War Walks: Defending the Downs
Figure 1: Type 24 pillbox on Folkestone Downs, looking west.
On the crest of the North Downs overlooking the port town of Folkestone, etched into the landscape, runs a peculiar white scar. When I moved to Folkestone back in 2005, the chalk cutting, most prevalent on Castle Hill, was prominent. Now, 17 years on, it has almost completely overgrown. This is the remnants of an 'anti-tank ditch', one of many defensive strategies employed in Kent to halt the advance of a Nazi invasion, which seemed inevitable back in 1940. Old photographs show the ditch as a perfect white halo, snaking from Castle Hill around to Sugar Loaf Hill. Fearing there was little time left to investigate it before nature would reclaim it, I decided to walk along the escarpment to uncover the story of wartime on the Folkestone Downs, and the defences that were hastily erected when invasion seemed a certainty.
Figure 2: Castle Hill from Junction 13, M20. You can just make out the upper edge of the 'anti-tank ditch' by the thin layer of exposed chalk which circles the top of the hill.
For 17 years I have been leaving my home in the shadow of Castle Hill, and in many ways, it was influential in my interest in local history. Almost two millennia of history can be seen in just a short gaze up at the hill, from bronze age barrows to the Second World War, via the Romans and the Normans. Once upon a time the 'anti-tank ditch' glowed from the hilltop like a diamond in the rough, reflecting all the sunlight from the sky. Even in my lifetime, I can remember the strangeness of its appearance. I took the quiet route around Castle Hill, from the Junction 13 roundabout on the M20, around the old Castle Hill Road, now inaccessible to traffic. To the left, Folkestone Waterworks, now seemingly abandoned, but home to a number of pillboxes, one of which can be seen from the hill path, but entry is forbidden, such as the enthusiastic attempts by the landowners to shore up the perimeter fence with barbed wire. Ironically, the Nazis would've been met with less resistance on this stretch of path.
Figure 3: A pillbox on the grounds of Folkestone Waterworks
At the top, a sharp right onto the muddy path that circumnavigates the field behind it and onto the summit. I reached the trig point and scrambled a few meters down from there and into the ditch. Once I found my way to the bottom of the ditch I found myself met with the anxiety the workers on this ditch would have faced. There are stories of enemy fighter planes strafing the workers with machine gun fire as they dug. They faced the English Channel, and would've have no doubt quivered at the low hum of enemy formations as they dipped under the clouds. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run when the gunfire started, a truly terrifying thought and one that is not lost on you at this place. Up here, the ditch is easier to make out, of course, but the size of it also hones into perspective.
Figure 4: Castle Hill's 'anti-tank ditch'. The true scale of the effort is clearer up here. The path marks the raised bank, which sits in front of the lower carved chalk which would have provided the defence for those sat within it.
The name given to this earthwork is deceptive. Colloquially they are known as 'tank traps', but their purpose was likely not to trap tanks at all. I wondered for many years why an army of Panzer tanks would even dare scramble up a hill this steep, even if the feat was possible, one smartly thrown grenade would send a tank spinning back to the Pas-de-Calais. It seems the ditch was more likely a place to mount guns, mortars and other defensive installations. The slope of the hill would have made installing mobile weaponry impossible, the ditch would provide cover to the operator as well as giving them an all-seeing and elevated advantage. The tanks would have likely rolled up through hillside roads, so extra effort was poured into strategic chokepoints or 'kill zones', the pillbox I saw on route and this section of tank ditch would have formed a network of defences to protect the road I had travelled on to get here.
The raised ground above the ditch, which would have been all the defence the operators would have had, now forms a path which winds around Castle Hill to it's eastern flank. From here, you can see clearly the trajectory of the ditch and its scale as it caresses Round Hill and around to Sugar Loaf Hill. Behind the Sugar Loaf Hill, runs what would have once been the primary in road to Folkestone, Canterbury Road. I clambered from the ditch and on to Round Hill to get a panoramic view of the defensive landscape. After a chug of squash and a lie down, I wandered on to Canterbury Road and Folkestone bound to find our next location.
Figure 5: Canterbury Road from atop Wingate Hill, the town of Folkestone and the English Channel from where Hitler's supposed invasion could have been sprung.
The Flame Fougasse was a simple but effective defence mechanism, they had been around in concept since the 1500's, the idea of hurling a sizeable quantity of oil at an approaching enemy, with someone close by to ignite it to create a fiery inferno, which served two key purposes. Of course, the first was to incinerate the enemy to a cinder, but the other was to petrify those nearby into retreat by spitting columns of flame in their direction. The concept was effective, but by the 1940's it had evolved somewhat, the projecting substance was now a hybrid of oil and petroleum, weighted perfectly to give maximum scolding, and the igniting process was infinitely more sophisticated, although some poor sod would have to be on site to initiate the contraption.
Figure 6: Looking down Canterbury Road towards Folkestone. The 'anti-tank ditch' continuing on the left, flanking the road where it terminates at the chalk quarry.
