It’s been a while since I did a Pillbox Myth, so here goes. I like these instalments to be quick reads to get you thinking, but please do feel free to continue the discussion in the comments.
‘Pillboxes were constructed so quickly that no documents were kept’.
This one pops up online very frequently and couldn’t be further from the truth.
The myth came to prominence in ‘Pillboxes’ by Henry Wills, published back in 1985. This was one of the first published studies focussing on pillboxes, and other defensive structures in the UK.
Today, this book is still seen as a one of the ‘go to’ text books for the subject; even though it was published over 30 years ago. Although the book does provide a decent introduction to the range of wartime defences constructed and is illustrated with many images, some of the information presented is now inaccurate. However, without Will’s work it is doubtful that there would be any interest in the subject today and his research certainly set the foundation for subsequent works.
Unfortunately, at the time of writing ‘Pillboxes’ Wills was unable to find official documents relating to the construction and location of pillboxes. As stated in the introduction of ‘Pillboxes’; having contacted the Imperial War Museum, the Royal Engineers’ Institute, and the Ministry of Defence (all of which were unable to provide documents) Wills gave up; concluding that “It became clear that there was no national record of sites, defence lines or even designs of pillboxes. No doubt the pressure of work in 1940 prevented too much paperwork being filed…”.
This one statement continues to be repeated both online and in publication, causing many to still believe that records don’t survive or weren’t kept in the first place. For some reason many people don’t bother checking for themselves and don’t even realise that later publications clearly highlight the presence of documentary sources.
Documents are a key resource when investigating and trying to make sense of Second World War era defences of the Home Front.
Many detailed records of pillbox construction were made and a lot do survive today. In fact, it’s not a case of a lack of records, but an abundance which makes it difficult for the few that study them.
If Wills had contacted or visited the then Public Records Office, now the National Archives, he would have found a treasure trove of primary documents relating to the construction of pillboxes throughout the Home Forces commands.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, it is now possible to search the National Archive’s catalogue online. A simple search soon reveals the many documents that refer to the construction of Home Front defences.
Most documents relating to the construction of defences are held within Ref: WO 199- War Office: Home Forces: Military Headquarters Papers, Second World War. A quick search of the National Archive’s catalogue site shows that WO 199 contains over 1,390 documents alone relating to the period of 1940 to 1941. Obviously, not all of these will relate to the construction of defence works, but many will.
Even more information can be found in the War Diaries of the units employed to occupy the defences. Ref: WO 166 War Office: Home Forces: War Diaries, Second World War holds these documents.
Documents To The Rescue!
The work of Dobinson, Bird, Foot, Hibbs and Wilks reveal the range of information that can be found in the archives and effectively demonstrate how documents can be used to complement and guide fieldwork.
One of the most impressive uses of period documents in the investigation of the wartime defences is Dobinson’s ‘Twentieth Century Fortifications in England Volume II: Anti-Invasion defences of WWII’, from 1996. This tour de force of desk based research is worth a read and does a great job of completely smashing this myth. This was one of the first in-depth studies utilising the primary documents; successfully highlighting the diverse range of documentary evidence within the National Archives.
Impressively, Dobinson was able to use the primary sources to create a detailed and in depth, almost monthly, chronology of pillbox construction across the Home Forces commands; even producing tables showing the use of materials and cement demands/allocations for each command.
In terms of locations, Dobinson summarises that “The sources make it abundantly clear that the vast majority of works were recorded in detail: at least to the accuracy of a six-figure grid reference, and often more precisely still”.
Although this series of reports remains unpublished, I’m sure the Council for British Archaeology can help you to locate a copy for a small donation.
Countering The Myth
Personally, I’m only just starting to scratch the surface of the documents on offer. Recently I was provided with a War Diary covering my survey area, which has since helped me piece together the defences, better understand how they were operated and determine how they would have been used if attacked.
The best way of countering this myth is to highlight the range of documents that can be found through the National Archives. A quick search of the National Archive’s online catalogue reveals a tonne of documents relating to defences constructed by the Home Forces.
Even local archives are turning up wartime documents relating to Home Front defences. Documents relating to later defences under the control of the Home Guard can sometimes be found, along with a whole range of information relating to local Civil Defence.
If you can, go to the archives and start doing some research. There’s still a lot out there left to be found and processed! It’s now time to stop pillbox spotting and start document hunting.
Wills, H., 1985. Pillboxes: A Study of UK Defences, 1940. Leo Cooper Ltd.
Dobinson, C.S., 1996. Twentieth Century Fortifications in England Volume II: Anti-Invasion defences of WWII. Council for British Archaeology