Pillbox Myth #4 Fivers and Farmers

It’s time once again to question another established pillbox fact and reveal that all is not what it seems. This time we’ll be looking at:

‘Farmers (feel free to insert any other landowner) were paid £5 to demolish pillboxes on their land’

Although oft repeated online, is there any truth in this statement, or is there any evidence to corroborate exactly where it came from?

Whenever someone asks about pillbox demolition on the myriad of Facebook based pillbox spotting and urbex groups and web forums there is usually a clamour to respond with ‘FARMERS WERE PAID £5 TO DEMOLISH THEM!!!!!’.

The is usually followed by a further statement along the lines of ‘the farmers just pocketed the cash and didn’t demolish the pillboxes’.

This has gone on for many years and I’m sure this factoid has been repeated thousands of times. Read on to get a better idea of what actually happened!

Initial Thoughts

Before we get into busting this myth, here are some of my initial thoughts when I was considering why this statement may be a myth.

Firstly, £5 would have been a lot of money at the time, approximately £221.36 in today’s money (Source: CPI Inflation Calculator). When you consider the country was almost bankrupt after 6 long years of war, and having to pay debts accrued to the US government in the form of War Loans, I’m pretty sure the government wouldn’t be prepared to simply throw money at farmers or other landowners.

When you consider how many defences were to be removed, it’s a lot of money for a cash-strapped government to be giving out with no oversight or legal requirement to remove the defences. Who would process such payments and ensure only farmers were paid?

Also, if the ‘farmers kept the cash’ statement is the only explanation of why defences survive, why do defences survive on land not owned by farmers, such as the coast, towns and cities?

Origins

As always, before we get into the truth, let’s consider where this myth started. Where did this factoid come from and how did it grow?

To trace the origins of the myth, I hit the books. The majority of Facebook dwelling pillbox ‘experts’ get their knowledge from the work and research of others; usually from a handful of books and websites on the subject of Anti Invasion defences of the Second World War.

The earliest mention I can find of the £5 Pillbox Myth is in the book British Home Defences 1940-45 (Lowry, 2004. p.54). In here it is stated:

‘As an incentive, farmers were offered £5 for each pillbox destroyed on their land.’

Unfortunately, no source or reference for this statement is provided by Lowry. It has therefore not been possible to trace the origins of this statement further and it must be assumed to be the result of anecdotal evidence, or an unidentified documentary source. There is no mention of the £5 demolition quote in any earlier sources I have access to.

Interestingly, the figure of £5 per pillbox demolished by farmers is not quoted in Lowry’s 2014 book Pillboxes and Tank Traps. It is simply stated that ‘Landowners began to be compensated for the cost of removal of defence works if they opted to do the work themselves’ (Lowry, 2014. p.58). 

This change of tack may have come about after William Foot’s Beaches, Fields, Streets and Hills was published in 2006, which is the first publication to take issue with the £5 farmer figure. Foot states:

‘Amongst the many stories associated with the 1940/41 anti invasion defences is the one that says farmers were given a sum of money (usually stated to be £5) to remove each pillbox on their land but pocketed the money instead. This story probably represents a confusion with the compensation lump sum, but may refer to some local schemes where farmers were asked to do the work…’

So, there we have it. This myth was pretty much busted by Foot way back in 2006. This now makes me wonder how many people that own (and show off that they own) this book have actually read it!

Interestingly, the Wikipedia page for British Hardened Field Defences quotes the £5 myth, using Foot’s statement as a corroborating source. As you can see above, Foot does not support the £5 claim and ultimately questions the figure, concluding it is probably based on a misunderstanding. Did whoever wrote the Wiki page even read the source??!! (Update 20.11.2021: This has now been removed from the Wiki page)

The ‘How did it grow?’ part is easy to answer.

It’ll come as no surprise to frequent readers of this blog that this myth gained traction due to a lack of critical analysis, and a need by people online to look clever by remembering and regurgitating pillbox ‘facts’.

The popularity of this myth also comes down to a need to understand the post-war situation and removal of wartime defences, at a time when very few people have actually done any research into the subject. That is research as in looking at primary sources held in archives, talking to eyewitnesses, and analysing what has already been written. Not ‘research’ as in doing a quick Google and repeating what you’ve read online or in books that don’t quote their sources.

There is also an aspect of trying to simplify a massively complex undertaking, into a simple to repeat soundbite that anyone can repeat ad nauseum but instantly look knowledgeable and clever with little actual effort.

Alongside this is an element of trying to explain why some wartime anti-invasion defences survive and why some were demolished. 

As with most of these myths, the majority get traction through hearsay, repetition, a lack of research, a lack of critically assessing available information and an unhealthy dollop of acceptance of any old crap spouted by anyone online.

The reality is that the removal of the redundant defences towards the end of the Second World War was a huge undertaking; massively complex in not only its administration but also its implementation. The implementation of which is likely to have differed enormously not only county to county, but also council to council.

The Truth

As always, the truth is much more complex than a simple one sentence factoid.

Firstly, due to the endemic lack of research, the true cost of demolishing wartime defences is currently unknown.

To try to get to the bottom of this myth and find the truth, I started by consulting the one reliable report on the national picture of wartime defences, that is properly researched/sourced; Dobinson’s mighty Twentieth Century Fortifications in England Volume II: Anti-Invasion defences of WWII.

Dobinson’s report gave some key pointers, namely that the War Office ‘Required that each Command establish an ad hoc co-ordination committee, consisting of Command Land Agent, a representative of the CE [Chief Engineer], the Land Commissioner, the Regional Planning Officer, the Divisional Road Engineer and the Regional Engineering Inspector’ (Dobinson. 1996 p.195).

Dobinson’s report made it very clear that the ‘restoration’ of defences was very much coordinated at a local level, with the ‘categorisation’ of defences a further key element of this process. Local planning was also a key element.

You’ve probably guessed it, but Dobinson made no mention of farmers or fivers.

What do the documents say?

So, once again the documentary record is key to helping us to better understand the actual situation.

To start with, let’s first look into the military’s policy in regards to building on the land and property of others. At the outbreak of war guidance came in the form of the Defence Regulations, 1939. Thanks to my partner in crime, Peter Hibbs for providing a heads up on this avenue of investigation.

The Defence Regulations 1939 outline what the military can and can’t do in terms of building on land or property during times of war and in defence of the realm. The relevant sections of the Defence regs are as follows:

Section 50 (1) ‘Taking Possession of Land‘ outlines that the military ‘may, for any purposes connected with the defence of the realm, the prosecution of the war, the securing of the public safety or the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community, do any work on any land or place anything in, on or over any land.’

Okay, to summarise, this means that the army (in this case) could build or dig whatever it wants, on any land it wants to as long as it is for the defence of the realm, conducting the war or protecting the public.

Section 50 (4) goes on to state ‘For the purpose of this Regulation, the doing of work shall, in relation to any land, be deemed to include the demolition, pulling down, destruction or rendering useless of anything placed in, on or over the land, the maintenance of any work or thing in, on or over the land, and the removal from the land of anything so placed, demolished or pulled down in pursuance of this Regulation.’

Right, so this gives the army, in this case, the right to demolish anything on the land they have requisitioned, including anything they have built or dug on the land.

So, the army could build what and where it liked as long as it was in support of the war effort or to protect members of the public and they could also demolish what they had built.

Section 8ull (5hit) went on to further state ‘Farmers, in pursuance of demolition of pillboxes, will be therefore paid the princely sum of £5 to cover the aforementioned cost. No attempt will be made to ensure said pillbox is demolished and make sure they don’t just pocket the money’. Only joking, there was no mention of fivers and farmers.

One County’s Records

For this one, thanks to my wonderful partner and genealogist Stephie, I ended up in the Norfolk Record Office. Here I got hold of the late/Post-War demolition records for the county. I’m sure there’s more of these records held across the UK in local archives.

Key thing to point out here! Don’t bother trying to apply the following to the whole of the UK. This is just one example, from one county. As you will see, there is no ‘one size fits all’ explanation of how defences were demolished.

The documents I got a chance to consult were massively detailed and I’m still getting my head around all the details held in them. So, the following will be by and large a summary of what the documents told me in regards to solving this myth.

The post-war process of ‘restoration’, as in restoring the land to what it was like prior to the war, was massively complex even within a single county.

Much of the work was coordinated by the County Planning Officer for Norfolk, working under the Regional Controller of the Ministry of Local Government and Planning, who was based in Cambridge. The task was further delegated to the surveyors of the Rural Districts of Norfolk.

In July 1945, a conference was held with the War Department Land Agent for Norfolk, Captain Winterton. This conference outlined the process of removing defences in Norfolk, with everything from the removal of barbed wire, anti-tank ditches, temporary camps, airfields and ammunition stores discussed in relative detail.

The ‘classification’ of defences (more on this shortly) within the Rural Districts was a hugely methodical process, which was by no means as simple as bunging farmers a fiver to demolish a pillbox!

The process also developed and changed over time, and it is not within the scope of this simple blog to outline these changes in detail. And, again, it needs to be stressed that these documents cover a single county and the information outlined should not be applied to all post-war demolition across the country.

In summary the documents tell us some key things that help bust this myth. Firstly, the documents highlight the Compensation (defence) Act 1939, which was key to assessing what options were available to the War Department and how much they paid in compensation. This also gives us a lead to how much compensation was.

So, let’s get started.

To start with, in October 1945 the documents refer explicitly to the Compensation (defence) Act 1939 in that:

‘Section 3(3) makes it clear that provision is made for: –

(a)          The land to be restored as far as practicable.

(b)          A lump sum to be paid in compensation in lieu of restoration.’

So, there we have two things which are important. Firstly, the Compensation (defence) Act of 1939, and secondly that compensation would only be paid as a lump sum if the land couldn’t be restored to its original condition. This also shows us that compensation wasn’t the only course of action the War Department could take. They could either restore the land or pay compensation.

Let’s take a quick look at what the Compensation (defence) Act of 1939 tells us.

