After the British and French declaration of war in 1939 a second BEF was sent to France, where it took over part of the French line around Lille, and began to construct a new defensive line, part of the northern extension of the Maginot Line. The army put a great deal of work into these defences, but they are normally only mentioned in passing in accounts of the war, mainly because they were never used as intended. Instead the Allies dashed into Belgium to try and stop the Germans and ensure the Belgian army would fight, then had to dash back again after the Germans broke the French line in the Ardennes. The ‘Gort Line’ fortifications were thus only used for a brief moment as the British retreated towards Dunkirk, and by that point the Allied line had been broken, and the British defences had lost their main purpose.
This book looks at the background to the campaign of 1940, the different approaches to defensive lines, the British plans in their part of the line, what they built and how, including the field works that are often neglected because they don’t survive (unlike so many pillboxes, including many scattered across Britain – I grew up close to a wholes series designed to protect a river and canal line in the Midlands). A great deal of thought went into the defenses that were eventually constructed, although as this book proves it took some time for the BEF to decide exactly what it wanted to build, and controversies about the pillboxes caused the fall of Secretary of State for War Hore-Belisha.
One of the most difficult aspects of this period for the BEF was that the Gort Line wasn’t actually being built along the front line – the BEF’s sector faced towards neutral Belgium, and the border was still open, with thousands of Belgians crossing into France to work. There are even several occasions recorded where parts of the defences were accidently built on the wrong side of the border! Keeping the troops motivated must have been rather tricky in this situation, especially when the Allied plan was to dash forward into Belgium, leaving the carefully constructed lines behind. One of the themes of the book is thus what the British troops actually did during the long ‘sitzkrieg’, both on their own stretch of the line and during the brief period some units spent on the ‘active’ front further south.
As well as looking at the events in France, there is also an examination of the defensive strategy adopted in Britain in the aftermath of the evacuation of Dunkirk, looking at how much it was influenced by the Gort Line and how much by an understanding of the weakness of fixed defences when faced by fast moving armoured forces. The key lesson of 1940 was that a strong mobile reserve was always needed to deal with any breakthrough, otherwise once a line had been breeched anywhere along its length, the rest of it was rendered obsolete.
This is a useful book that fills a big gap in the history of the BEF, and gives us a much better idea of what that army did between moving to France in 1939 and the disasters of 1940.
1 – Background
2 – Different Paths: British, French and German Grand Strategies and the Road to War
3 – Defending Secteur Defensive De Lille
4 – Allied Strategy to meet a German Attack
5 – Building the Gort Line
6 – Taking over more of the line
7 – Sitzkreig: Holding the Line throughout the Long Winter
8 – The Defences: Part I – Pillboxes
9 – The Defences: Part II – Field Works and Obstacles
10 – The Battle of France and Flanders and Aftermath
11 – The Gort Line Today
12 – Final Thoughts
Author: Dave Thurlow