Pillbox Myths #2

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.

The myth-

‘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.

The Truth

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.

Peter Hibbs’ Defence of East Sussex Project website does a great job of highlighting the presence and importance of documentary evidence. Go and take a look and be sure to pass on the link.

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


Pillbox Myths #1

To ensure a steady flow of articles through this blog I’ve come up with a new regular piece focussing on ‘pillbox myths’. From time to time someone will state a ‘fact’ about pillboxes that quite simply isn’t true and is in fact a myth. Some of these myths have now entered common knowledge and are readily accepted as true. This is my attempt to debunk some of the most common myths surrounding pillboxes (and maybe vent a bit).

Bring on the myth!

‘All pillboxes are protected/listed/scheduled by Historic England/English Heritage/The National Trust etc. etc.’

A couple of weeks ago someone on a popular social media platform stated categorically that the recent preservation of a pillbox, within a new housing estate, was not due to the work of the local planning department, HER  or the developers, but was because ‘all pillboxes are listed by English Heritage’.

This annoyed me somewhat as the statement had no factual basis and dismissed the hard work of those who had ensured this structure’s preservation; especially when the developers could have bulldozed the pillbox and built houses on the space. This spurred me on to write this post.

The Truth

Every so often I encounter posts on social media by individuals wishing to learn more; enquiring whether pillboxes, and other Second World War defences, are all subject to statutory protection based solely on their perceived importance.  Though some pillboxes are protected through scheduling and listing; often because of their rarity, level of preservation or historical significance (and the fact that someone took the time to apply to have the structure protected), the majority are not protected by listing/scheduling. This means that it is often up to the landowner whether to retain or demolish them. In England scheduling and listing of historic buildings falls under the remit of Historic England; it is a common misconception that English Heritage are still responsible for this process.

Unfortunately, if people do believe that all pillboxes are protected, then the survival of significant/important remaining pillboxes can be put at risk, as people won’t take any action when a pillbox is threatened with demolition.

But all hope is not lost! Anyone can apply to have a historic site or building listed or scheduled. This can be done with the online form available on the Historic England website. The process is very straightforward and you don’t need to be a heritage professional to submit an application.

Information on listed buildings can also be added to through the ‘Enriching the List’ project and this is well worth looking into as well.

Countering The Myth

The best way to counter this myth is to simply explain that most pillboxes are not protected in anyway whatsoever; often the expense of demolition and sympathetic landowners are the only thing protecting a surviving pillbox. Pointing people in the direction of the online listing application form is also worthwhile. Who knows? More pillboxes, and other defences, may acquire listed/scheduled status!

Find Out More

You can find out more about scheduling and listing via the links below.

What is listing?

Scheduled Monuments

Listed Buildings

How We Determine Whether a Historic Building or Site Should be Protected (Thanks Ken!)

How To Get Historic Buildings or Sites Protected Through Listing

Quick Update

Preserving sites ‘in the record’ is extremely important. It is not possible to physically retain all sites and structures. Adequately recording sites and depositing that information within the archaeological record, through Historic Environment Records, is the best way to preserve a site. That way, if it is lost, the information is still there to tell future generations about the site or structure.

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Allotment Andersons

I thought I’d better make a quick blog post as its been a while. I got to spend my morning looking at Anderson shelters in a Sheffield allotment, with Drink Wise Age Well-Sheffield & LEAF Sheffield.


There are a total of two almost complete shelters and the remaining sections of at least two more!


We found the original makers marks still painted on the interior of one of the shelters and I even got to check if my Grandad’s Anderson Shelter spanner fitted the original bolts (which it did!)



I was also shown a post-war .303 bandoleer ammunition box that was used to store tools.


Overall a very good day. I’m looking into working with the two groups to record the shelters and look in further detail at the construction methods employed.

Mapping GHQ lines in Google Earth

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog, this one has been in the planning stage for a while now following a prolonged period of ‘writer’s block’ and a very uncooperative brain. Without further ado here it is.


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Earlier this year I was forwarded a question via a colleague. The question I was posed related to the GHQ stop-line; the defence line planned by General Edmund ‘Tiny’ Ironside in June 1940, following his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces on the 17th of May 1940.