So, I won’t repeat what is stated in the act as it’s really dull, but Sections 2 (1), 3 (1) and 3 (2) under the Right to, and measure of, compensation outline how compensation was to be calculated. 

In summary, Section 2 (1) highlights that compensation for requisitioned land was calculated by taking into account a sum equal to reasonable rent charges for the land, the cost of repairing damage to the land while requisitioned, a sum equal to the tenancy charges for agricultural land, or a sum equal to any charges accrued as a result of the land being requisitioned by the military

Section 3 relates to Compensation in respect of the doing of work on land. Sections 3 (1) and 3 (2) highlight that compensation is only payable if the annual cost of the land is diminished due to the work done and the cost of compensation would be calculated using the sum of diminished annual value; the cost would then be paid in instalments.

Okay, so according to the military’s own guidance, compensation could and would be paid to landowners whose land was requisitioned or worked on by the military. This guidance is highly complex but my conclusion having read it and survived is that at no point does it mention that a pre-specified lump sum would be paid to landowners, such as farmers. There is a great emphasis put on calculating an accurate value for the sum of compensation to be paid, taking into account numerous factors.

No mention is made that the compensation is to be used by the landowner to undertake the restoration of their land themselves. There’s no simple ‘one size fits all’ explanation here and no corroboration for the myth.  Fiver anyone?

Back to the docs, where the process of calculating compensation is reflected in the documents. 

In a report dated the 5th of July 1945, it is clearly mentioned that the cost of removal of barbed wire, for example, was compensated at an equivalent sum ‘to the diminution of value’ of the land on which it sat.

We also find in the same report the only mention found so far to paying landowners for the cost of removal, again relating to barbed wire. This comes in reference to a War Department rehabilitation scheme for coastal areas, where Local Authorities were paid for the cost of removal.

And now the big reveal! 

It is in this early report that we find the only specific mention of the monetary costs of demolishing pillboxes. In this case, relating to the cost of removing pillboxes on highways, coordinated by the Divisional Road Engineer. The cost of demolishing a pillbox is stated as £40, when removed by private contractors, and £120 when removed by the Highways Authority themselves. It’s a bit more than £5, isn’t it!

By July 1947, the situation complicates a bit when the War Department realises that the cost of restoration sometimes exceeds the maximum cost of compensation. But that’ll have to be a story for another time.

So, to put the sum of £5 to bed, we have seen here that there wasn’t a standard lump sum payment, each case was compensated differently after a sum was calculated. This is corroborated not only by the Defence (compensation) act, but also the documentary record. The documentary record also handily outlines that, in Norfolk at least, the cost of demolishing a pillbox was way in excess of £5.

But what about Farmers pocketing the cash?

So, what about the ‘farmers pocketed the cash’ being the reason why defences survive?

The Norfolk documents reveal one of the true reasons why defences still survive today. In a guidance document relating directly to the Categorisation of Defence Works, dated the 31st of October 1945:

‘Naturally the War Department are anxious to dispose of as many cases as possible and it would be convenient to them to pay compensation in lieu of restoration, particularly as the prospects of demolition and removal are for the time being remote, due to the shortage of labour.’

So, the reason, according to this primary source, why defences survive is not because farmers pocketed the mythical £5 notes they were paid to demolish defences, it was because the War Department’s preferred policy was to pay a lump sum of compensation instead of ‘restoring’ land as there simply wasn’t the workforce available to demolish all the defences.

Further to this, not all defences needed to be removed. 

This is where ‘categorisation’ comes to play. A system of ‘categorisation’ was put in place to assess the importance and urgency with which remaining defences were to be demolished. Defences were categorised by the rural district council surveyors who were dotted around Norfolk. These surveyors reported to the County Planning Officer.

Defence works earmarked for removal were categorised as follows-

(a) Those where restoration is urgently necessary.

(b) Those where restoration is necessary some time but not now.

(c) Those where restoration is not required in the public interest.

We can see here that Category (c) clearly shows that not all defences needed to be removed and there was a specific category for such defences, which ultimately led to their survival. This has led my archaeology orientated brain off on a tangent and has got me thinking about how surviving defences can be used to investigate why they weren’t removed. Again, another story for another time.

So, due to this policy of county-wide assessment of surviving defences, examples were surveyed and categorised, which was an overall decision of whether restoration needed to take place or not.

There’s so much information held in these documents that I could almost be here for ever busting the Fivers and Farmers myth. But I’m going to have to stop there given I am already past the 3000 words mark.

Conclusion

BUSTED!

I’m going to say this one is busted. It’s possible that there may have been a local example where a farmer was paid £5 to demolish a pillbox, but without a primary source or reference to corroborate that, this myth is busted. Even if evidence does come to light, it has been made abundantly clear here that it wasn’t national policy to bung farmers five quid to get rid of pillboxes on their land. So claiming all farmers, landowners or anyone else was paid £5 to demolish a pillbox on their land is pure myth and falsehood. Anyone spouting such a myth is simply repeating an unreferenced source from a book published in 2004. And the reason why pillboxes survive isn’t because said landowners pocketed the cash.

The documentary record for the county of Norfolk clearly shows that the whole process of demolishing wartime defences, and returning land to its pre-war state, was much more detailed, complicated and well administered than the myth gives credit. This is quickly becoming a theme of these myths, in that the reality is much more interesting than a one sentence factoid posted around social media.

Addendum (03.03.2022)

Just in case it isn’t clear in this instalment of Pillbox Myths; the key lesson here is that due to the regional level at which the wartime defences were planned and constructed, it is not a good idea to try and explain the history and archaeology of surviving defences with a ‘one size fits all’ approach. This approach over the last 2 to 3 decades has largely failed and we now see massive generalisations and simplifications of history are deep routed in much of the public’s perceptions. This hinders our understanding of the often unique and diverse history of these defences at a regional level. I need to clarify here, so as to avoid future myths, that the information and primary sources presented in this blog only applies to the county of Norfolk and nowhere else. The regional organisation of post-war land restoration likely means that other counties handled the issue differently, and applying the content presented in this blog to other counties is not recommended. I really want to avoid people copying/parroting what I have written in this blog and applying it to the whole of the UK. The aim of this pillbox myth blog, and the others, is to show the problems that we now encounter through a lack of research, a lack of critical analysis of published works and established ‘facts’, and the application of what can be considered localised facts or factoids to ALL defences in the UK. The history of this period is simply too broad and complex to make generalisations and sweeping statements. This oversimplification now hinders our understanding, with the knock on effect of hindering preservation as localised history and strategy is rarely if ever investigated and demonstrated.

Countering the Myth

As always, ask for a source if you see someone spouting facts online. If it’s not from a primary source, then in all probability it’s not true. Also, take whatever you read on unsourced websites, pillbox spotting/urbex social media groups, and even books with a pinch of salt. If someone can’t provide a reliable or primary source, then the fact is likely to be questionable.

A key problem with the study of wartime defences is that few people do any actual study. This is seriously hampering our understanding and the preservation of surviving wartime sites and structures.

On a final note, and as a treat to you for making it this far, I’ve had a good laugh recently because the £5 figure has started to creep up and has increased to £10. Possibly due to inflation, LoL. Thankfully, this is being quickly ‘corrected’ by one of Facebook’s resident pillbox experts as being the ‘accurate’ sum of £5. Unfortunately, they are also getting fed up with ‘correcting’ this mythical figure with another mythical figure. It must be hard work helping to perpetuate myths online…

I produce this website in my spare time and at my own expense but if you would like to help support my work, why not Buy Me A Coffee over on Ko-Fi?

Until next time. Byeeeeee!

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Peter Hibbs for providing copies of the Defence Regulations 1939 and to Norfolk Records Office for putting up with me geeking out over their documents.

Sources

Lowry, B. (2004). British Home Defences 1940-45. Osprey Publishing Ltd. Oxford.

Lowry, B. (2014). Pillboxes and Tank Traps. Shire Publications. Oxford.

Foot, W. (2006). Beaches, Fields, Streets and Hills. Council for British Archaeology. York

Defence Regulations 1939. 4th ed (1940). HMSO. London

Compensation (Defence) Act 1939

Dobinson, C.S., 1996. Twentieth Century Fortifications in England Volume II: Anti-Invasion defences of WWII. Council for British Archaeology. York

Documents

C/P8 Series documents Norfolk Records Office

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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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Introduction to Field Recording Part 5- Photographic Surveys and Sketch Plans

Time to take some photographs in what will be the final guide!

Update From Me

As always, it’s been a busy few months. I’ve been able to get out in the field with my amazing colleagues at CITiZAN for the first time in ages and I was also interviewed by an old friend.

I’ve also continued to work with Peter Hibbs to develop resources and guidance for our UK Second World War Heritage group. We’re currently building a Site Type Guide for wartime sites. This guide provides accurate information about wartime site types, as well as archaeological recording methodologies to ensure surviving sites are recorded to recognised standards.

Last April (2021) I was interviewed by my good friend Marc from Archaeosoup for the channel’s ‘Meet The Archaeologist’ series. This was quite the honour, given the very well known, and well respected, archaeologists that have been interviewed before me. You can watch the interview here-

As I mentioned above, this will be the final edition of this guide. It’s hard to believe I started this all the way back at the end of 2016. I’ve learned a lot writing this guide, mainly that I’m a very slow writer. Anyway, that’s enough from me. Onto the guide!

Disclaimer Time

Stop. Disclaimer time!

You can find additional Good Practice Guidelines over on the UK Second World War Heritage website. I recommend having a read through these.

Here’s the basics for reference. Wartime structures are the property of the landowner. Removing items from sites, trespass, unauthorised or illegal excavation and vegetation clearance all have a negative impact on surviving wartime sites and can make them vulnerable to further misuse. Also, these actions may act as justification for a landowner to demolish surviving structures that aren’t protected. 

“There were no signs saying Private Property” is not an excuse to trespass.

If you do any of the above, you are not ‘preserving’ or ‘recording’ Second World War sites and are actively contributing the negative issues that plague many surviving wartime sites.

Make contact with the landowner and work with them to highlight the importance of what they own.

