War on the Moor: Defence and Communication

Pebble built pillbox at Porlock Weir (© ENPA, 2012)

(Pebble-built pillbox dating from the Second World War at Porlock Weir; © ENPA 2012)

Fear of invasion was very real during the early years of the war, and from 1940 to 1941 anti-invasion defences were built along much of England’s coastline. Exmoor’s high sea cliffs provided some natural protection, but in lower-lying areas a defensive ‘coastal crust’ was constructed. Over three kilometres of barbed wire obstruction was built on Bossington and Porlock beaches, accompanied by at least nine defended concrete structures known as pillboxes.  Each hexagonal pillbox was made to the same design (a Type 24), identical to its neighbour and to thousands more throughout England. Some were camouflaged using local materials to hand. For example, on Porlock Beach a pillbox was built with beach pebbles. Others further inland were given more elaborate modifications, such as the pillbox at Roadwater, given a pitched shingle roof and windows to disguise it as a summer house. Five pillboxes on Porlock and Bossington Beaches continue to suffer attack, but now from the elements and coastal erosion (Pillbox 1, Pillbox 2, Pillbox 3, Pillbox 4, Pillbox 5).

At least eight further, and more unusual military structures, known as infantry section posts also defended this stretch of beach. These may have contained light anti-aircraft guns (Infantry Section Post 1, Infantry Section Post 2, Infantry Section Post 3, Infantry Section Post 4, Infantry Section Post 5, Infantry Section Post 6, Infantry Section Post 7, Infantry Section Post 8). All were removed from Exmoor by 1979.

Although remote, Exmoor still played its part in the war in the air. Its uplands were an ideal location for searchlight batteries. Searchlights were established throughout Devon and Somerset, both to locate enemy aircraft and guide allied aircraft home, with small emplacements built on a number of Exmoor farms. Stan Curtis remembered how on clear nights he would watch the emplacement at Blackpitts Gate pick out aircraft in the sky and follow them until they were picked up by the next searchlight over the moor (SRO A/BJ5 1/6). Not all allied aircraft made it home safely, such as the B17 Bomber, which crashed near Dulverton in March 1944 while trying to return to Norfolk from a bombing raid on Frankfurt.

North Hill Radar Station building (© ENPA 2014)With the construction of a 'bromide' beam bending station on Stent Hill, Exmoor was also at the forefront of early electronic navigation warfare. Before radar enabled allied fighters to successfully defend Britain against night bombing raids, the Luftwaffe developed electronic signals or ‘beams’ to guide their bombers to their intended targets. These proved to be deadly effective, enabling such accurate and devastating night-time raids as that which destroyed Coventry in November 1940. In reply the RAF built ‘beam bending stations’ to try to distort or jam the Luftwaffe’s signals. Stent Hill on Exmoor was therefore part of the ‘Battle of the Beams’, the first occurrence of modern electronic warfare.

With the invention of radar, searchlights became less central to detecting enemy aircraft and ‘beam bending’ less important. However, in providing prime locations for radar installations the Exmoor coast remained important and by 1942 North Hill housed one of the new breed of Coastal Defence radar stations, Chain Home Low. The remains of the radar station can still be seen on North Hill (image to right).

Other than the coastal pillboxes and remains of North Hill radar station, very few Second World War structures survive on Exmoor. Aerial survey has recently identified two concrete structures overlooking Lynton as the ruinous remains of a Second World War wireless station. These structures are a rare survival and valuable addition to our knowledge of wartime Exmoor.

Cain Hegarty

Further Reading

SEM7230 Burton, R.A. 1989. 'The Heritage of Exmoor'. Roger A. Burton, p225.

SEM6848 Crowther, S. and Dickson, A. 2008. 'Severn Estuary Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey. Unpublished Survey Report'. Applications for reproduction should be made to Gloucestershire County Council (archaeology.smr@gloucestershire.gov.uk) or English Heritage (nmrinfo@english-heritage.org.uk ).

SSO1298 Lowry, B (Ed.). 1996. '20th Century Defences in Britain: An Introductory Guide'. Council for British Archaeology.

SEM7440 Riley, H. and Wilson North, R. 2001. 'The Field Archaelogy of Exmoor'. English Heritage.

SMO5379 Wills, H. 1985. 'Pillboxes: A study of UK defences 1940'. Leo Cooper (in association with Secker and Warburg).