Posted: 7 December 2008 22:48

It is with regret that I have to report the destruction of the WW2 roof on Martello Tower 55 at Norman's Bay.

I took the photo below from the train a few weeks back; I've spent the intervening time gathering my thoughts on the subject.

Tower 55

Tower 55

Here's how it used to look. The chimney has also been removed; this is a great loss as to my knowledge this was the only surviving example of a complete chimney stack on a South Coast Martello Tower. I have photographs dating back to the early 20th century that show this chimney, and I suspect it was of original 1806 construction.

It's hard to sum up how I feel about all this; I've not yet been able to comprehend why this has been allowed.

Martello Towers are Grade II listed buildings, which means that any work done on them must be sympathetic to the building and agreed by English Heritage.

It should be noted that all the correct procedures for planning permission were followed and that my annoyance is not aimed at those who applied for permission to alter the tower (I don't blame anyone for wanting to breathe life into derelict building and make it habitable), but this disaster lies in the failure of heritage organisations to recognise that World War Two concrete defences are important. I shall return to this point later.

The planning proposal

I've done some research and found the following page on the Rother District Council website (link expired, so removed)that contains various documents associated with the planning application. (They don't always seem to download on the first attempt.)

To quote from the Supporting Information document:

New work has been designed to minimise the effect of alterations on the exuisting (sic) building. The new concrete roof is intended to reinforce the massive character of the building and to reflect he (sic) the defennsive (sic) mid 20th century concrete additions at roof level.

This statement leaves me feeling very sic.

It seems as though the plan was to remove the WW2 concrete roof and replace it with a roof that partially imitates its look??? I cannot think of anything as ludicrous as destroying a feature only to make its replacement look like it. I think this proves that the roof was not removed on account of aesthetics and the attempt to imitate its appearance indicates that somebody attached some sort of value to it. So why was it allowed to be removed? The correct answer is that it shouldn't have been. Tower 61 retains its WW2 roof with its embrasures neatly glazed over; yes the south-facing embrasures are much larger than those of Tower 55, but if the object is to let natural light into the roof area, then my solution is seen in the very rough image below.

The left-hand image shows my impression of how the new roof will look. The better solution (note: I'm not an architect) would have been to have knocked a hole in the top of WW2 roof and placed the new glass roof on top. This way the WW2 embrasures and 1806 chimney would have been saved.

Tower 55

Change happens

I should clarify a few things here. Life goes on; I fully accept that the built environment exists for human occupation, and that building uses inevitably change, including alteration. After all, the WW2 roof is an example of this, and no, it didn't look particularly pretty. However, it was an important part of the tower's history and this is why it should have been preserved.

I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with additional roofing being added to a Martello Tower (or the odd window being knocked through) to convert it to a residence; this new use ensures a derelict tower will receive some care and preservation. However, I strongly object to the unnecessary removal of historic aspects of the tower.

As other local towers still have their WW2 roofs, is it such a disaster that one has gone? To me, this argument would equate to permission being given to demolish Pevensey Castle because Porchester Castle still exists. This is, of course, complete nonsense, but it seems that WW2 defences are fair game, perhaps because they're made of ugly concrete, and they're relatively "new".

The Victorians regarded the Martello Towers as eyesores; they were built within living memory and the subsequent financial controversy was not quickly forgotten. The same Victorians, however, had a love affair with the "noble and historic ruins of Pevensey Castle". If it happened within living memory, it doesn't seem to count as history, despite the encouraging increase in interest in WW2 seen in recent years.

There also seems to be a common myth that there's pillboxes everywhere, so the removal of just one more will not be significant. What does not seem to be widely understood is that 20th century defence works are disappearing and that they are all important.

I accept that the addition of the WW2 roofs on Martello Towers was an example of building reuse; and, indeed, an act of vandalism. Gun carriages were removed and cannon dismounted (one at Eastbourne Redoubt was cut up for scrap) in a wave of neccessary work at a time when the nation was under threat.

I do not, however, accept that more WW2 defence works should be destroyed, as we should know better than to permit the destruction of our past, particularly as precious little still survives.

What can be done? Unfortunately, the planning application for Tower 55 was approved in 2006, not long after my interest in anti-invasion defences really got going. Had I known of it at the time, I would have objected.