Finally, I am not responsible if you get into trouble and I am not responsible for any other issues that arise as a result of using this guide.

Introduction

Archaeological photography is very different to artistic photography. You’ll also soon see the difference between taking photos of concrete for Facebook, and conducting a proper survey to basic archaeological standards to actually record your site.

A photographic survey is a key part of any archaeological survey. The aim of this is to create a visual record of what you are recording; highlighting form, condition and landscape context at time of survey. Taking the photographs is just one part of an archaeological photographic survey. You will have to set up your shots, decide what order you want to take your photographs in and (most importantly) keep a record of the photographs you are taking for archive purposes.

An important thing to point out before we start is that Facebook, Flickr, Youtube and online forums are not digital archives and have no responsibility to preserve digital images or information. If these sites cease to exist, or the account that posted the information is deleted, all that information is lost. This is why posting images to social media platforms and websites is not an effective way to document or record wartime sites and structures in the long term. That, and these sites have no influence over the planning process or local heritage policy. Your local Historic Environment Record (HER), however is responsible for curating an archive of digital images and they have a responsibility to ensure that data within their possession is maintained to prevent digital decay; ensuring information, both physical and digital, is preserved for future generations.

Why undertake a photographic survey?

The main aims of a photographic survey are to highlight your site’s location, level of preservation at time of survey, and site type; as well as to create a visual record of significant features and their locations in relation to the structure you are recording. Photographs also help to compliment your written record to further illustrate what you have found and recorded. Photographs may also be used by heritage professionals, such as HER officers, to determine the condition of your site and its local relevance. These don’t need to be super fancy artistic photos and no prior experience is necessary to undertake a photographic survey, simply follow the steps in this guide. 

What you will need

Let’s have a Blue Peter moment!

To undertake a photographic survey, you will need:

  • A camera, smartphone or tablet.
  • A recording form or notebook
  • A compass
  • Blutac or other easy to remove adhesive substance
  • A tripod, as long as you can safely carry it (Thanks Mike!)
  • Washing up liquid bottle (optional)

Important things to remember while doing a photographic survey

  • Try to avoid shadows in the image, especially your own. It is often best to photograph a site when it is overcast to avoid both shadows and raking light.
  • Ensure that no people are in the way, obscuring what you are photographing. If working with someone, make them aware when you are taking an image.
  • Remove any kit (bags, coats etc.) from the photograph before conducting your photographic survey.
  • Best practice is to take two photographs at a time and check that they are okay after they have been. This way you’ll have at least one photograph if anything goes wrong and won’t be disappointed to find out your photos haven’t been taken properly when you check them after the survey.
  • Make sure the image is focussed. Very basic but best to check that your images are properly focussed once they are taken.
  • Make sure what you are photographing is centred in the image. Not always possible inside a confined space but do your best.
  • Try to avoid grazing light and bloom. You don’t want the sun shining directly into the lens of the camera when you take a photo as it can obscure what you’re photographing.
  • Don’t remove/cut vegetation to clear up the shot. You are documenting the condition of the structure at the time of survey, so it’s important to highlight the impact vegetation growth is having on the structure and its condition. Also, depending on the area you are surveying, unauthorised vegetation clearance or damage to flora and fauna may also be illegal without prior consultation and consent from the landowner and relevant authorities. See the UK Second World War Heritage Good Practice Guidelines for further advice- https://ukswwh.wordpress.com/good-practice-guideline
  • Take as many images as you think you need but don’t take too many. There’s nothing worse than finding that you haven’t taken images of everything that you need to record. However, you need to strike a balance between too many photos and not enough. Be objective and stay focussed. Taking hundreds of photographs of a single structure is mostly pointless, especially when you could have recorded the structure visually in a dozen photos. As we’ll see later, taking more photos also increases your workload in terms of recording the images. Creating a record of your photographs is one of the most important parts of the photographic survey.

There’s also this handy video which outlines what to remember, courtesy of the Council for British Archaeology and Archaeosoup

Setting up your camera

Just as a quick heads-up, there are a couple of things you’ll need to do to make sure your camera is ready to take photographs.

  • Remove the lens cap. It’s always best to check, instead of looking silly!
  • Clean the lens. You really don’t want to find out there’s a huge fingerprint in all your images when you get home.
  • Ensure the camera is set to the highest resolution setting. Clear, high resolution images are far better than blurry, low resolution images. You can also compress high resolution images for use in presentations etc.
  • Check that you have enough memory on the camera to take photographs. If possible, have a spare SD card on hand.
  • Turn the date stamp off.
  • If possible, set the image format to .tiff. However, you will need to confirm which file formats are preferred by the Historic Environment Record that you will be providing your images to. Generally, for archiving purposes, .tiff is the preferred format. However, individual HERs may have different requirements. If possible, you should set the camera to take images in .tiff format, or at the very least ensure the images are converted before sending to the HER.

The Routine

A photographic survey will involve a pretty basic routine of taking a photograph and creating a photographic record of the photographs you’ve taken.

You should have an idea of what you want to photograph having made your observations. If not, have a quick look through the notes you made for the site description and pick out the important features you mention. 

Outlined below is a simple routine to follow to help you get started. However, over time you will develop your own process and method for undertaking a photographic survey. 

Overall, you should aim to do the following for each photograph:

1- Set up the area or feature to be photographed by removing any equipment and placing a suitable scale

2- Identify a suitable location from where you can take the photograph

3- Take photographs with scale

4- Take any additional photographs without scale as required

5- Complete the photographic record for the photographs taken (More on this shortly)

And that’s pretty much it. You repeat the above process for each feature you need to photograph.

What to photograph: An outline

Generally you should aim to take photographs of the following:

1- Location shots

2- Shots of each elevation

3- Context and landscape shots

4- Interior shots, each face if possible

5- Features of interest

Starting Off- Location shots

A CAMERAMAN OF THE R.A.F. FILM PRODUCTION UNIT Copyright: © IWM (CH 13067). Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205452571

You’ve finished recording the condition of the pillbox you are recording and are now ready to do the last step of the recording process. You have a quick check through your site description to see what needs to be photographed.

Before taking your photographs, you make sure that you have moved your backpack from the top of the pillbox and make your friend aware that you’re about to start photographing the pillbox. You don’t want them photobombing your photos! You check the camera one last time; making sure the date stamp is turned off, lens cap removed and that the camera is set to take photographs in .tiff format.

You take one final look around the exterior of the pillbox, to make sure that you haven’t left anything in shot. You are now ready to take the first photograph of your photographic survey.

Taking the opportunity to step back from the pillbox you have been surveying for a good couple of hours now, you place yourself far enough away from the pillbox to get a good shot of the structure in its immediate locality, showing its general location and overall condition. Ensuring that the camera is focussed and that there are no shadows, you take one photograph followed quickly by a second. Once you’ve taken the photographs, you give them a quick check to make sure the image is focussed and not obscured by a misplaced thumb or finger. You are very happy with the two images you have taken.

A good place to start is by taking a general location shot of the structure you are recording. This should be an image which highlights your site’s location in the landscape and shows as much of the exterior as possible. I find it best to take these photos without scale as they usually come in useful for presentations, blogs or publications. As these images are often taken at an angle, it often isn’t practical to place a scale properly anyway. Photo scales can be placed in later images.

Again, it needs to be stressed that you are demonstrating the site or structure in its current state. It is okay if what you are recording is completely obscured by vegetation. It is not your responsibility to cut the vegetation to clear the structure or dig anything up.

Here’s the ‘Location Shot’ taken-

You can see the pillbox is centred in the image, the image is focussed, and there’s no heavy shadows or grazing light.

Recording Your Photographs

Right, here’s the really important bit. You need to keep a record of the photographs you are taking. You will find a photographic record sheet on the third page of the Recording Form, but a notebook can also be used.

Taking hundreds of random photographs is completely pointless: this isn’t a competition of how many photographs you can take of one pillbox. It is much easier to be focussed and work methodically. Taking hundreds of photos is made even more pointless if you aren’t keeping a written record of what your photographs show and can’t even describe what the photographs show at a later date! This record is central to helping someone who hasn’t visited the site, such as a HER officer, understand what the site looks like and where key features are located.

The photographic record consists of:

  • The number of your image in the sequence
  • The filename
  • A caption/description of what the image shows

And that’s all you need!

The first two requirements are pretty self-explanatory.

First, you number each photo taken, or if you really wanted to you could apply a site-specific reference that links to the site reference of the structure, but numbering works just as well for now.

Next, you record the filename of the image taken, usually something like DSC00112

A quick explanation of why we do this. Numbering your photographs is a simple way of keeping track how many images you’ve taken and in what order they were taken. It also means that you can trace the image in the sequence if you don’t record the filename.

Recording the filename, again, helps you to track the image you’ve taken and match up the caption you have written. Recording both these pieces of information is good practice as it ensures that if anything goes wrong, or you lose track of the order you’ve taken images, you’ll still be able to work out which caption/description applies to each image.

It’s all about setting up a self-checking system that helps you avoid losing track of images in the future.

Right, the really important bit; the description. 

This should be no more than one or two sentences that describe the image you have taken. The most basic caption should describe what the image shows, the direction the photograph was taken and, if photo scales have been used, the size of the scales, and which parts of the structure you’re photographing are visible.

For the location shot above, I’ve gone with-

General location and form of pillbox at time of survey. Image facing North-East, showing South-West and North-West facing elevations, and entrance.

And there you go, that’s a simple description. You can see that the content of the photo is described, the direction the image was taken and what parts of the pillbox are visible. This should tell someone who hasn’t visited the site what the image shows, and give them a general idea of what features can be seen in the image.I’ll show you some more descriptions as we work through the photographic survey.

The character in the story also took a second image from the opposite direction for use at a later date.

Caption: General location and form of pillbox at time of survey. Image facing North, showing South and South-East facing elevations.

Elevations

Once you have your location shots, it’s time to start the photographic survey proper.
The next step is to photograph each face of the pillbox. These faces are often referred to as ‘elevations’. Photographing each face helps to create an in-depth, 360 degree record of the pillbox (in this case) which can be used to further highlight important features.

