Eighty years ago, in 1940/41 more than 30 anti- invasion concrete structures were built around the Kyle of Sutherland and the Dornoch firth. These were in the form of pillboxes, road blocks and gun emplacements.
After the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940, a German invasion of Britain was expected daily. German troops overran Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France in six weeks starting in May 1940. France signed an armistice in late June 1940, leaving Great Britain as the only country fighting Nazi Germany. As so many guns, tanks, vehicles, small arms and equipment had been left behind in France, it was impossible to field mobile forces. It was therefore necessary to construct linear defences along the possible invasion coasts and inland using rivers and other natural obstacles strengthened by concrete defence works and A/T obstacles. The majority of these were in the south and east coast of England, in all almost 30,000 pill-boxes were built in a very short timespan in 1940/41 in Britain and Northern Ireland.
In World War 2 Easter Ross was full of military installations: an airfield at Evanton, seaplane base at Alness, airfields to the north of Tain and Fearn, a camp at Nigg, substantial defences at the Sutors, and a Royal Navy refuelling base at Invergordon. With these installations well protected by armaments on both North and South Sutors from attack by sea it was felt that an attempt might be made to land on the north coast at Caithness and mobilise an attack from the north in which case the Kyle of Sutherland/Dornoch Firth would be the first natural barrier the invading forces would encounter.
It was thought that the Kyle of Sutherland and the Dornoch Firth would be the first natural barrier the German invading forces could encounter
17 pill-boxes were built between Bonar Bridge to Creich and Culrain to Wester Fearn, and 3 around Lairg to cover all approach roads from the north to Rosehall, Invershin and Bonar Bridge. 5 roadblocks were built around Lairg, 2 west of Bonar Bridge, 1 at Creich, 1 at Wester Fearn, 1 between Ardgay and Bonar Bridge, 1 at Invercharron and 1 at Balinoe.
There were also “Flame Fougasse” barrels buried in the roadside bank between Balblair and Bonar. Early fougasse barrels were filled with an incendiary liquid comprising 25% petrol and 75% gas oil. They had a 5lb propelling charge of gunpowder against the rear face, and an 8oz ammonal opening charge on the front, which also helped ignite the mixture. The propelling charge was to be fired by a No. 14 Service Fuse, and the opening charge by a No. 27 Detonator. The complexity of this arrangement led to extra barrels having to be placed to allow for failures and misfires.
Such was the importance of this stop line or defended locality, the Kyle of Sutherland area has the largest concentration of type 28 pillbox (AntiTank gun emplacement) in the whole of Scotland. The type 28 emplacement would house the British Army’s standard 2 pounder A/T gun. This gun was a a weapon quite capable of dealing with the German armour of the time. Also, all rail and road bridges north of Inverness were wired for destruction, this included the Invershin and Bonar bridges.
The Kyle of Sutherland area has the largest concentration of Anti Tank gun emplacement (type 28 pill boxes) in the whole of Scotland
The majority of pillboxes were built by contractors working under the direction of Royal Engineer officers to plans provided by the Directorate of Fortifications and Works at the War Office. In each area, Group Contractors were appointed who then sub-contracted much of the work to smaller firms.
Pillboxes and the developed defensive positions they occupied constituted only one element in a complex defensive strategy. Individual pill-boxes were clearly vulnerable but backed by fieldworks, minefields, fire trenches, and manned not only by regular troops but also by local Home Guard units who knew the lie of the land, the system would have delayed an invading force. It would then have been down to the mobile forces to drive them back to sea.
By the beginning of 1941 the situation was changing, the RAF’s victory in the Battle of Britain made invasion less likely and the German invasion of Crete in early 1941 and of Russia in May 1941 made the invasion of Britain most unlikely. Due to the inflexibility of their design and high cost, the deployment of pillboxes came under scrutiny in 1941 and the Home Office issued orders to stop building them in 1942 and instead favoured the wiring for destruction of road and rail bridges.
Road realignment and widening meant that most roadblocks and some pill-boxes were removed from around the Kyle but many remain and serve as a reminder of the precautions taken to repel an invading force during the early stages of the Second World War.
By Gregor Laing
Sources: Pillbox Study Group, Wartime Invergordon, a town transformed