Surrey and the defence of London

Outer London trenches at Marden Park, Woldingham

Title: Outer London trenches at Marden Park, Woldingham
Description: SHC ref Z/673/20 by-nc

Written by Laurence Spring, Surrey Heritage

As commuters catch their train at Raynes Park Station, little do they know that during the First World War it was used as a marshalling area for reinforcements in the event of a German invasion. For centuries Surrey has acted as a buffer zone for any advance on London from the south and south west. In 1859 a Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom was formed to look into the defences of Britain, at a time when the France of Napoleon III seemed the most likely aggressor. The Commission found that the resources available were not sufficient to prevent an invasion. As a result forts were commissioned to be built around strategic areas of the coast and inland, such as those at Guildford, Box Hill and Reigate.

To add to popular trepidation, in 1871 George Tomkyns Chesney’s novel The Battle of Dorking was published which imagined a successful invasion of Britain by a German speaking foe (the book was reissued in 1914). By the time the forts were completed during the 1880s the threat of invasion had receded.

The Battle of Dorking by George Chesney

With the outbreak of the First World War the fear of invasion reasserted itself and it was decided that London should be fortified. Work was begun on constructing a line of fortifications ringing the southern approaches to London. Lieutenant Colonel St Barbe Russell Sladen of 5th Battalion, the Queen’s, who was temporarily placed in charge of construction of the section from Otford in Kent to the Thames, was not impressed with the initial plans: he recorded in his diary on 7 October 1914 that ‘the details do not seem sound’. The following day Sladen noted that ‘Major Haggitt late Royal Engineers arrived … he is not pleased with the general idea of the defences’ and on 10 October he recorded that ‘Major Ashmore on the staff of the central force came down and agreed that the all round defence save in exceptional cases should be abandoned and a continuous line adopted’ (SHC ref QRWS/30/Sladen/2/1).

A 1915 map of the defences held at the National Archives (ref WO 78/4420) shows an almost continuous line of fortifications from the Thames at Dartford to the Hogs Back west of Guildford. The fortifications were divided into sections, including Godstone, Redhill, Dorking and the Shere Extension and Guildford. Advanced Depots were set up at Guildford, Leatherhead, Coulsdon and Purley. They probably incorporated at least some of the old Victorian defences.

Sladen estimated that 9,000 men would be needed for his sector alone and about 151,000 men altogether (SHC ref QRWS/30/Sladen/2/1). As early as 3 October 1914 a circular from the War Office was sent to local councils requiring all the men they could supply to dig trenches, clear ground of trees, brushwood etc and carry out ‘rough timber work’. It was expected these men would only be needed for three days, with each authority being responsible for its own foremen, gangers and time-keepers. Dorking Urban and Dorking Rural District Councils supplied two labour gangs, numbered 80 and 81. There were about 800 men in labour gang no. 80, but by 9 February 1917 both gangs had fallen to 150 men, who were to assemble at the Council offices in Church Street, Dorking each morning. The men were to be paid by their employers during the time they were working on the defences. Their company would then send an invoice to the War Office (SHC ref LA4/23/40-296).

Buses were to transport the workmen to and from their places of work. These places were divided into sections and then positions, so Section 7 included the Dorking position and Section 2 the Redhill position. Whether this work force was used is debatable, but if they were then they would have come under the Engineer and Railway Staff Corps (Territorial Force). By 1917 more and more Volunteer Training Battalions were digging the entrenchments.

In July 1916 the London Defence fortifications were divided into two, Scheme North and Scheme South, which covered their respective parts of London. The local regiments and the Volunteer Training Corps were to man these defences in the event of an invasion. However five Special Reserve Brigades were to be formed as reinforcements. In October 1915 these consisted of the following:

No.1 Brigade

3rd Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment

3rd Battalion, Hampshire Regiment

4th  Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment

3rd Battalion, Ox and Bucks Light Infantry

These were to ‘entrain’ at Portsmouth.

No. 2 Brigade

3rd Battalion, Dorset Regiment

3rd Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment

3rd Battalion, Royal Lancashire Regiment

5th Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment

The first two battalions were to entrain at Weymouth and the others at Plymouth.

No. 3 Brigade

3rd Battalion, Devonshire Regiment

3rd Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry

6th Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment

3rd Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment

7th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers

4th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment

The last two were to entrain at Falmouth, and the rest at Plymouth

No.4 Brigade

3rd Battalion, Liverpool Regiment

3rd Battalion, Shropshire Regiment

2/4th Battalion, Welsh Regiment

3rd Battalion, Welsh Regiment

The first two battalions were to entrain at Pembroke Dock, while the 2/4th Battalion, Welsh Regiment, was to go to Neyland Station and the 3rd Battalion, Welsh Regiment, was to rendezvous at Cardiff. Later the 2/4th Battalion, Welsh Regiment, was replaced by 4th Battalion, Lancashire Regiment, which was to entrain at Barrow in Furness.

No. 5 Brigade

3rd Battalion, Cheshire Regiment

3rd Battalion, Welsh Fusiliers

3rd Battalion, South Wales Borders

4th Battalion, Lancashire Regiment

The Cheshire Regiment was to entrain at Birkhampstead, the Lancashire Regiment at Barrow in Furness and the other two battalions at Liverpool Station. Later the 4th Battalion, Lancashire Regiment, was replaced by the 3rd Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment, who were also to rendezvous at Liverpool.