It’s worth pointing out here that, as was the case with this pillbox, it isn’t always possible to photograph every side. Often, the landscape will be too restrictive or dangerous to take a decent elevation shot. Again, don’t try and hack your way through vegetation to get these shots.

When taking these photographs, it is very important that you record which direction you are facing when the photograph is taken, as we’ll see in a bit.

The only thing to really remember is to make sure the face of the pillbox is correctly centred in the viewfinder before taking the photograph. Ideally, you want to aim for the elevation to be centred in the image and face on when you take it.

You’ve got your location shots so it’s time to take your elevation photographs.

You double check that there aren’t any bits of kit left on the pillbox or in the way of what you want to photograph. Your friend is busy wandering around, so you let them know again that you’ll be taking photographs and that you want them to stay out of shot.

You start by photographing the elevation closest to you, which is the entrance. There’s no better place to start! 

You find a convenient place from where you can take your photograph. Looking at the elevation you are going to photograph, you take a look through the viewfinder of the camera, checking that the elevation can fit in the centre of the image. When ready, you take two photographs.

You make a quick note of the image number and file name in the photograph recording form.

You have your initial images without scale. Now it’s time to take two further images with an appropriate photo scale. You place one of the two 1m ranging poles vertically to the left of the elevation you have photographed. You then move to where you took your first elevation shots, having left your camera bag at the location so you can quickly find it again, and look through the viewfinder of your camera, checking once again that you can get the whole elevation in shot one more. You also check at the same time that the ranging pole is properly vertical, and also face on to you and the camera. You take two further photographs. With your first elevation photographs taken, you complete the rest of the photographic survey form. You write a brief description which describes which way the image faces and the direction the elevation faces, using your compass to quickly check the direction. You also make a note of the size of the scales used in your photo description.

Okay, let’s start by having a look at the photos. You’ll notice that a total of four photographs were taken. Remember, we take more than one photo each time just in case something goes wrong.

The first image was taken without scale and the second pair of images were taken with scale. This leaves you with one pair of scaled shots you can use for publications or presentations and a second set of images with scale that you can use for reports. You can choose to start by placing scales but it’s often easier to place them in your second shot as they are pretty much in place for the second elevation you will photograph. You only have to really move the horizontal scale for the shot to be set up.

Placing scales

Caption: Surviving extent of vegetation camouflage applied to roof of pillbox. Image taken facing North-East, showing entrance and South-West and South facing elevations. 1m scale.

Okay, let’s look at placing photographic scales. Again, this is pretty straightforward. You may have seen these appear in some photographs posted online. Quite often it looks like they’ve been placed for decoration or to make it look like the person taking the photograph knows what they’re doing and nothing else!

Photographic scales, in this case known as ranging poles, are used to give a sense of scale to your image. Without them it can be really difficult to tell how big something is. Also, a well taken image with scales can be used to take approximate measurements of the features within the image. A single vertical ranging pole is usually enough, but if you wish you can place a second horizontal scale across the roof of the pillbox.

There are a couple of simple rules to remember when placing your photo scales. Firstly, make sure the scales are placed so that they don’t obscure what you’re photographing. Ideally, you want to make sure they are placed around the edge of the feature to be photographed. 

Second, make sure the scales are as vertical and horizontal as possible. You will often find that you go to take the image and realise that one of the scales isn’t quite horizontal or vertical. It takes a surprising amount of practice to get this right! 

Thirdly, make sure the scales themselves aren’t obscured. This isn’t so much of a problem if one section of the scale is visible but does become problematic if most of the scale is obscured. If your scale isn’t visible, try moving it to somewhere where it isn’t obscured and doesn’t break the previous two rules.

Right, next let’s look at the images of the entrance that were taken.

Image 1:

Description:

Image facing North-East showing South-West facing entrance.

Image 2:

Description:

Image facing North-East showing South-West facing entrance with 1m scale. Note thickness of the roof and wall.

Further Elevations

You repeat the above process of taking your photographs, placing scale and filling in the photo recording form for the other elevations.

You will find the rest of the elevation photographs in the example site record at the end of this guide. Note how vegetation and proximity to the cliff edge limited the options for photographs of the Northern-most elevations. This is why it’s often best to undertake field surveys in Winter, when vegetation is at a minimum.

Caption: South-East facing elevation showing rifle loopholes and vegetation growth. Image taken facing North.

During this survey, it wasn’t possible to get a face on elevation shot of the South-East facing elevation, so compromises during the survey had to be made. It wasn’t possible to take an image from further away due to the height of the vegetation, so I settled on taking an image at an oblique angle. A follow up survey will have to be conducted in the Winter.

Caption: North-West facing elevation of entrance showing single rifle loophole and chamfered corner with 1m scale.

You’ll notice with this image that it was taken while I was standing and is at an oblique angle. I made a mistake with this one; It would have been better if I crouched while taking this image to ensure the elevation is face on in the viewfinder.

Features of Interest

Features of interest are any significant features you have identified and mentioned in your site description that you think need photographing. These can be anything from detailed photographs of embrasures, through to examples of period graffiti or evidence of the construction techniques used.

In our case, we found some wartime graffiti on the roof of this pillbox which would benefit from being included in the photographic survey.

Taking such images is very similar to what we’ve already seen. Only this time, it is best to use an appropriately sized scale. You don’t want to be using a 1m ranging pole to photographs a feature that is only a few centimetres across.

Placing a 15cm or 30cm ruler will often provide an adequate scale for such features. Simply follow the rules for lacing a ranging pole and you won’t go too far wrong. If you’re photographing a feature on a vertical wall, it can be useful to attach your photo scale using blu tack. This will leave you with both hands free to take the image.

It’s worth remembering that if you’re taking a close up image, that the flash can sometimes obscure what you are photographing. This is particularly true if recording pencil graffiti on a whitewashed surface.

Let’s look at the photographs our protagonist took of their features of interest.

Image:

Description:
Detail of graffiti on Northern extent of pillbox roof with 30cm photo scale.

Image:

Description:

In-situ screw picket in cliff face to the North of the pillbox at grid TA 14764 75576.

It clearly wasn’t safe to place a scale in this image.

Interior shots

Interior shots can be tricky, especially within the tight confines of a pillbox.

As with when you’re undertaking the initial walk around of the structure you are recording, don’t enter spaces which you can’t see within. Also, if the door is sealed don’t try and force your way in. Breaking and entering is illegal and you may also find the pillbox is used as a bat roost. Disturbing one is a criminal offence.

If possible, aim to photograph each internal elevation as before. However, given the cramped confines of most pillboxes, a simple interior shot with additional shots of important details should suffice.

If space allows, use of a photographic scale is recommended.

At the time of survey, the interior of the pillbox was partially flooded with stagnant water. You manage to take some images of the pillbox’s interior from a dry spot in the pillbox’s entrance and are able to take a detailed shot of one of the LMG loopholes and examples of the rifle loopholes.

Description:

Interior facing South, showing internal South and South-West facing LMG embrasures. Note bar below loophole that once held a shelf.

Again, you’ll see the other interior shots within the finished example site record.

Context Shots

So you’ve photographed the pillbox itself. Another thing to consider is recording the surrounding landscape that the pillbox sits in. You may want to take some images from a distance to demonstrate how the pillbox sits in its landscape and to demonstrate any camouflage. This can also be useful for demonstrating how effective camouflage schemes were, and also considering how visible the pillbox itself was from vulnerable points in the landscape or from the perspective of obstacles the pillbox was sited to cover.

Another simple way of recording the pillbox’s landscape context is to take images of the landscape from the perspective of the elevations. Simply put, when you take your elevation shots, turn around and take a photograph facing away from the elevations with loopholes in them. This has added advantages over trying to take photographs out of each loophole. The first being that it can be relatively difficult to get an image taken within the pillbox out of smaller embrasures to focus. Often, the camera has to be placed so close to the embrasure that it does not give an accurate depiction of what the defending soldier’s firing out of the pillbox would have seen. The muzzle of rifles and Light Machine Guns would be pretty much be in-line with the outer face of the pillbox, affording the operator the greatest protection from within the pillbox.

Description:

Location of pillbox from approx. 200m North-West. Image facing South-East. Note effectiveness of vegetation camouflage scheme and the elevated position.

Recording and Presenting Basic Measurements

One thing I realised I forgot to cover earlier is recording dimensions and making sketch plans.

As mentioned in part 3 of this guide, we take measurements in metric (metric is the archaeological standard) but as wartime defences were constructed in imperial measurements, it is a good idea to quote these as well. I find it easier to work in metric in the field, then convert the measurements taken during the field survey into imperial later. It just saves a bit of time on site.

You will need:

  • A copy of the Recording Form, notebook or piece of A4 paper.
  • A 5m handheld tape measure- A 15+ metre long reel tape measure
  • Pens, pencils and a ruler

A sketch plan is a simple drawing of the pillbox, or other structure, in plan (from above) which is annotated with dimensions. You will find a grid within the recording form that can be used for drawing sketch plans. As sketch plans aren’t to scale, they can be created relatively quickly in the field. If measurements are taken properly, a sketch plan can then be reproduced to scale later.

Start your sketch plan by creating a rough drawing of the outline of the pillbox. This doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to represent the pillbox you are recording. You can use a ruler to draw the outline if you want. Be sure to leave yourself plenty of space, as you’ll need to add dimensions to the plan shortly.

Next add a North arrow to show the orientation of the pillbox. At the bottom of the plan, make a note that the plan is not to scale.

As you can see, the basis for our sketch plan is nothing fancy and it doesn’t need to be.

Now, using your tape measures, you simply go around the exterior of the pillbox, taking measurements as you go. You then add these measurements to you sketch plan like this-

Keep on taking measurements until you have measured each face of the pillbox and annotated the sketch. And there you have it, a very simple but also very useful plan of the exterior of the pillbox.

