SMHS project: Buried pillbox


23 Oct 2015

There are many pillboxes at Cuckmere Haven, most of which have been photographed and explored many times, but there is one that has been all but buried for decades - and SMHS were given permission to excavate it!

Sadly, others had tried to dig the pillbox out of the bank in which it sits; they exposed the roof but failed to locate the door and gain access. See the project homepage for details of the heritage and wildlife crime committed by these vandals.

If you have any information about these illegal excavations or other heritage/wildlife crimes, please notify the police on 101!

Buried pillbox

Location and appearance

By virtue of it being buried, the appearance of the pillbox was hard to establish.

Concealed in a flood defence bank on the eastern side of the valley and facing the sea, the photograph at right shows the pillbox as it was in January 2010, before being illegally excavated. This was probably more or less how it would have looked during the war; the pillbox was built into the bank for protection and camouflage.

The illegal excavations showed that the roof sloped to conform to the profile of the bank, but this was all that the vandals achieved as a result of their handiwork. It makes one ask why they risked being caught and fined up to £20,000 by damaging a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)!

The photograph below was taken in 2009 by placing a camera on a long selfie stick and putting it through the loophole. It provides a tantalising view of the interior, showing how it has been backfilled with earth up to loophole level. For years, this was all we had to go on as to the interior design and condition - until SMHS got to work in 2015!

Buried pillbox Buried pillbox

The excavation

The plan was that we would excavate one side elevation at the front, expose the rear and remove the backfill from inside the pillbox and use it to cover the structure to replace the soil lost due to the vandalism.

Day 1 - Friday 23 October 2015

We had permission to take two vehicles down onto the beach; one of them was an armoured Land Rover, which turned a lot of heads as we drove down the road and tracks to the dig site.

Having set up our safety fencing and public information board and with all on site having read and signed the excavation Written Statement of Intent (WSI) and risk assessment, work began on clearing the brambles and other vegetation that covered part of the site.

Buried pillbox

Such turf as had survived the vandalism was carefully lifted and put to one side so that it could be reinstated during the backfilling stage.

The first task was to clear the meagre layer of soil still covering the roof and to establish the extent of the rear and side walls; this was achieved within 90 minutes. (Photo at right.)

Despite our best efforts, we still had not located the doorway, and doing so was key; we had agreed to seal the door and loophole off as part of the reinstatement and in order to get materials we needed to get dimensions so the necessary materials could be cut over the weekend, ready to be fixed in place on Monday, when we expected to have completed the excavation.

Before we commenced the work we had discussed various scenarios regarding the doorway. We had expected it to be full-height and centrally-placed, but one fear was that, in addition to having been filled with soil, the pillbox door had been bricked up or otherwise permanently blocked. Had this been the case, our plan to excavate the interior and use the soil to reinstate the bank would be scuppered.

Buried pillbox

We had also wondered whether or not there was some sort of tunnel arrangement to the door to allow for the fact that the pillbox was built into a bank that sloped both at the front and rear. Without a tunnel, there would have to have been an obvious gap in the rear of the bank that would betray the pillbox to enemy aerial observation. (We know for a fact that the Germans knew about this pillbox from aerial photographs anyway!)

We soon had an answer to the tunnel question; the photo at right shows how we encountered an extension at the rear of the structure.

It quickly became clear that our fears about the door being bricked up were not to be realised; only a few tons of soil, some polystyrene fruit boxes and a couple of plastic oil drums lay between us and the interior.

Excavation then slowed down; having located the doorway, we needed to be certain that there were no sudden voids to fall into, and that the plastic containers did not contain hazardous chemicals.

Buried pillbox

Having removed some of the obstructions, we were careful not to allow soil to fall into the doorway that we were trying to excavate.

We got so far and then stuck a camera lens into the entrance tunnel for the first time; to our utter surprise and delight, we saw evidence of original wooden shuttering! (photo at right.)

It then struck us that we had a problem with two possible outcomes; we either had a full-height door that required a lot of excavation, or we literally had a low tunnel that would be easy in itself to clear of soil, but that would hamper efforts to dig out the interior using a human bucket chain. The presence of fragile wooden shuttering would slow things down even more for fear of destroying important evidence.

Further excavation quickly revealed a concrete floor about two feet down; we definitely had a narrow tunnel!

Our growing fatigue at the end of a day of hard labour and failing light also made it sensible to stop work in our newly-discovered tunnel to avoid destroying the wooden shuttering.

Buried pillbox

Another consideration at this stage was that of wildlife; our excavation at the rear of the pillbox had cut down through several animal burrows, so we decided to halt work on excavating into the pillbox and work on enlarging the trench we were in backwards in order to provide some elbow room. We needed to be sure that we were not digging into active burrows and distressing any wildlife, so we would see if any animal activity occurred overnight in response to our efforts.

