Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Defence of Britain 1940: The Felsham Pillbox

Felsham pillbox on the Brettenham Road

If you travel from Felsham’s Lower Green towards Brettenham you can hardly fail to see the grey “concrete monstrosity” that is the remnant of the World War 2 pillbox. It squats by the side of the road covered with brambles about midway between the Old Rectory and Valley Farm. 

Its exact position can be seen on this map:

The pillbox may not be the most pretty of ruins but it was built at the beginning of World War 2 for a very important reason.  In 1940 a network of defences was hastily built all over Britain to prevent an anticipated German invasion that fortunately never came.  Pillboxes were an intrinsic part of this network.  They were low concrete defensive structures, usually sited at road junctions, alongside canals, railway embankments, rivers, shorelines and at other strategic places such as airfields and radar stations.

View of pillbox entrance from the west
Most pillboxes were built to provide protection for the infantry and anti-tank weapons that covered a series of static defences.  These were organised as a series of anti-tank “stop lines” running inland from the coast.

The pattern of “stop lines” and reinforcement roads in Suffolk can be seen on this map:

To the west of Felsham, line C ran from Lavenham, through Cockfield and onto Bury St Edmunds following the path of the now defunct railway line.  To the east, line D ran from Ipswich to Stowmarket and Haughley roughly following the River Gipping and the railway line to Norwich.

Felsham was not on a “stop line” so its function may have been to do with the nearby airfield about 1 km away on the south-east boundary of the parish.  It would also have been connected to the anti-aircraft battery and searchlight emplacements that were positioned in the adjacent field.

B-17 on bombing run from Rattlesden airfield

Mike Osborne in "20th century defences of Britain: Suffolk" points out that in July 1940 instructions were issued

"to construct a concrete or brick pillbox on every searchlight site which would then, in the event of  either an airborne landing or a full-fledged invasion, become a resistance strong-point to be held under the orders of the local Field Force commander." [p. 73]

The design of the pillbox is of interest.  The “Defence of Britain database” {Council for British Archaeology} provides a rudimentary archaeological summary from a field visit in 1997:

“Standard type 23 pillbox but with blast wall in front of entrance, which faces WSW. Brick ricochet wall. A central concrete pillar in the unroofed section has been broken off and is lying on the floor. The embrasures are at different levels in the unroofed and roofed sections. There are steps down at the inner and outer entrances.”  []

View of entrance from inside pillbox
The following diagram shows that the Felsham pillbox has a rectangular plan featuring a roofed fighting compartment with an internal anti-ricochet wall and an open topped anti-aircraft compartment coloured grey.
Plan of Felsham pillbox

Notice the loopholes on the outer facing walls which were designed to be suitable for rifle or light machine guns.  The walls are 8 feet [2.4 m] wide by 16 feet [4.9 m] long and were built to a bullet proof standard of 30 cm thick.  The open half of the pillbox was designed to hold a light anti-aircraft defence such as a Bren or Lewis gun on a post mounting.

Photo of gun mount from Sudbury pillbox
This type of pillbox was designed to hold a complement of up to four men in a temporarily manned defensive position.  There was no provision for longer term living accommodation.

Open end of pillbox
The pillbox may have been surrounded with support defences comprising barbed wire, trenches or other earthworks.  It would almost certainly have been camouflaged in some way probably with netting to break the outline of the bunker from above, while hedging and brambles, as now, would have provided authentic cover at road level.

View looking east towards road through an aperture
The Felsham pillbox is of a Type 23 design. This makes it fairly significant as only 156 (equating to 2.6%) Type 23 pillboxes are known from the remaining national total of approximately 6,000. This equates to only 2.6% of the national total making the Type 23 a fairly uncommon pillbox design.

View of pillbox from the south

Interestingly, some villages have converted their pillboxes to make roosts for bats.  Pillboxes that are well dug-in and thick walled are naturally damp and provide a stable thermal environment that is required by bats that would otherwise hibernate in caves.  With a few minor modifications, the Felsham pillbox could easily be converted into an artificial cave for bats.  Unfortunately, its proximity to the road makes success in attracting bats unlikely.

How to convert a pillbox into a bat hibernaculum

Further information about places in Suffolk that have tried out creating a hibernaculum or summer roost can be found at:

Further information about pillboxes can be found at:

Information about Rattlesden airfield can be found at:

[Please note: the Felsham pillbox is situated on private property]


Useful background book by William Foot: ‘Beaches, Fields, Streets, and Hills’


"After the defeat at Dunkirk at the end of May 1940, Britain was faced with the imminent

prospect of invasion. To counter the threat of a ground war fought across her own territory,

defences were hastily erected on the coast and then inland, the latter involving a complicated

pattern of linear (stop line) defence and of area defence based on important communication

points (nodal points). The prime purpose of these inland defence systems was to serve as

anti-tank obstacles preventing German armoured columns ‘cutting loose’ in Britain as they

had done in France. The linear defences, formed of natural barriers such as rivers but

supplemented by miles of machine-cut anti-tank ditches and rows of concrete obstacles,

were protected at their crossing points of roads and railways by hardened weapon

emplacements (concrete pillboxes and anti-tank gun emplacements). The landscapes that

were defended in this way lay throughout Britain – at beach fronts, in marshland, on uplands

and moorland, within cornfields and woodland, in valleys and on hillsides."

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