17 May 2002

OURPILLBOXLEGACY

They were a defence that never had

to be used, but they remain on

guard still. Michael Charity has

been checking out pillboxes

IF YOU trouble to look you will find them everywhere. Hidden behind hedgerows, tucked in the corner of farm orchards, or defiantly defendant in the middle of fields. They mushroomed nearly halfway through the 20th century and are still standing some 60 years later.

I am referring to pillboxes, a profusion of earth, concrete, brick and sandbagged constructions built to create a series of defence lines against possible German invasion.

Amazingly, the majority of the 18,000 thrown up in the panic of war as Hitlers troops stormed across Europe have survived the ravages of time to become a symbol of British resistance in the 1940s.

Many, situated on agricultural land, now have a more peaceful role than in the days of Dads Army, occasionally doubling up as a storage haven for timber or animal feed. Farmers being farmers will use anything that gives cover and such prudence has helped preserve several of these wartime relics that otherwise might have been lost for ever.

The countrys prolific pillbox defence system comprised of a series of Stop Lines beginning naturally on the coastal approaches with fall back defences placed at strategic positions inland, Bristol for instance, was completely ringed by them. There are many fine examples running along the Avon and Kennet canal through to London and the Eastern counties.

In the Cotswolds there are several to be found near the ancient Saxon borough of Winchcombe, just eight miles from Cheltenham. I accompanied retired garage owner, councillor Pat Smith on a tour of the half-a-dozen that are sprinkled around the outskirts of the town and he explained his interest in the structures. "Before I got involved so much in local politics, I was a member of a Pillbox Society and we were very keen to make sure they were preserved as part of our heritage. I feel they are really important to the history of this country although I have never been able to establish why there are so many in the Winchcombe area. Maybe the powers that be at the time knew more than we did!"

One splendid example near the town is constructed entirely of sandbags filled with neat concrete. The building looks as good as the day it was erected and to this day the hessian covering is in perfect condition. Just a mile away hidden from view in the middle of an orchard, a Cotswold stone example doubles as a wood store, while further down leafy lanes, a low profile bunker, again in Cotswold stone, nestles under trees. All signposts to troubled times six decades ago.

There are several military societies and organisations dedicated to the recording and preservation of these structures of yesteryear, such as the Pillbox Study Group. This boasts a membership of nearly 200 from six different countries, who continually lobby for statutory protection to be introduced to save the buildings for posterity.

Dr John Sholfield, head of the military and naval evaluation programme at English Heritage is sympathetic to their cause. He says: "We at English Heritage recognise that these defensive creations have a historical military importance and we are looking at all anti-invasion structures with a view to afford protection to those that merit scheduling as monuments.

"I would also like to make the point that while they were used and manned by the Home Guard, the Dads Army chaotic image depicted by television was a mile from the truth. In fact the civilian defence planning in the 1940s was well organised and run very much in a professional way."

Fortunately the pillboxes never had to be used to repel an invading army, Hitlers goose stepping storm troopers never made it to the main land – but …. I bet the odd farm goose steps around them still.

On watch: Councillor Pat Smith peers through the gun slot of a pillbox

near Winchcombe, Glos. Another Cotswold stone pillbox

(below) in an orchard at Greet, doubles as a wood store.