Friday, 10 August 2012

"Fortress Maidstone" 1939-41

The shortest invasion route from Europe to Britain is from Calais to Dover. The primary invasion target for any invasion is London. Slap bang between Dover and London, and controlling one of the main crossing points of the River Medway is Maidstone.

 The Eastern road block on Maidstone bridge.

When England was threatened with invasion in 1940 a rather optimistically named "stop line" was set up from Sussex to Kent - the GHQ line. In fact the GHQ was never intended to "stop" anything, it was supposed to delay and disorganise any invader so a counterattack could be prepared. In this part of Kent it followed the River Medway, a natural barrier, and along it's length were concrete type 24 pill boxes for infantry squads. Bridges were covered by larger anti-tank emplacements and wired for demolition.

Within this scheme Maidstone was a Category 'A' "Fortress". Don't imagine Stalingrad or Tobruk, it's garrison in the event of an invasion was principally the 11th (Maidstone) Battalion of the Kent Home Guard, supplemented with a few Regulars, giving a grand total of 985 men with twenty-four Boys anti-tank rifles, two Bren light machine guns, and five Northover Projectors. And reportedly one Lewis gun, which they had "acquired". In the event of an actual attack they would be presumably be reinforced by advance forces falling back, which in front of Maidstone meant the New Zealand 5th and 7th Brigades and "Milforce" armed with Matilda I and II tanks.

The Medway crossings at Teston and Aylesford were "defended localities", with an anti-tank pill box at Teston. The lock at Allington castle received special attention, with several pill boxes and a type 28A anti-tank gun emplacement with a 6pdr gun defending the lock itself , as well as the medieval castle! Behind this, the villages of Larkfield and West Malling were "defended villages". West Malling was a special case, having an RAF airfield (the former Madstone airport) which would have been of great value to the attackers.

Distribution of crossings over the Medway, marked in red. Dover and the coast is broadly to the East, London to the West, the Thames estuary to the north. Note that Maidstone, and especially Larkfield, are much bigger now than in 1940.


As a "fortress" Maidstone did not even have a medieval wall. But anyway, an outer perimeter was established of roughly the streets west of Bower Mount road up to Oakwod park, the streets north of Buckland Hill, then following the railway line down to the river. On the east of the river the perimeter was more northerly, extending east before curving down to cross the Sittingbourne and Ashford Roads. To the South the perimeter swung down from the A20 to the river and then down to the streets below Shears crescent, over Loose road, and then around Hastings road in the direction of Mote Park before swinging up to the Ashford road.

 Some of Maidstone's defences marked on a modern map. The coast is to the left, London to the right, and the River Medway running north-south, marked in blue. Roadblocks are marked as black rectangles, a flame trap in red (the roadblock on the Chatham Road is above this map. Potential strongpoints are marked as purple rectangles, 1 (Maidstone prison), 2 (Rootes car factory) and 3 (the Archbishops Palace).

Within this outer perimeter was a "Keep" entirely on the Eastern side of the river, and protecting the bridge. This was therefore hard against the Medway, stretching up to the prison to the north, Church street in the east across the Ashford road and down to Moat road in the south, and along Knightrider Street to the river, with strongpoints at the prison in the north and the church, Archbishops Palace and even the Rootes car factory to the south. This gives a battleground of mainly terraced housing around the outside, with a mixture of new shops and factories, and historic buildings in the centre. Unfortunately it was cut right through the middle East West by King Street and the High Street leading straight down to the bridge.

The area was dotted with road blocks which would have been also ambush sites, and in two cases barrel flame traps. Entering Maidstone from the East there was a road block on the Ashford road where it joined New Cut Road, though this would appear to be easily flanked by the railway cutting to the south. To the north east there was a roadblock at the junction of the Sittingbourne Road (A249) and Bearsted Road by the Chiltern Hundreds pub.

To the north, where the Chatham Road (A229) joined the Forstal Road near the Running Horse pub was both a roadblock and a barrel flame trap, whilst to the south on Loose Road (A229)  there was a roadblock at the  junction with the Sutton Road (A274) at the Wheatsheaf pub, and then further into the centre a barrel flame trap at the junction with Planis Avenue. It is noticeable incidentally how many of these roadblocks were by pubs.

 The road block and flame trap on the Chatham Road.

