Introduction to Field Recording- Part 2: Making Observations & Assessing Strategy

Okay, I’m back with the second instalment of the introduction to field recording. In this guide we will look at recording site type, making and recording field observations and writing a decent site description. I may throw in a few other things along the way.

Again, the site in question and the information presented in this guide does not relate to a single pillbox. Observations from several different pillboxes have been used to show the range of features that you may encounter. The aerial photograph references are also fictitious, so won’t be of any use if you contact Historic England to purchase copies of the photograph.

I have also noticed that I use site/structure/feature synonymously. In most cases I am referring to the feature you have chosen to record.

This is a long post but well worth the read!

Disclaimer and Further Points

As always, here’s the usual disclaimer.

I am not responsible for any issues that occur as a result of using this guide. It is also your responsibility to keep safe on site.

Don’t trespass. Private property does not have to be indicated with signs and it is your responsibility to secure landowner consent. Always gain landowner consent before accessing a site.

Unsolicited clearance or excavation of surviving sites is highly prohibited and will get you into serious trouble. If you choose to excavate or clear a site without the proper consents from landowners, relevant Historic Environment Record, or environment organisations and the associated project design and Desk Based Assessment; then you are actively destroying our shared heritage, making sites targets for further vandalism, and putting surviving sites at risk.

If you do spot any signs of Heritage Crime when out and about be sure to report it  to the local Police force via 101 or via an online reporting form. Be sure to mention ‘Heritage Crime’ when making your report.

Everyone can help make a positive impact by accurately recording wartime sites and highlighting their significance.

I write this introductory guide to encourage a recognised standard of site recording and to promote the recording of wartime sites with local Historic Environment Records (HER). The local HER acts as the definitive record for historic and archaeological sites, as well as historic buildings in a given area. As the HER is used to inform local planning applications and is the go to source of information for archaeologists, historians and local government organisations, recording your findings with them is very important.

There are often local and national archaeological recording projects that sites can be recorded through, such as CITiZAN. However, unless a recording project is affiliated with a local HER, a recognised heritage organisation (such as the Council for British Archaeology, The Archaeology Data Service or Historic England) or the Association of Local Government Archaeology Officers (ALGAO), then it’s very unlikely that information is being recorded with the local definitive record; meaning that your information is not being used to enhance local records, inform planning applications or make a difference.

Always make direct contact with the local HER yourself. It’s very easy and contact details for all HERs in England can be found HERE.

By effectively recording a site directly with the HER you can help highlight the importance of surviving wartime heritage assets, and at least ensure that a site is preserved in the record if it has to be demolished, succumbs to vandalism, or coastal erosion. Working with local heritage organisations is the only way that the significance of surviving sites is going to be realised, and further sites preserved. Moaning on Facebook that your local pillbox has been demolished by the landowner, or through development does nothing to help the situation; especially when that effort could have been put into recording a site properly before it was demolished.

There is still a long way to go before wartime sites are properly investigated and recorded. The subject seems to have regressed somewhat in recent years, which is a great shame given the good start and sound methodology provided by the Defence of Britain and Defence Areas projects. Redressing this balance is another reason why I started writing this guide and publishing it free to everyone on this website.

Let’s Get Going- Back To The Story

The recording form used as the basis for this guide can be found here-Recording Form

After taking a break for a quick cup of tea, you and your friend get back to the task at hand. Having recorded the location of your pillbox you consult the recording form for your next task. You see that you are required to decide upon the type of site you are recording.

As you’ve already consulted the Defence of Britain site type thesaurus, available online, you are aware that using a recognised structured word list to describe site type helps keep records consistent.

Your observations of the structure have revealed that you are recording a ‘pillbox’. This term appears within the Defence of Britain site type thesaurus and is itself a valid site type recognised by the local HER. Your observations have confirmed that the pillbox does not conform to the known standard pillbox drawings drawn up by the Directorate of Fortifications and Works branch FW3 (FW3) during the Second World War. The pillbox also doesn’t conform to other known designs mentioned in the site type thesaurus. You write ‘pillbox’ in the ‘Site Type’ box.

Using a controlled vocabulary is an important aspect of field recording. Set vocabularies, or thesauri, help ensure a consistent standard across records, allowing records to be easily indexed by both recorder and heritage organisation.

The Defence of Britain site type thesaurus is the industry standard and can be found online on both the and websites.

