I didn’t notice it at first, on the way to the rural pub we were driving towards on that warm August day : The Somerset countryside around Glastonbury was spectacular, quaint village after quaint village among lush greenery in full bloom, and there was so much peace in the scenery, where my mind subconsciously shut out the implements of war. A good meal and a pint of session IPA later, and while driving back towards Godney – there it was, standing at the edge of a pasture under a blazing afternoon sun, a building that others might have taken for a farm’s outhouse or a storage silo, but to a WW2 history nerd and once-a-soldier, that building was unmistakably a pillbox !
Flash back to May 1940 : It was the days of Blitzkrieg in France and within 2 weeks the British Expeditionary Force had been cornered in Dunkirk by the rapidly advancing German armored divisions. Amidst the chaos of the evacuation, they were forced to leave behind most of their guns, armor, trucks, ammunition and other equipment : The British Army narrowly escaped but they were defeated, exhausted and more worryingly – unarmed. Great Britain was now facing the German war machine incapacitated and alone. In response to this great disaster and the anticipated invasion of the British Isles, the War Office would set up the Directory of Fortifications and Works (FW3) and task it with preparing the defenses of key strategic locations. The FW3 proposed to implement as many as 50 interlocking defensive lines extending inland, to enable the remains of the British Army and the newly created Home Guard to contain in depth and counter a possible German sea or airborne invasion. Natural obstacles along the lines drawn, such as rivers, canals or woodland, were to be reinforced with tank traps and fortifications that the army and local workforce could put up in haste using any available materials. Bridges were trapped with demolition chambers. Old WW1 naval guns and other older equipment were reinstated, and designs for a variety of concrete pillboxes and tank traps were made and distributed : construction began in earnest. The innermost part of the interlocking defensive system became the General Headquarters Line, designed to protect London and most of the industrial heartland from onslaught. In the dark days of 1940, the GHQ Line was designed to be Great Britain’s last line of defense.
FW3 submitted plans for no less than 6 different types of pillboxes, each with a different size, shape and purpose and several variants existed within each type, depending on what could be afforded in terms of time and materials. The pillbox I had in front of me was probably one of those hastily cast type 22 pillboxes, the somewhat irregular hexagon shape and the deep embrasures giving it away as the thick walled, shell proof variant – its walls must be about 1m thick ! The rear wall appears thinner and has an embrasure next to the wall. The brick shuttering used to form the walls and pour the concrete is still forming the outer layer of the building all these years later. I am wondering whether an abundance of bricks in the area turned the shuttering into a feature, as other pillboxes I have seen are just raw concrete on the outside. Or maybe there was no time to peel that layer off after the concrete had been poured.
I was excited by my find albeit itching from the nettles lining the ditch I’d waded through to reach the pillbox from the roadside – and what’s more, I noticed the nearby farm’s bull eyeing me from his pen, already kicking up dirt.. Thinking to myself that prospective attackers would certainly have more than concrete and lead to deal with in this part of the line, I ordered a fall back to the relative safety of my vehicle. Once there, I met with a lovely couple of local hikers who upon greeting me and hearing of my interest in their local landmarks, they were surprised to hear that I hadn’t noticed the other one coming in. “What other one?” I inquired. “It’s about 300 yards from the crossroads as you come in, but lower into the land by the bridge’s arch and covered in grass. You probably didn’t notice it”.
I hopped into my car and drove to the suggested spot back to the small bridge over nearby Division Rhyne (pron : reen), the ancient drainage ditch that had turned this marshland into useful pasture – I’d drove past this place on my way to the pub earlier today ! And there it was, sank in beside the bridge and completely hidden underneath its thick grass and reed blanket when approaching from the south, but instantly visible when approaching from the north. I realized that I’d fallen headlong into an ambush set over 70 years ago – I’ve managed to miss both pillboxes guarding this bend of the river Sheppey.
Trespassing a few yards over the nearby farm’s fence near the bridge was the only way to reach this one, and since that meant that I would avoid getting wet, injured or both trying to negotiate the steep ditch bank – I decided to break the law momentarily – just this once (which I do not endorse or recommend, please ask for permission to enter from the land owner). Finally here I was, peeking inside the protected entrance and faced with an anti-ricochet wall. This useful feature both prevented the ricochet of stray bullets coming through the loopholes, but also further shielded the protected rear entrance from attack. I noticed it was missing from the previous pillbox.
I was quite excited by my second find and curious to discover what was behind the inverted Y anti-ricochet wall I was facing. There was only one problem : With the loop holes seemingly bricked over from the outside, and the protected entrance blocking the sunlight, the pillbox was pitch dark ! And as it happens, I carried no torch with me.
Never one to back down from a bit of adventure, I stuck my head inside using my camera’s tiny guide light to illuminate the main chamber. The air was damp and the atmosphere was eerie in the pillbox. The thick concrete walls allowed no ambient sound to come in either : this place was as cold and dark as a grave. Looking to my right, I noticed the rickety wooden remains of the shuttering as well as a familiar figure near the wall. Snap ! I then turned left and noticed two brick columns protruding from the wall – they were surely Bren Light Machine Gun tripod mounts underneath what seemed to be a very dirty embrasure. A quick snap and flash of the camera will later reveal the true nature of the caked dirt forming around the embrasure:
It is bat guano, deposited there by the pillboxes new defenders. Without me knowing it, one of them has been surely tracking me ever since I stuck my head inside the building. Still oblivious to the creeping dangers inside the old pillbox, I step into the dark fumbling around the anti-ricochet wall to take some more shots. It’s not every day one happens upon such obscure war monuments and I intend to take full advantage.
It is probably the case that the pillbox’s openings had been deliberately walled over to convert it into an artificial bat cave, seemingly for conservation purposes. It is what is called a hibernaculum, or space for the creatures to roost and seek refuge during winter time.
Once back outside, I’m excited about my random finds and thinking that as the story went, in the summer of 1940 the battle was decided not on land, but in the skies above. By September that year, it became apparent that Hitler wouldn’t be able to gain the necessary air superiority that would enable his armies to safely cross the Channel, and therefore Operation Sealion, for which the Fortifications and Works department had so meticulously prepared, never took place. As a consequence, these well placed mini strongholds, reportedly 28.000 of them across the isles, never saw the action they were intended for. Today, there are about 6500 remaining in various states of dereliction, a testament to a battle that never took place.
All images © explorabilia , except where indicated otherwise
Big thanks to the Pillbox Study Group , a treasure trove of research on the history, context and conservation of pillboxes in Britain.