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June 24, 2023 by Mark Knight
Figure 1. Type 24 pillbox on the River Tame. Photo credit: Jenny France 2023
In June 1940 the British Expeditionary Force evacuated from Dunkirk and the threat of a German invasion of Britain seemed imminent. To counter this threat, the War Office devised a series of Stop Lines, ‘hardened field defences’ that were intended to utilise the landscape and break areas down into defensible zones. In our project area this was the river system and this was a line drawn along the rivers Trent, Tame and Dove from Ashbourne in the north to Tamworth in the south.
“The immediate object is to divide England into several small fields surrounded by a hedge of anti-tank obstacles which is strong defensively, using natural accidents of the ground where possible. Should Armoured Fighting Vehicles attack or airborne attacks break into the enclosures the policy will be to close the gate by blocking the crossing over the obstacles and to let the ‘dogs’ in the shape of armoured formations, or other troops, to round up the cattle”
(Public Records Office WO 199/1800)
A series of reinforced concrete bunkers was built along these rivers, and immediately became known as pillboxes due to their shape. The majority of these in the TTTV project area are of a design called FW3/Type 24, which are of an uneven sided hexagonal shape – five sides are similar, one is longer. They have a firing window, properly called an embrasure, or loophole on each side with a doorway on the longer side which has a loophole on either side. Inside, there is a Y-shaped blast wall which to a degree was intended to protect soldiers from shrapnel, ricocheting bullets, and flamethrowers. This also supports the thick concrete roof. The pillboxes were placed at strategic points along the rivers, wherever there was a road or rail bridge or viaduct, or where there are shallow points along the rivers that could be utilised and forded by enemy armoured vehicles.
The TTTV project area had approximately 83 pillboxes along the rivers, plus at least another seven surrounding RAF Lichfield, some of which are now lost, alongside a further eight ‘mushroom’ pillboxes at what was Burnaston airfield, seven of which have since been destroyed to make way for factory and road development. Wartime secrecy means that it is not known precisely where all of the pillboxes were and if they have been demolished or destroyed since then (some have) they may not have been recorded. A small number of these are the same type design but have a red-brick outer skin. These are usually considered to be slightly later in date and are attributed to a 1941 construction date rather than 1940.
The pillboxes along the river system were predominantly of the Type 24 design, although there are some significant variants. These are mainly built to a local design, are of a rectangular shape with a pent roof and were probably built to look like railway plate-layer’s sheds. These do not seem to have been to an authorised War Office design and were perhaps planned locally, perhaps by the railway companies, perhaps by local military command. The majority of these are along the River Dove although at least one was on the River Tame.
Figure 2. River Dove rectangular/ platelayer’s type pillbox. Photo credit: Mark Knight 2021.
The River Trent has its own local variant too, the Leicester Line rail bridge just south of Burton on Trent has four pillboxes disguised to look like they were built into the stone abutments, and are still clearly visible. Although it is not possible to access them directly, they are visible from the ground beneath the bridge and a gentle walk along the Burton Washlands south from the town will be well rewarded.
Figure 3. Leicester Line bridge pillbox. Photo credit: Mark Knight 2021.
A Type 23 pillbox guards the railway on the Wychnor Viaduct, this was of a rectangular double-square design, half with a reinforced concrete roof, half with an open roof and a mount for an anti-aircraft machine gun. Other variations might be made locally and for very specific reasons; some have a low concrete plinth at the entrance in areas prone to flooding, yet others have buttresses by the doorway with no obvious purpose. A further very unusual pillbox can be found in Tamworth. This is another unofficial design, and is a rectangular reinforced concrete design and is disguised with blue bricks to make it inconspicuous to the enemy as it blends in with the retaining wall next to the Holloway car park.
Figure 4. Tamworth Ladybridge disguised pillbox. Photo credit: Mark Knight 2023.
It was noticed by Nick Williams of the Friends of Staffordshire Regimental Museum (SRM), who notified me of its existence. Nick had noticed it as the ivy had recently been cut back and he spotted a loophole in the otherwise seemingly innocuous wall. I followed Nick’s lead and visited the site and was welcomed in by the Tamworth Bowls Club, who are the custodians of this pillbox. On checking with the County Archaeologist, the pillbox is not recorded in the Historic Environment Records (HER), so Nick’s sharp eyes (it was difficult to spot even when I knew approximately where to look) have enabled this monument to be entered and recorded for posterity. It stands as an indication of just how long it is that Tamworth has been a defensible place and with care it will survive long into the future.
I’d also been alerted to the possibility that a variant pillbox, one of the platelayer’s-shed types had possibly been demolished and was no longer on its former site guarding the railway bridge across the River Tame between Hopwas and Comberford. On investigation, I was able to confirm that there was no pillbox at the site and concluded that it had been demolished to make way for the widening of the West Coast Main Line to four tracks. On checking the HER, it turns out that this is the pillbox that is now at the SRM site, and was moved there in 2007. This pillbox, and the Type 24 pillbox at the National Memorial Arboretum (which still occupies its original place guarding the shallows there) are the only two that I would recommend visiting to look inside. Many others are inaccessible or are on private property. Those that are accessible are often vandalised and are used for anti-social activities and it is unwise, or even unsafe to enter them.
Figure 5. A neglected Type 24 pillbox with a brick outer skin, unsafe to enter. Photo credit: Mark Knight 2022.
It has been part of the TTTV Cultural Heritage project to record and photograph as many of the remaining pillboxes as possible, and with the help and hard work of our brilliant cultural heritage volunteers we’ve been able to achieve the project targets. To the best of my knowledge, none of those in our project area are afforded any statutory protection and we rely on the goodwill of landowners to keep them safe for future generations. One of the ways we have attempted to protect them is by repurposing them for wildlife, and we have converted approximately 10% of them for either bat hibernacula, which are places that bats can hibernate over winter, or for wild bird nest sites. The main object when converting them is to keep people out. However well meaning, it is generally the case that wildlife does not like to be disturbed by people, especially when nesting or roosting. The pillboxes that we converted were quickly inhabited by a variety of wildlife, including barn and tawny owls, various nesting birds and to our delight, several have been used by brown long-eared bats as hibernation sites. This came as something of a surprise as earlier attempts were unsuccessful. We were able to learn from these earlier trials and make adjustments, which turned out to be very successful. Once bats have moved in, these pillboxes are legally protected and a licence is required to enter them.
A short video of a brown long-eared bat can be seen on our website here:
Dr Mark Knight
Cultural Heritage Officer
Transforming the Trent Valley Partnership Scheme
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