Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Lines of Defence

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In a field near my parent's house in rural Essex there is a circle of trees. In the centre of this circle is a deep pit which for as long as I can remember has been an overgrown dump full of old pesticide canisters, redundant farm equipment and, for a while, an abandoned car. There are others like it nearby where people tend to fly tip abandoned washing machines and all sorts of household detritus.

But this one is different and harbors an odd secret. The pit was dug during the second world war and formed the entrance to a tunnel containing food supplies, explosives and munitions for a Home Guard auxiliary unit. These units, also known as Stay Behinds, were trained in guerrilla warfare techniques in order to disrupt a successful German invasion through acts of sabotage. Its members would operate literally and metaphorically as an underground resistance operation.

The bases for these operations formed an often elaborate underground network of tunnels and subterranean structures, photographs and drawings of which can be found here. These structures included radio listening posts like the one illustrated below which formed an even more invisible network of defence.

The hideaways and tunnels of the auxiliary units formed a subterranean line of defence that echoed the network of pillboxes and fortifications above ground. The GHQ (General Headquarters) line for instance stretched from Somerset to the Thames Estuary and then up to the wash. There were some 400 pillboxes across Essex, many of which are still there dotted along rivers banks and roads.

The landscape of the south and east coast is in many ways a landscape of fortification inscribed with centuries of invasion fears. I have written before about the transformation of landscape through military manoeuvres and the way that neutral space becomes contested territory. Boundaries too shift from being inviolate to potentially fluid and changeable. It is at such points that the precarious arbitrariness of these boundaries becomes most apparent and the most extreme kinds of nationalism flare up.

At Saint Margaret's Bay in Kent there are two very different kinds of defensive structures, one literal and hidden and the other symbolic and highly visible. At one end of the beach is a second world war gun emplacement, a blank hole in the cliff staring out to sea. At the other is a hip roofed, curiously Mittel European looking bungalow called White Cliffs Cottage. In 1945 this house was owned by Noel Coward, arch patriot and writer of, amongst other things, the film In Which We Serve.

Here is another kind of defence, the inflation of a certain kind of Englishness as a bulwark against foreign invasion. Nearby is one of those fabulously terrible local museums that trades heavily on the Coward association. It features hundreds of photographs of the writer hosting cocktail parties against the backdrop of the English Channel. Coward's work during the war as a propagandist was in many ways the opposite of the underground defences, an ostentatious display of resistance acted out through films and popular songs.

It's fitting then that his home should have such a flamboyant location at the foot of the white cliffs of Dover. Unfortunately Coward only bought it towards the end of the war which slightly reduces its camp bravado. Post war though the house would continue to have a role in the cultivation of myths of national character and defence. Coward sold White Cliffs Cottage to Ian Fleming, another xenophobic writer who set Moonraker there, a book in which the country's own defence system becomes a sinister threat.

It's easy to imagine both writers purchasing this house as some kind of plucky outpost, a flamboyant first line of defence against the enemy. White Cliffs is not actually the closest house to France though. That honour goes to an actual gun emplacement, a former army observation post that has been converted into a holiday cottage.

(Information and drawings are from this site)

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