Anyway, assuming an invader had broken through the Keep and reached the bridge, he would still have to fight his way across it. There were 5 large concrete anti-tank cylinders blocking the eastern end, and a further four at the west end. The parapet at the eastern end was removed, presumably so that any invader would have to cross open ground across the bridge.

Kiwis and Matildas

The 5th and 7th Infantry New Zealand Brigades were unusually well equipped for the time, not least because of some strong negotiating by the New Zealand government. By 15th August 1940 General Freyburg the NZ commander could report that "more equipment has arrived and we have now got 50 per cent of our unit transport, together with 100 per cent of our field guns—eight 25-pounder guns and sixteen 75-millimetre (French) guns, 50 per cent or ten 2-pounder anti-tank guns, 100 per cent of our Bren carriers, 100 per cent of our Bren guns, 100 per cent of our Boys rifles. From today we are to all intents and purposes almost 100 per cent equipped."

A New Zealand anti-tank battery practicing on the range at Lydd, March 1940

Having said that, of the three formations involved, two were basically cobbled together
a) 5th Infantry Brigade
More or less as intended, with the 21st, 22nd and 23rd Battalions of the New Zealand army
b) 7th Infantry Brigade
There was originally no 7th Brigade. It was formed of the 28th (Maori) Battalion and various other bits and pieces. Fortunately, later experiance showed the 28th was an exceptionally good battalion.

 A Matilda II tank and crew on exercise in Kent, 1941 (Imperial War Museum)
 c) "Milforce"
Basically a combination of various New Zealand divisional units and the 8th Royal Tank Regiment, under Lt.Col. Custance, the commanding officer of the 8th RTR.
5th Field Regiment, NZA,
7th Anti-Tank Regiment, NZA (31st, 32nd Batteries),
7th Field Company, NZE, C Squadron, 2nd New Zealand Divisional Cavalry,
157th Anti-Aircraft Battery, RA
8th Royal Tank Regiment, one company of Matilda II tanks, and 2 companies of Matilda Is

The plan called for Milforce to be stationed at Charing near Ashford. The 5th Brigade was staioned "east of Maidstone" and in the event of an invasion it would travel along the A20 to Charing to link up with Milforce, before they both swung south or east or north to face the greatest invasion threat. The 7th Brigade had the specific task of providing AA cover from the North Downs as the 5th passed along the A20 (which rather assumed that there would be no effective RAF by this stage) and then it was responsible for neutralising any parachute or glider landings in the area.

Conditions in reality

The invasion preparations above are, of course, based on a "What If" that never occured. The reality was bad enough, as shown by this letter from a Maidstone resident to her firend in Australia, published in the Horsham Times on Friday 3rd January 1941.

 A Bofors anti-aircraft gun set up (presumeably temporarily) on Maidstone bridge.

A Maidstone Resident's Impressions In writing from Maidstone, Kent, Enigland, the sister of Mr.C. Waldoin, of Douglas, on October 14 says
'What endless extra jobs this war has given us. The blacking out is a real trouble unless can get plywood and make shutters, which we were too late to get but managed to get wood for frames to fit inside the windows, covering one side with brown paper and casement curtain the other side. We use it by day in case of the glass being splintered. I have: been fortunate so far. Most of the houses in this street have had broken windows, but we don't. We are just having our 214th air raid warning. This is the record for the 7th day of October, 5.35 until 6.35, a.m. 7.15 to 8.5, 9.40 to 11.20, 12:55 to 2:40 3.50 to 5.15, 8 to 12 midnight. October 8th, 4 am to 7, 8:35 to 12.20 pm., 7:40 p.m. to 5 am. We are not house proud after days like this. We sleep when we can and eat when we can.

For a month we have had to sleep downstairs. I do hope you will take a pinch of salt with all you hear of what is going on. I think it's worse to be at a distance and hear about things than it is to be where it is going on. (Later, October: 20th). We are just having our 227th raid. I wish you could see the wonderful tracing in the sky after an air battle.

 Life goes on - Maidstone Market in 1944


The excellent Defence of Britain site at gives lots of fascinating details on this subject.

Another valuable source of information is the digitalised newspaper archive at Trove ( This deals with Australian newspapers, but these often reported on world events, and the site is free! There are also photos and other digitised material.

No comments:

Post a Comment