Starting Out: Part 2

As my first blog post on ‘Getting Started’ has proven surprisingly popular, I have decided to write a follow-up; following some great feedback on my original blog post.

This post will cover further sources of information you can use to investigate and research Second World War military defences in your local area. It’s also worth noting that many of these sources can be used to investigate much earlier sites. However, as I’m obsessed with stuff made of concrete, the Second World War will be the main focus once again.

Maps and Aerial Photographs

© Google Earth

© Google Earth

Maps and aerial photographs are another wonderful resource for investigating Second World War defences.

Maps can be used to gain an idea of how the landscape appeared during the 1940s; especially when investigating the relationships between defences and vehicular communication systems: such as roads, railways and canals.

Aerial photographs are frequently used to investigate the modern landscape for historical and archaeological features: including crop marks, standing remains, ruins and historical landscape features; e.g. ancient field boundaries. Historic aerial photographs are great for investigating Second World War sites ‘as they were’.

Conveniently, there are a number of readily available (And free!) on-line resources which you can use to investigate historic maps and modern aerial photographic images.

National Library of Scotland Map App

NLS Map App

NLS Map App

The best place to view historic maps is the National Library of Scotland’s Map Images app. This on-line map app allows you to view a wide range of historic maps; from 1888 OS maps, through to OS maps from the 1950s and 60s. There are many other maps available; too many to list here.

I find the ‘Explore Georeferenced maps’ function particularly useful when investigating buildings that were requisitioned during the war, or buildings which still remain that previously had a military function.

The ‘Change transparency of overlay’ tool makes it possible to fade in, and fade out of a modern aerial image; allowing you to quickly see whether a building on the historic map survives today or vice versa.

A neat feature of the app can be found in the bottom right hand corner. As you move the cursor across the map, the 8-figure National Grid Reference is displayed. You can write this grid reference down and use it when searching Heritage Gateway and other websites that allow you to search by grid reference.

The NLS map app also features a ‘Side by side’ feature which displays a modern and historic map ‘side by side’. This, again, is great for exploring current and historic sites.

I won’t cover all the functions of this app as there are so many features to use and discover. I recommend having a play around with the app to build up confidence; it shouldn’t take too long and is pretty fun as well.

Google Earth

Google Earth Pro

Google Earth Pro

Next we have aerial photographs. I use Google Earth Pro for investigating modern aerial photographs. Google Earth Pro is now available for free  and features additional tools that will allow you to measure, map and explore the 3D globe.

Best of all, Google Earth Pro features georeferenced 1940s aerial photographs; covering Kent, Suffolk, London and elsewhere; very handy for exploring Second World War military sites!

If you are new to Google Earth there are plenty of on-line tutorials that you can use to get up to speed with the program’s functions and features.

I will be covering how to interpret Second World War defences and identify features using 1940s aerial photographs in a future post; so watch this space!

Be aware that Google Earth doesn’t accept National Grid References. Apps such as the Grid Reference Finder will allow you to quickly search using UK National Grid references.

Libraries and Archives

Never underestimate your local library, archive or local studies library.

Sorry, I didn't have a picture of a library.

Sorry, I didn’t have a picture of a library.

Local libraries can be a great source of obscure or out of print local history books. Local history books often cover the Second World War; including eye-witness accounts and pictures of a local area during the period. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, you can use these to track down defences and other military sites in your area. I advise taking time to visit a number of local libraries to have a look for local history books that cover the period.

Archives contain large amounts of documents that pertain to your local area, it is also free to visit archives in your area, as long as you register. There is always the chance that your local archive service will hold documents that relate to local defence, Air Raid Precautions, Civil Defence or Home Guard activity. Newspaper articles, often held within the Archive, can also be used to build up a picture of activity in a given area during the war.

I recently stumbled upon an unpublished historical account in my local archive, which covered military activity in my village during the Second World War; including the activities of the local Home Guard. This account has helped me identify the general locations of three Searchlight Batteries, a Roadblock and an Army Camp; all of which remain to be recorded in the local Historic Environment Record (Don’t worry, I’m working on it!).

A visit to the Archive or Local Studies Library often proves fruitful and is a really good way of adding to your knowledge of local history.



The last source of information I will cover is books. There are a wide range of books covering Second World War defences, defence sites and the history behind their development.

Please be aware that some of these books are no longer in print and may be hard to come by or expensive.

Starting out

I recommend the following books if you are just starting out, would like to learn more about the different types of defences you may encounter and learn about their historical background.