They were erected everywhere, at almost every road and chokepoint on the English coastline, their simplicity and cheapness, and need for little manpower made them ideal to chuck everywhere. They consisted of a barrel of petroleum at its crest, with a series of pipes to distribute the death mix to its desired location. I won't get into the mechanical wizardry of its design, suffice to say it would spray oil and fire over the enemy in a blizzard of flames and panic. Those sat comfortably in tanks were in for a particularly nasty surprise, the oil would stick to the tanks surface, and once aflame would quickly cook whatever was inside, likely turning the personnel of said tank into a Nazi soup.
They were intelligently placed, usually on hills and sharp bends, where tanks and artillery were likely to slow and bunch up, for maximum effectiveness. The one on Wingate Hill where I sit now had the fortune of both advantages. There were a number of these in Folkestone, especially along the Downs, but I came to this one because a portion of it still exists. Two rusty pipes run parallel down the exposed chalk of the 'anti-tank ditch', its a fateful reminder of the horror this hill may have witnessed had the Nazi's made landfall in the town. The barrel and pipe entrance are not visible, and may not even be there anymore, the adventurer in me wanted to investigate, but if the traffic didn't turn me into a gory pancake, there was still a thick row of thorns and a near vertical climb to reach it. Instead I sat for a while and imagined what it may have looked like if this was ever used in anger, or to be the poor soul who had to hide nervously as the tanks approached, waiting for the perfect moment to cause maximum death and destruction.
Figure 7: The remains of Wingate Hill's Flame Fougasse, the two pipes would have been fed through a barrel somewhere around the central tree. The pipe would have surfaced around the surface of the road, and tilted upwards to achieve maximum range. It's placement in the 'anti-tank ditch' shows what it's primary purpose would have been, not to trap tanks but to serve as a hub for defence installations such as this and for operators to manoeuvre within it.
I wandered back up Canterbury Road, and turned right onto Crete Road East, a narrow lane that hugs the top of the Downs as they bounce round to Capel-le-Ferne. It's a daunting climb on appearance, but the rewards at the top are worthwhile, with views across the Channel, but also into rural Kent inland. At the peak of the hill lie two pillboxes in close proximity either side of the escarpment, although close, they both had wildly different views, one down towards Folkestone and Hawkinge, and one facing Capel and Dover. The Folkestone Downs series of Pillboxes are in notoriously good condition, but these two lie on private land and alas inaccessible. Guarding one was my favourite horse in all Kent, who usually when I was passing, would give an incredibly provocative act of fellatio to the fence post, but not today.
Figure 8: Type 24 pillbox on Wingate Hill being guarded by an equine temptress.
Figure 9: Type 24 pillbox on the other side of Wingate Hill.
Past the houses and eerie telephone mast lies a public footbath which jettisons into Hope Farm, it's not marked but it is public right of way. About halfway into the field we find our next location. 'Tanks traps' are not uncommon in this part of the world, or anywhere in England for that matter. No doubt every village and town has its various road blocks that were placed at roadsides ready to be scrambled into the road the instant Hitler landed his divisions. There are only two left here, but what is interesting about them is about 50 feet away lie the sockets in which they would have sat, which are much rarer to find than the 'tank traps' themselves. This variety were known as 'Dragons Teeth', large concrete pyramids that when huddled in large groups would have presented an obstacle to lightening panzer movements. It was not uncommon that mines were placed between the teeth to prevent their removable, or at least slow down progress even more.
Figure 10: The sockets for the 'Dragon's Teeth', which can be seen at the bottom of the road.
I only became aware of this place when scouring Kent's Heritage database for interesting locations, I have walked this path over one hundred times at least but had never known these were here. In hindsight, they're not all that interesting and once you know they're there you start seeing them everywhere. But I was confused as to why and what they were defending as they seem to have been defending a large field of crops. The infinitely helpful Defence of Britain map was on hand to rectify my confusion. The 'anti-tank ditch' diverted up behind Crete Road East at the Canterbury Road junction and ran almost parallel to the road and through the fields to its north. There is little to no trace of the ditch now, likely ploughed away many decades ago, the sockets intersect where an old road used to split this field, the remnants you can see snaking past the 'tank traps' to the north.
Figure 11: Two 'Dragon's Teeth', which would have been used to halt the progress of tank formations by being placed across pivotal roads. The road this pair would have defended has mostly gone, but you can see where it would have once been stretching into the distance.
I had largely ignored pillboxes for now, mostly because they were all on private land but also because there were a few along the face of the Downs that I had not known of until I delved into the Defence of Britain's archive. I'll attach a link to their map below, and it is well worth a peak as it provides an incredibly detailed survey of the defences used in the event of Nazi landings, it even colour codes them by what still exists and what does not. Although my primary target was the picturesque pillbox at the very crest of this hill, I decided to scramble back down to find one I had not heard of until the day before this walk. But, the walking gods were in a fickle mood this day, and just as I saw the colourful graffiti that illuminated it's secretive whereabouts, I fell and rolled my ankle on a hole that had been enthusiastically carved in the path by a mischievous critter of the field. Whoever it was I assume was laughing uncontrollably from a nearby hedgerow as I sat clutching my ankles and rolling around in the thistles and rabbit droppings that seemed to be strategically abundant around this booby trap.