You can use this process to measure the interior and elevations of your pillbox to create a detailed set of measurements that you can use to create detailed plans or even 3D models of your pillbox, like this one-

Yorkshire Infantry Pillbox by ckolonko on Sketchfab

Remember to take triangulations across the length and width of the pillbox so that you can work out the angles of any corners later.You will find a slightly more detailed sketch plan in the finished record, which includes interior measurements. Be aware that the measurements don’t quite add up. This is deliberate to stop anyone simply copying/stealing my actual measurements without doing the work themselves.

Another thing you can do is write a brief description of the dimensions to go into your site description. You will see an example of this in the finished site record below.

Completed Record Example

You head home, proud you’ve done a job well done with recording the pillbox. When you get back you’ll start writing up your notes and putting together a site record to send to your local HER. A niggling thought in the back of your mind tells you ‘well, we were only here for a few hours but it feels like we’ve spent a couple of years recording this pillbox’.

A few days later, you put the finished touches to your site record and send it off to the local HER. The HER Officer sends you a response thanking you for your hard work. They didn’t know there was a lot more to pillboxes than a single sentence.

That’s it, the process of creating a basic site record is done. You can see below our finished record for this fictional pillbox. You can see though, that with a bit of effort and time you can help to demonstrate the significance and local context of a surviving wartime pillbox and at least ensure preservation by record.

You can download the finished record here-

Although this is a very basic record, it includes enough information to ensure preservation by record if the pillbox is lost in the future. The record now includes an adequate description of the structure and its context, along with a photographic record and assessment of its condition at time of survey. This is a vast improvement on the one sentence record for this pillbox that was held by the HER.

What’s Next?

I’m going to condense this guide into a more formal document and will publish this over on the UK Second World War Heritage website.

I also plan to write a quick intro guide to what archaeology is, how this relates to wartime sites and some explanations of what specific archaeological terms mean. ‘Rescue Archaeology’ online isn’t what rescue archaeology is in real life.

Most of my future resources will go out on the UKSWWH website.

Final Words of Advice

A few tips before I go:

Remember, not all concrete is wartime concrete and not everything can be positively identified.

Be objective and don’t try to force every piece of concrete you find into a wartime interpretation.

If you don’t know what something is, then that’s fine. If you’re not sure then you can work on identifying what you’ve found later but be prepared for it not to be a military feature.

Start by assuming that what you can’t identify doesn’t perform a wartime function until you can prove that it does.

Don’t believe everything random people online say. If in doubt, question them. Ask for a source, ideally a primary source for any ‘facts’. There’s a lot of things that have become established as ‘fact’ with no evidence or supporting information to corroborate said ‘facts’.

The Regular Army and The Territorial Army played a much more extensive role within the Home Defences of 1940 and 1941 than the Home Guard. Don’t forget the regulars.

Outro And Something On a Serious Note

And that’s it. The end of the guide. I’ll write some additional snippets of information in the future, but this guide will give you a good starting point to get recording. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and it makes sense.

Hopefully you’ll now see that there’s a lot more to actual pillbox recording than sticking a photo online and saying ‘it’s a pillbox and it is nice’.

Time To Be Serious

I thought this would be a good place to round off this guide by highlighting some of the issues I’ve seen crop up recently in regards to wartime archaeology, recording and preservation.

Most people who know me will know that I’m generally not a serious person, but I do take Second World War defence archaeology very seriously.

I started writing this guide after noticing there wasn’t an easily accessible archaeological recording guide focussed specifically on wartime defences. I’d also noticed that what constitutes recording online and on social media bears little resemblance to archaeological recording practices.

Pillbox ‘recording’ online often runs the risk of having more in common with train spotting than archaeology (I don’t mean that to be negative to the hobby of train spotting, by the way). This is pretty worrying, especially when people believe that taking a photograph and sticking it on Facebook, Flickr or on a forum is helping to ‘record’ and therefore ‘preserve’ wartime defences. It doesn’t. If it did, there would be a lot more pillboxes preserved as listed or scheduled monuments and much more detailed information recorded with Historic Environment Records (HERs), thus informing the planning process.

The situation is further exacerbated by a handful of online forums and social media groups. Most of which rely heavily on such ‘recording’ for content and attracting large numbers of members. Often, because people think they are helping to record and preserve by posting photos to Facebook (and elsewhere), they will strive to get more photos of more pillboxes, visit more sites and try to access structures that aren’t publicly accessible. Although this activity is clearly ‘urbex’, it is often referred to fancifully as ‘pillbox hunting’. This eventually turns into a need for more social media likes, more attention, and attaining the hallowed status of ‘pillbox spotting expert’. This behaviour often goes hand in hand with such groups encouraging and condoning bad practice, turning a blind eye to heritage crime (often applauding clear cases of unauthorised vegetation clearance and illegal excavation), allowing plagiarism and copyright infringement, not being transparent about what constitutes recording, not encouraging recording of sites directly with HERs or informing people about the key role HERs play in recording/preservation, and misinforming members of the public about how to preserve sites; this is often justified by those involved because it is being done in the belief that this is ‘recording’ and ‘documenting’ surviving sites and is somehow leading to preservation. As such groups don’t have any input into the relevant HERs or planning process, this clearly isn’t the case. And it needs to be reiterated that a single sentence and photograph doesn’t constitute a record. Also, as the focus is always on finding things, and not understanding what has been found or appreciating its significance, we now see any old lump of concrete being interpreted as wartime. As new sites become more scarce, the need to find something unrecorded, increases, which is now leading to things that have no definite wartime or military function being misidentified. Sometimes a ‘new’ site is referred to as ‘not listed’. This is yet another problem, as listing is a specific form of statutory protection for a structure. Using the term ‘listed’ to refer to sites known online gives the impression that sites then receive protected status if they are ‘recorded’ online. They don’t and this is also likely to be fuelling the ‘they’re all listed’ myth that is commonplace online.

Unfortunately, such groups are the first place people with a genuine interest and enthusiasm end up when they start looking at wartime sites. Due to the lack of clear good practice guidelines, many newcomers then pick up bad habits and/or fall for uninformed advice of the numerous self-appointed ‘experts’ that inhabit such groups. Just because someone has looked at and photographed a lot of pillboxes, it doesn’t mean they can tell you anything useful about them such as their landscape context, form, function, when they were built, and who garrisoned them (except something about the Home Guard). Often they can only tell you where a certain pillbox is and its ‘type’. Looking at lots of pillboxes certainly doesn’t indicate someone has a working knowledge of current heritage legislation or basic archaeological recording standards. Same can be said for the number of members in a group or where a group pops up on a Google search. More members does not equal better quality or experience and neither does appearing at the top of a Google search.

Most group rules or good practice disclaimers found on social media groups are also just in place to distance the admins and coordinators from any blame or responsibility when a member gets caught doing something they shouldn’t. It’s easy for an admin or coordinator to say the group doesn’t condone tresspass and unauthorised vegetation clearance/excavation, but that is meaningless if they allow examples to be posted, don’t challenge such behaviours, and allow members to condone such bad practice and illegal activities.

Unfortunately, we are now seeing the result of well over 10 years of complacency, poor/non-existent guidance, promotion of bad practice, poor recording and inaction by such social media groups and their audiences. Such inaction and inexperience is the biggest contributing factor to the loss of surviving wartime defences. This largely coincides with a pervading lack of understanding of the historical background, context, use, and significance of surviving wartime defences. We still know next to nothing about these defences and it mainly comes down to people not being encouraged to undertake research, other than quoting from a few books and regurgitating myths that have now become established as ‘fact’.

There are only a handful of experienced specialists who are trying to get things back on track and fill the vacuum left by the seminal archaeology projects that ended in the early 2000s. Turning around the ingrained attitudes of many of those with a passing interest is going to take a long time, all the while more defences will either remain vulnerable or be lost.

The only way things are going to change is if more people make contact with their local Historic Environment Record and speak up for surviving wartime sites in their local area through official channels; effectively engaging with heritage organisations, getting involved in the planning process and advocating for local sites. Detailed recording is needed more than ever, as a single sentence and photo does not ensure preservation by record or show significance. Complaining into the echo chamber of social media is completely pointless, especially when the same effort could go into engaging in a positive manner.

Over the last year or so, we have seen an increasingly common trend of people trying to save a site or structure when planning agreements are already in place and development is underway. Again, this doesn’t work and in the vast majority of cases never will. It doesn’t matter how many petitions are started, how many comments are written online blaming the local council/Historic England/English Heritage/conspiracy theories of councillors taking back handers or ‘lefties’ deleting history by letting things be demolised, or how many angry letters are written to the local newspaper. Such efforts are only a token gesture and are symptomatic of the culture of sitting back and expecting someone else to do something that is now rife online.

More worrying is the development of anti-heritage body/professional rhetoric, often in-line with tropes of ‘deleting our heritage/history’ or ‘actively destroying sites rather than preserving them’; such tropes which are somewhat ironically grounded in long standing and current far-right ideology. These attitudes and tropes act as cover for the groups that have sat back and done nothing for well over a decade. Trying to put the blame on the very organisations that are responsible for preservation is stupid and counter-productive, especially when groups popularising and acting as a platform for anti-heritage organisation rhetoric claim to be committed to preservation. You can’t preserve anything if you don’t work with the very heritage bodies that ensure preservation! Such attitudes severely impact preservation by actively stopping people from engaging with the processes of preservation and recording. Further to this, these amateur online groups do not have any official responsibility for preservation in any way. By acting as a platform for anti-heritage body/professional rhetoric they are actively contributing to and ensuring the continued loss of sites we see today. It’s almost as if some of the individuals active on such groups revel in the destruction of wartime sites, as it provides them with purpose, attention and backs up their viewpoint. These same individuals seem to spend more time looking at sites under demolition than they do recording such sites when they weren’t being destroyed; further exacerbating the problem. The more cynical side of me wonders if this is deliberate?

To clarify, nothing is going to stop development once it’s underway. It is too late. Action can only be effective if it is taken before the planning agreements are in place.

