Pillbox Myth #4 Fivers and Farmers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Initial Thoughts

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do the documents say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One County’s Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, let’s get started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now the big reveal! 

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

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

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

But what about Farmers pocketing the cash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defence works earmarked for removal were categorised as follows-

(a) Those where restoration is urgently necessary.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Addendum (03.03.2022)

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

Countering the Myth

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

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

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

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

Until next time. Byeeeeee!


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


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

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

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

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

Compensation (Defence) Act 1939

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


C/P8 Series documents Norfolk Records Office

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

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

The Myth

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

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

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

Pistol loophole next to a pillbox entrance?

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

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

The Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some examples-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Origins of this Myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Busted (Provisionally)

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

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

Countering the Myth

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

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

Over and Out!

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


Introduction and Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Right, enough of that. Back to the guide.

Usual Disclaimer Time

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

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

Respect a landowner’s right to privacy.

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

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

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

New Recording Form

recording form

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

Recording Form V2.2

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

Site Description Heads-up

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

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

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

What is a Site Description?

© IWM (D 24523)

© IWM (D 24523)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What and Where? Describing Site Location

Digimax A50 / KENOX Q2

Back to the narrative. Are we sitting comfortably…

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

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

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

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

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

Describing Form and Function


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

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

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

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

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

Lozenge Plan 1

Plan of the pillbox

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


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

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

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

Square- Simple, the structure is square in plan.

Rectangular- Again, straightforward explanation for a rectangular building

Hexagonal- Self-explanatory, useful for describing hexagonal structures

Octagonal- You guessed it, used to describe octagonal structures

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

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

Digimax A50 / KENOX Q2

Chamfered leading edge of blast porch

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

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


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

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


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

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

Describing Features


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

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

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


Sloping square hole above LMG loophole

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

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

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

Digimax A50 / KENOX Q2

Summer vegetation adding to the pillbox’s camouflage scheme

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

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

Next you start to describe the graffiti.


Period graffiti

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


French 1940

E Gall


J.GRAY 1940

Smitts 1940

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strategic and Landscape Context

© IWM (TR 2393)

© IWM (TR 2393)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


© IWM (BU 21)

© IWM (BU 21)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then.


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

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

Pillbox Myths #2: No Records Were Kept

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

Introduction to Field Recording- Part 1: Grid References & Directions

Here we go! I’ve finally got around to writing the next instalment of this recording guide!

This edition will introduce the process of archaeological field recording, showing you how to get started with the basics.

I have decided to split this introduction to field recording into at least two sections. The first will cover the basics and introduce some of the methods required to record a site or structure. The second part will cover writing site descriptions and features to observe while ‘on site’.

Before We Start- The Usual Disclaimer

If you haven’t done so already, please read through my previous posts in this guide. 

And no, pillboxes and Second World War sites and structures are not ALL listed by Historic England/English Heritage/The National Trust etc etc, no matter what you read on the internet, forums or Facebook groups. 

Evidence of illegal excavation within Filey Brigg SSSI. Reported to the Police and Natural England © C. Kolonko (2018)

As always, you will need the permission of landowners to access private property or land. Do not assume that a lack of signs means property or land are free to access.

Don’t attempt to clear any structures or features you encounter. The features you are surveying do not belong to you so it’s not your responsibility to clear them of vegetation. Doing so will leave structures or earthworks open to vandalism and misuse, and may even encourage further damage to occur. Unauthorised clearance can cause injury to livestock, encourage further trespass and may lead landowners to demolish structures on their property. If needs be, wait until winter to do your survey when vegetation is at a minimum.

Don’t dig anything up or remove anything from site. You will cause untold damage to underlying archaeology and will be actively destroying our shared heritage. If you don’t have the relevant permissions, experience, preparation or project design, then you aren’t qualified to dig anything.

Interfering with and/or damaging scheduled, listed or otherwise protected sites is considered a Heritage Crime and will land you in a lot of trouble.

