VE Day 60 Years: WWII Coastal Defences at Cuckmere Haven

By Richard Moss | Updated: 05 June 2005
shows a photograph of pillbox on a hillside

When invasion comes...In 1940 thousands of pillbox defences of various shapes and sizes were built around the British coastline. Photo Richard Moss/24 Hour Museum

In the summer of 1940, the question Britain asked itself was not 'will Hitler invade?' but rather 'when?'

Sealion, the German invasion plan, was actually centred on South East England, but the very real threat of invasion provoked a programme of frantic construction throughout Britain. By the end of 1940 thousands of pillboxes, anti-tank stop-lines, coastal defences, heavy-gun emplacements and anti-aircraft batteries had sprung up all over the British Isles.

It is estimated that more than 18,000 concrete pillboxes were constructed during World War Two across the UK together with hundreds of miles of defensive ditches and barbed wire. Not since the building of the 'Martello Towers' during Napoleonic times had Britain embarked on such an ambitious programme of home defence.

shows a close up of tank traps made from concrete pillars with conical concrete tops

Dragon's teeth tank obstacles to the east of the River Cuckmere. © 24 Hour Museum

Today many of these constructions remain, cropping up in the most unlikely of places - with the majority of them to be found sitting forlornly along Britain's coastline. Often crumbling and overgrown, these relics present a vivid picture of Britain at at the beginning of World War Two.

There are many locations where you can find pillboxes and other defences; one such place is located between Brighton and Eastbourne on the A259 Eastbourne Road at Cuckmere Haven.

Now a popular beauty spot and part of the Seven Sisters Country Park, the Cuckmere Haven river valley was a key strategic location for the defence of British shores in World War Two.

shows the view from an embrasure in a concrete bunker

Overgrown but still intact - the 'view' from inside a small machine gun emplacement at Cuckmere Haven. © Richard Moss/24 Hour Museum

Prior to 1940 the area had been extensively surveyed and photographed by Luftwaffe air reconnaissance as a landing area for Hitler’s proposed invasion of England.

If the invasion had gone ahead Cuckmere Haven would have been at the forefront of a German assault. The plan was to sweep up the valley before swinging west to link up with attacking forces landing and parachuting into the Brighton area.

Even when the Battle of Britain had averted this very real threat the area remained heavily fortified with a string of pillboxes sited on either side of the valley. Anti-tank traps and ditches were placed at key access points while the lowland flood plain of the River Cuckmere and the river itself was heavily mined.

shows a round pillbox

This small 'Type 2' pillbox is situated half a mile inland. © Richard Moss/24 Hour Museum

During the early part of the war, an extensive network of lights was laid out within the valley. Their purpose was to give German bomber crews the illusion they were over the port of Newhaven, thus protecting the port facilities and drawing them off course for the targets further north.

Later on during the war, an area further inland was developed as an RAF airfield.

A visit to this pleasant area today offers much evidence of its former role and importance. A series of pillboxes, strung along the eastern slope of the valley, can be seen and explored.

shhows a round corruagted pillbox in the distance - set into a hillside

These pillboxes were part of the most extensive system of home defence since Napoleonic times. © 24 Hour Museum

Approximately a hundred yards towards the beach a ‘Type 2’ pillbox remains precariously perched on an eroded earth bank.

Commanding a good panorama of the valley this small circular construction, only about eight feet in diameter, boasts walls that are 12 inches thick. It has three loopholes and a small entrance at the rear. Though cramped inside it was designed for four personnel.

Today this round little construction looks innocuous enough but during World War Two it was intended as a very real anti-infantry defence. During wartime it would have been covered in corrugated iron shuttering – the imprint of which can still be seen.

shows an overgrown pillbox set into a hill - overgrown with grass

Further down the hill - the remains of a series of pillboxes. © 24 Hour Museum

Moving towards the beach on the eastern side of the valley, you will encounter the first of the remains of an interlinked cluster of pillboxes and gun emplacements.

During 1940 the thinking about anti-invasion defences shifted as military commanders moved towards regarding defences such as those at Cuckmere Haven as holding places or ‘redoubts.’

In the event of invasion the Home Guard or infantry manning these pillboxes and emplacements would have been expected, to use the parlance of the time, ‘to give the enemy a bloody nose’. The idea was that by delaying them it would enable mobile infantry to form up further inland, possibly at a pre-arranged defence line or ‘stop line’, for a decisive pitched battle.

shows the views from a pillbox window

A heavy machine gun concrete bunker with a brick built infantry bunker in the background. © Richard Moss/24 Hour Museum

Perched on the hillside at the beginnings of the South Downs Way there is what appears to be the concrete base of an anti-aircraft mount followed by a series of pillboxes of various shapes and sizes, most of them remarkably still intact.

A circular Type 2 infantry pillbox, with loopholes to its rear, scans the hillside above a larger concrete construction that features a forward facing embrasure that looks across the valley below. A trench that is now filled in is still clearly discernible and links the two structures.

Less than a hundred yards south, in a small hollow near the valley floor, are the concrete foundations of two more structures together with an intact but small defensive pillbox. Embedded into the hillside, this overgrown concrete bunker is essentially a machine gun nest with a single embrasure cut into its corner that commands a good field of fire across the beach.

shows the inside of a brick pillbox with one small window

Inside a brick built infantry pillbox. © 24 Hour Museum

Further south towards the sea, two interlinked pillboxes – again of different designs - sit on a grass bank fifty yards behind the remains of anti-tank ditch.

A Type 26 infantry pillbox, made of brick with a sheltered entrance to its rear, boasts several slits for weapons. Further back is a thick-walled concrete pillbox with a single embrasure cut into its corner. This heavy machine gun emplacement offered yet another wide and sweeping angle of fire should the enemy land and approach from the sea.

By venturing a little further up the hillside you can get a good vantage point to view the first line of defence beyond these concrete pillboxes - on the beach. Set back from the top of the shingle bank can be discerned the remains of an anti-tank ditch – cut into the earth to form a degree of protection to the pillboxes above. There is also what appears to be a man-made circular bank.

shows a photo of anti-tank earthworks with a bend in a river in the background

The remains of an anti-tank ditch can be seen by ascending the eastern side of the valley. © 24 Hour Museum

Descending onto the beach and walking along this ridge, beyond the salt marshes and birds' nesting area, is another anti tank device of the time. Running at a right angle from the eastern bank of the River Cuckmere are the remains of concrete tank traps or ‘dragon’s teeth’. A series of pillars with circular conical tops designed to stop tracked vehicles.

Looking at these forlorn and overgrown concrete pillars now it is hard to gauge how effective they and indeed the other defences at Cuckmere would have been. Yet they remain as potent reminders of what people in Britain were preparing for 65 years ago.

Thankfully never put to the test, today they are overgrown and weathered - happily blending into the landscape and peacefully succumbing to nature and the ravages of time.

shows a photo of a line of concrete anti-tank defences that look like a line of giant teeth

Lines of defence - the coastal structures were designed to hold off an invasion force before mobile infantry could hit back. © 24 Hour Museum

For a thorough look at World War Two defences in Britain The Defence of Britain project has, over the last five years, recorded nearly 20,000 twentieth century military sites in the United Kingdom. Visit their website at: www.britarch.ac.uk/projects/dob

For more information on pillbox types visit this fascinating site about pillboxes in Somerset. www.somersetpillboxes.co.uk

www.pillboxesuk.co.uk is another good site about pillboxes across Britain.

Visit the BBC WW2 People’s War website to read personal stories contributed by people from Brighton, Hove and Sussex.

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