Posted: 18 October 2021 20:00
In 1940 a pillbox was constructed on the roof of Bishopstone Railway Station as part of the anti-invasion defences. In 2020 I had a unique opportunity to gain access and a lot of new information was gleaned as a result!
Situated between Seaford and Newhaven, Bishopstone Station was opened in September 1938, replacing the Bishopstone Halt station a mile to the west at Tide Mills. The new station was to be part of a new housing development that was subsequently abandoned due to the war.
Architect James Robb Scott is said to have been influenced by Charles Holden’s Art Deco Arnos Grove tube station in London with its distinctive circular tower that floods the atrium with natural light (photo).
Bishopstone Station is centered around an octagonal atrium flanked by two rectangular wings that contained toilets, a news stand, telephones, ticket office, cloakroom and a parcel office. The central tower contains a skylight composed of square glass bricks within a concrete grid.
The main building is situated in a cul-de-sac at the end of Station Rise; passing through the booking hall, passengers walk out along a covered metal bridge that provides steps down to the respective platforms on a lower level within a cutting.
Viewed from ground level, it appears that there are actually two pillboxes on the roof, but having been up there, I’m now satisfied that we can record ‘them’ as a single structure.
Bishopstone’s pillbox famously replicates the Art Deco brickwork as camouflage; note how the raised ridges of brickwork are extended around the 1940 structure.
A slight colour difference is evident between the original 1938 brick stock and the 1940 addition:
The pillbox comprises two square fire positions each with two embrasures, one facing inland and one towards the coast. This often confuses the casual observer as, unless you walk around the station and view the pillbox from different angles, you don’t always note the coast-facing loopholes, giving the impression that the pillbox only faces inland. This is understandable if you only view the façade. The graphic below shows the embrasures. Note the numbers (1-4) I've assigned each one; I'll refer to these in the text below.
The photo below shows embrasures #1 & #2 as seen from the beach.
Having asked Network Rail and been refused permission to access the pillbox (for good reasons as we shall see) many years ago, I decided that the next best thing was to build a 3D model of the entire station building and attempt to reconstruct the pillbox.
The original model proved to be wrong, as certain important details are simply not visible from the ground, or from aerial photography. But as we shall see below, even the wrong model proved to be of enormous assistance further down the line.
The graphics below show the revised model from different aspects:
If you stand at Bishopstone and look up at the pillbox, it's hard to see how it would have made any difference in the event of invasion, even if you realise that it doesn't just cover the ground facing inland. This is understandable if you only base your thinking on what still survives in the landscape; you need to consider all the other features that have been removed since the war.
I was fortunate to have stumbled across mention of the pillbox in my first batch of SWW-period documents at the National Archives (TNA) back in 2006. This included a construction period of August - September 1940 and that a single Vickers Medium Machine Gun (MMG) was allocated to this post.
Knowing the type of weapon the pillbox was designed for is essential for interpreting its positioning and the role it was to play in the wider defence network. Archive research in recent years has demonstrated that the layout of defences was actually far more intricate than has previously been thought. We'll revisit this point in due course.
I've referred to a 'revised' 3D model, so how did I come by the necessary information to update it?
In late 2020, I was approached by a TV production company asking if I knew anything about the Bishopstone Station pillbox. They also mentioned that they had negotiated access to the roof... We reached an agreement and I offered to set up the Vickers gun and be filmed for an episode of Architecture the Railways Built for the Yesterday Channel. This was a golden opportunity not only to get data for the 3D model, but also a tactical view of the pillbox and the landscape it was to defend.
The old 3D model was useful here in anticipating how I could set the gun up. A war diary entry from 1940 mentions the need for temporary gun platforms in the pillbox, so clearly I may not have been able to just set the gun up without complications. I was also lucky in that I had been sent a photograph of the interior of one of the fire positions many years ago. This showed a socket built into the wall beneath the embrasure, which appeared to be for the front leg of the MMG tripod, as seen in other pillboxes built by the same Royal Engineers unit.
I therefore did some trial and error experiments in my garden to see how I might get the gun set up if there were no platforms present. This resulted in two pairs of buckets stacked rim-to-rim with a plank between them to rest the rear legs of the tripod on. This turned out to be time well spent.
Filming went very well; I had the opportunity prior to my piece to camera to get photos of the pillbox and gain a much better understanding of its construction. Sadly, there wasn't enough time to run a tape measure round, but I've managed to estimate dimensions by counting the number of brick courses in the photos.
Below are some photographs of the pillbox. One of the reasons I had been denied access previously was due to the sheer difficulty of getting to the pillbox. The TV company paid for a scaffolding rig up the outside and over the roof. This confirmed that there was currently no roof access from inside the station itself.
It was amazing to get up close to the pillbox after so many years of longful gazing from ground level! This is the western end (embrasures #1 & #2).
