Numerous military pillboxes appeared across England during the First and Second World Wars as anti-invasion defences. Many of these were constructed along the east coast so the armed forces could use them if enemy forces invaded England.
Others were installed in strategic inland locations, such as beside canals and hills.
What is a pillbox?
A pillbox is a small fortified structure or blockhouse, usually made of concrete. They were generally camouflaged against the landscape to hide the occupants from enemy view.
Most were installed with loopholes (a small slit or hole in a wall) where weapons could be fired.
Concrete pillboxes were first used by the German army on the Western Front during the First World War.
As the threat of invasion increased in England during the war, pillboxes began appearing in places such as the Humber Estuary, Saltfleetby in Lincolnshire, and the coast of Norfolk.
Many of these pillboxes were repurposed during the Second World War and were adapted to incorporate new anti-invasion defences, such as anti-tank cubes.
During the Second World War, around 28,000 pillboxes appeared along the coast of England. Following the German invasion of the Low Countries and the evacuation of trapped Allied troops in Dunkirk in May 1940, England’s shores were viewed as highly vulnerable to the chance of attack.
Consequently, senior personnel from the British armed forces proposed that England’s beaches and most vulnerable locations needed to be protected by installing pillboxes and anti-tank defences.
Designs were also produced for pillboxes that could defend airfields from potential paratroopers.
In June 1940, General Paget, Chief of Staff to the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, submitted an anti-invasion plan to the War Cabinet, stressing the importance of installing pillboxes and other defences. Section 13 of the plan stated:
This system of stops and strong-points will prevent the enemy from running riot and tearing the guts out of the country, as had happened in France and Belgium.Home Forces Operation Instruction No.3., Section 13, 1940
After 1943, the threat of German invasion began to subside and the building of pillboxes stopped. While some pillboxes were ordered to be dismantled, most were kept in place after the war.
Why are they called pillboxes?
Pillboxes were built in various designs, with many in round, square and hexagonal shapes. Their designs were often compared to medicine containers made in the early 20th century to store pills; hence, the term ‘pillbox’ became popularised.
The term ‘pillbox’ first appeared in print on the front page of The Times newspaper on 2 August 1917.
Where can you see pillboxes around England?
Approximately 25% of pillboxes have survived since their construction in the 20th century. Below are some examples that can still be found on England’s landscape:
1. Fraisthorpe Beach, near Barmston, East Yorkshire
The position of Fraisthorpe Beach meant it was considered highly vulnerable to invasion from across the North Sea during the Second World War. As a result, it was heavily fortified with pillboxes and anti-tank blocks. Many of the defences have been destroyed by coastal erosion.
2. Bleak Hey Nook, Oldham, Greater Manchester
This Grade II listed pillbox has a very unusual design. It was constructed around 1940 using a dry stone wall exterior and turf-covered roof, rather than the standard concrete design. This made it look like a typical agricultural vernacular building, camouflaging it against the landscape from enemy view.
Its position was chosen as it provided a good cover point between Saddleworth Moor from Huddersfield to Manchester.
3. Bicester Aerodrome, Bicester, Oxfordshire
Bicester Aerodrome, formerly the Second World War airfield RAF Bicester, is a scheduled monument and with four surviving pillboxes. This octagonal pillbox design formed part of a series of fixed defensive points around the inner core and perimeter of the air base. These structures were made from brick, concrete and earth.
Parts of the site were used as bomb stores. Therefore, a strong line of airfield ground defences were constructed to protect against enemy paratroopers and surveillance.
Bomber crews from British and Commonwealth squadrons from Australia, Canada and New Zealand trained at Bicester, and from 1944, the airfield was contributed as an equipment unit for Operation Overlord (the Normandy landings).
4. Auburn Farm, near Barmston, East Yorkshire
This Grade II listed pillbox is thought to have been built in 1917 as part of a strong point defending the exit off Auburn Sands and Fraisthorpe Beach. It is considered one of the earliest pillboxes constructed in England, using techniques developed on the Western Front in 1916, including reinforced concrete for infantry defence.
The wall and roof thickness suggest it was built to resist repeated exposure to gunfire. The pillbox was then reused during the Second World War and was altered by cutting gun holes into the corners of the front elevation to improve firing points.
5. Dunstanburgh Castle, Craster, Northumberland
The 14th century Grade I listed Dunstanburgh Castle had been a ruin for centuries by the time of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. The castle, overlooking the sea, became an ideal observation post during the conflict. Measures were needed to protect the Northumberland coastline.
Barbed wire was installed on nearby beaches, and pillboxes were built at points to the north and south of the castle, providing a good vantage point high over the bay below. Ditches were also dug in the castle’s moat to prevent tanks from entering.
6. Tolman Point, Old Town, St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly
Much of the defences during the Second World War on the Isles of Scilly were focused around St Mary’s, with 27 pillboxes and defended gun positions built along the coastline in early 1941.
Of the 27 built, 9 pillboxes survive, including a scheduled monument at Tolman Point. This hexagonal pillbox has a concrete raft floor and a flat shuttered concrete roof with five rectangular gun loopholes. The nails used along the walls’ upper edges to secure camouflage netting can still be seen today.
7. Withow Gap, Skipsea, East Yorkshire
This pillbox is one of many that appeared along the long stretch of beach in Skipsea during the Second World War. As you walk along the coastline, you will spot numerous examples of surviving military items that were put in place in 1941.
As the coast has eroded over the decades, many pillboxes originally positioned on the cliffs above the dunes have fallen onto the beach and been battered by the sea.
8. Skidbrooke, East Lindsey, Lincolnshire
Pillboxes were constructed in various shapes and sizes across England depending on their purpose and use. Many used reinforced concrete and steel frames, including this structure near the coast in East Lindsey, Lincolnshire.
This pillbox was constructed with a rectangular loophole which could be used for observations and to discharge firearms. Those using a pillbox would have experienced very cramped conditions and low ceilings.
9. Happisburgh, Norfolk
Following the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in 1940, there were fears of an increased threat of attack on the East Anglican coastline. This resulted in trenches and barbed wire appearing across the Norfolk coast, and pillboxes, batteries, and anti-tank obstacles were considered essential defence systems.
This Second World War pillbox in Happisburgh is thought to have been originally constructed on the nearby cliff top. The pillbox now stands upside down on the beach below and is buried in the sand after falling from the cliff following coastal erosion in the 1960s.
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