British Home Defences 1940-45 (Fortress) by Bernard Lowry

ISBN 978-1-74176-767-3

This book offers a great introduction to British Home Defences of the Second World War, covering aspects such as Stop-Lines, The Home Guard, Coastal Defences and the defence of the air. If you are new to the subject, this a good read and will give you an insight into what you can discover.

Pillboxes and Tank Traps by Bernard Lowry

ISBN 978-0-74781-356-9

Another book by Bernard Lowry, this time covering Pillboxes and Anti-Tank defences. Featuring many pictures of pillboxes and defences during the war; the book covers the development and frequently changing strategy of defence chronologically; guiding you through the various stages of defence strategy. This is a must read for anyone who would like to learn more about pillboxes and Anti-Tank defences in the UK.

Through The Lens: British Anti-Invasion Defences 1940-1945 by Austin J. Ruddy

ISBN 1-901313-20-4

This was the first book I bought some 15 years ago. Although no longer in print, I recommend finding a copy. The book covers standard Pillbox types, Anti-Tank defences, Airfield defences, and pretty much all the defence site types that you would expect to encounter. What sets this book out is that it provides you with remaining examples (as of 2003) of each site type, as well as the National Grid reference for that site.

Specialist Books

The following books are of a more specialist nature, but certainly worth a look.

Pillboxes: A Study of U.K. Defences 1940 by Henry Wills

ISBN 0-436-5730-1

This is one of the first books that focussed on pillboxes. Be aware that this book is no longer in print and surviving copies can be expensive to obtain. However, if you do find a copy you won’t be disappointed.

Pillboxes of Britain and Ireland by Mike Osborne

ISBN 978-0-7524-4329-4

This book is essentially a detailed typology of all known pillbox types that can be found in Britain and Ireland. The book features an introduction covering the origins of the pillbox, along with examples and types that can be found around the world. This book features photographs and plans of many pillboxes in the UK and is a must for the serious Pillbox enthusiast or archaeology student.

Defending Britain: Twentieth-Century Military Structures in the Landscape by Mike Osborne

ISBN 0-7524-3134-X

Another of Mike Osborne’s works; this time covering 20th century coastal, inland, and anti-aircraft defences from the First World War, all the way through to the Cold War. Again, this book is very detailed but a must for anyone wanting a in-depth account of military defences in the UK.

Local Case Study books

These books cover specific areas of the UK; recommended if you are looking to learn more about your local defences, or would like to explore defences further afield.

The Defences of Worcestershire and the southern approaches to Birmingham in World War II by Mick Wilks

ISBN 9781904396802

I had the pleasure of meeting Mick at one of the Home Front Legacy training days in 2015. His knowledge of the defences in Worcestershire is unsurpassable and he’s also a very nice guy. This book represents the stellar work that Mick has conducted in the county and is itself unprecedented. Buy this book!

Silent Sentinels: The story of Norfolk’s fixed defences during the twentieth century by Christopher Bird

ISBN 9-780948-400810

A wonderful book that covers Norfolk’s many remaining Second World War defences. Also a great excuse to visit Norfolk.

The Battlefields that Nearly Were: Defended England 1940 & Defended England 1940: The South-West, Midlands and North by William Foot

ISBN978-0-7524-4328-7 & ISBN 978-0-7524-4786-5

Here are my favourites. These accounts cover the work of William Foot while undertaking English Heritage’s ‘The Defence Areas Project’. The book is written in a very engaging way and provides a fun, yet informative look at some of the country’s best surviving defence works.

A Guide to Second World War Archaeology in Suffolk by Robert Liddiard and David Sims

This series of 4 books cover all aspects of Second World War defence in Suffolk. The work undertaken by the authors, presented in these guides should act as an inspiration for all subsequent investigations and research projects. Although specific to Suffolk, they are a must.

20th Century Defences in Britain series by Mike Osborne and Alistair Graham Kerr

This series of books cover Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and elsewhere in detail. Well worth a look.


The only website you need to visit The Defence of East Sussex project website, run by Peter Hibbs. The work Peter has carried out is amazing. Take a look and get inspired!

The End!

So, that rounds off this blog, I hope you find it useful and enjoy exploring your local area.

Creative Commons Licence
Starting Out by Chris Kolonko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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One thought on “Starting Out: Part 2

  1. Pingback: Investigating Aerial Photographs | Chris Kolonko

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