We stayed until darkness in order to ensure that nobody came onto the site and interfered with the excavation or took photos in daylight. We've had trouble in the past from unauthorised persons photographing our projects when we're not on site, posting photos online and being credited for our hard work, so we asked our dig team to refrain from posting on social media until Sunday evening for security reasons. Only 15 people went inside the excavated pillbox, so we'll be monitoring the Internet to see if our information and photographs are being used to credit people who weren't part of our team!

Day 2 - Saturday 24 October

Buried pillbox

We returned at first light to find that the site hadn't been visited by vandals overnight. We also noted that there were no signs of fresh animal activity onsite, such as digging, nesting or droppings.

Work continued to expand the trench away from the pillbox to allow us room to get a bucket chain down to the spoil heaps at the bottom of the bank.

Once we had space to move, attention turned to the entrance tunnel (right) and work slowed down considerably as only one person could work in this bottleneck. The wood shuttering was so fragile that only gentle trowelling and brushing could be used to clear the spoil from the sides.

We progressed, however, and after a couple of hours the light at the end of the tunnel (literally!) was coming through the loophole, along with a gentle breeze.

Having been champing at the bit for so long, it was time to deploy our resident ferrets (Ed and Jim) to get going into the interior. Working from both the tunnel and the loophole, buckets of earth began to be filled and passed down the chain.

Buried pillbox

Within an hour full entry to the main chamber of the pillbox had been achieved and a symbolic handshake was made through the loophole!

There was still a long way to go though, as the depth of the pillbox floor below the tunnel had not yet been determined.

The next shift of digging saw two team members working in the pillbox, clearing off the shelf below the loophole and then finding the floor about 30cm below the tunnel. We then realised that anyone much taller than 5ft would not be able to stand up straight inside! This had an effect on the diggers, who found they needed to get outside every so often to stretch their backs.

Just before the light went we finally got the interior almost presentable, although a sticky layer of soil remained on the floor.

Satisfied with our work, we sealed the pillbox up for the night.

Buried pillbox

Something that we uncovered this day was some fascinating graffiti etched into the embrasure sill. (Photo right.)

This reads as follows:
BUILT BY
No.1 SECTION
AMPC
JULY 1940
133rd COY
A W BARKER

We know from archive documents that 133 Company AMPC (Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps) were constructing defences here at Cuckmere Haven in 1940, and this ties in with graffiti we recorded on the dragon's teeth.

More scribbles were seen inside the pillbox.

Day 3 - Sunday 25 October

Sunday was the crunch day - we surveyed the spoil heaps and realised just how much earth we had moved and had to put back at the end of the dig. This was without the opening of the trench at the front and side of the pillbox, however, and we weren't convinced that we would finish the dig on Monday.

One thing we did have was a large workforce - 15 people on site! The photo below shows the activity across the site.

Buried pillbox

With a fresh set of diggers eager to be let loose, the front and side was excavated to foundation level. The floor inside was washed clean of the sticky mud and so the pillbox was ready for recording.

Buried pillbox

Day 4 - Monday 26 October

Only a small team was available for what was intended to be the final day of work on the pillbox.

Before the soul-destroying task of backfilling the trenches could begin, a full survey had to be done. The exterior was recorded first; this was so that those not involved in the survey could then begin reinstating the bank over the pillbox while the interior was measured and photographed.

Unfortunately, recording is a slow business, and so we were unable to start backfilling before the light went. However, most of the team did spend the day excavating a small area elsewhere, for which we had permission.

Day 5 - Tuesday 27 October

Buried pillbox

The recording took until mid-afternoon to complete, but then it was a race against the failing light to shift several tons of earth up the bank via a bucket chain.

By the time it had become too dark to work, we had successfully covered the pillbox, but still had quite a bit of work to do, so we had to return for a second extra day.

Day 6 - Saturday 31 October

What proved to be the final day saw the backfilling completed after about three hours.

Once the earth was in place, the small amount of turf was carefully placed and bedded down on the forward slope of the bank. The vegetation that had been cut down on day 1 was then scattered over the top.

The photo below shows the bank just after the turf had been relaid. It is interesting to note that what gives the game away is not so much where we dug, but where our tracks stand out around the edges! This is probably how the Germans spotted so many pillboxes from aerial photographs in 1940. The relaid turf will eventually bed down and the worn grass will recover to restore the landscape. SMHS and the rangers will be monitoring the area closely to ensure fresh heritage and wildlife crimes are not committed.

Buried pillbox

All in all, a fantastic project; all involved thoroughly enjoyed themselves and our new members have made some new friends!

Buried pillbox

We compiled a video of the dig:



We would like to thank our SMHS team for their hard work, the County Archaeologists, County Ecologist, Natural England and the Seven Sisters Rangers for their assistance in conducting this project! Some of the equipment used was kindly funded by Subterranean Britannica whom we would also like to thank.


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