The Changing Fortune of Pill Boxes

Thought I would drag an article out of the archives and republish/recycle, because it’s such a good one i.e. not from me!

Pillboxes are the iconic symbol of WW2 anti-invasion defences so I thought a post on their use, with reference to Suffolk, during WW2 may be of interest. As I said in my earlier post, up to May 1940, virtually no defences had been built in Britain. After events in France, the biggest military engineering programme in Britain’s history began with defences constructed along the entire coast as well as inland, with up to 28,000 pillboxes being constructed during the war.

The density of construction of pillboxes in Eastern Command was one of the highest in the country – in this command the number per mile of beach was 11 (7.8 in Northern Command, 1.8 in Scottish Command, 3.2 in Southern Command and 2 in Western Command). In Eastern Command this represented a total of 5,054 pillboxes completed as at Oct 1940 with a further 765 projected.

Pillboxes where usually constructed with two pouring of concrete. The first pouring was up to the base of the embrasures. Precast embrasures were then added along with the seconded pouring. The concrete was reinforced with steel rods. Due to a shortage of timber, bricks or concrete blocks were often used as shuttering. This has led to a common misunderstanding that many pillboxes were only built of brick! Where the shuttering has been removed, the two pouring of concrete often show up as a fault line.

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Pillbox for machine gun (Hopton) – note brick shuttering and precast embrasures

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Infantry Pillbox (Beccles)- note fault line at embrasure level. The lower embrasure was for the Boys anti-tank rifle

In towns camouflage was often provided by trying to make pillboxes look like petrol stations, shops etc.

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Infantry pillbox (Felixstowe) – disguised as a petrol pump!

In the countryside camouflage was provided by camouflage pattern paint, camouflage nets or making them blend in with surroundings by e.g. by disguising them as haystacks.  Many had turf laid on the roof to try and hide them from aerial observation. A letter from the General Staff, 55th Div (front line Division, Suffolk, 1940) to its Brigade Commanders notes that many pillboxes had been painted too brightly to fit in with surroundings! In one example at Minsmere, a pillbox has been constructed inside 13th century chapel remains in order to try and hide it. However the chapel remains are sited on a high point dominating the surrounding low lying marshes and would surely have been the first place any invading German troops would have suspected an infantry post to be located!

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Traces of camouflage paint around the embrasure can be seen on this pillbox at Knodishall Whin

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Pillbox built into 13th century Chapel, Minsmere

Not surprisingly such a rapid construction programme was not without problems. From the records of the time it would appear many pillboxes were constructed without the supervision of the Royal Engineers – both in the location and materials used in construction. Lt. Col Ovey D.S.O (Commander 7th Bttn Suffolk Home Guard) notes that in July 1940, “Pillboxes began to spring up mainly at road junctions and crossroads often in most visible and vulnerable positions…………I have no idea who was responsible for their sighting as no reference was ever made to the local Home Guard Commanders or as far as I know to any regular military Commander”.

Maj Gen Majendie, Commander 55th Div notes(Aug 1940): “ I am very much afraid we have gone pill-box mad, and losing all sense of proportion in  siting defences…..The countryside is covered with pill-boxes, many of which will never be occupied, many could never serve any useful purpose, and many face the wrong way”. This may have well been in response to a visit to Eastern Command by Gen Brooke in July , in which he noted in his diary his concern about the amount of resources committed in constructing a rear defence line comprising of pillboxes and anti-tank ditches (the Corps Line) and the fact there would never be sufficient Field Forces to man the line. Maj Gen Majendie does state that this state of affairs had come about “due to haste and the desire to get something done quickly”.

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This pillbox (Ipswich) was built with its entrance facing the direction the enemy would approach from so another blast wall entrance was added to correct this

The reliance on pillboxes in the summer of 1940 was undoubtedly due to the lack of mobility and weapons following Dunkirk when much equipment was abandoned or destroyed. Pillboxes did provide some protection to the few anti-tank guns available and troops. However with the replacement of  Gen Ironside with Gen. Brooke such static defences no longer fitted in with a  more mobile defence based on counter attack . Brooke envisaged a light line of defence along the beaches to hamper any landing with mobile counter attack forces held nearby to attack any landings before they became established. Future pillbox construction was now limited to stop-lines and nodal points as had already been notified.