And by change I mean proper change, not just coming up with new excuses to try and get out of doing things properly. One excuse that started to appear recently is the allusion that because individuals undertaking pillbox related activities are enthusiasts/volunteers and not archaeologists, they don’t/shouldn’t have to undertake such work to archaeological standards. Let’s use intrusive investigation (digging up) of a wartime pillbox as an example. As an aside, the digging up of pillboxes is often referred to as ‘rescue archaeology’ by the same enthusiasts doing the digging (reminds me a bit of cats in boxes). This excuse is often followed by a mention that said enthusiasts aren’t getting paid/making money from the digging (probably meant as a slight to archaeologists, insinuating they are ‘in it for the money’). I don’t get paid to write this guide, or any of the content on this website and never have done. The thing is though, that there are many amateur archaeologists, enthusiasts and volunteers out there that do great work to professional or recognised standards, who are keen to learn and work ethically. Why not just improve and learn to do things properly instead of making up an excuse? If excavation by enthusiasts isn’t archaeology, what is it they are doing? And why are such cases of pillbox digging clearly emulating archaeological excavation? This may be an excuse we are going to see used more in the future, but I sincerely hope not.

This excuse has the potential to cause serious damage, especially if it is used as justification to undertake uncoordinated and unauthorised excavation with no final report outlining the findings of the investigation. Even if you don’t consider digging up pillboxes to be archaeology, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to adhere to any archaeological recording standards, work safely, get permission and insurance, work with the landowner and heritage/environment agencies, write up and publish site/excavation reports, send information to the local HER, or obey the law. Excavation is a destructive process that can’t be repeated. Simply put, you can’t just put everything back and start again if something goes wrong. Proper recording is vitally important to telling the story of a site or structure. If artefacts, or physical features, and their contexts are not recorded before they are removed or destroyed, then the story they tell is lost forever and can never be told.

Thankfully, there are people out there that have taken it upon themselves to record sites with their local Historic Environment Record after reading this guide. I’m very thankful to anyone who has read through this guide and taken the positive step of adding information to their local Historic Environment Record. It makes this all worth it and will help make a difference in the future.

Further Reading

BAJR Guide- Digital Photography in Archaeology: A Guide

BAJR Guide- Photography for Archaeologists Part I : Site specific record

SRP Site Recording Manual


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Introduction to Field Recording Part 4- Construction Materials and Condition

It’s been a while but I’m back again!

Over the last year I’ve been busy working for the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeology Network in my role as CITiZAN Community Archaeologist. This means I’ve been lucky to work on some amazing coastal archaeology sites with some amazing volunteers, not just sites consisting of wartime concrete (though I did get to spend some time surveying, interpreting and writing reports for wartime stuff).

I recently wrote this blog titled ‘What We Can Learn From Pillboxes‘. I’ll give you three guesses at what it’s about. The blog outlines a simple methodology for recording wartime pillboxes and features a simple guide that can be used to aid recording.

Unfortunately, as my spare time has been limited due to work commitments, I haven’t been able to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) for a while now.

Peter Hibbs and myself have continued to develop the UK Second World War Heritage group and now have a dedicated website featuring the required guidance for undertaking non-intrusive archaeological investigation of wartime sites. Archaeology isn’t all about digging and finding stuff. As always, site investigations should be non-intrusive unless you have the permissions, experience and time to undertake a methodologically sound intrusive site investigation and are able to write up the findings in a properly compiled report.

We have some exciting plans under development at the minute and are continuing to encourage people to work closely with local Historic Environment Records to record Second World War sites. Doing so is the most effective way of helping to ensure preservation and further our understanding of the wartime landscape of the country.

Anyone with a genuine interest and focus can make a difference by ensuring the significance of surviving sites is recognised through detailed recording, interpretation  and thorough documentary research. And, most importantly, by getting in touch with local Historic Environment Records/Sites and Monuments Records (Or their equivalents across the UK) to see what information they require to aid preservation through informing the planning process. There is a lot of catching up to do now to ensure that what does survive is recorded to an adequate degree and that significance is properly conveyed.

As we have now reached the 80th anniversary of the start of construction of the wartime anti-invasion defences and as we approach the 20th anniversary of the end of the Defence of Britain project, it is now even more important for people to work with local Historic Environment Records to push for the preservation of surviving wartime sites and structures.

Unfortunately, we’re drawing nearer to the conclusion of this introductory guide. I have one more edition planned, which will look at photographic surveys and basic planning. Once that is done I will focus on condensing this guide into a more user friendly format. Then I’ll do a few more basic guides looking at report writing and additional information.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this quick look at recording material types, threats and site condition.

The Usual Disclaimer

Thanks to the hard work of Pete and me, you can now find a comprehensive set of Good Practice Guidelines over on the UK Second World War Heritage website-  https://ukswwh.wordpress.com/good-practice-guidelines/

But here’s the basics for reference. Wartime structures are the property of the landowner. Removing items from sites, trespass, unauthorised or illegal excavation and vegetation clearance all have a negative impact on surviving wartime sites and can make them vulnerable to further misuse. Also, these actions may act as justification for a landowner to demolish surviving structures that aren’t protected. 

“There were no signs saying Private Property” is not an excuse.

If you do any of the above, you are not ‘preserving’ or ‘recording’ Second World War sites and are actively contributing the negative issues that plague many surviving wartime sites.

Make contact with the landowner and work with them to highlight the importance of what they own.

Into the Guide

Copyright: © IWM TR 567. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205188386

This guide will look at filling out the final sections of the site recording form.

We’ll look at recording materials used in the construction of the pillbox in question, site condition and identifying and recording threats to preservation.

Here we go!

Construction Materials

Having finished your sandwich and cup of tea, you lose the battle of the flapjack to a seagull that flies off with the spoils of war. Luckily, your mate didn’t notice.

You’re nearly done now and have just a few more details to record in the recording form and a photographic survey to undertake.

Having already taken a close look at the pillbox you are recording, you are pretty certain you have identified the correct material used in its construction. You record ‘Reinforced Concrete’ in the ‘Construction Materials’ box of the recording form.

Okay, this section is pretty straightforward and self-explanatory. Here you record the materials used to build the structure you are recording.

As with recording site type, there is a thesaurus of accepted building material types that is used by Historic Environment Records and heritage organisations.

The complete Building Materials thesaurus can be found via the link below- http://www.heritage-standards.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Building_Mats_alpha.pdf

The most commonly used terms when recording wartime sites will be-

BRICK

REINFORCED CONCRETE

CONCRETE

CORRUGATED IRON

BREEZE BLOCK

EARTH

If more than one material is used in the construction of the structure you are recording, then please do record them all.

Condition

Time for something a bit more complicated. Recording condition is extremely important. 

It’s almost been 20 years (at the time of writing) since the Council for British Archaeology’s Defence of Britain project ended. As the Defence of Britain data is used by most Historic Environment Records across the UK as the baseline information regarding wartime sites, much of the information used to inform planning decisions is now largely out of date as very little up to date information has been provided to HERs over the course of the last two decades.

A condition survey is very important as it gives an idea of the levels of preservation at time of survey.

Having taken a look around the pillbox you are recording, and making observations, you have been able to assess the condition. You select ‘Good’ condition on the form as the pillbox is fully intact.

Condition can be very subjective, where one person’s ‘Good’ condition may be another’s ‘Poor’. This is why we use a categorised system consisting of condition types with supporting statements.

We use ‘Good’, ‘Fair’, ‘Poor’, ‘Very Poor, ‘Uncertain’ and ‘Destroyed/Demolished’ to describe current condition.

To help you to visualise these conditions I have provided photographic examples of each using the same type of pillbox.

Good: Fully or almost-fully intact and clear at time of survey

Yorkshire Medium Machine Gun Pillbox in Good Condition

Fair: Structurally recognisable, but subject to some damage or decay or alterations

Yorkshire Medium Machine Gun Pillbox in Fair Condition

Poor: Generally poor condition, significant features largely missing

Yorkshire Medium Machine Gun Pillbox in Poor Condition

Very poor: Substantially collapsed or features wholly missing

Yorkshire Medium Machine Gun Pillbox in Very Poor Condition

Destroyed/Demolished: Little or no remains visible above ground or no further information can be obtained from future investigation of the site.

Fragmentary remains of Yorkshire Medium Machine Gun Pillbox identified through wartime aerial photographs

Uncertain: Features of interest not surveyable at the time of the survey (obscured or not located)

The final two options on the recording form are pretty self-explanatory.

Converted: Structure converted from its original purpose but original function and features can be interpreted.

Restored: Structure restored

A word of advice. One very important thing to remember is that you are recording the condition of the structure. Not the current condition of the landscape.

For example, this pillbox near Bridlington may appear to be in poor condition, yet it is only the orientation of the pillbox due to coastal erosion that gives the impression of poor condition.

The pillbox itself is in Good condition. However, the pillbox is currently under threat of damage or destruction, which brings us to the next section of the recording form. Even a pillbox that is completely buried can be in good condition.

Threats

Threats are anything that can harm the long-term preservation of the site or structure you are recording. The threat record consists of the type of threat, the significance and the timescale. We shall look at these sections more closely now.

While on site you have noticed threats that may affect the pillbox’s long term preservation. Although these threats appear minor now they could develop into something more serious in the future.

Looking at the Threats, Significance and Timescale sections of the recording form you record the following-

Threat: Coastal Erosion
Significance: Moderate
Timescale:Long-Term

Threat: Plant Growth
Significance: Low
Timescale: Negligible

Recording current or long-term threats is very useful as it helps HER officers assess the likelihood of loss of the site and allows them to act accordingly to aid preservation where possible.

As with everything heritage related, we have a thesaurus of threat types. These can be found here in .csv format.

CSV Format- http://heritage-standards.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/556_threats-2.csv

For ease of access, I have reproduced these terms below.

