32. Spigot Mortar Emplacements from WW2

The remains of a spigot mortar emplacement next to the disused Maldon railway line, now on the Blackwater trail. Photographed in March 2003.
The remains of a spigot mortar emplacement next to the disused Maldon railway line, now on the Blackwater trail. Photographed in March 2003.

Spigot Mortars were rather unwieldy weapons issued to the Home Guard in 1942. It was the first time the men had a weapon capable of attacking a tank. This was important because there was a very real fear of invasion at that time. The mortars were also known as Blacker Bombards after their inventor.

These days, some people regard spigot mortar emplacements as Witham’s main claim to fame. But most of you will never have heard of them. They are circular concrete structures about 3 ft 6 inches across, with a stainless steel pin on top to support the weapon itself.  To find out more about how they worked, I suggest you use Google! Sometimes a mobile tripod was used instead. For instance, Brian Parker’s father had one when he gave a demonstration in the fields down Maldon Road.

The concrete was buried deep and sometimes still survives. Expert Fred Nash said about ten years ago “Witham has the greatest collection of the emplacements in the county. I’ve only found thirty odd in the entire county, three of them are in Witham.” These are in a line defending the old railway track to Maldon. One, behind the house called “Heathfield”, may have disappeared or been buried since Fred’s survey, and the second is at the end of Chess Lane (in the photo). The third, near the garages in Barwell Way, is probably overgrown just now.

When Witham Home Guard received their spigot mortars, they had to be rather inventive, according to Bernard Barber, to whom I am extremely grateful for his memories. He said “They were big heavy mortars. You had four legs, so they had a man to carry one leg each, and then you had two to carry the mortar, making six men. They weighed a ton, they were very heavy”. The men borrowed a builder’s handcart to get the assembled mortar to the Catholic Bridge where they guarded the railway overnight. This may have been before the concrete emplacements were built.

Mr Barber also remembered that “one amusing incident was, on these spigot mortars you had what you called a long fore sight. Well in the dark, middle of the night, you couldn’t see the foresight. So I got down, and the officer said ‘Right, sight that bridge’. I said ‘I’m sorry sir, I can’t see it’. So eventually all the mortars, we had to put some luminous paint on the foresight so we could sight the targets.”

“And we built a position near the railway line to cover traffic coming from Rivenhall to Witham, but somebody in charge condemned it. And he said ‘Now look, I’ve just come from Rivenhall, do you realise your position stands out on the horizon ? A plum target. He said ‘If I’d been a German coming up the Rivenhall Road, he said, with their binoculars, they’d have seen a gun emplacement, we’d have been blown to smithereens’. They’re the sort of things, it was really comical really. All it was was a bluff which worked. In other words, Germany at that time didn’t know just how efficient the Home Guard was.”

A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in September 2013

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