During World War II, the British were sure they were about to be invaded. The English Channel seemed like nothing more than a narrow creek against the might of Nazi Germany. As the British army fought in North Africa and Southeast Asia, the Home Guard and teams of civilians prepared for the worst.
One elderly English woman told me that when she was a teenager she helped lay electric wire below the water line of the southern beaches. The idea was that if the Germans launched an amphibious invasion, sort of a D-Day in reverse, they could flip a switch and electrocute the Germans. While the idea disturbed her at the time, the thought of an occupied England disturbed her even more.
Another defensive measure was the construction of more than 18,000 small bunkers called “pillboxes” at strategic sites. Thousands still stand along the rivers, estuaries, ports and main roads. If you hike for any length of time in England, Scotland or Wales you’re bound to come across some. The one shown above guards the road leading into Faringdon, Oxfordshire. Jump the cut to see another view of the same installation.
As you can see it’s not very big, barely room enough for a couple of men and a machine gun. Still, it would have slowed down the enemy and given the British time to organize a counterattack. Many installations were strung out in long lines called “stop-lines” across the countryside with the idea that the German invasion could be halted along those lines.
Pillboxes came in numerous types. They were built of concrete, stone or brick reinforced with concrete and had various shapes. The Pillbox Study Group is dedicated to the study and preservation of these defenses. Anyone who knows the British will not be the least bit surprised that such a group exists. They’re big on all sorts of societies and associations. These groups allow a rather introverted people an excuse to gather without (or sometimes with) the social lubricant of alcohol. Sometimes this is rewarded with a major discovery. The Richard III Society must be having their best year ever.
I’ve clambered over plenty of these little forts and each one is a little different. In Orkney, I even came across one built atop a prehistoric Pictish broch. Some have been incorporated into later buildings and one has even been used to create a habitat for bats. Most, however, are quietly decaying, visited only by local teens as a private place to drink and screw. Only a few are preserved as historic buildings. The Pillbox Study Group is trying to change that.
If you come across a pillbox while hiking, be careful. Despite once being bullet proof many are now in rather poor shape. Watch your step and admire these remnants of the nation’s Proudest Hour.