Each site type thesaurus is structured to allow similar sites to be grouped into hierarchies consisting of broad and narrow terms. This makes it possible to record a site as either a broad, or if known, a more specific ‘narrow’ site type. This is very useful if you are able to identify a structure’s type, but not its specific design.

Historic England’s Introduction to thesauri explains this far better than I can.

Each site type has an associated ‘Scope Note’ that provides a written description of the subject.

In this case we have chosen the site type ‘pillbox’. This is described in the thesaurus Scope Note as-

An often squat building with thick, loopholed walls and a flat roof, designed to accommodate a variety of weapons, usually strategically positioned to cover a vulnerable point in a defensive system.’

As you can see, this covers the structure we are recording.

The Broad Term ‘Pillbox’ is further sub-divided into 31 further Narrow Terms. These Narrow Terms are used to describe and record specific types of pillbox, including the drawings drawn up by the Directorate of Fortifications and Works Branch  FW3. There are also a couple of Narrow Terms relating to drawings created by the Commander of Royal Engineers or Chief of Engineers for specific Commands and localities. We will look at this in more detail later.

I thoroughly recommend having a good read through the thesaurus to learn the basic site types. You can always refer to the thesaurus after your field recording to identify the Narrow Term site type, or print off the thesaurus and take it with you on site

Unidentified concrete scatter

If you can’t identify the type of structure you are recording, then you can tick the ‘Unknown’ box in the recording form. This is also useful if you are recording scatters of concrete that you can’t identify, or any other feature you choose to record but can’t positively identify. Don’t be embarrassed if you can’t positively identify something.  It’s best to record something as ‘unidentified’ instead of guessing and being wrong, which in turn puts bad data into the HER.

At this stage it’s worth saying that it’s a good idea to record any features you spot but can’t positively identify. These features may disappear at a later date and go completely unrecorded. By recording unidentifiable features, you allow others to further investigate them and eventually positively identify them through further research. There’s also no harm in recording what you think the feature may be but be sure to indicate that this is your interpretation. Prefixing your interpretation with ‘possible’ or ‘probable’ is the easiest way to do this- e.g. ‘Possible anti-tank block’.

Pillbox Pointers

At this point it’s also worth stressing the importance of not forcing the pillboxes you encounter into the known wartime FW3 drawings. You will often see these ‘Types’ mentioned online and in print; often without any background as to why these ‘Types’ are applied to pillboxes.

Branch FW3 was responsible for drawing up building plans for pillboxes and other defences. Each of the pillbox plans were assigned a drawing number running from FW3/22, through to FW3/28. Mentions of drawings for FW3/46 & FW3/46 were identified by Dobinson (1996) but the actual drawings were not traced within the National Archives. This is the basis for the ‘Type’ numbers used frequently to identify pillboxes. This causes many issues. Namely that few people outside of the subject know what a ‘Type 22’ is and what its function was.

Wartime building plan of FW3 drawings

More importantly, what is often not realised or made clear is that not every hexagonal pillbox is a ‘Type 22’ and not every square pillbox is a ‘Type 26’.

Little research has been conducted to identify all known pillbox designs in the UK. Dobinson went some way to identifying drawings held in documents within the National Archives, but much more documentary research is required. This means there are many unique or localised pillbox designs that remain to be properly identified in the documentary and archaeological record.

This is especially important as further pillbox designs were drawn up by the Chief Engineer (CE) at local Command level during the war. Even slight variations on the FW3 drawings; such as the addition of an extra loophole, the construction of an integral blast-wall, or the use of a different design of anti-ricochet wall may have been drawn up by the local Command’s Commander of Royal Engineers (CRE), or Chief Engineer and officially adopted at a local command level; with these modified drawings being assigned their own unique drawing number.

Recording every hexagonal pillbox, for example, as a ‘Type 22’ can (and probably already has) weaken and dilute the archaeological record; making what may be potentially important or unique localised designs appear to be a more common type of pillbox design. This hampers preservation efforts as misidentified, unique designs may be recorded as a more commonly surviving designs- ‘what’s the point of preserving this single pillbox when there’s 300 other survivors of this type?’

I recommend only applying the FW3 ‘types’ to pillboxes that conform exactly to the original FW3 drawings issued during the war. Any variations on these designs must be considered as officially sanctioned local modifications or even a recognised localised design. Furthermore, this is why being able to describe form, function and defensive context is a lot more important than learning the eight or nine known FW3 drawings and the known commercial drawings.

