Fortress Suffolk: Seven ways the coast was defended over the centuries

Landguard Fort silhouetted against a Warm Sunset

The 20th-century towers at Landguard fort silhouetted behind a golden sunset - Credit: Artist Remraf

The Suffolk Coast has been a target of invasion over the centuries, and here are seven defensive systems that once kept the enemies of the county at bay:

1. The Saxon Shore Forts

The ruins of the Roman fort at Burgh Castle near Great Yarmouth.
April 2016.
Picture: James Bass

The ruins of the Roman fort at Burgh Castle near Great Yarmouth. April 2016. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016

Built by the Romans, the Saxon Shore was a collection of fortresses built along both sides of the English Channel to protect the coasts. 

There is uncertainty about where the name came from, with some arguing the forts were manned by Saxons, working as mercenaries in the Roman Army, while others argue that they were defending against the Saxons.  

While the key example of such a fort in Suffolk, Walton Castle in Felixstowe, has been under the sea for a long time, examples can still be seen in Norfolk at Burgh Castle and Brancaster and in Essex at Bradwell on Sea.

2. Orford Castle

Orford Castle

Orford Castle - Credit: Barry Pullen/iWitness

Orford castle is one of the most complete keeps in England and commands the skyline along the surrounding coast, being visible as far south as Bawdsey. 

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The castle was built by Henry II in the 12th century to secure Suffolk following a period of unrest in medieval England called the Anarchy, where control of the country was split between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. 

During this period Hugh Bigod, the first Earl of Norfolk, had assumed a position of armed neutrality, and royal control over East Anglia had been weakened. The castle was built to counter this.  

Constructed in a style reminiscent of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire, experts say that the castle may have been built like this to represent the idealised image of imperial power. 

3. Languard Fort

Harwich Harbour, at the mouth of the River Orwell, has always been the best safe haven for large shi

Landguard Fort dominated the navigable channel on the northern bank of the River Orwell, whilst the Redoubt at Harwich guarded the harbour entrance along with a large battery at Shotley. - Credit: Peter Bash

The site of the last opposed invasion of England, Landguard Fort was built to protect the approach to Harwich Harbour in 1540. 

This early construction was made of earth and wood, however by 1677 it had been replaced by a square stone structure.

Luckily, this was in time for when the Dutch - under Michiel de Ruyter - attacked and they were repelled in the first land battle fought by the Royal Marines. 

The fortress was expanded and reinforced throughout the Napoleonic era and World Wars, with new guns and control systems being fitted throughout, and it was used as a base for Operation Outward, a plan to attack the Germans by using unguided balloons during the Second World War

4. The Martello Towers

 I took these images yesterday whilst on a walk at Felixstowe Ferry.

The Martello Tower at Felixstowe Ferry - Credit: Allison Connors

Strung along the South East coast of England, the Martello towers are a series of small round fortresses, built to defend the coast of Britain from the French Emperor Napoleon's ambitions in the early 19th century. 

Inspired by similar constructions built by the Genoese in Italy, the towers were crewed by one officer and around 20 men, who operated a single large cannon. While the towers were never used in warfare, they did prove to be useful in hindering smuggling. 

5. Pillboxes and artillery platforms

Work is underway to protect the cliff at East Lane from erosion. BAWDSEYES 11 09 03EADT 30 04

A pillbox which has fallen off the cliff and into the sea - Credit: Jerry Tuner

Scattered across the Suffolk coast, hundreds of pillboxes and gun positions were built during the World Wars to protect against a potential invasion. 

Walking along the beach at East Lane in Bawdsey, you can see a pair of fixed concrete gun platforms, located just behind the sea wall, while if you journey slightly inland you can see dozens set up in prominent positions.

Many of the pillboxes set closer to the sea have had the ground eroded from under them, and now sit half-submerged in the shingle. 

While these positions are not historically verified as being used in anger, a myth about German soldiers attempting a landing at Shingle Street and being repelled by jets of flame regularly makes the rounds among the local communities. 

6. Dragon's teeth and tank traps

Saturday 2nd April and we head to Bawdsey Quay in our lovely little camper van and go for a walk to

A line of tank traps located at East Lane - Credit: Steven Squirrel

Another element of the country's Second World War defences, Dragon's Teeth and Tank Traps were put in place to physically block the path of a German invasion onto the land. 

While these structures take various forms, the most common ones you will see in Suffolk are lines of reinforced concrete blocks — a great example of this style of defence can be seen on the Deben, and Bawdsey Quay. 

Others can take the form of a line of spikes installed at the water level. These were useful to scupper landing attempts but have become something of a danger nowadays. 

7. Radar

A historical picture of the Transmitter Towers of Bawdsey in Suffolk

A historical picture of the Transmitter Towers of Bawdsey in Suffolk - Credit: John Langford Bawdsey Radar Trust

The Suffolk coast was home to much of the development of radar just prior to the Second World War, with Bawdsey Manor being taken over by the air ministry for developing the Chain Home radar system. 

Initially, Robert Watson-Watt was asked to investigate the potential of a theoretical German radio-powered death ray, to which he replied that it might be "more practical to use radio to detect enemy aircraft."

He and his team of researchers worked at Bawdsey from 1936, but when war broke out they were moved away to Dundee, and the site was used purely as an operational station.