The only access from the roof into the pillbox is at the eastern end (embrasure #3):
Stepping inside, the lack of gun platforms was confirmed (embrasure #3):
The big surprise, however, was the presence of a connecting tunnel between the two positions! This was a key omission in the 3D model as it doesn't show up on aerial photographs. The tunnel roof was so low (about 1m high) that you had to crouch-walk to access the western end; I did this so many times that my leg muscles seized up for four days after filming. (Embrasure #4 at right.)
The same socket/embrasure layout was found in the western position:
The planned makeshift gun platform proved to be spot on for lifting the rear legs of the tripod off the floor, allowing a Vickers gun muzzle to traverse the beaches again for the first time since 1940 from embrasure #1.
Something learned during filming was how the pillbox was accessed in 1940; this bricked-up doorway opens into the western position (embrasures #1 & #2):
Down in the booking hall, the outline of the pillbox door is just about visible about 3 metres up. You'd never spot this if you weren't looking for it. I can only presume that access would have been with a ladder, the gun and tripod being hauled up on ropes. I also suspect that this inconvenience lead to the pillbox being abandoned by the army not long after completion.
The 1940 fire plan for the pillbox tells us there were two tasks for the Vickers gun. The first is evident from the photo below from embrasure #1; to cover the beach to the west and along the railway line.
To cover the railway embankment and the low ground behind it, the gun would need to be set up in embrasure #2:
The secondary task was to fire eastwards over the high ground to the south of the station (there were very few houses here in 1940) and along the railway cutting. View from embrasure #3.
To accomplish the secondary task, the gun and ammunition would have to be moved along that low tunnel - and that would have been a nightmare for the crew, especially in the heat of battle. I do wonder why anyone thought a tunnel would be a good idea as it hampers the operational efficiency of the position.
We then have the anomaly of what is said to be the foundation of a long-demolished pillbox down on the beach. I've always wondered whether it really was a pillbox and not some other (later) military structure and it seems to be standing right in the line of fire from the station roof pillbox. The jury's still out on this; although there was a pillbox somewhere in this area acccording to the 1940 plans, the six-figure grid reference given is not accurate enough to pinpoint where it was. In my experience, coastal pillboxes were sited so as to not place them in the line of fire from other positions. In the stress of battle, it would be quite easy for the Vickers gun to sweep the rear of the pillbox, with potentially fatal consequences for its occupants. Sadly, in 2021 this foundation was permanently built over and lost, so we may now never know exactly what it was.
The graphic below shows the estimated arc of fire from embrasure #1 across the beach and minefields as plotted from archive documents. This estimation was derived by traversing the Vickers gun to the maximum limits in the embrasure. It may be that the gunners had instructions to exclude the 'pillbox' and limit their arc of fire. Doing so would still give them more than enough to do in the event of invasion, but I do wonder if these limitations and the inconvenience of accessing the pillbox lead to its abandonment even before the end of 1940. The infantry division that took over the sector does not mention the Bishopstone pillbox in its documents. Additional minefields being laid around this time perhaps indicate a boost for the beach defences to compensate for the Vickers gun being relocated elsewhere.
A lot of new information was gained as a result of just a couple of hours in the pillbox:
We've unravelled some of the mystery surrounding this pillbox. Until now, observation has been conducted from ground level; examining the interior has helped us understand the finer points of the pillbox's design and construction. Add to this the archive documents that not only tell us how the pillbox was to be employed but also assist in reconstructing the intricate defence network that was dismantled after the war and we can build up the context of the pillbox in the 1940 landscape.
The camouflage is brilliant; it appears that the Germans did not spot the pillbox as part of their intelligence-gathering operations. However, we've spent so much time gazing in awe at the Art Deco craftmanship that we allowed ourselves to be distracted away from appreciating exactly why the pillbox was there.
It's also somewhat ironic that Art Deco, a movement blossoming in the interwar period in pursuit of Utopia expressed through art, architecture and design was ultimately employed in 1940 in the dark art of war.
The Bishopstone Station pillbox therefore marks an interesting juncture in architectural style. The Art Deco veneer covers up what is otherwise a bland, utilitarian, Brutalist structure of the style that would come to dominate postwar reconstruction from the 1950's as planners poured concrete to rebuild communities affected by wartime bombing.
Whether you view the pillbox as a style imposter or as a crossover between Art Deco and Brutalism, I don't think you can deny it deserves to be included in the station's Grade II listing!
A loophole or slit that permits observation and/or weapons to be fired through a wall or similar solid construction.
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.
Two designs of obstacle were constructed from scaffolding; Z0 anti-boat and Z1 anti-tank scaffolding. The framework was deemed the best anti-tank obstacle for beaches, providing a tank didn't have a good run up. Erected from about 1941, scaffolding was very labour-intensive and used an enormous amount of steel.
The National Archives (formerly The Public Records Office or PRO).
A record of events kept by all units from the point of mobilisation. A diary's contents vary enormously from unit to unit; some give detailed entries by the hour on a daily basis while others merely summarise events on a weekly/monthly basis.
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Hibbs, Peter Bishopstone reveals its pillbox secrets (2023) Available at: http://pillbox.org.uk/blog/251798/ Accessed: 4 December 2023
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