Also, recording a pillbox just as a ‘Type 22’ does not explain what the structure is to someone who has no idea what a ‘Type 22’ pillbox is. Taking the time to describe a pillbox’s form, function and defensive context is key to ensuring that the structure’s significance is appreciated by local heritage professionals and anyone reading your record.

Dobinson (1996) expands on the problem of forcing pillboxes into the FW3 drawings in Vol: II ‘Anti-Invasion Defences’.

One example being-

“…some speak of a ‘shortened type 24’, for example, when apparently referring to [drawing] CE SE Cmd 124/41- a structure with no demonstrable connection to the FW3/24… although CE SE Cmd 124/41 may look like a ‘shortened type 24’, there is no evidence that the CE [Commander of Engineers] at South-Eastern Command thought of his design in these terms.”

Dobinson also goes on to state-

“When reconstructing the tactical thinking behind a particular defensive system the exact structural type to which a pillbox may belong is of little relevance compared to its function- how many guns of which type, the thickness of the walls (bullet- or shellproof), or the use of camouflage.”

Anyway, I recommend reading and understanding Dobinson’s report which is available through the Council for British Archaeology.

Date of Construction

Period graffiti

Your desk-based research involved consulting aerial photographs taken during the 1940s. The aerial photographs revealed that construction of this specific pillbox was well under-way by 6 June 1940. From this you are able to narrow down the date when this pillbox was constructed.

Your friend spotted some other evidence that confirms the date of this pillbox. Graffiti on the roof of the pillbox shows a number of names, presumably the names of the contractors who built the pillbox, along with the date ‘1940’.

You write ‘Circa 6 June 1940’ in the Date of Construction box and write the reference for the aerial photograph and ‘graffiti evidence’ in the Source box.

This section is quite straightforward. If your desk-based research reveals any evidence for the date of construction, you can record it here. You may also spot features while on site, that help you to date the construction of the structure. Always keep an eye out for graffiti that was written into the still wet concrete. Also, local eye witness testimony may reveal an approximate date of construction. As always, record as much information as possible but make the source of the information clear.

Making Observations

Copyright: © IWM (D 888)

Righto, onto the exciting bit!

This section is going to be quite lengthy and will not be an exhaustive list of what you will find while studying a feature. But, it will give you an idea of what to look for when on site.

Quickly photographing a pillbox and writing “It’s a Type 22” tells us next to nothing about the structure (even if the information is submitted to the HER) and will not help preserve surviving pillboxes (either extant or in the record); particularly when little is known about the pillbox in the first place.

Taking the time to make and record observations is what makes the difference. You should always aim to thoroughly investigate a site or structure, ensuring you record what you see. This is what makes the difference between a good and a bad record.

The key to doing this is time. Giving yourself enough time to make your observations is the first rule of recording a site properly. Rushing around, taking hundreds of photographs of 30+ pillboxes in an afternoon so you can post them to Facebook will do very little to preserve pillboxes; especially when you could have spent this time investigating one, two or three pillboxes (and their localities/supporting defences) in detail.

Always give yourself enough time to write down your observations while on site. Telling yourself that you’ll write down your observations later will lead to important details being forgotten (we’ve all done it!).

There isn’t a set way to make your observations on site and you may eventually come up with a system that works for you. Generally, I start by making observations of the external structure first, then start making observations of the interior (if safe to do so), followed by investigating the wider area around the structure; being sure to assess the location and identify any nearby earthworks or supporting defences. While making your initial observations you can start to keep a mental note of any features that need closer attention. This guide features a small selection of what you may see on site. Best advice is to keep an eye out for and record anything that stands out.

Finally, when making your observations you can start to plan which features you will photograph later. Also, contemplate the condition of the structure you are recording (more on this next time too).

Back to the story!

Your friend has already spent some time investigating the pillbox. You start your observations by taking a walk around the exterior of the pillbox, making sure to watch where you are treading so as not to trip or twist your ankle in any holes obscured by vegetation. The front of the pillbox isn’t accessible due to its proximity to the cliff edge. You ensure that you do not get too close to the cliff edge and make your observations from a safe distance.

