Pillbox Myths #3: Pistol Loophole or piss-take?

Right, it’s been a while since I did one of these. Let’s try and bust another pillbox myth.

The Myth

“The loopholes found next to the entrance of a Type 22 or Type 24 pillbox are pistol loopholes.”

Okay, this is another commonly identified feature of pillboxes that appears online very often.

The small loopholes/embrasures that flank the entrance of a pillbox, in particular those found on standardised Directorate of Fortifications and Works Branch 3 (DFW/3) pillbox designs, are often identified as ‘pistol loopholes’. This interpretation is rarely, if ever, explained but I assume it is believed that the loopholes that flank the entrance of the ‘Type 22’ and ‘Type 24’ would be used for firing a pistol, presumably by an Officer.

Pistol loophole next to a pillbox entrance?

This interpretation conjures up romantic images of a brave Officer defending the entrance of a pillbox from an attack by a hoard of Heer, as they launch their final assault on an isolated pillbox.

As we’ll see, things don’t quite add up with this vision. So, are they pistol loopholes or a piss-take? Let’s find out.

The Truth

As with a lot of these myths, I’d seen ‘pistol loopholes’ mentioned online a lot.

What got my ‘pillbox senses’ tingling was the thought ‘Why would you build a special loophole/embrasure just for a pistol?’.

This got me thinking further about the organisation of an infantry Section and Platoon and the weapons they were issued with at the time; which ties in with my wider research. I also decided to consult copies of the ‘standard’ pillbox plans issued by the DFW/3 from May 1940 onwards, to try and work out what’s going on.

Through my investigation, the truth appears to be a lot more conventional. 

These embrasures were designed for firing a rifle and not a pistol. Simple. No fanciful scenes of a dashing Officer protecting his men with a six-shooter, firing into a hoard of enemy troops as they storm the pillbox with bayonets at the ready for you!

How do I know this? Well, because wartime plans of the DFW3/22 (‘Type 22’) and DFW3/24 (‘Type 24’) pillboxes clearly annotate the rear facing loophole adjacent the entrance as a ‘rifle loophole’. These plans were kindly provided by Peter Hibbs.

Here are some examples-

DFW3/22 Pillbox Plan issued to the Chief Engineer of Southern Command clearly showing Rifle Loophole
DFW3/24 Pillbox Plan issued to the Chief Engineer of Southern Command clearly showing Rifle Loophole
DFW3/22 Pillbox Plan of unknown origin. Traced on 19 May 1940 and amended on 10 July 1940.

Two different sets of Second World War period pillbox plans (try saying that when you’ve had a few!) and a distinct lack of pistol loopholes. Both clearly indicating the rear facing loopholes were Rifle Loopholes.

I have yet to see a wartime plan that shows these embrasures annotated as a ‘pistol loophole’.

Interestingly, Henry Will’s Pillboxes (1985) features plans of the DFW/3 pillbox designs with the rear embrasures clearly annotated as ‘Rifle Loopholes’. Unfortunately, the source of these plans is not quoted; though the lack of a Chief Royal Engineer (CRE) reference number, or dates suggests to me the plans were drawn up for the book in the 80s; possibly based on a primary source or period documents. We may never know as a reference for these plans wasn’t provided.

‘Type 22’ Plan from Wills (1985) showing rifle loophole
‘Type 24’ Plan from Wills (1985) showing pair of rifle loopholes

The use of these embrasures for a rifle makes much more sense from an organisational perspective. It would also be much more effective at covering the rear of the structure out to a relatively decent effective range of between 300 and 600 yards (274/548m), especially when compared to the recommended effective range of a pistol, which was around 25 yards (13m) on a good day (War Office, 1937).

Pistols were only officially issued to Officers. An Officer, usually a Second-Lieutenant or Lieutenant, commanded an Infantry Platoon. It seems very odd that provision would be made in a pillbox to allow just one person out of around 28 to 30 soldiers to fire their weapon. Also, by the time the enemy are within pistol range, the soldiers within the pillbox were either already dead or about to be dead. One person with a pistol isn’t going to hold off an attacking enemy for very long, if at all.

As an aside, you can fire pretty much all small arms, such as the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) rifle and Bren Light Machine Gun (LMG) from most loopholes. As long as you can fit the weapon into the loophole, operate the weapon, aim, and fire then it is viable. The distinction between LMG and Rifle loopholes seems arbitrary in the wider scheme of things. 

Garrison information for DFW3/22 Pillbox from Chief Engineer Southern Command plan

That being said, these plans are annotated with the recommended number of soldiers who could garrison the pillbox; ranging from between 4 to 8 soldiers depending on ‘type’. It’s possible that this specific use of the embrasures may relate to the original guidelines of how many troops would garrison the ‘standard’ pillboxes. On paper, one soldier was to be armed with a rifle, while the rest used LMGs. In the case of the DFW3/22, this is quoted on the plans issued to the Chief Royal Engineer (CRE) of Southern Command (see examples above) as 6 soldiers in total: 5 with LMGs and 1 with a rifle. 

In the field, it would be a very tight squeeze to fit that number of soldiers into the DFW3/22, each armed with an LMG and one with a rifle. This also does not take into account that a LMG like the Bren was operated by a crew of two soldiers, or that the pillbox would be filled with ammunition and provisions to sustain the position. It’s likely this recommendation for a garrison was a good idea on paper, but in the field is not likely to have been adhered to.

