Photo: Pill box, near Sicklesmere Road
Pill boxes are a visible reminder of Bury’s status as in World War II as a ‘Town of last defence’.
If you enter the town by any of the main roads, railway, or even walking along the River Lark, you will see examples of what are known as ‘Pill boxes’ – a visible reminder of the dark days of World War II.
Pill boxes are not uncommon and are seen all over East Anglia as part of the national defensive plan, but for Bury the number of these close to the town underline its status in the war as a category ‘A’ defended place or, more chillingly, a ‘Town of last defence’. Bury was strategically important, being a key road and railway junction, as well as holding large stocks of fuel and food.
As the threat of invasion increased in 1940, detailed plans were devised for the defence of the town and its citizens. If an invasion became a reality and the enemy close, the standing order was that Bury was to hold out against occupation and await a relieving force.
Although a garrison town, being the headquarters of the Suffolk Regiment, the actual numbers available to defend the town were only around 700 men under training, supported by 400 men of ‘A’ company 2nd Bn Suffolk Home Guard, plus 50 personnel operating the Observer Corps control room in the Guildhall.
What were among those detailed defensive plans for the town if under attack?
- The military was to assume total control of the town.
- The headquarters for defence was the Gibraltar barracks, with a reserve HQ on King’s Road.
- Strong defensive positions were sited at all access points to the town, including tank traps and ditches (some remains were uncovered in the 1990s during street repairs).
- Public air raid shelters were constructed, including in the Abbey Gardens where there were also plans to dig further slit trenches.
- Standing orders at all defensive points included ‘defend to the last round and last man’.
- Civilian refugees were to be denied access to the town.
- Food stocks to last the population and military for six days were to be issued, and stocks for a further eight days were to be held in 25 distribution centres.
- Pub yards and other open spaces were designated to hold cattle for milk supplies and the town bakeries provided with all ingredients and services to be able to bake 24 hours a day.
- The West Suffolk Hospital would not be evacuated en-masse if attacked, but only a skeleton staff would remain to tend bedridden patients.
- An area in the town cemetery was designated for mass graves.
- Detailed instructions to conserve water stocks, including the provision of four temporary reservoirs filled from the river Lark if supplies were disabled.
This is just a fraction of the detailed plan, and we can only speculate whether the town could have withstood an attack, waiting on a relieving force, but for sure the plan makes for sober reading.
Thankfully the military, and in particular the 2nd Bn Suffolk Home Guard, were not tested on home soil and the pillboxes and gun emplacements still visible on the edges of the town stand testament to Bury’s preparedness.
Terry O’Donoghue, Bury St Edmunds Tour Guides