baxter moved on from Somerset to the Mediterranean theatre, where sadly he was killed in action.

Thankfully, the defensive structures of the Taunton Stop Line were never pressed into active service, and after the war, farmers were given £5-10 towards demolishing the pillboxes and so forth built on their land. As this video has illustrated, a great many simply pocketed the money and didn't bother, and heritage and history enthusiasts can be grateful for that.

That's about it for my tour of some of the surviving sights of the Taunton Stop Line. Do note that I am a general purpose potter-about-er-er, not a dedicated railway, canal or military history enthusiast, so you'll be wanting to check the comments because no doubt members of one or all of those demographics will have spotted something I omitted or got wrong.

Thanks to my parents, who claim to enjoy escorting me on these filming expeditions, but when we end up wading through liquid cow waste to squint at lumps of overgrown concrete it's sometimes hard to know if I should believe them. As always, thanks to those whose work I've used to put this together. Finally, given the subject matter, a special note of remembrance for all those who lost their lives in the Second World War. Thanks for watching. Cheers.