The GHQ line (or General Head Quarters stop-line) was to be the final line of defence running East from Bristol to the Thames Estuary then North to Edinburgh. This line was intended to protect the industrial heartland of the country had an invading German Army managed to breach the Coastal Crust defences, inland nodal points and secondary stop-lines. This defence line consisted of Infantry and Anti-tank pill-boxes, roadblocks, barbed wire entanglements, anti-tank obstacles and trench systems.

There’s some background for you, now back to the question.

As the question related to the length of the GHQ line and the route which it followed I decided to ascertain the length of the GHQ line had it been completed and the length of the GHQ line that was actually constructed between June and August 1940. Construction of the GHQ line having been slowed and eventually halted following the appointment of General Alan Brooke as Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces on the 21st of July 1940. Ironside was subsequently retired and the defence strategy altered significantly, but that’s another story.

Initially I thought this was quite a straightforward question and I’d find the answer in one of the many books on the subject. I was wrong; although I could find plenty of information regarding the intended route of the GHQ line (although there were some distinct differences between sources and all maps were large scale), I could not find any information about the intended length of the line had it been completed.

I did however find a reference to the length of the GHQ line in Mike Osborne’s book ‘Defending Britain’ (Buy it!) which states that the section of GHQ line running from the Bristol Channel to the River Welland was approximately 400 miles in length. However, this only takes into account a short stretch of the proposed GHQ line and doesn’t include the GHQ East line that would have run from the River Welland up to Edinburgh. The book does describe the route of the GHQ line in some detail and this information came in handy.

So, although I knew the general route of the GHQ line, I still had a job on to tie down the exact route, trace it, and determine the length of the constructed and proposed GHQ lines.

I decided to work logically, finding and pinpointing the exact route of the GHQ line, I would then plot the information into my favourite tool, Google Earth, to show the route visually and to measure its length as accurately as possible given time constraints.

I consulted my copy Henry Will’s book ‘Pillboxes’, this has not one but many maps showing the GHQ line, including a copy of Ironside’s original map of divisional dispositions which shows the GHQ line, and 1:625 000 scale Ordnance Survey maps showing various lines of pill-boxes.

Comparing the maps in Will’s book with further examples I could find in other books showed there was a general consensus about the route of the GHQ line, with some slight variations, which allowed me to narrow down the area through which it ran. There was a slight problem though as most of the maps were large scale, making it hard to pinpoint the exact route in relation to nearby towns and cities.


A quick Google search will provide you with similar maps of the GHQ line (Note the differences).

With this information the next step was to see how it compared to the archaeological record.

The Defence of Britain project was conducted between 1995 and 2002. This project aimed to record the extant 20th century military sites in the UK. The project was a huge success and the results of this project have greatly improved our understanding of the 2nd World War defensive landscape.

The results of the Defence of Britain project have been converted into a Google Earth (Available here via the ADS website) which is very useful as I love Google Earth.

With the Defence of Britain data loaded into Google Earth it is very easy check the locations of the project results, trace stop-lines, and pick out features using modern aerial photography.


Defence of Britain project overlay in Google Earth with GHQ line visible

Looking at the distribution of pill-boxes in particular, one of the main defence types that formed the GHQ lines, it was possible to quickly discern numerous stop-lines within the UK. It was then simply a matter of using the maps and diagrams I had gathered to discern the GHQ line and follow the trail of records.

Using Google Earth’s ‘Path’ tool I simply followed the route of the various GHQ lines, picking them out in a nice Red colour.

GHQ Redline.jpg

Plotting a path in Google Earth following the River Brue

While plotting the GHQ line I did encounter a number of gaps, probably due to defences being demolished, un-recorded or not constructed at all. It was clear that the GHQ line followed many of the local rivers, canal systems and many natural or man-made obstacles (Such as railway embankments & high-ground) and I was aware that this was a strategy employed in siting the GHQ lines.

Henry Wills (1985) summarises the choice of topography- ‘The GHQ line followed natural and artificial waterways, using topographical features where possible, to create a continuous anti-tank obstacle’.