The Origins of this Myth

It’s proven a bit tricky nailing the origins of the pistol loophole.

The first mention of a ‘pistol loophole’, or in this case ‘pistol-loop’, I can find is in Mike Osborne’s 2004 book Defending Britain. In relation to the ‘Type 24’ Osborne states ‘Each face has an embrasure for a Bren gun, with a pistol-loop each side of the door, in the base’ (Osborne, 2004. p.49).

An unfortunate problem with Osborne’s widely available work is that he doesn’t provide references for his sources. This makes it impossible to trace the origins of the term ‘pistol-loop’ any further. It can only be assumed that Osborne adopted this term as a result of either poor research, uncorroborated field observations, or use of unreliable/anecdotal information. We may never know.

The term ‘pistol loop’ also appears in Osborne’s later book Pillboxes of Britain and Ireland (Examples: DFW3/22: p.92 & DFW3/24: p.114), as well as more recent work produced within the last year; so the use of ‘pistol loop’ isn’t due to a typographical error.

Where the term ‘pistol-loop/hole’ originated is now a bit of a mystery.

Overall, the common use of this term appears to be a prime example of how one mistake can spread, become established as ‘fact’, and then go unchallenged for a very long time.

It has to be assumed that people have read Osborne’s books and repeated ‘pistol loophole‘ verbatim without doing their own research; quite possibly to appear knowledgeable online and impress their friends… It is also equally likely that some have picked up this myth from someone doing the former.

This is a common problem with pillboxes and the like. A myriad of myths and factoids surround anti-invasion defences, many of which are commonly repeated online. Many myths come about due to an inherent acceptance of anecdotal evidence, supposition, and unsubstantiated field observations. These ‘facts’ quickly gain traction online amongst pillbox spotting and urbex groups, as they are adopted and repeated without consideration of whether they are true or not. It’s very unfortunate that relatively few people actually question, analyse, cast a critical eye over, or undertake research to corroborate such information.

It is now making me question how much we actually know about wartime anti-invasion defences. How much of what is taken as common knowledge and readily accepted on various online forums is genuine fact and how much is actually myth? Also, can unreferenced work be trusted for accuracy?

Conclusion: Busted (Provisionally)

I’m going to say this one is Busted (Provisionally). This being that the evidence I have seen and presented strongly suggests that the term ‘pistol loophole’ has no historical basis and is therefore a myth. However, it could be corroborated in the future by a primary source or documentary evidence.

I’ll be more than happy to revisit and change this conclusion when I see primary evidence that corroborates that these features were referred to as ‘pistol loopholes’ during the Second World War. As always, I’m very keen to see a primary source or documentary evidence that shows these features were indeed referred to as ‘pistol loopholes’ during the Second World War. Something like a period Chief Royal Engineer’s plan, or similar would be ideal. I suspect I may have a long wait ahead of me though.

Countering the Myth

The best way of countering myths like this one is to ask for proof or clarification of commonly accepted online ‘facts’. People need to be a lot more critical of what they read online and don’t take things at face value, even if the facts are coming from established online pillbox ‘experts’. 

It’s perfectly fine for people to make field observations and attempt to analyse things. However, it needs to be made clear that such interpretations are not corroborated by evidence, and are solely an interpretation. Until backed up by clear supporting evidence or a primary source, such views will never become fact.

Over and Out!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little blog and I hope it has given you some food for thought.

I’ll see you again soon (lol, give me a year or two) for another Pillbox Myth.

Byeeee!

Sources

Osborne, M., 2004. Defending Britain: Twentieth Century Military Structures in the Landscape. Tempus.

Osborne, M., 2008. Pillboxes of Britain and Ireland. Tempus.

Wills, H., 1985. Pillboxes: A Study of UK Defences 1940. Leo Cooper Ltd.

War Office, 1937. Small Arms Training: Volume 1, Pamphlet No.11: Pistol (.38-inch). His Majesty’s Stationery Officer.

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2 thoughts on “Pillbox Myths #3: Pistol Loophole or piss-take?

  1. Hi Chris,

    I never thought poking a .38 down those holes would do much good. What might be worth considering is getting a hand grenade out there. Especially if the pillbox was equipped with a metal door. Pretty much kill/injure anyone outside for some distance. I’ve got a long arm so it might be viable! Another excuse for some experimental archaeology!
    Keep up the good work.

    Best wishes,

    Andy

    Dr Andy Holborn MCI, IML, MLW.
    Mountain Training England Provider. Technical Advisor. Higher Education Lecturer.
    3 Charlton Terrace, Ivybridge, Devon PL21 0AU. 01752 892421 aholborn@outlook.com

    Books by Andy:
    1. 56th Infantry Brigade and D-Day. An Independent Infantry Brigade and the Campaign in NW Europe 1944 – 1945. Bloomsbury Studies in Military History.
    2. Voice of the Infantry in the NW Europe Campaign 1944-45. MLRS Books. Softback.
    3. The D-Day Landing on Gold Beach. 6th June 1944. Bloomsbury Studies in Military History.
    ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now that’s an idea! The metal doors on the example in the blog are a modern addition, but I don’t think it’s out of the realms of fantasy for a Mills bomb to be used defensively from within a pillbox if the need arose. Will add that to the list of ‘experimental archaeology things to do’. Cheers Andy!

      Liked by 1 person

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