The pillbox had one serious flaw in a defence based around mutually supporting section posts with all round fields of fire. With a section post usually comprising of six men, only two at a time could fire in any given direction (unless in the unlikely event  that the post was under attack from all directions at once) with the rest of the garrison taking no part in the defence.  They were also vulnerable to isolation by smoke and gas.  Instructions were now issued that if pillboxes were still to form part of a section post they were to be regarded as a keep where the garrison could take cover if under air attack. As soon as the attack was over or the enemy troops appeared d the garrison was to leave the pillbox and fight in trenches sited for all round defence, the key point that the entire section’s weapons could be fired in any one direction. The light machine gun could fire from the pillbox if it could carry out its role otherwise it should come out to a prepared position.

Having said all this, a memo from GHQ dated October 1940 noted that “For defence against invasion concrete works often have many advantages over field works.  Many defences are in places much exposed to the weather; others must be left ready for occupation in places where few or no troops are normally stationed, and where maintenance is consequently difficult. Many have to be erected near or among buildings, where a concrete structure is less conspicuous and more easily camouflaged than an earthwork”“

In 1941 a policy was put in place to deny to the enemy redundant pillboxes. This was to be achieved by filling pillboxes  with barbed wire and blocking up loopholes.  In Suffolk, 15th Div issued instructions that redundant pillboxes in forward areas were to be wired up with booby traps placed inside – these were to be marked with a white cross. In rear areas they were to be wired up with dummy booby traps placed inside and marked with a red cross. If cement was available loopholes were to be blocked. This policy did not apply to stop lines and nodal points were the defences were to be maintained.

In October 1941 instructions were issued from GHQ to strengthen pillboxes still in use. This was to be achieved by increasing the thickness of the wall facing the enemy to 6 ft thick and the other sides to 3ft 6in. The number of loopholes were to be reduced to reduce the chance of enemy rounds entering through them – the so called ““sieve” type pillbox is nothing but a deathtrap”.  This policy came about after trials with pillbox designs which could withstand a six pounder and the requirement that they should be proof against the German 88mm or a 250 kilo bomb.  This was a marked departure from the view of the memo of October 1940 already quoted above which noted “pill-boxes now erected will withstand the weapons most likely to be brought against them [basically it was not envisaged that heavy guns could be landed either by air or sea in the first stage of invasion] and we see no reason which would make a change in design worthwhile at the moment”.

A number of pillboxes in Suffolk were detailed for strengthening but the only evidence that this was carried out is to be found at Bawdsey. But many pillboxes do have some embrasures blocked.

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Type 24, Bawdsey with a reinforced brick skirt filled with rubble up to embrasure level

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This pillbox (Sizewell) has had a Turnbull mount for a light machine gun fitted and also two embrasures blocked

By 1942 pillboxes had completely fallen out of favour. A letter (23rd Feb 1942) from GHQ Home Forces to the Commands noted “all experience of modern warfare….points most strongly to the fact that the pillbox is not a suitable type of fortification for either coastal or nodal point defences”. The letter also noted that the Commander In Chief has directed that in future field defences would consist of well constructed and concealed earthworks. It was noted that many pillboxes occupied the best firing position – in this case they could remain part of the defence although alternative field works should be provided.

In conclusion, it would appear that pillboxes were constructed in a somewhat haphazard manor in order to ‘get the job done’. The concept of stop lines and concrete defences would seem to have given the impression that Britain’s defences had reverted to the linear line defence of the First War. However there is no evidence that I have seen to suggest that Eastern Command expected the Corps Line or any other stop line to be held in the manor of First War defences – the principal role was to delay the enemy until counter attack reserves could be brought forward. There is perhaps some contradiction in GHQ’s views in the worth of pillboxes given the amount of training from 1942 onwards that was devoted to overcoming similar German defences consisting of mutually supporting defences of pillboxes and earthworks.  The US Intelligence Service certainly did not underestimate the value of permanent fortifications: “The Germans well understand that fortifications are truly offensive in character when their employment is based on the military maxim of economy of force. They cannot defend adequately at all points, but by the use of permanent fortifications to maintain an effective defense with a minimum of man power, they hope to keep the bulk of their force in reserve for offensive action”.

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Platoon tactics in attacking a pillbox- Infantry Training Part VIII 1944

So if Britain’s pillboxes had ever been put to the test what would the outcome have been. Obviously we will never know, but the substantial causalities the US Forces experienced in assaulting the Siegfried Line in 1944/45 may give some clues. Like Britain’s defences it was constructed in haste, with often sub-standard material used and in late 1944 manned by an increasingly tired and material starved German Army.