If you do spot anything that constitutes a heritage crime; such as vandalism to a historic building, illegal metal detecting or excavation of a known or protected archaeological site, or graffiti on a heritage asset, then please do report it to the relevant Police force by phoning 101. The same applies to examples of Heritage Crime posted online. By reporting Heritage Crime you can help make a difference and ensure our shared heritage is preserved for future generations.

As I’m sure you are now aware, the aim of this guide is to promote the recording of Second World War era defences through the local heritage organisations responsible for monitoring and recording the historic environment, namely HERs & SMRs. Never rely on or expect someone else to submit your data to a Historic Environment Record (HER) on your behalf. You can’t guarantee that your information will actually be passed on or used ethically. Also, it is unlikely that your information will be sent to the relevant HER in a timely manner; which leaves plenty of time for the site to be damaged, demolished or otherwise lost.  It’s easy enough to submit your information directly to your local HER and doing so will ensure that your information is put to good use.

If in doubt, contact your local Historic Environment Record before seeking advice elsewhere.

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

Site Safety

Staying safe on site should always be a priority and is your responsibility.

You can find further information about basic health and safety in my Planning Your Project guide.

What is Archaeological Field Recording?

© Council for British Archaeology

Archaeological field recording is the process of investigating, recording and understanding archaeological features within a landscape. This involves visiting a site to record the location of features, make notes, and photograph or plan (create scale illustrations) surviving earthworks and structures. The aim of this is to gain a better understanding of the archaeological features in a given area and share results.

At the end of your field recording you should find that you have a record for each feature encountered. This record may just be a simple written description of a surviving earthwork (such as a trench or anti-tank ditch), or could even be a detailed interpretation of a surviving pillbox- including photographs, condition information, and plans. No matter how simple or detailed your record is, you should endeavour to share your findings with your local Historic Environment Record.

As we have seen in earlier articles, an important aspect of field recording is researching and studying your chosen survey area. By now you should have consulted a range of information sources including archive documents, reports and aerial photographs to build up an idea of what was going on in your survey area during the Second World War. Ideally you should have an idea of what features may survive within the survey area, why they were constructed and where they are located.

Why is Field Recording Important?

Concrete section of unidentified pillbox © C. Kolonko (2017)

Archaeological field recording is important as it allows you to gather accurate data from your site and share this information with Historic Environment Records- allowing them to see the importance of what remains, provide conservation advice to landowners and ensure surviving sites are properly considered during planning applications.

Creating a structured record and following a set methodology is far better than just randomly taking hundreds of photographs of a site, making no attempt to record your observations and interpretation. Photographs can be very useful, but without a written record to accompany them they can mean very little.

As we will see, data relating to a site’s condition is an important outcome of field recording; allowing the identification of sites at risk.

Taking the time to properly record and comprehend surviving remains adds value to current records. This is the only way the significance of surviving sites is going to become apparent. Not all sites can be preserved or protected. Development is still necessary and will often still go ahead even after Palaeolithic/Bronze Age/Roman sites have been excavated and recorded by archaeologists. Where sites cannot be preserved your information can be integral to the survival of the site ‘in the record’. This allows others to assess lost sites and creates a paper based, or digital legacy for the site, allowing future generations to comprehend lost sites.

Most importantly information has to be passed on to the heritage organisations responsible for safeguarding historical and archaeological sites. Otherwise, more Second World War sites are going to be lost before they are properly recorded and assessed. By not recording sites properly the significance and importance of what survives will never be realised.

A lot of records relating to Second World War sites haven’t been updated since the Council for British Archaeology’s Defence of Britain project concluded in 2002. As a result, many records are now out of date, inaccurate, incomplete or in need of further information and analysis. Yet more reason to get out there to record surviving sites.

Let’s Get Going!

I have put together a recording form to help you with your field recording.

This is a PDF form which you can print out or (if I have done it right!) upload to a tablet or smartphone to fill out the information fields while on site. You will need to save the document to make sure your observations are recorded. I recommend having a practice before heading out on site.

The recording form is based on that used by the Defence of Britain and Home Front Legacy 1914-18 projects.