Once entrained, ‘each train containing the reinforcements will pass through a regulating station which, unless otherwise notified, will be either Victoria Park for the north of London, or Raynes Park for the South’. On arrival at these stations the General Officer, Commanding in Chief, Central Forces, would issue instructions on when each train would be sent to the ‘detaining stations’. The 1st and 2nd Brigades were to ‘detrain’ at Chipping Ongar and Epsom and the 3rd, 4th and 5th Brigades at Epping and Leatherhead. In addition to these five brigades a 4th Reserve Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, was formed at Woolwich, which in the event of an invasion to the south of London would journey via Lewisham, Sydenham and Croydon to Epsom.

Fortunately, these reinforcements were not needed because when the attack did come it was not from the land but from the air in the form of Zeppelins and bombers. As early as October 1914 the Royal Flying Corps had planned for an attack on London, but there were only two bases to the west of London, one at Hounslow and the other at Joyce Green, each having just two planes. The two planes at Hounslow had to patrol a large area, the southern route being Hounslow, Surbiton, Sutton, Croydon and Bromley, and then return by the same route. The pilots would report their findings to Brooklands Airfield, who would then pass the information on to the Royal Flying Corps at South Farnborough. However, the Royal Flying Corps had only 36 planes at the start of the war and they were more akin to the plane flown by the Wright Brothers with little or no armament, rather than the fighters that were introduced later in the war. Therefore with these planes being needed elsewhere, on 11 November 1914 it was decided to withdraw these four planes from covering London.

The first attack on London came on 31 May 1915, which killed five people and wounded a further 14. The early German raids went unchallenged and so there was a desperate need to defend London from the air. Therefore, Colonel A Rawlinson of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve was sent on a fact-finding tour to France to survey Paris’ defences. He was also instructed to bring back examples of the 75mm French anti-aircraft guns, which could then be copied in British factories. These guns were shipped to England during the third week of September 1915. In Vera Britten’s Testament of Youth, she records that on 15 October 1915 she received a letter from ‘Aunt Belle’ who lived in Purley, concerning an air raid which occurred two days previously. The letter recorded that, ‘the noise of the bombs and the aerial guns was terrific, past imagining unless heard’. Vera added ‘I wish I had been there’ (Testament of Youth, Vera Britten’s Diary, 1913-1917, ed. Alan Bishop, 1981). However, as in the Second World War, these anti-aircraft guns probably boosted the morale of the local population more than had any defensive value. Until the guns came into use the air defence of London was down to a squadron of armoured cars commanded by Rawlinson, which were called out when German aircraft were spotted flying over Dover.

Map of London air raid defences (from A Rawlinson, The Defence of London)

Between 1917 and 1918 there were 19 gun stations, 36 searchlights and 38 observation posts spread all over the West London area. These included searchlights at Englefield Green, Chertsey, Esher, Chessington, Banstead, Croydon, Morden, Addington and Purley. Anti-aircraft guns were also stationed at Norbiton, Morden and Croydon and observation posts were sited near Chertsey, Kingston and Croydon. All were connected by telephone lines (A Rawlinson, The Defence of London, Melrose, 1923, pp.162-163). The system became known as the London Air Defence Area (L.A.D.A). Major General E B Ashmore was in overall command of L.A.D.A. Airfields, situated in Kent and East Anglia, were integrated in the system.

Surrey also had its own defences. In her account of Clandon War Hospital, Lady Onslow records that in October 1915 the anti-aircraft guns at Chilworth opened fire on a Zeppelin flying near Guildford. Unfortunately, the firing did not prevent it from dropping its bombs: ‘the whole house at Clandon shook and the windows rattled in an astonishing fashion. Next day there were great holes in the Portsmouth Road, a neighbouring house to was practically destroyed, but the casualties were only one swan!’ (SHC ref G173/1/6 p.1556).

Anti Aircraft gun emplacement (from A Rawlinson, The Defence of London)

Clandon was fortunate. Germany’s aerial campaign against Britain caused 4,743 casualties (1,394 killed and 3,349 injured) of which 2,603 occurred in London (667 killed and 1,936 injured). Estimates of material damage stand at about £2.9 million with around £2.2 million of that inflicted on London (

At the outbreak of war there were no air raid warnings or shelters, so that policemen had to drive around on bikes or in cars or even walk with a sign ‘Police notice, take cover’. Once the raid was over these signs were replaced with an ‘All Clear’ sign. From July 1917 these signs were accompanied by three rockets fired in quick succession to warn of an air raid; a bugle was sounded for the all clear. The blackout was also introduced to all of Britain, which like the blackout during the Second World War, meant that all lights in houses, shops and factories had to be ‘shaded or obscured’ and that no bright lights were allowed on vehicles. Those who broke the blackout would be given an ‘official warning’, although shops were worried that they might lose their trade because of it and people believed that it was dangerous to go out at night. It was a great relief when the war was over and they could switch their lights on again.

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2 Responses to “Surrey and the defence of London”

  1. Just to clarify, where above you quote ’19 gun stations…spread all over London’ from Rawlinson’s ‘The Defence of London’ – that only refers to the guns in London’s West sub-command. There were many more guns in the North sub-command, East sub-command and in the Central areas.

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