A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In the 50-odd years since the end of WWII, memories are fading with the generation that lived through it; postwar reconstruction has erased buildings and other physical remains; and the artifacts of the period--the ration books, gas masks, posters, and pamphlets--have been lost to attic clear-outs and the middens of town dumps.
The popular impression is that it is too late to record and preserve the stuff of such recent history, but think again. A major archaeological project--relying on curiosity, an essential British character trait, combined with a love of paperwork--is preserving and now illuminating a critical prewar period in Britain. The evidence being considered by the Defence of Britain Project (DBP) extends beyond government records and official forms like those in the Public Record Office at Kew. It goes into the homes of the public: to cupboards yielding diaries and family photographs, anecdotes, and letters; onto beaches; into town centers; and out to the countryside to recall an extraordinary effort on the part of the government in marshalling Britain's civilian population in anticipation of a Nazi invasion in 1940.
Thousands of defense structures were built, from pillboxes to road blocks and trenches. The defense plan held that the German army would keep to the roads, hence the energy spent on tank traps and road blocks at vulnerable points. The speed of the German advance would be rapid: between 50 and 60 miles a day. The anti-invasion defenses would slow them down, but they were merely adjuncts to the main effort. "There was never any idea of putting the British army behind concrete," says Neil Redfern, one of the officers at the DBP's HQ at the Imperial War Museum's satellite office at Duxford airfield, near Cambridge. "After all, the best anti-tank ditch was the 22 miles of English Channel."
In more than 20,000 entries, a Council of British Archaeology preliminary report catalogs the installations that reveal Churchill's defensive strategy that, over the course of the summer of 1940, transformed the British landscape. "We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be," resounded Churchill's immortal words on June 4, 1940. "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
Christine Finn is a freelance writer and research associate at the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford University. She would like to thank the Defence of Britain Project for its assistance with this article.