Figure 12: The hidden entrance to the Type 24 pillbox, somewhat more obscure than others of this type.
Half hour passed and I found the courage to return to my walk, hobbling precariously towards the pillbox. It was well hidden, behind a row of trees and nestled nicely at the foot of the hill. The only thing that gave away its position was the neon green artistry that someone had whimsically daubed on its face. I had a peek around and found the usual clatter that one can often suspect in places like this. What compels one to drag a mattress all the way up here? Beer bottles, Monster Munch packets, condom wrappers, it must have been some party. The smell of a freshly smouldering fire beckoned me inside, but a garden shovel resting on the doorway gave me doubts. I knocked politely but no one was home, thankfully. Someone had had a fire inside, a pitiful half-burnt hearth sat in its middle. Interestingly, there was intact wooden brackets still on the walls, which would've been rests for guns and ammunition as the barrels of the weapons poked covertly out of the small windows. I didn't spend long here, I feared whoever's shovel that was, was not long to return for it, and my ankle was not in peak condition to mount an escape.
Figure 13: Pillbox and bedding for a budding homeowner.
So I left with haste to the safety of the hills top, and a pillbox that if a crime was to befall me, would at least have the benefit of being on show to the entire town of Folkestone. This pillbox stood proud over the Downs, not hidden away like all the others I had seen today, which were hidden and covert. This was a Type 24 pillbox, not uncommon in the Folkestone area. The Defence of Britain database tells me there was a Flame Fougasse installation to its north and an anti-aircraft gun to its south. I snooped around a bit, despite it's exposed location it is in fairly good nick, the usual modern interior design of graffiti of course, the shelves in here were part of the exterior structure mould, so there wasn't really much interesting to note. I turned to face the exit when a small Spaniel darted in and howled at me with a tone somewhere between aggression and hate, to which I replied with a pitiful bark of fear, this was greeted with a chorus of laughter from the three owners outside. I stayed crouched in the pillbox for a while, in a concrete box of embarrassment as I waited until the dog owners were well beyond the horizon before emerging from my disgrace.
Figure 14: Type 24 pillbox atop the Downs.
Figure 15: Same pillbox looking north.
This was supposed to be the climax of my voyage, but there was still one thing I had not found, and fortunately it was en route home. Almost perpendicular to the 'tank traps' I found earlier was an unsuspecting field opposite the houses and the telephone mast. Two ponies grazed the grass, the grass on the path became much more tasty to them when I stepped foot through the gate, so I had to hobble through the grassy tufts and mole hills. Lying somewhere in this field was the footings of a Spigot Mortar. The Spigot Mortar was a later addition to these defensive sites, coming in 1941. The Pillbox Study Group has a better explanation of them than I ever dare to explain myself, I'll pop the link below. The Spigot mountings popped up around pillboxes, usually 3 or 4 to cover different directions of fire. The idea was that the footings, in which sat the spigot on which the mortar was mounted. Again, these are not rare, but their placement in the ground meant many have been lost below ground level or overgrown.
Figure 16: The top of another pillbox almost swallowed entirely by nature.
For about 20 minutes I feared that may be the case for this one. The ponies watched in confusion as I limped around their small field, peering helplessly into thorn bushes. The map suggested it was somewhere within the trees, a thought that was cemented when I found a pillbox almost entirely swallowed by the thick overgrowth. I had nearly given up when I noticed a strange clump of thorns in the middle of the field which was suspiciously circular. There it was, although I fear if I came a few months later I may never have found it, such has the overgrowth almost consumed it in entirety. The Defence of Britain database had attached images of it looking clean and pristine, but some years later it seems destined to eventually disappear from view forever. The Spigot Mortar became wildly unpopular with the Home Guard during the war, their mobility being a primary factor, by 1942 issue had ceased entirely, but not before 22,000 had been dispersed among the posts across England.
Figure 17: Spigot Mortar footings buried in the undergrowth.
With that, I decided to limp agonisingly back through the Downs. I will be doing more war walks in future, perhaps in Dover, Capel and Hawkinge, and I encourage anyone with the slightest interest in these things to go and check them out. I think if today proved anything, it was that these places, for the most part, are unlikely to be preserved, so go and discover them whilst you have the chance, and check out the Defence of Britain database too! It will show you every pillbox, road block, ditch, radar station, airfield and much much more and I guarantee you'll learn something new about where you live whether its a bunker under your neighbours garden or an anti-aircraft gun on the roof of Tesco's! But do be aware of holes in the floor, this landscape paradoxically done more damage to me than it did a single Nazi soldier.
Defence of Britain database
Pillbox Study Group - Spigot Mortar
War History Online - Flame Fougasse