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German bunker on the Siegfried Line

References:

Infantry Training, 1937 – Supplement No 1 : Tactical Notes for Platoon Commanders, WO 1941

Infantry Training, Part VIII: Fieldcraft, Battle Drill, Section and Platoon Tactics, WO 1944

The Turn of The Tide, A Bryant, Collins 1957

55th Div papers, TNA

GHQ papers, TNA

7th Bttn HG papers, SRO

You may also be interested in my website:

pillboxes-suffolk.webeden.co.uk – a website on Suffolk’s anti-invasion defences in WW2

14 Comments
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Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones
January 18, 2011 12:04 am

@Dave – an excellent series of posts. I found it interesting that the fortifications were intended to be the “shield” for the counter-attacking “sword”. Do you have any information concerning Cold-War fortifications, particularly in Europe? I would be nice to compare any differences between pre-war, during the war, and Cold-war designs.

ArmChairCivvy
ArmChairCivvy
January 18, 2011 8:39 am

Hi Gareth Jones,

You may want to take a look at this one (Osprey Fortress 088 – The Mannerheim Line 1920-39: Finnish Fortifications of the Winter War) which explains how a clever overall lay-out of fortifications – they were not that substantial – let an army whose artillery were mainly Maxim machine guns fight an opponent that used artillery on Verdun scale.
– I would put them in your pre-war request category

Brian
Brian
January 18, 2011 5:14 pm

Dave, another excellent post – just like TD’s container posts pillboxes are now must-reads. I wonder if the vast amount of men an material expended on the pillboxes might not have been better used for civilian air-raid shelters instead. At least public shelters with concrete slab roofs and lime-mortar/brick sides (aka the infamous Morrison Sandwiches) might have been of all concrete construction in time for the Blitz.

Dave
Dave
January 18, 2011 7:08 pm

Hi all
Thanks for the kind feedback. In response to specific questions:
Brian – you may have a point about air raid shelters. Its not something I have looked into that much (although hope to expand the research in this direction at some point). But one thing that certainly worried military commanders about the time spent in constructing defences was that it was at the expense of training. I have found at least one reference in the War Diaries of the time about standards and discipline in troops who were spending all their time in constructing defences was certainly slipping.
Gareth – have a pretty good understanding of the concept of pre war fortifications and strategy / tactics but not post war. I could certainly do a post on pre war thinking if it was of interest but would have to leave the cold war era to someone else!
ArmChairCivvy – will look out for the publication you mention. If any one with knowledge out there on these fortifications along with the Maginot and Siegfried Lines this would make an excellent series of posts!

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones
January 18, 2011 11:33 pm

Hi ACC. Thanks for the suggestion, I will check it out tomorrow!

@ Dave. Pre-war strategy and tactics would be very interesting; no pressure though.

x
x
January 19, 2011 12:24 am

Another good book is Fortress Europe from Greenhill Books.

Chris in Virginia
Chris in Virginia
June 12, 2011 2:22 am

Tactically flawed, I bet they made the civilians feel better. One can only imagine the generations of children playing in them later.. First Jerry, then Ruskie!

DominicJ
DominicJ
November 7, 2011 5:20 pm

I was sure I’d read this before, just completely missed the first line.

Many of the pill boxes were entirely pointless, however, the people who created the “stop line” strategy get quite an unfair beating over the matter.
They were told to resist an imminent German invasion, and given nothing but concrete with which to do it.
Pill boxes, Tank Traps and Dragons Teeth are about all they could have done.
They’d’ve prefered 60 armoured divisions too, but they were issued concrete.

All politicians are the same
All politicians are the same
November 7, 2011 6:45 pm

Anyone with a pillbox fetish would be advised to pay a visit to Normandy. many excellent german examples ranging from small pill boxes to huge bunkers still around. i enjoyed it anyway, sorry.

Wstr
Wstr
November 7, 2011 9:24 pm

@TD. Dave’s unsolicited nomination seconded. Apart from forward base improvised fortifications using containers, which I presume you’ll keep for yourself. :)

ArmChairCivvy
ArmChairCivvy
November 7, 2011 10:07 pm

I still think the idea that was aired, but perhaps difficult to research, is the inter-war fortifications, the ideas they were based on, how they worked when put to test(and why some of them did not work!)

Ian
Ian
November 8, 2011 1:14 pm

Nice Article; the 1940 defences have always been an interest of mine. Armchair Civvy, I recall seeing some articles on the Gin Drinkers Line that sum up British prewar thinking quite nicely.

If I can find the link, I shall post it