As you work your way around the pillbox’s exterior you make a note of the structure’s shape in plan (the shape from above) is sub-hexagonal. You soon notice differences in the loopholes (apertures in the walls that allow weapons to be fired from within the pillbox) in the pillbox’s walls. The shorter oblique walls have slightly wider loopholes than those situated in the East and West facing walls. This difference is also noted for further investigation.

Exterior showing loophole in shorter oblique wall

While investigating the exterior, you notice marks in the pillbox’s surface that appear to be the imprints of at least ten wooden boards. You make a mental note of this for further investigation later. You also notice that the pillbox appears to be deliberately sunk into the ground, with only a small proportion of the structure visible above ground. You estimate, after examining other pillboxes in the area, that around 1m of the structure is below ground.

Wooden shuttering marks in pillbox’s surface (Note the taller loopholes)

A large amount of soil has also been placed on top of the structure, possibly to reduce its silhouette from a distance, as well as disguise the hard outline of the pillbox from the air. You make some simple bullet point notes in your notebook. While investigating the ‘top cover’ you spot the graffiti that your friend had spotted earlier. The roof of the pillbox is covered in a number of names and dates, clearly incised while the concrete was still drying.

Use of turf to reduce the pillbox’s silhouette. Particularly effective in Summer.

Continuing your walk around the pillbox, you make your way to the entrance and its integral blast-wall. You spot a further rifle loophole in the West facing elevation of the blast-wall . 

West facing rifle loophole in integral blast-wall.

Another feature you notice is that the North-West corner of this integral blast-wall is chamfered.

North-West facing chamfered edge of blast-wall

You then use your compass to record the orientation of the pillbox; remembering that the direction the entrance faces is often opposite the expected direction of enemy advance. This tells you that the pillbox is orientated North-East to South-West, with the pillbox facing North-East.

You finalise your observations of the pillbox’s external surfaces by taking a measurement of thickness of the blast-wall. The hand tape measure shows that that this wall is 0.38m (15in) thick. You also take a measurement for the thickness of the roof slab. This also measures in at 0.38m.

Thickness of the wall at the blast-wall

Your prior research revealed that reinforced concrete walls of 0.38m (15in) thick were considered to be of bullet-proof standard while 1.06m (42in) thick walls were considered shell-proof at the time (Dobsinson, 1996). 

Your investigation of the pillbox’s outer structure reveals no additions to the structure constructed at a later date. This pillbox was constructed in one ‘phase’.

To summarise, so far we have started the observation process by looking around the exterior of the structure we are recording. We have noted the shape of the pillbox in plan, observed differences in the loopholes and made a note of the wall thicknesses.

We have identified the imprints of the wooden shuttering used to cast the pillbox. A wooden formwork (similar to a mould) would be created to facilitate the casting of the concrete. The imprint of this shuttering still survives in the surface of many pillboxes.

It’s worth noting that brick was also used as a form of permanent shuttering (see image towards the top of the page). Pillboxes with brick shuttering are not made entirely of brick. The brick was simply used as a form of shuttering and often conceals a core of reinforced concrete. Although not within the scope of this recording guide, it is a good idea to consider accurately recording the shuttering marks at a later date. Assessing methods of construction is a rarity but is a necessity when recording wartime structures.

We have also started to draw conclusions about the pillbox’s camouflage and orientation. It’s worth noting that the entrance of a pillbox faces away from the direction the enemy were expected to approach the structure. This was to ensure that the entrance didn’t immediately come under fire, trapping the occupants inside. This is true for most pillboxes, however be aware that a few pillbox designs feature entrances that face forwards; so be sure to use some discretion when recording the orientation. If you are unsure, then simply record which direction the entrance faces and summarise your observations.

Measurements should be taken in metric as that’s the industry standard (metres). However, as wartime structures were constructed using the imperial system it is a good idea to also record and quote the imperial measurements.

Finally, keeping an eye out for any additions to a structure and working out how the structure has been changed or modified over time is very important. This is known as ‘phasing’ in archaeology. Some pillboxes in Eastern and South-Eastern Commands were ‘thickened’ with additional reinforced concrete to bring them up to ‘shell-proof’ standard from 6 May 1941 (Dobinson, 1996). Evidence for ‘thickening’ would be visible in the fabric of the structure, indicating at least two ‘phases’ of construction.

Back to the Observations

Copyright: © IWM (TR 562)

Okay, we’ve completed the observation of the exterior of the pillbox, time to assess the interior.

