Building Pillboxes: A Personal Story

During the 1938/39 period I was employed erecting and fitting-out the sectional buildings which comprised the Berechurch and Roman Way Camps at Colchester (no doubt those names will be familiar to some) and when these contracts were nearly complete the contractors, I think it was Mears & Son, were awarded contracts to build pillboxes.

The contract was for the Bradwell peninsula, now famous for the nuclear power plant on the site of the wartime aerodrome, and we travelled from Tiptree (famous for Wilkins Preserves) to the site with the foreman, Harry Egg, in a Swift aluminium-bodied car. What would that be worth today? There was Jack Wadley, myself and another and we left at 6 a.m. for the twenty-five mile drive to the site. This would be late 1939 because I was married on November 4th ’39 and it was about then that we were there. We were still working in the Blackwater/Crouch River area during the early days of the Battle of Britain, too, as we saw quite a few combats.

The sea walls were high, fifteen to twenty feet on the land side and six to eight feet on the seaward side. Some twenty feet from the top of the wall on the land side was a dyke or ditch eight to ten feet wide and three to five feet deep, containing brackish water, quite salty in fact. Also along the foot of the wall was a rough road, about twenty feet wide, along which all the materials and labour had to be transported. The few rough roads and timber bridges across the ditch were hardly suitable for any weight.

The none-too-energetic labour gang came in a battered small bus from the Southend area, I believe. Their driver had been a small-time conjuror and kept us entertained during lunch break.

We were at the mercy of the tides for all seaward work, and the method adopted was for half the seaward side of the wall to be dug out, a half base cast, reinforced and with metal left projecting inwards to tie in with the landward half and also upwards a few inches so that the vertical metal was tied with wire to ensure the whole was one entity when complete.

The labour gang dug out, we shuttered the base edges, it was cast and we continued making up the building shutters. Meanwhile the labour gang started to dig out the next site. Shuttering was rough planks, six inches by one inch, or four inch by two. I know some firms used plywood shuttering but all that I have seen around here were plank shuttered.

Once the inner skin was set in place the reinforcing was linked to the base steel. Concrete spacers kept the correct thickness at the base, and the loophole frames were fixed to the inner shuttering. The roof shuttering was put up, fitting inside the inner walls, otherwise it would be difficult to remove, and the whole strutted and braced; and with an inner blast wall also shuttered space was cramped.

Meanwhile the outer shuttering went up, roof reinforcing was placed and stakes were driven into the sea bed and wall to allow the struts to be set. There was a 4 1/2 cu ft drum mixer and the mixed concrete was barrowed up a planked runway angled up the wall. Not a fast pour: took most of a day, I think. We had continued to make and fix the next set of shuttering and when this was ready to pour we stripped out the now set first one. The sea wall was made good and the inner wall then dug out, a base cast and a set of shuttering made and fixed; and so we leapfrogged along the sites.

I have never been back to the area, so have no idea as to whether any of these pillboxes have survived. I strongly suspect that, after the 1951 floods, if not before, any such breaches in the sea wall would have been removed.

They would have turned out a lozenge shape, being long enough at the base for bath ends to give a field of fire out and along the sea wall. When water ran short the brackish water from the dyke was used, and the finished concrete seemed to have suffered no harm.

One modification that was done was for the original double angle to each side of each loophole had to have the exterior angle cut back in a series of steps, and steel plates bedded in each step, presumably to avoid ricochets.

We were around the area all the Summer of 1940, and then moved nearer to home around Colchester.

At Shrub End, Colchester, an anti-tank ditch had been dug, and along the inner perimeter were a number of standard pillboxes, which we built. The ground there is an orange gravel, with sand and stone below. Hence now the area is popular with all the large firms ruining the countryside with dirty great holes, which then get filled with rubbish, but I digress.

The contract was winding down and we were modifying the loopholes, a labourer to cut back the concrete and I was setting the steel plates with cement and sand waiting for the pay clerk, whom I could see along at the next pillbox. Sirens sounded but we took little notice when, at about six or seven hundred feet came a Dornier 17. I was keen on aircraft and was gazing stupidly when out of the bomb bay came a solid object. Recognition was instant: our pillboxes must have stood out like sore thumbs in the middle of orange gravel. “Inside” I yelled at my mate and beat him to it, just as there was a bang outside and showers of gravel came hurtling through the loopholes. Fortunately on the other side of the blast wall! The plane flew off across Colchester, machine-gunning as it went. The only casualty was a man in an upstairs office, shot in the backside. Hurricanes from Debden shot it down near Earl Soham.

Everyone thought we were hit, but we emerged from the smoke and dust unscathed. This was on October 2nd 1940. I researched old papers in the library whilst sorting war memorials history.

The result of this personal attack was that, when the age limits for workers in the building trade was raised from twenty-one to twenty-five, on January 15th 1941 I was on my bike the same morning and volunteered for aircrew, and was in on the 28th. I was accepted for pilot training and eventually dropped a few bombs myself to get my own back.

By E.S. Hardie

Adapted from an article published in Loopholes No. 8