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Artillery being fired at Fort Crosby, 1 August 1940, with soldiers standing by

Fort Crosby: protecting the Mersey coast

The following post about Fort Crosby is based on a talk Alison Burns gave at the Recent Developments in Merseyside Archaeology conference, held in the Museum of Liverpool on 13th October 2018. Alison has also written about the Formby footprints (see the previous link for details).

New research is shedding light on a piece of Mersey defence which has a long history. Alison Burns has produced a booklet about Fort Crosby, with further detail coming from a desk-based assessment (a kind of investigation that uses documents, maps and other archival resources as opposed to excavation) by Mark Adams.

Defence of Mersey and country

The River Mersey has always been important for Britain’s defences. King John founded Liverpool itself partly because of his ambitions over in Ireland, the Mersey crossing at Hale Ford was important in the Civil War, and we all know about Western Approaches. But many installations have been built in the intervening period. Perch Rock, for example, built off the coast of New Brighton in 1826, defended the mouth of the Mersey and the Port of Liverpool. Its eighteen guns looked towards the Irish Sea in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

But in 1882 the whole of Britain’s coastal defences were reviewed by one Lord Morley. Morley found that the defence of Britain’s coasts was inadequate, and amongst other things recommended five batteries in the Mersey. These forts were to be at Liscard, North Shore, Seaforth, Crosby, plus the existing Perch Rock.

Fort Crosby

Photograph of ATS women and soliders at Fort Crosby, Liverpool
ATS girls and gun crews of 177 Heavy Battery Royal Artillery rush to ‘take post’ at Fort Crosby near Liverpool, England (public domain)

It took an incredibly long time to build Fort Crosby: starting in March 1906, work was only completed in October 1907.

From 1914 new troops used Crosby as a muster point, and they lived in the barracks at Sniggery. The fort itself had a surveillance role, as part of the Royal Observer Corps, as well as anti-shipping guns. In all it was a well-developed site, including practice trenches (visible in aerial photographs for years after) in preparation for the First World War.

Dragons’ teeth (anti-tank concrete pyramids) littered the foreshore, and barbed wire protected Formby. There was a starfish decoy (a mound of burning debris used to distract and blind bomber pilots) close by too. Starfish decoys were a slight concern, what with being built from large amounts of burning material so close to artillery and ammunition!

The Fort worked hand in hand with Maunsell Forts, stilted buildings out at sea giving another line of defence. There were three of these in the River Mersey.

After the Second World War

Muansell Towers from above.
Bromborough Dock, 8 December 1953, during the construction of 120ft Maunsell anti-aircraft forts for use in the Mersey estuary

Fort Crosby acted as a prisoner of war camp (Camp 678), holding German and Italian prisoners from 1945 to 1950. They worked on farms and on renovations in the nearby communities. Bert Trautmann, a goalkeeper for Manchester City, became a local legend because of his time here. (One of Trautmann’s achievements was to break his neck during a game but to continue playing!) The prisoners also made toys for local children.

The Maunsell Towers were no longer of use after the war, and were demolished. Territorial Army personnel used the anti-shipping guns of Fort Crosby to destroy them. Lack of gun training meant this took a long time. Only one in ten shots hit their mark! (Incidentally, there is no record of the anti-shipping guns being used against the enemy at any time.)

Reclamation by nature

The area around the fort was not cleared immediately after it fell into disuse. Closure came in 1958, but full demolition and landscaping had to wait until 1968. During this time the buildings had been vandalised, and occasional finds surfaced, like parts of uniforms or rifles.

Eventually, the sand dunes and grasses reclaimed the land; today, only the footing for the guns, plus a sewage pipe and a trig point are visible. Today, rubble from city centre Blitz site clearances protects the coast from erosion, although the area will always be changing.