Before doing so, it’s worth mentioning that it is not a good idea to enter any structures that you can’t see inside. Many wartime structures have been used for fly tipping, so you never know what nasties reside inside. There is quite an obsession with entering wartime structures, but it is not recommended if not safe to do so. Also, some pillboxes and other wartime structures have been repurposed as bat roosts. Disturbing a bat roost is a criminal offence and you will get in trouble if you disturb one. If the entrance is sealed with a door this means you are not to enter the structure.

Don’t be an idiot and break into the structure or attempt to get around obstacles placed to keep you out. Those that enter structures illegally, break and enter or attempt to get around barred entrances to pointlessly access a structure cause serious problems for anyone with a genuine interest in recording wartime structures. They also make surviving structures vulnerable to further anti-social behaviour.

Having completed your observations of the external structure, you make your way into the pillbox. You ascertain that the entrance and interior are clear and safe to enter, so make your way inside. The interior is well illuminated, and you have plenty of headroom available to stand fully upright inside the pillbox.

You note that the blast porch covers an entrance to the pillbox’s main chamber. Interestingly, the entrance features a low lintel that forces you to stoop to enter the chamber. You also realise the lintel acts as an anti-ricochet wall for the loophole in the integral blast-wall. You make a note of this feature. The lintel and adjacent wall are also 0.38m thick, indicating that the pillbox’s main chamber is also constructed to ‘bullet-proof’ standard.

Low lintel covering entrance to pillbox’s main chamber

In the centre of the main chamber is a substantial anti-ricochet wall.

Anti-ricochet wall in the centre of the pillbox’s main chamber

You take a measurement for the thickness of this anti-ricochet wall and note that it is 0.38m thick, just like the wall of the pillbox’s blast porch.

Next, you spot that the pillbox’s shorter oblique walls have a different type of loophole to those in the longer walls and blast porch. Again, you make a note of this.

Loopholes in the shorter oblique walls

These loopholes feature a recess in the interior, below the loophole. You theorise that these could have held the bi-pod legs of the Bren Light Machine Gun (LMG)  issued to infantry sections at the time. There are also bars protruding from below the loopholes, which may have held a wooden shelf that has since rotted away. You note these features. 

Just as you turn your attention to the second LMG loophole, you notice a square hole above this particular loophole. This hole slopes significantly from the interior to the exterior. You notice that only one other LMG loophole features this square hole above it. You decide to discuss this with your friend later.

LMG loophole with sloping square hole above

The longer walls feature a slightly higher, but less wide loophole design which also lacks the probable Bren LMG bi-pod recess. You note that these may have been used to fire the .303 Enfield SMLE rifle.

The loopholes in the longer wall. Note the lack of a recess.

The shuttering marks are also visible on the interior surfaces of the pillbox, showing that a wooden formwork was used to create the interior and loopholes.

That concludes the observation phase within the pillbox. You can always return later to prompt yourself while writing the site description.

Again, I need to stress that you will encounter many other features while investigating your site. Be sure to record as much as possible and use your initiative when considering what to record.

Making Contextual and Strategic Observations

Okay, onto the really important part. Effectively assessing the context of the site/structure you are recording is key to the record. This process includes observing and assessing the location and surrounding landscape for any apparent strategic advantages e.g. the pillbox has been incorporated into an existing landscape feature to camouflage it from a certain direction.

You should also observe any nearby defences or structures in the locality and assess how these would have interacted with the feature you are recording e.g. several pillboxes are visible in relatively close proximity to the pillbox you are recording.

Finally, you should observe the area surrounding the structure you are recording for any associated or supporting defences e.g. you spot a series of barbed wire pickets surrounding the pillbox.

It does take some time to ‘get your eye in’ but with some experience things will start to become more apparent. Remember that the point of making observations is to analyse what you see. If you see something that you aren’t quite sure about you can still record it. Just remember to make this apparent in your written site description.

Looking at the pillbox and its locality, you quickly spot that the pillbox is situated on the apex of rising ground which culminates in the cliff face to the North-East.

Note- The pillbox featured above sits on private property and landowner consent will be required to view it.

From this location the pillbox overlooks the beach to the North-East, the cliffs to the North-West (including a pillbox), and the surrounding fields that lead inland to the South, West and South-East. Your friend points out the location of a further pillbox to the West that has been constructed within an existing hedgerow.