To fill in these gaps in the line it was just a matter of following the river, rail or canal network the GHQ line would have followed and plotting it that way. In some areas these features were not present, which suggests that either the GHQ line had followed an anti-tank ditch, or other feature that has since been removed, I had to make an educated guess using the large scale maps I had available. We will see later this proved quite effective!

After a very short time I had most of the Southern GHQ line plotted, running parallel to the South Coast, around London and then towards Cambridge. As the line nears Peterborough the line stops abruptly. I’ve come to the conclusion that this marks the progress of the GHQ line up to the appointment of General Brooke, who gradually halted construction of the GHQ line. Quite impressive for what was at most three months work!

GHQ constructed 2.jpg

Length of GHQ line constructed

The GHQ East line, which would have run from the Thames to the Humber Estuary and through Yorkshire on to Edinburgh, is largely non-existent and as a result hard to trace. The only way to trace this route was to utilise the maps I had found, especially Will’s OS maps, and follow the major rivers and canal networks. It took a while and some detective work but eventually  it was possible to map the most likely route of this stretch of GHQ line.

ADS Yorkshire.jpg

No visible GHQ line in Yorkshire

By applying a number of methods I eventually had the GHQ line mapped in its entirety, had it been finished. It was then a matter of adding up the lengths of the various ‘paths’ in Google Earth, mainly using a calculator as I am terrible at maths. After a few minutes of calculator bashing I was left with two figures, one for the length of the line constructed and one for the length of the completed GHQ line. Success!

The length of the Constructed GHQ line was approximately 466 miles, while the completed GHQ line would have been approximately 836 miles long (This includes the GHQ Green line around Bristol, the GHQ switch-line around Swindon, the Newhaven-Hoo line and a small switch-line near Stanhope that was illustrated on Henry Will’s map).

So long story short, after a lot of work I was able to provide an approximate figure for the length of the GHQ line (both built and proposed) based on the information and tools I had available. I also had an interactive and visual means of displaying the GHQ line, which was a bonus. I sent this information off to the recipient and everyone lived happily ever after.

But that’s not the end of the story…

There have been a number of unforeseen outcomes from this little project.

My colleague, who had originally forwarded me the question, sent me a picture of a crop mark they had found while looking at the GHQ overlay. It appeared to be an anti-tank ditch. I found the crop-mark using my GHQ overlay and switching to the 1945 Google Earth aerial photography (Unfortunately not available everywhere) did indeed find an anti-tank ditch. Much of the ditch had been in-filled but it was still plain to see. The Anti-tank ditch had thankfully been recorded through the Defence of Britain project.

GHQ AT ditch cropmark.jpg

GHQ line plotted in red with linear crop-mark to the left

Now here’s the good part: The ‘path’ I had placed in this area passed directly over the anti-tank ditch! As it would have been extremely time consuming to map the GHQ line meter by meter, in some areas I had had to trace the route from afar, using my better judgement and the concentrations of records in the Defence of Britain overlay as a guide. Quite by chance I had accurately followed a single anti-tank ditch that now survived only as a crop-mark. I was well chuffed with this result!

GHQ AT ditch cropmark2.jpg

1945 Aerial Photograph showing the extant Anti-Tank ditch

Closer inspection revealed the GHQ line’s reliance on natural and man-made obstacles was abundantly clear now. This highlights the importance of looking at the wider landscape when interpreting defences from this period as opposed to looking at the defensive remains in isolation.

Okay, so ‘where next?’ I hear you ask. Well my next step is to do some further research to check the accuracy of the GHQ line that I have plotted. While writing this blog post it has become clear that a stretch of the line in Cambridgeshire that I have plotted might be inaccurate. This is due to a number of converging stop-lines in this area which makes it difficult to discern the actual GHQ line. This should only take a matter of time but does highlight the issue of conflicting data.

I have continued mapping the Second World War defences in Google Earth, including the extant and proposed Coastal Crust defences and recently I’ve started mapping Secondary Stop Lines. So, watch this space!


Henry Wills (1985) Pillboxes: a study of UK defences, 1940, [London]: Leo Cooper in association with Secker and Warburg

Mike Osborne (2004) Defending Britain: Twentieth-Century military structures in the landscape, [Stroud] Tempus Publishing Ltd

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Mapping GHQ lines in Google Earth by Chris Kolonko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

My first blog post!

