SMHS project: Pillbox


31 May 2014

Pillbox

Day 1 - 31st May 2014

Having cleared the dragon's teeth of vegetation, our team returned to the site at Battle to undertake a detailed survey of them.

The tapes measures, ranging poles and drawing board were unpacked. As a final brush down was being done on the first block in the line, a cursory recce was being done in an area that the landowner had cleared of vegetation since our last visit.

A bit of scuffing of boot against lumps and bumps suddenly yielded some loose bricks and then some solid masonry. A quick scrape with a trowel uncovered evidence of a brick structure; following the edge, it appeared to have a curved shape to it. (Photograph at right.)

Was this evidence of the pillbox?

Work on surveying the dragon's teeth was promptly halted as all hands turned their attention to the new discovery.

Pillbox

A copy of the wartime map of the Battle Nodal Point defences was quickly produced and an attempt made to orientate it to the landscape. A small extract from this map is seen at right; it has been redrawn from the original for clarity.

We had previously searched the area in front of the blocks and even probed down deep to try and find the pillbox we thought had been built on top of the bank, guided by said map. Even though the complete map had a scale drawn on it, it didn't seem to quite match up when overlaid onto the Ordnance Survey map of the period; the accuracy of such documents must always be verified before relying on them!

The problem is that although some dragon's teeth are marked on the full map, the line we were investigating, for some reason, was not. This meant that we only had vague evidence of the location and it seems that our initial attempts to locate the pillbox were targeted in the wrong spot. The landowner's property boundary had also changed since the war.

Re-orienting the map with the landscape, we realised that the masonry we had found may well fit the location of the pillbox on the map. The fact that the map symbol marking the pillbox was a circle gave us confidence that our seemingly round structure was a match.

However, we proceeded with caution until we were certain; the remains of an ornamental fountain lying a few yards away were a reminder that we may be uncovering an abandoned garden feature and not a pillbox!

Pillbox Pillbox

The carpet of soil and ivy was gradually rolled back, confirming that the structure was completely circular. It appeared to be an outer ring of brickwork, with a rough concrete infill.

Having identified the footprint and extent, we now opened trench 1 to establish the depth of the structure. This proved hard work as the original construction backfill contained brick rubble and gravel.

We eventually bottomed out at about 45cm below ground level as seen in the photograph at right.

Here we had two crucial pieces of evidence that confirmed to us that were looking at the lower portion of a pillbox!

Firstly, we had a rough concrete foundation below the brickwork, very reminiscent of World War Two examples seen elsewhere.

Secondly, we uncovered traces of green camouflage paint on the brickwork!

The final discovery of the day was a doorstep at the rear of the structure, shown below. Postholes for a wooden doorframe are evident and the brickwork at right has been chamfered on the interior edge.

Of particular note is that the bricks are all laid as headers, making the wall one brick-length (about 22cm) thick! At least 30cm of masonry would be required to make the walls bullet-proof, thereby making this pillbox seemingly rather weak as a defensive structure without additional protection.

Pillbox Pillbox

Day 2 - 14th June

It was to be a fortnight before we could return to continue the pillbox excavation. Fortunately, we were able to leave the excavation open without any due risk to people, animals or damage to the archaeology.

Having established the extent and depth of the structure, we decided to take advantage of a hole in the floor and excavate down inside the pillbox as the concrete slab appeared to be very thin.

Trench 2 revealed several layers of loose gravel of different grades and proved somewhat troublesome to dig through without the trench wall continuously collapsing in.

This trench was invaluable as it revealed a key construction feature which can be seen in the photograph below.

We had speculated that the concrete foundation was a solid flat slab, as this is the norm with pillboxes. However, we found that the concrete is, in fact, a ring foundation on which the brickwork ring is laid. This explains why the infill below the concrete floor consists of gravel, in order to fill the void and presumably provide some element of drainage.

Pillbox

Other work achieved today included the removal of a fallen tree trunk that was partly covering the doorway, and the uncovering of concrete around the outside of one half of the pillbox, as seen below. This covering is presumed to have been surplus mix being used up.

Pillbox

Day 3 - 2nd August

Day 3 was focussed on opening trench 3 on the outside of the wall, opposite trench 2.

Pillbox Pillbox

The reason for this new excavation was to establish how neat the brickwork was in its relation to the concrete ring foundation. Trench 1 revealed the brickwork nicely flush with the outer edge of the concrete.

Trench 3 revealed that the brickwork and concrete was not as consistently aligned as trench 1 was showing it to be. It may be that the brickwork was begun flush in the area of trench 1, but ended up with the brick and concrete rings not forming precise concentric circles. It is quite possible that one ring of bricks was laid on the ground to establish the basic pillbox diameter with spaces left in between to represent the mortar. A trench was then marked out around them, dug and filled with concrete. Some margin of error was probably incorporated to ensure the concrete ring was wide enough to fit the brickwork should there be a miscalculation.

A further investigation involved linking trenches 2 and 3 by undermining the concrete foundation as shown at right.

Trench 3 also uncovered more camouflage paint running down the wall at an angle, thereby describing the ground level when the paint was applied. It also seemed as though the concrete foundation was stepped up to the rear.

The decision was therefore taken to link trenches 1 and 3 and extend as far round to the rear of the pillbox as was possible to see what was going on. This extra dig would have to be done another day, however.

Pillbox

Day 4 - 20th September

The final dig day saw the full excavation of almost half of the pillbox foundation.

All hands were manning the pumps in order to get the excavation completed by the end of the day, as it would not be safe to leave such a large trench open for the next opportunity for us to visit.

Progress was mixed; the original gravel and brick backfill was especially hard to work through.

By mid afternoon, work was complete. More camouflage paint had been uncovered - quite a rarity, given its age!

The photograph below shows the completed excavation. The process of recording then commenced.

Pillbox

After recording, the trench was backfilled and the pillbox completely covered over again.

What did the pillbox look like?

It's hard to say how the pillbox looked, given that we only have the foundation and floor! However, we assessed the evidence we did have and decided that the pillbox was probably quite a simple structure. SMHS member Peter Hibbs set about building a basic 3D digital model to illustrate how the pillbox might have looked on our dig site had it still been standing, as seen below.

Pillbox

We reasoned that the header bond brickwork would have continued up to the roof level and that this simple structure would have had a simple roof, probably a concrete slab cast directly onto the walls.

Our model has three embrasures (the same arrangement as the official circular Type 25 pillbox), but their size and location is based on the most likely fields of fire available to the pillbox given its situation in the landscape.

This was to be as far as our speculation could go, but in 2015 we received some oral evidence from a local resident who actually remembered the pillbox! This was good as it confirmed our excavation as definitely being that of the pillbox, but we also had some other questions answered. Our informant hasn't seen our reconstruction so we don't yet know just how (in)accurate it is, but we may find out!

A thoroughly rewarding project that threw up a few surprises along the way; we knew there had been a pillbox here, we initially thought that we'd found it, only to locate it elsewhere!


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