Image: A 4-inch gun of 177 Heavy Battery, Royal Artillery, being fired at Fort Crosby near Liverpool, 1 August 1940.
A 4 inch gun of 177 Heavy Battery, Royal Artillery, being fired at Fort Crosby near Liverpool, England, 1 August 1940. This training operation formed part of British preparations to repel the threatened German invasion of 1940. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Clarke Gardens Pillbox

Clarke Gardens Pillbox, Allerton

There is an octagonal pillbox in the grounds of Allerton Hall, seemingly ‘defending’ Springwood Avenue from an invisible army. While many no doubt pass it day to day without a second thought, a lot of people are puzzled as to why a pillbox is so far inland, and what feature of any importance is being defended.

Pillboxes in Liverpool during the Second World War

The early years of the Second World War were not good ones for Britain and her Allies. By 1940 a series of German invasions – of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and France – had brought the enemy to the Channel coast of France. Following the retreat from Dunkirk an invasion of Britain looked imminent, and plans were laid to repel it.

The tactic used was to turn the home landscape into a ready-made battlefield, complete with anti-tank defences and machine gun positions. Although a linear defence along the coastline might seem the obvious choice, in practice it was imagined that the invaders would move quickly inland. Rather than try to hold them back, deep defences would slow the advance, and allow the enemy to pass by, all the better to attack them from the front and rear together! It would also let reinforcements arrive from around the country.

While earliest-built defences did indeed focus on the so-called ‘coastal crust’, as they developed, everything from machine gun emplacements and road blocks to pillboxes and concrete ‘dragons teeth‘ were to be found further and further inland.

The natural features of the landscape would also be taken advantage of. River channels, slopes and hills all affect how a moving army operates, and so the defenders can predict where a tank column is likely to rumble through. Areas can be flooded, roads blocked and obstacles (including mine fields) can be put in place.

18,000 pill boxes were built in the summer of 1940 alone – at the height of building, a pill box was built every 20 minutes.

The GHQ Line, and Stop Lines

Coastal defences started on the beach. Concertina barbed wire was laid as a first line, with mine fields positioned behind to deal with both vehicles and infantry. Behind this coastal crust were designated ‘stop lines’. The coasts which were most heavily defended in this way were the south and east coasts, naturally, with other lines along stretches of the Welsh and north-west English coasts, including Liverpool. The south and east of England also had stop lines further inland, further barriers allowing mobile defensive forces time to muster.

The length of the stop lines was reinforced with ‘island’ defences – heavily armoured clusters which could attack any army manoeuvring through the less-heavily militarised ‘seas’ between them. The idea was for the islands to funnel the enemy into predictable zones, ready for the defenders to deal with. These island defences were particularly used where there was sufficient local Home Guard units to man them.

In what way are Clarke Gardens a good spot for defence?

It’s hard to say for certain exactly why the grounds of Allerton Hall were a good place for a pillbox in 1940. No doubt the fact that this was land with no buildings on it played a part. It is also on a south west facing slope, and is not far from Garston Docks and a major railway junction (now Liverpool South Parkway Station).

The viewshed from this position would have favoured a machine gun emplacement, and any advancing German army would have no doubt come ashore at the docks to work its way inland towards other strategic positions.

The brilliant new 3D view available on Google Maps gives an indication of the type of view afforded from the Clarke Gardens Pillbox. The River Mersey and the Welsh Mountains are visible in the distance, and the eye is drawn all the way down the slopes to the shore and docks.

Google Maps 3D view of Clarke Gardens Pillbox
Clarke Gardens Pillbox is the grey rectangular feature within the trees, with views down to the docks

Main image

Pillbox in the grounds of Allerton Hall, via Geograph, © Copyright JThomas and licensed under a Creative Commons Licence

References

C N Trueman “Fortress Britain” historylearningsite.co.uk. The History Learning Site, 20 Apr 2015. 16 Dec 2015. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/world-war-two/world-war-two-in-western-europe/britains-home-front-in-world-war-two/fortress-britain/, accessed 27th January 2016.

Downloads, Pillbox Study Group, http://www.pillbox-study-group.org.uk/links/downloads/