However, I'm not convinced that gaining a reputation as an obstructionist nimby or naysayer is the way forward. A major part of what I'm trying to do is to press home the value of each defence work, and I do this through documentary research.

Documentary research stimulates interest and generates value

It's only when you know what something is that it really begins to hold some sort of value; how many 'worthless' ornaments have been rescued from the attic following an episode of The Antiques Roadshow?

At the moment there are too many 'anonymous' pillboxes and other defence works. They are anonymous because nothing much is known about that make them stand out with their own history or perceived value. "If you've seen one, you've seen them all" is a cliche that would be very wrong to apply to anti-invasion defences, as it simply isn't true. Documentary research can help; my South Coast Martello Tower website (removed in 2011) gave as much detail about each individual tower (74 in all) as I could find. I have lost count of the emails I received from people who confessed to thinking that all towers were identical, but being able to read of the different uses, occupants and life history made them realise that each tower is different and special in its own right. So it is with WW2 defences, but the word hasn't got out yet. (One person actually confessed to buying a Martello Tower after seeing its personal history on the site).

Pillbox at Rye Harbour

For example, take this pillbox at Rye Harbour; undoubtedly ugly and seemingly identical to another pillbox about 100m further south. But they have different stories; the southern one was numbered B7/1, while the northern one (pictured) was B7/2. They were completed 11 days apart in August 1940; both originally housed Vickers gun crews whose fields of fire across different beach zones are recorded. B7/1 appears to have fallen into disuse by 1941 and the move to locality defence. B7/2 seems to have become a platoon battle HQ and its locality was bolstered by weapon pits. I could go on; in just one paragraph, two anonymous pillboxes have been biographied, and I'm hoping that whoever knows Rye Harbour will now be thinking "I never knew that about those old pillboxes!" This is the sort of information I have for many, many defence works and features; each one is an individual, with its own story and historical value.

Each defence work is also a piece of a large jigsaw; with each lost piece the puzzle becomes increasingly meaningless and nobody's interested in a jigsaw picture they can't make much sense of. My job is to make sense of the pieces that still survive and to try and give an idea of the pieces that have long since been lost, as organisations like English Heritage still do not seem to appreciate how important WW2 defence works are despite the tremendous achievements of the Defence of Britain Project and the Defence Areas Project.

The purpose of these projects was to identify what remained and 'areas' suitable for scheduled protection, but this noble idea seems to falter when potential areas are being gradually stripped of their history. From the level of records that I have found so far, the stretch of coast around Tower 55 had about 40 defence works on it; I've not yet begun studying this area in great detail, but I fear that only a few remnants of the nearby Emergency Coast Defence Battery remain. Once more than a few pieces have been lost, the jigsaw is thrown out.

An act of vandalism in 1940 lead to Tower 55's roof being concreted over; this was part of the tower's history. In 2008, what I see as another act of vandalism saw the roof and the chimney removed; this part of the tower's history could and should have been prevented.

A dangerous thing (sadly not a precedent) has happened with the loss of Tower 55's roof.

- Pete



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Defence Areas Project

A study based on 67 areas identified from the Defence of Britain Project database as good examples of areas where significant portions the defences still survived, the study of which resulted in William Foot's Beaches, fields, streets and hills.

Defence of Britain Project

A large project run by the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) 1995-2002, collecting data on 20th century military structures submitted by a team of some 600 volunteers. The result was a database of nearly 20,000 records which is available online. The anti-invasion section of the database contains nearly 500 entries for East Sussex.


A loophole or slit that permits observation and/or weapons to be fired through a wall or similar solid construction.

Emergency Coast Defence battery

As the name suggests, a battery established during wartime for coast defence to augment batteries established in peacetime. Emergency batteries established during 1940-41 usually employed a pair of old naval guns, usually either of 6-inch, 5.5-inch or 4-inch calibre.

Martello Tower

Napoleonic gun towers built along the vulnerable coasts of SE England 1805-1812. Most that still stood in 1940 were occupied for military defence, as artillery observation posts or by the Royal Observer Corps. Many towers had a concrete roof added for extra protection.


Generic term for a hardened field defensive structure usually constructed from concrete and/or masonry. Pillboxes were built in numerous types and variants depending on location and role.

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Hibbs, Peter Important Sussex defence work demolished (2024) Available at: Accessed: 19 June 2024

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