Panoramic view centred on the North-East of the Pillbox

You see that the pillbox is sited perfectly in the landscape to bring effective fire to bear on a series of vulnerable points in the locality. These vulnerable points include: 

  • The beach 280m to the North-East and the Anti-Tank blocks covering the high-water mark
  • The gently sloping cliff leading from the beach to the North-East that could be negotiated by enemy soldiers
  • Two other pillboxes in the area. This pillbox was able to put down supporting fire in the area of the adjacent pillboxes, which are approximately 450m away

View from LMG loophole showing view of beach below. Note smashed Anti-Tank blocks on the beach

It is also clear that effective fire could be brought to bear on any enemy infantry attempting to approach the position from the rear. Essentially the pillbox was sited to cover a 360-degree arc with fire.

Your notebook is starting to fill up nicely with bullet point notes and observations.

This is just a basic summary of what you may observe on site. As I said earlier, these skills will come with time.

Other things to keep an eye out for include-

  • Bridges and other chokepoints that could funnel infantry or vehicles. If recording a pillbox, or trench, can you see any obvious choke points that the pillbox was sited to cover with fire? This may also include surviving or infilled anti-tank ditches (these would usually come to light during the research phase), beach exits and sharp turns/junctions in the road where vehicles would have to slow down.
  • Important buildings. This is particularly useful if recording defences situated on an airfield or within the perimeter of an ordnance factory. Sometimes defences were sited to deny access to important or vulnerable buildings. Defences were usually sited on airfields to cover runways and the perimeter track of the airfield.
  • If a pillbox sits in isolation please consider that what it is defending no longer exists. Frequently searchlight batteries and emplacements were provided with a single pillbox to cover the rear of the installation. This is often the most likely explanation for single pillboxes that are not part of a wider defensive landscape.

You may wish to highlight these features on a map or create a simple sketch map showing how these features relate to the pillbox.

At this point I can’t think of any other features to look for in the landscape, so I’ll update this section as more spring to mind. Please do feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments below.

The important thing is that you send your initial records to the local Historic Environment Record. You can always send through additional information at a later date.

Having assessed the pillbox’s setting you turn your attention to the pillbox’s immediate surroundings. Your research highlighted some supporting defences including trenches and a substantial barbed wire obstacle in the area.

Making your way around the Eastern side of the pillbox, you spot your friend sat on the sizeable mound where earlier you had written down the details into the form. You notice that a shallow depression zig-zags its way around this earthen bank. It’s a clear and well-preserved trench! 

Surviving trench next to the pillbox

You take a quick look at the trench, spotting some in-situ revetment pickets and also notice that the parados (the rear protective bank that your mate is sat on) obscures the loopholes of the pillbox’s East facing wall! You decide to record this trench later as an independent feature.

One of four in-situ revetment pickets

Making your way to the front of the pillbox, and the cliff edge (careful!), you see that, as expected, the barbed wire obstacle to the front of the pillbox has been removed. Well, except a single in-situ barbed wire picket on the forward slope of the cliff. You note this feature and take an estimated grid reference for the feature as it isn’t safe to climb down the cliff to take an accurate grid reference.

In-situ barbed wire screw picket

A look to the South of the pillbox reveals no evidence for the barbed wire obstacle that sat in the area, but you do notice that the trench extends to the rear of the pillbox but stops abruptly where the open field starts.

You find a further trench earthwork on the pillbox’s Western side. This one also stops abruptly as it reaches the extent of the open field. You remember that the aerial photographs you consulted showed a trench surrounding the pillbox. It is likely that the Southern extant of the trench has been ploughed out by subsequent farming activity in the area.

Your friend commends you on identifying the trench they had completely missed! You have successfully identified the remains of this trench and feel very pleased with yourself. This feature has been completely missed by several other people who have visited this pillbox over the years and posted photographs to Facebook. You make further notes that will come in useful when you create a separate record for the trench later.

Now you’ve made your observations, you join your friend on the parados of the trench and pour another cup of tea just in time for Dinner. You discuss what you have both seen and start to compile the site description.

The End

Okay, I’m going to leave things there. This guide is long enough so far. In the next instalment we shall look at writing site descriptions.

Until then.


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

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Introduction to Field Recording- Part 2: Making Observations & Assessing Strategy by Chris Kolonko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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.