AGRICULTURAL REQUIREMENTSNATURAL EROSION
ANIMAL BURROWINGNO KNOWN THREAT
ARABLE CLIPPINGOTHER
BURIALPLANT GROWTH
ARABLE PLOUGHINGPUBLIC DANGER
COASTAL EROSIONPUBLIC UTILITIES
COLLAPSEQUARRYING
DETERIORATIONRAIN ENTRY
DEVELOPMENTRELOCATION
DIGGINGINAPPROPRIATE RESTORATION
DRAINAGERIVERBANK EROSION
DRYING OUTROAD CONSTRUCTION
DUMPINGROT
FIRESCRUB GROWTH
FLOODINGSOIL MOVEMENT
FORESTRYSUBSIDENCE
GARDENINGTHEFT
LIVESTOCK EROSIONVANDALISM
MACHINERY DAMAGEVEHICLE EROSION
METAL DETECTINGVISITOR EROSION
MINERAL EXTRACTION

The Significance of a threat indicates the severity of the threat and the damage it will cause to the site.

High: Threat will result in the total loss of the site

Moderate: Threat will lead to loss of parts of site, alteration, partial demolition, dereliction or damage

Low: Lack of maintenance, vegetation damage

Negligible: No known threats to the site

Timescale

Timescale indicates how long the threat to your site will take to cause damage to, or destroy your site.

Use one of the following to describe threat timescale:

Active: Current demolition, coastal erosion, vandalism, animal damage

Short-term: Within the year, known development plans, coastal erosion

Long-term: Within the decade, for example due to neglect, coastal erosion, vegetation growth

Negligible: No known immediate threats to the site

Outro

Copyright: © IWM TR 559. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205188380

This one was short but sweet.

Next time we’ll look at conducting an archaeological photographic survey and bring this introduction to a close.

Please do check out the UK Second World War Heritage group over on Facebook or on the website and I’ll be back soon.

Creative Commons Licence
Introduction to Field Recording Part 4- Construction Materials and Condition by Chris Kolonko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chriskolonko.wordpress.com/2020/08/04/introduction-to-field-recording-part-4-construction-materials-and-condition/.

Introduction to Field Recording- Part 3: Writing A Site Description

Part 3 of this Introduction to Field Recording is now live!

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Introduction and Summary

It’s been a busy couple of months since my last update.

Back in April I ran a training weekend with the Nautical Archaeology Society– my thanks go to Peta and Nick for organising this and supporting the workshop. Also thanks to Clive for writing this BLOG

Over the past couple of months I have been approached for advice regarding planning applications which may damage or destroy surviving wartime sites and structures.

This has highlighted and confirmed the need to provide information to local Historic Environment Records (HERs). As HERs are the primary source of information for planning applications at a local level, it is extremely important to provide them with up to date and detailed information that adequately highlights the significance of wartime heritage assets.

Making contact with and providing information to your local authority’s HER and stressing the importance of surviving sites qualitatively is the only way that preservation of wartime sites can begin effectively. Trespassing, posting random photos to social media and moaning on Facebook that ‘they’re all being demolished’ is not going to accomplish anything.

The same goes for objecting to planning applications. Detailed information is required to make a difference. Stating that a site should not be demolished “Because it dates from WW2 and is important to the country’s history” is unlikely to save anything.

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Second World War 5-inch gun house at Studland Bay. Misidentified as a 6-pdr gun house on nearby interpretation board.

You need to be able to highlight the site’s historical importance in real terms, e.g. how many examples of the structure/site type survive in the UK. What is the site’s local strategic importance? Who operated the defences in the area? Does the site retain any original or unique features? What is the site’s current condition? What information will be lost if the site is destroyed? These are all things that need to be highlighted in objections to planning applications.

If there’s one thing you do as a result of this guide, make sure it is contacting your local HER. Don’t go down the route of aimlessly posting pictures or videos to Facebook, Flickr and Youtube, believing that you are somehow magically preserving wartime heritage assets. I can’t stress this enough.

Right, enough of that. Back to the guide.

Usual Disclaimer Time

Defences don’t belong to you and are the property of the landowner so don’t remove anything from a site, don’t trespass, don’t illegally dig stuff up, don’t illegally clear defences of vegetation.

If you do any of the above, you are not ‘preserving WW2 sites’.

Respect a landowner’s right to privacy.

“There were no signs saying Private Land” is not an excuse.

If the landowner asks you to leave their land then you shouldn’t be there and have failed to work ethically.

I am not responsible for any issues that arise as a result of using this guide.

New Recording Form

recording form

I have updated the Site Recording Form following some very useful feedback. It follows the same format as the previous one, so it shouldn’t be too different and confusing.

Recording Form V2.2

Further resources from the UK Second World War Heritage Group can be found HERE

Site Description Heads-up

Site descriptions can be written in the field or when you return home. Either way, make sure you make notes when on site that can be used to compile your site description.

Writing the description at home has advantages, such as allowing you to provide and include sources if you wish to quote or critique someone else’s work. Remember that if you do consult or quote any published works or online information you should provide the source in your site description. This allows others to assess and critique your record and see where your information came from.

For continuity’s sake, the narrative will involve writing the site description in the field.

What is a Site Description?

© IWM (D 24523)

© IWM (D 24523)

Site descriptions are probably a complete mystery to many as there’s very little guidance to be found online.

A site description is a summary of your site observations. This is the meat of any record and should include as much information as possible. A site description consists of a  description of the structure, its current condition and its features; along with a summary of why it was sited where it is (it’s strategic purpose/context).

The site description is important as it may act as the definitive record if the site is lost. It may also be used to inform planning decisions (if submitted to the local HER), or even used as part of the designation process to gain Listed or Scheduled status for the site.

There is no fixed method for writing a site description. However, I tend to try and answer the following questions when writing a site description-

What and where?- What are you recording and where is it?

What is its form and function?- Describe the structure, its features and its purpose.

What remains?- What remains of the structure and what is its current condition.

What is its context?- An assessment of the structure’s function in the wider landscape and a consideration of its strategic location.

The overall aim of this description is to record your site observations comprehensively; describing what you saw during the survey process, as well as analysing what you saw.

You can also include an interpretation and an analysis of the strategic context of the site you are recording.

What and Where? Describing Site Location

Digimax A50 / KENOX Q2

Back to the narrative. Are we sitting comfortably…

You start compiling your site description by writing a summary of what you are recording and where it is; in this case, a Second World War era pillbox.

This is a summary of what you are recording, describing the period, site type (using a recognised site type thesaurus) and location. This allows someone reading the record to get a quick overview of the site. This summary can also include the directions you recorded earlier.

You write the following description, happy that you have thoroughly described the pillbox’s location elsewhere in the recording form-

Second World War pillbox located above Middle Cliff, Speeton centred at Grid Reference: TA 14759 75562. The structure sits on private property.

A quick summary of the location should suffice to fulfil the ‘What and where?’ aspect of the site description as further details and directions have already been provided in the Site Location/Directions section of the recording form. However, if you feel that more detailed directions are required then they can be included within the site description. A quick mention of the accessibility to the structure can also be useful.

Describing Form and Function

DSC01071

This is the most important aspect of a site record. Describing a structure or feature effectively takes practice but is a very useful skill. Taking the time to stop, think and observe is the first objective.

Next you start to plan how you will describe the form of what you are recording. You discuss your field observations with your friend; including the pillbox’s shape in plan, its features, and the earlier observations you made regarding how the pillbox was constructed.

After some debate, you write the following regarding the pillbox’s shape and form-

The pillbox is orientated to face North-East, with the entrance facing South-West, away from the expected avenue of attack.

The pillbox is sub-hexagonal in plan and constructed to bullet-proof standard, with an integral blast porch projecting from the North-West facing wall, forming the South-West facing entrance. This blast porch protected the entrance to the pillbox. The North-West and South-East facing walls have been elongated to create the extended hexagonal shape of the pillbox’s main chamber. The integral blast porch is rectangular in plan, with the top left corner chamfered so as not to impede the arc of fire of the nearby loopholes. The blast porch is integral to the pillbox’s superstructure, covering the low entrance into the main chamber. An anti-ricochet wall, 3m in length, sits centrally within the pillbox’s main chamber. The walls, roof and internal anti-ricochet wall are 0.38m (15in) thick, the recommended thickness for bullet-proof standard for reinforced concrete walls at the time. The structure is constructed entirely from reinforced concrete.

Lozenge Plan 1

Plan of the pillbox

Okay, so that just about covers the pillbox’s shape and form. You can already see that there’s a lot more to recording pillboxes than writing ‘World War 2 Type 22 pillbox’. This is why detailed recording is important, more so as a lot of HER records relating to pillboxes are still relatively simple.

DSC_0345

The description starts by explaining the structure’s shape in plan (it’s shape from above). This gives the reader an idea of the structures shape, without having to actually see the structure, a photograph, or scale drawing.

When I was taught how to write site descriptions I was always told to “try to paint a picture of the site with words”. I still remember that advice today.

There are many terms that can be used to describe a structure’s shape in plan. Here are some of the most common and useful terms to describe shape in plan-

Square- Simple, the structure is square in plan.

Rectangular- Again, straightforward explanation for a rectangular building

Hexagonal- Self-explanatory, useful for describing hexagonal structures

Octagonal- You guessed it, used to describe octagonal structures

Sub-hexagonal- Can be used to describe any structure that is nearly hexagonal in plan

Irregular hexagon- Another useful term for describing six-sided structures that don’t necessarily conform to the standard hexagon shape.

Digimax A50 / KENOX Q2

Chamfered leading edge of blast porch

As always, this list isn’t exhaustive, so use your initiative when describing a structure’s shape. Prefixing with ‘sub’ and ‘irregular’ is a useful tool to describe non-standard shapes and any weirdly shaped structures you may come across.

Another important aspect to record is the structure’s orientation. Simply recording the direction the pillbox faces tells us a lot about the expected axis of enemy attack. This simple, but important observation is rarely noted in contemporary records or the often poor site descriptions posted on social media.

DSC01234

Using compass orientations to describe the location of features and walls is also very useful, especially if you aren’t providing a scale plan (drawing) of the site.

Wall thicknesses are key to recording structures such as pillboxes. The wall thickness can tell us a lot about the structure’s function and its intended purpose. Measurements should be given in metric (preferably metres instead of centimetres) as metric is the industry standard. However, as wartime structures would have been constructed using imperial quoting the imperial measurements is very useful.