This form will make gathering your field data a lot easier and also acts as a prompt when in the field. You don’t need to fill out all sections but it’s always best to provide as much information as possible.

A field record generally consists of-

  • A Location- a grid reference and/or written directions
  • A Description- a written account of the structure/feature and observations made when you recorded the structure/feature
  • A Site Type- the type of site you are recording based on a structured site type thesaurus
  • A Photographic Record-This is a record of photographs taken during the survey. It outlines what each photograph shows and provides context to the images.

In this guide I will focus on the ‘Location’ section of the recording form. I will be covering writing site descriptions and making site observations in the second part of this guide.

I am using an imaginary pillbox  based on a number of different pillboxes I have surveyed over the years as an example. The locations mentioned may be real but the descriptions will not represent an actual pillbox or the current permissions for access to the site.

The recording process is also described in a narrative format indicated in bold. Please note that I am not a professional writer and there will be no twists or cliffhangers in the story. There will probably be plenty of plot holes though!

A list of kit and equipment can be found in Planning Your Project

Our Subject

You have recently started investigating wartime defences and have found an area that you are really interested in; the coastal crust defences of North Yorkshire.

One particular pillbox came to light during your Desk Based Assessment area while checking local Historic Environment Record data and Defence of Britain project records. Contact with the local Historic Environment Record (HER) has been made and they are happy to receive further information and photographs of the pillbox.

During an initial site visit you noted that the pillbox sits within private land owned by a nearby caravan site. Permission from the landowner will be required to access the site.

You were able to make contact with the landowner via the caravan park’s reception. After a chat the landowner is happy for you to visit the structure and spend time on site to record it and other features on their land. A date for the survey is agreed and contact details are exchanged. As a thank you you have offered to send the landowner a printed copy of the final report as a thank you.

As you never work alone during field recording you ask a friend to accompany you. Before heading out you inform a member of your family where you are going and when you expect to get back. Your mobile phone is fully charged and as the weather is set to be nice you dress accordingly, but take along extra clothing and sunscreen, just in case.

First Things First

You and your friend park up in a nearby car park on the agreed date and make your way to the pillbox. Upon reaching the pillbox you settle down to the task at hand and attach a fresh recording form to a clipboard. Sitting down on a sizeable mound next to the pillbox you start the recording process by filling in the name and date fields in the recording form. Your friend is busy investigating the pillbox further, taking care to assess the structure’s surroundings and wider context.

Recording your name on the form isn’t essential but may be useful if you intend to pass your completed forms onto a local HER.

The date is self explanatory. It’s the date you conducted your survey and made your observations. Recording the date that your observations were taken is a simple yet very important part of the recording process. This tells others when your observations were made and illustrates the condition of the site at the time of survey; allowing any changes in the site or its condition to be noted at a later date.


Having filled out the name and date sections you turn your attention to your next task, which happens to be recording the pillbox’s location. You start making observations with the aid of your handy Ordnance Survey map and route around in your bag to find a compass and handheld GPS device.

Accurately recording the location of sites, structures and earthworks within your survey area is very important. Accurate location information will allow you and others (such as HER officers) to plot the location of your site in a database, as well as allow others to find the site on the ground if carrying out future field visits.

National Grid Reference

The British National Grid

You eventually find the handheld GPS device in the bottom of the kit bag, along with some extra batteries. After turning on the device, and giving it a minute or two to locate itself, assess the best location to take your grid reference reading.  It is possible to safely access the top of the pillbox, so the grid reference is taken from the structure’s centre. The device reads ‘TA 14759 75562’. You write this grid reference down in the form and note that this reading was taken from the centre of the pillbox.

Your friend, having finished investigating the pillbox’s surroundings for supporting trenches and remnants of barbed wire obstacles, reminds you that hand held GPS devices can be inaccurate. They offer to check the accuracy of the reading with a computer based Geographical Information System when they return home. 

There are many ways to gain a grid reference for features you wish to record. It is advised to take a grid reference while on site as taking a accurate grid reference off site can be difficult.

