Uckfield in the front line

Seventy years ago Uckfield was in the front line of World War 2, writes Paul Watson.world_war_II(2)

The anniversary of the Fall of France and the Battle of Britain – much of it fought over the skies of the South East – were just weeks away.

Uckfield is fewer than 20 miles from where the Nazi army was expected to land.

Military leaders planned for British soldiers to try and slow the invading force on the coast but realised the nation needed defence in depth.

Cuckmere Haven and the stretch of low-lying sea-shore between Seaford and Newhaven were certainly potential invasion sites.

You can still see evidence of defences put in place near the beach at Cuckmere Haven.

One can only surmise, but it seems quite likely the invading Panzers would have broken out of the beachheads.

If that happened, the aim was then to defend London and the industrial heartland of the Midlands, by slowing the advancing armies.

Defence chiefs had seen how the Germans had rolled up the defences of the Low Countries and France in a series of lightning strikes we know as the Blitzkrieg.

They were desperate to prevent the Germans gaining momentum and getting the British Army “on the run”.

Slowing the German advance and getting the invaders into a war of attrition would enable the Royal Navy to cut the supply route across the Channel, so the theory goes.

There is definitely a serious possibility that a major battle would have taken place in and around Uckfield.

The evidence for such a suggestion still exists.

The series of “pillboxes” that you see dotted around the town and nearby villages are no haphazard collection of “mini forts”.

They have been placed strategically and would have been manned by defenders who would also be making the best use of the surrounding landscape.

The pillboxes – or Strong Boxes – formed part of what was known as a stop-line – a line where the British Army and the Home Guard would at least give the invaders a bloody nose before falling back to the next line of defence.

East Sussex-based military historian Peter Longstaff-Tyrrell, wrote in his book, That Peace in Our Time [The artefacts of World War II in Sussex]:

“Usually builders were given six weeks to build them with a budget of £200 each per unit.

“One such stop line of boxes stretched from Newhaven to Uckfield and the Home Counties.

“Provision for two to three days hold-up, invariably by Home Guard troops, of invading forces was intended via the Strong Box lines.”

The Stop Line is this part of East Sussex utilised the natural landscape of the rivers Ouse and Uck, bolstered by pillboxes at potential road crossing points.

The rivers, it was believed, would prove to be an obstacle to armoured columns which would then be attacked as they tried to force their way through heavily-defended crossing points.

A good example can be seen at Buxted where the crossing over the Ouse is defended by pillboxes you can still see in Buxted Park.

Another pillbox can be seen from the train soon after you leave Uckfield station.

It now stands in a quagmire area but was presumably placed to defend the railway crossing.

Further north, the view from the train also gives glimpses of pillboxes at Crowborough and beyond.

In certain areas the railway embankment would have been part of the stop line.

Uckfield was what the British called a “nodal” point – potentially a weak spot – where the defences would need to be stepped up.

The Uck was thought to be a good line of defence but the aim would have been to stop the tanks crossing.

One can imagine the area near town bridge being heavily defended with a roadblock and barbed wire entanglements.

As well as the pillbox noted earlier, it is possible slit trenches and other defensive works would have been in evidence at this spot in 1940.

Another key point to defend would have been the Church Street/High Street junction, which is likely to have been blocked.

There is no remaining evidence in Uckfield – subject to correction – of Dragon’s teeth being used to halt the progress of tanks.

In Lewes, at the junction of Cliffe High Street and South Street, you can see anti-tank “pimples” around the edge of a car park.

If the invasion had taken place, Uckfield could have been devastated.

*We are always delighted to hear from readers about our history series – correcting or adding information.

Do you know someone who lived in Uckfield in 1940 who would be prepared to speak to me? Please contact Paul Watson on 01825 760102.

© UckfieldNews.com

• This feature first appeared on UckfieldNews.com on May 2, 2010.

There’s more on pillboxes here:

PillBlogs: Roadblock recce (5) – Uckfield

See also:

War arrives on Uckfield ‘s doorstep

Uckfield man recalls devastation of random bombing

Uckfield … a modern town


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