This is my first blog post!

I’m frequently asked how I got into archaeology and where my interest in Second World War defences came from. So, I thought a good subject for my first blog post would be to answer these questions.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

As a child my family and I would go on holiday to the Yorkshire coast, mainly at Reighton Sands near Filey and Whitby. We would go to the beach and hunt for fossils (Good old Palaeontology!) and often go for walks on the coastal paths and public footpaths.

One rather large Ammonite I found as a child (15cm ruler for scale)

A rather large Ammonite I found as a child (15cm ruler for scale)

When out on a walk along the cliff-top path at Reighton, I must have been about 7 or 8 at the time, I remember coming across a number of strange concrete buildings along the route. My Dad, who had been in the Army, was drawn to them instantly and set about climbing on them and investigating them further. He said they were ‘bunkers’ from the Second World War. One particular ‘bunker’ had a number of names and the date ‘1940’ written in the concrete (I was too small to climb up and as the ‘bunker’ was next to the cliff I was too scared to join him).


Example of WW2 graffiti on a Pill-box at Reighton

On a later holiday at Reighton my Dad pointed out a number of concrete blocks on the beach, which he was convinced were anti-landing craft obstacles, again from World War Two. We used to spend a lot of time on the beach playing in the sea, building sandcastles and picnicking.

One day we had decided to dig a sizable hole on the beach, I didn’t know at the time but this would an early introduction to hole digging that I would be doing later in my life. When digging the hole, with my Dad he said he had ‘found a bullet’. We had found plenty of belemnites on the beach and these always looked like bullets to me! He managed to lose the bullet in the hole but somehow found it again a short time later. Low and behold it was a silver looking metal bullet which had been fired and hit something and was definitely not a belemnite! We kept the bullet and it went in a display cabinet at home.


The .303 bullet my Dad found on Reighton beach. You can tell by the rifling that it was fired from a Bren gun

Many years later, and many holidays later, I found myself at Barnsley College. I was dead set on becoming a Forensic Scientist, probably after watching ‘Meet the ancestors’ on BBC and other popular Forensic Science based US dramas, and had enrolled on a number of Science courses at AS level and also took Modern History out of interest. After my first year at College I came to the conclusion that I was terrible at Science and my AS results confirmed this!

In a bit of a panic I decided to not bother pursuing a career in Forensic Sciences and decided to focus on History instead. A number of my mates had  been doing something called ‘Archaeology’ which they really enjoyed. I wasn’t too sure what Archaeology was but had watched my fair share of Time Team and peer pressure was quite an influence. It turned out I really enjoyed the subject and the tutor of the course, Graham Roberts, was extremely enthusiastic and supportive.

As part of the AS-level archaeology course we had to conduct some field work and write a report. I wasn’t really interested in the Iron-Age or the Romans and couldn’t think a subject for the field work.

It was then that I remembered the supposed World War Two ‘bunkers’ that my Dad had found on the coast.  I wasn’t convinced that any ‘bunkers’ had been built in the UK during the Second World War and primarily set out to investigate the ‘bunkers’ further, not to mention to try and prove my Dad wrong. Well, I went out did a lot of research and basic field work in the area and found out my Dad was right (except they weren’t ‘Bunkers’ they were ‘Pill-boxes’). What I didn’t expect was that I would find this work extremely interesting and felt compelled to learn more.

Me, during my College days, on top of a rather large Anti-tank cube at Reighton Sands

Me, during my College days, on top of a large Anti-tank cube at Reighton Sands

I ended up studying BSc Archaeology at the University of Bradford, where I continued my fascination with Second World War concrete. I developed skills such as aerial photograph interpretation, field recording techniques and a knowledge of 1940s defensive military strategy. In the end my dissertation,  ” A survey and case study of remaining 2nd World War military fortifications at Reighton Sands in North Yorkshire”, saw me conduct a thorough field investigation of the defences at Reighton along with creating a 3D model of the original defences using Google Earth.

Google Earth model of the Reighton defences

Google Earth model of the Reighton defences

My love of archaeology continued to grow and the rest, they say, is history.