DSC_0363

Note the thickness of the wall and roof in the integral blast porch

Reinforced walls of 0.38m (15in) thick were considered to be of bullet-proof standard by the British Army at the time, with 1.06m (42in) considered shell-proof (Dobsinson, 1996). The wall thickness can indicate the anticipated severity of the fighting the pillbox would encounter, hence the importance of recording this information.

Describing Features

DSC01123

Confident you have recorded the structure’s form, you move on to describing the pillbox’s features. You remember the different types of loopholes you saw in the walls of the pillbox, the graffiti, and the camouflage methods employed to hide the structure both from the air and on the ground.

This pillbox features two types of loophole (specially designed apertures that allow the firing of weapons from inside the structure) within its walls. A loophole design with a recess below the interior opening, possibly to accommodate the bipod of the Bren Light Machine Gun (LMG), are to be found in the pillbox’s shorter, oblique walls (four in total). These LMG loopholes are orientated to the North, East, South and West in this example.

The South and North facing loopholes also feature a squared hole located above that slopes from the interior to the exterior of the pillbox. The function of this feature is unknown. But could have been to vent gases from the LMGs while in use or used to drop grenades out of the pillbox. The latter, however is unlikely given how dangerous and rather impractical this would have been. Square recesses below the loopholes hold short sections of ‘L’ shaped metal bar, possibly to hold a now decayed wooden shelf.

DSC01174

Sloping square hole above LMG loophole

The longer, South-East facing wall contains four evenly spaced loopholes. These loopholes are different in design to the loopholes in the shorter oblique walls. Lacking the internal recess for an LMG bipod, it is assumed that these loopholes would have been used to fire a rifle. Two further rifle loopholes of this type are present in the shorter North-West facing wall, with a single rifle loophole located in the North-West facing elevation of the integral blast porch. Worth noting is that the external corner of the integral blast porch has been chamfered, possibly to increase the arc of fire from the rifle loopholes in the North-West facing wall.

Each loophole would have provided an approximate 60 degree arc of fire.

The rifle loopholes of the South-East facing wall are entirely obscured by the parados (rear protective earthwork) of an extant slit trench. Once the slit trench was constructed it would not be possible to fire rifles from the South-East facing loopholes. This could indicate that the pillbox was to be used only by the LMG team of the infantry Section while the riflemen took up positions outside the pillbox, which was common practice.

Digimax A50 / KENOX Q2

Summer vegetation adding to the pillbox’s camouflage scheme

A thick covering of turf sits on top of the pillbox to reduce the structure’s shadow signature and hard outline from the air.  The structure has also been deliberately sunk approximately 1m into the ground to reduce its silhouette; making the structure harder to spot on the ground from a distance.

The pillbox appears to have been constructed in one phase, with no evidence of later construction or modification.

Next you start to describe the graffiti.

DSC01152

Period graffiti

Period graffiti survives on the roof of the pillbox, with several names clearly incised into the still wet concrete during construction. Some of this graffiti sits under the turf camouflage, indicating that either the camouflage was added after the concrete had fully cured, or that the turf has slumped. A total of six names and four dates can be found on the roof of the pillbox:

WALTER 1940

French 1940

E Gall

E.J. MACKSON

J.GRAY 1940

Smitts 1940

The pillbox survives in Good condition (Fully or almost-fully intact and clear at time of survey) with no signs of damage and no current threats to its long term survival.

So, there we have it, that’s the pillbox’s features described. There’s so much more that you can describe, such as methods of construction and building phasing, but this should give you an idea of what to consider when writing a feature description.

Camouflage techniques can be recorded, such as the presence of metal loops to attach camouflage nets, paint schemes, construction of pillboxes within hedgerows and under tree cover, and the use of vegetation and turf to reduce a pillbox’s silhouette.

In this survey area, turf was often piled on top of a structure to hide it from the air. However, given the overgrown nature of some wartime structures please consider whether turf, soil or leaf litter on top of a structure is a period or contemporary feature. Aerial photographs are useful for identifying wartime camouflage schemes used.

The important thing here is to describe the features you see in as much detail as possible.

Note the condition assessment at the end. I will be covering this in the next edition of the guide.

It’s worth noting that you should make sure that you differentiate between what you have observed and what your interpretation is. This can be done by simply using ‘possibly’, or ‘could be’. “This could possibly be a…”. This helps to make it clear where you have interpreted something you have seen which may no longer exist.

Strategic and Landscape Context

© IWM (TR 2393)

© IWM (TR 2393)

Having described the structure and its features, it is now time to assess and describe the reason why this pillbox is located where it is.

Earlier, you spent time looking at the wider area and the landscape features this pillbox was sited to defend. You and your friend spotted a number of important features within the landscape that help explain the pillbox’s location within the local defences.

This pillbox is one of three infantry pillboxes of this type sited on the cliffs above Reighton and Speeton beaches. These pillboxes were situated along the cliff to cover the beach, defend the viable beach exits, provide support to the pillboxes on the beach and also cover the rear of the beach front defences.

The pillbox is sited on the apex of gently rising ground that culminates in a cliff face. From this location the pillbox overlooks the beach 250m North-East, the cliffs to the North-East, and the surrounding fields that lead inland to the South and West. This provides the pillbox with an effective vantage point, allowing the occupants to cover the surrounding land and approaches to the position.

DSC01137

Panoramic view to the front (North-East) of the pillbox

From this position the pillbox could also cover the following landscape features with effective fire: The beach up to the high water mark, anti-tank blocks that run from East to West on the beach, the gently sloping cliffs that approach the position from the North. This pillbox could also provide mutual fire support in the direction of two further pillboxes located approximately 450m to the North-West and West (at Grid refs: TA 14510 75872 & TA 14329 75627).

The pillbox is also capable of covering the ground in an arc from the West to East, allowing the occupants to bring effective fire to bear on any infantry attempting to approach the position from the rear. This allowed the occupants of the pillbox to protect the rear of the defences on the beach front and also engage any enemy that managed to breach the beachfront defences attempting to attack the defences from the rear.

The parados of a nearby slit trench limits the South-East facing arc of fire, but this area would have been covered by the occupants of the slit trench.

Aerial photographs have revealed the pillbox was surrounded by a barbed wire obstacle. A single screw picket from this obstacle survives at Grid Ref: TA 14764 75576. This obstacle would have prevented enemy infantry from closing on the position and getting into grenade throwing range. The pillbox and supporting slit trench were both capable of covering this obstacle with fire. 

After all that, you sit down for yet another cup of tea and a sandwich. It’s been a busy day so far but you still have a couple of tasks to complete before you’re done. You sit back and enjoy the sun which has just broken through the cloud.

Okay, that should just about cover the strategic analysis description.

DSC_0075

The aim of this description is to present your critical analysis of the pillbox’s strategic location in the landscape. Further information on making these observations can be found in Introduction to Field Recording- Part 2: Making Observations & Assessing Strategy

You can see that the description of the site’s strategy starts with a brief summary of the wider context. This helps outline the individual context of this structure and also illustrates the wider defensive picture. This can be particularly useful if you intend to do further site analysis or write a report following a detailed survey of sites and structures in defined area.

The next aspect of the description consists of an appraisal of the pillbox’s strategic location in the landscape. This should be a description of the advantages provided by the pillbox’s location, and can also be an assessment of the disadvantages of the position. However, when assessing disadvantages you need to consider how the surrounding landscape has changed since the structure was in use. Development and planting of new woodland in the post-war period, for example, can extensively change the surrounding landscape and may give a biased impression of the structure’s strategic location.

Again, compass directions and distances can be used to describe the surrounding landscape and any landmarks that are located in the vicinity of the structure you are recording.

This is then followed by an analysis of where the occupants of the pillbox could bring fire to bear and what they would have been defending. This part of the description will rely on your field observations and will be different for every structure you survey. It is a good idea to provide grid references for any other structures you mention in your analysis. This can allow a HER officer to create additional records, as well as use your description to gain further information about additional defences.

Conclusion

© IWM (BU 21)

© IWM (BU 21)

I think that just about covers things. Well done and thank you for reading this far.

Hopefully you can see that there is a huge amount of information to be recorded from just a single pillbox. The only thing you need to do is spend time actually looking and recording your observations.

I understand that it may be a long process but this is the level of information that is required to effectively preserve such sites and structures in the record; especially if it isn’t possible to preserve or conserve them physically. This level of information is also required to highlight the importance of surviving wartime heritage assets.

By using the recording methodology outlined in this guide you can help to make a genuine difference.

I have provided a copy of the full site description HERE to make it easier to assess and read.

If we compare the description to that of a similar pillbox recorded on the local HER we can see that there is a huge amount of information yet to be recorded. This also highlights one of the reasons why HERs are struggling to push for the preservation of wartime heritage assets. In a lot of cases local HERs haven’t received any information regarding wartime sites and structures since the official Defence of Britain project (The one run by the Council for British Archaeology) finished in 2001.

Be aware that the description provided in this guide is not representative of a real-life pillbox. It’ll be pretty funny to see if it ends up getting ripped off!

Here’s one final tip. Once you’ve written one site description things get a lot easier. For example, you can apply the terms and phrases you’ve used to other examples of the same pillbox as long as those stock phrases apply. You can also apply the same set phrases to other structures quite easily by changing the sentence structure. In a matter of time you’ll have developed your own vocabulary of phrases that you can use to describe surviving wartime heritage assets.

For those of you that made it this far, here’s a bonus. I wrote this blog for CITiZAN which covers the basic information to record when recording pillboxes and features a handy step by step guide- What can we learn from pillboxes?

Next time we’ll look at recording material types, recording condition and conducting and recording a photographic survey.

Until then.

Sources

Dobinson, C.S., 1996. Twentieth Century Fortifications in England Volume II: Anti-Invasion defences of WWII. Council for British Archaeology. pp.160-163.

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Introduction to Field Recording- Part 3: Writing A Site Description by Chris Kolonko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at chriskolonko.wordpress.com/2019/08/18/introduction-to-field-recording-part-3-writing-a-site-description/.