A National Grid Reference (NGR) is a unique reference for your site based on the British National Grid. More information here.

The quickest way to record a NGR is to use a handheld GPS device, such as the Garmin eTrex 10. This is my preferred method. Handheld GPS devices can be used on site in most conditions to quickly gain a ten-figure grid reference (accurate to about 10m). However, basic hand held GPS devices can be inaccurate so be sure to check and confirm the accuracy of any grid references you take.

I tend to check my grid references with the online UK Grid Reference Finder website or the OSGR plugin for QGIS.

You don’t necessarily need to spend loads of money on a handheld GPS device. UK Grid Reference Finder have recently released an app for Android operating systems which will work on smartphones and tablets. There are also other alternatives such as the Ordnance Survey OS Mapfinder. So, you should be able to find an app that works on your smartphone or tablet.

You can also use the tried and tested ‘old fashioned’ method of manually taking a Grid reference with an Ordnance Survey map. A map will allow you to gain a relatively accurate six-figure grid reference, but do check your grid references before submitting your data. Taking a six-figure grid reference is covered in the Ordnance Survey How To Take a Grid Reference Guide

Generally, it is best to take a grid reference from the centre of the feature you are recording. However, this is not always possible; for example when you’re recording a large building. A Grid Reference can be taken from a corner or other part of a large building or earthwork. The location where you took the Grid Reference can be noted in the recording form, along with the method for gaining the grid reference.

If recording a feature such as a row of anti-tank blocks, anti-tank ditch, long trench, or other linear feature. It is best to take a grid reference for each extent of the feature. This will help to show the length of the feature when surveyed and show the area the feature covers.

The Grid Reference is recorded in the ‘Grid Reference (NGR):’ section of the recording form (funnily enough).

This is what we have recorded in the form’s Location section so far-

Site Name/Site Reference

As this pillbox is one of several wartime defences that you intend to survey today, you assign the pillbox a site reference on the recording form. You toy with the idea of calling the structure ‘Super-awesome WW2 concrete pillbox’, but instead decide to use a more sensible and simple reference. You know that this will help you keep track of the pillbox later when writing up your results and also help if you need to record related sites and features. You settle on the simple reference ‘RePB01’.

Assigning a site name or reference to each structure/feature you survey will help you later if recording numerous sites in an area. In this case we could call the pillbox ‘Middle Cliff Pillbox’ or assign an arbitrary reference. Generally, I use a part of the site location and the initials of the site type (in this case ‘PB’ for Pillbox), followed by a unique number to record features.

You can come up with your own Site Name or Site Reference, as long as it allows you to identify the structure/feature and associated record at a later date. This reference will also allow you to refer to the site in any reports you write.

Directions and Describing Location

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

You and your friend start to consider creating written directions to the pillbox. You have identified several features which can be used to describe the structure’s location, including a nearby field boundary and a number of named cliffs that appear on the Ordnance Survey map. You both also decide to take measurements from the end of the field boundary to the pillbox with a 100m reel tape you have in the kit bag and make a note of orientations with a compass. 

After some planning your friend writes the following description into the Site Location/Directions field of the recording form:

‘This pillbox is located on Middle Cliff in the North-Eastern boundary of Low Fields. Approximately 50m South-East of the Eastern extent of a nearby field boundary that runs West to East across Raincliff Ings. This pillbox can be found by following the path running East along the top of Middle Cliff.’ 

You both read through the directions and are happy that a HER officer would be able to find the site using your directions. You decide not to bother creating a sketch to further illustrate the pillbox’s location. 

Written directions can also be provided if the feature you are recording is relatively hard to find. These directions should use local landmarks and permanent features to describe the location of your feature. You may also wish to include measurements (metric is the industry standard). Field boundaries, named buildings, trig points, field names that appear on maps and distinctive landscape features should be used. Don’t use parked vehicles, tents, roadworks, cows/sheep/rabbits/deer, or any other non-permanent feature to describe the location of your site.

An Ordnance Survey map may also come in useful for identifying named landscape features and landmarks.

