My interest in the second world war started at a very young age. My father grew up living next to an RAF bomber airfield during the Second World War and his interest in WW2 aircraft eventually became my interest. He would take my brother and I to air shows and other historical places, even up the South Wales mountain ranges looking for wrecked aircraft. Occasionally we’d come across pillboxes and other WW2 defences and I became fascinated in these structures always hoping to find souvenirs, which I never did.
It was during the ‘phoney war’ of 1939/40 that these network of defences were constructed all over the British Isles, in anticipation of a German invasion of the British Isles. In Wales these defences were built along the coast to combat any invasion from Ireland and in-land along river ways, valleys and mountain passes. The defences came in many guises, but probably the best known were the ‘pillboxes’, thought to be named because of their shape, which were squat little concrete or brick built forts. Pillboxes contained infantry men and machine guns and were positioned in various sites such as road junctions, railway embankments, stations, canals, farm buildings, beaches and even in the middle of fields. Designed to delay the enemy until reinforcements turned up, most were constructed from steel reinforced concrete and a large number still stand today especially in more rural areas. Many were constructed on private land and by the nature of the construction, the cost of demolition far outweighed the compensation offered by the government after the war. Some farmers decided to use them as store rooms and such rather than break them up, others just became abandoned.
Over the years many pillboxes have slowly disappeared as a result of roadworks and development, others have just simply slipped into the sea. The two at Tresilian Bay, Llantwit Major and the line of 6 at Limpert Bay, Aberthaw, have survived surprisingly intact bearing in mind they stand right on the edge of the coast. No official records survive of how many and where all these defences were built, but an estimated 28,000 pillboxes were originally constructed. A detailed survey was undertaken by Henry Wills in 1985 for his book “Pillboxes – A Study of UK Defences 1940”, in which he recorded 5,000+ pillboxes and defence sites.
Developed in the first world war, the early British pillboxes were round in appearance, most of the Welsh ones built in WW2, that I have come across, are of the type 22 or 24 hexagon shape, but there were many different types scattered around Britian, including ‘disguised’ examples as part of an ordinary building in towns and villages. Two good examples of these are still in existence today in the village of Cynwyl Elfed, Carmarthenshire. Pillbox construction eventually ceased in February 1942, when it was decided that an invasion was no longer likely.
In addition to pillboxes and with a shortage of British tanks and anti-tank weapons in the early part of the Second World War, measures were put in place to stop any advancing enemy tanks by building concrete anti-tank blocks. These were constructed in a line usually along the coast or rivers, examples of which can still be seen at Aberthaw or Pont ar Daf in the Brecon Beacons today. They were usually accompanied by one or more pillboxes. Even sections of railway lines were dug into the ground to stop vehicles.
Today these structures stand as a permanent memorial to the courage of Britain’s fight against Nazi Germany in those dark early months of the Second World War.