I have also provided enough space in the form to draw a quick sketch map.


After writing directions to the pillbox your friend fills in the County and Parish information boxes. The pillbox doesn’t have a Postcode, so that box isn’t filled in. You know you are in the county of North Yorkshire due to the beautiful scenery, amazing coastline and amazing weather. The OS map tells you we are in the parish of Reighton. The pillbox does not have a postcode.

Fairly straightforward to complete and not necessarily required but still useful to record. Recording the county can be useful if you are still to make contact with the local HER.

HER/SMR number

Having checked online HER records and made contact with the local HER you know the pillbox is recorded under reference MNY31514. You write this reference in the HER/SMR number box, knowing this will help the HER officers to add your information to the existing record.

The HER/SMR number is the reference assigned by the local HER or Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) if the site is already recorded. HERs may be able to provide you with copies of known records and references for known sites and features, or these can be found online via Heritage Gateway.

If the site you are recording is already known, then including the relevant HER/SMR reference will make it easier for a HER officer to add your information to an existing record.

Other Reference Number

Your desk based assessment also revealed that the pillbox was recorded by the Defence of Britain project (DoBp) between 1997 and 2002. The DoBp reference of ‘S0002807’ is noted in the ‘Other reference number’ box. While you are doing this your friend has started to take a look at how the pillbox was constructed and is investigating the loopholes further to see if they can identify which weapons would be used within the pillbox.

An ‘Other Reference Number’ can be a reference assigned to your site or structure by another recognised project, such as the original Defence of Britain project. This information may come in useful if referring to other projects and references in your final report.

NMR Number

Your Desk Based assessment even showed that the pillbox is recorded within the National Monuments Record (NMR).  The NMR reference ‘1418811’ is written in the relevant box.

If your site is recorded on the National Monuments Record you can include the site reference here. Again, this will make adding information to existing NMR records a whole lot easier.

Heritage Designation

Your thorough prior research involved consulting Historic England’s list of designated sites, so you know that the pillbox isn’t a Listed Building or a Scheduled Monument.  You also efficiently checked the site for other designations using the MagicMap.gov website. This shows that RePB01 sits within the Flamborough Head Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). You decide to record this information in the form for future reference.

This is where you can record if the structure or feature is officially protected through Listing or Scheduling, as a local heritage asset, or if the area is otherwise designated.

As I have already noted, Second World War era archaeological sites are rarely protected, unless someone has submitted a successful request to have the site protected by Historic England (not English Heritage). Historic England have been the organisation responsible for processing Listing/Scheduling applications since 2015.

You can find out more about statutory protection and how you can apply here.

You can also search ‘the list’ to find out more about listed/scheduled sites in your survey area.


After recording the pillbox’s location information, you and your friend crack open a flask of tea and sit down to have a quick break.

You both discuss what it would have been like to have to have to guard this stretch of coast from 1940 onwards, and also discuss how attacking infantry would have mounted an assault on this position. You start to look across the landscape, noting the lay of the land and imagining how the associated trench systems and barbed wire entanglements would have supported this pillbox if it came under attack. You notice other pillboxes located on the high ground to the South and further pillboxes and anti-tank blocks on the beach below. You realise that this one pillbox was part of a much wider, carefully planned defensive network.

Your thoughts soon return to recording these observations in your recording form.

Over and Out!

Okay, that brings us to the end of the first part of this introduction to field recording.

Here is our form so far. You can see we have quite a bit of information already.

Thank you for reading this far. There’s a lot to take in but with practice the skills described above will become a lot easier and will allow you to record sites effectively.

You may wish to have a go at taking grid references, checking their accuracy and writing your own directions in the meantime.

In the next instalment we shall look at making field observations, recording condition and may also have time to look at taking photographs and keeping a photographic record.

If you would like to learn more about archaeological field recording please check out the link below.

Scotland’s Rural Past- A Practical Guide to Recording Archaeological Sites. This guide provides a perfect introduction to further recording methods that may not be covered in my recording guide.

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Introduction to Field Recording- Part 1 by Chris Kolonko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.