Dad's army of volunteers called to serve in pillbox campaign: Oliver Gillie reports on a race to map Second World War defences before irreplaceable local knowledge is lost

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The Independent Online
A DAD'S ARMY is being recruited to find lost Second World War defences and record them for posterity. Old pillboxes, temporary airfields and harbours, prison camps and top-secret decoy defences in Britain are going to be mapped before the people who were on active service at these locations die and irreplaceable local knowledge is lost.

No central records were kept of Britain's defences in the Second World War, partly for security reasons and partly because the defences were built in a hurry. Between July and September 1940, some 18,000 pillboxes were built in Britain - the Pillbox Study Group, which has been gathering information on defences for a number of years, has found only 6,000 so far.

The pioneering work of the pillbox scholars has been recognised by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, the Council for British Archaeology and English Heritage. These official bodies are keen to extend the work on Second World War defences and have funded two jobs for organisers who will increase the number of volunteers and collate findings.

Richard Morris, director of the Council for British Archaeology, said: 'In a few years, the people who know how these defences were used will be dead - so it is now or never.'

John Hellis, co-ordinator of the Pillbox Study Group, was born in 1945 when the war was all but over, and as a young man he became fascinated by delapidated wartime defences. He found the lines of pillboxes along the Taunton and Bridgwater canal and wanted to learn their story.

'I tried to find out about them at the local library but there was nothing there,' said Mr Hellis, now a gunmaker in Taunton. 'I began talking to people who were in the forces and gradually built up a picture of how they were used. It became an obsession. Now we want to recruit a dad's army of volunteers who will talk to men and women who were on active service. They are the people who know where the old defences are. We also need volunteers to walk the countryside, find the old defences and report back.'

Some of the main defensive lines, such as the pillboxes along the Kennet and Avon canal or the Coquet line in Northumberland, are well known. But many installations, particularly decoys, were top secret. 'Decoy towns were set up to confuse German pilots. There were also decoy harbours and airfields. These are known about in general but there is little detailed information about exactly where they were and what they consisted of,' Mr Hellis said.

Perhaps the greatest prize will be finding long-forgotten command bunkers and secret hideouts, which were built for specially trained auxiliaries whose job was to fight behind the lines of an invading force. They used the Home Guard as a cover but their training was rigorous.

'We know that the country was split up into regions, each with its own underground command structure which would become active if we were invaded,' Mr Hellis went on. 'The men were highly trained in sabotage and use of explosives. The entrances to their hideouts were cleverly concealed, often among trees. One, which was inspected by Montgomery, was entered through a sliding door in the bottom of a feed trough on a farm. We know that these hideouts existed in North Wales, Somerset, Northumberland and Kent but we don't know exactly where.'

While spurred on by the possibility of finding such secret hideouts, the work of the Pillbox Study Group, published in its journal Loopholes, is meticulous and academic in style. One of its members, Mike Osborne, is working on a 'pillbox typology'. He has identified about 20 variants of type 28 and 28A pillboxes which were designed to accommodate two-pounder anti-tank guns or six-pounder Hotchkiss QF guns.

English Heritage has already had requests to list some Second World War defences as historic buildings but is awaiting the result of further studies before deciding how it should be done. Jeremy Lake, a listings officer at English Heritage, said: 'We need to establish the importance of various sites and will probably consider registering representative defence lines in suitable places.'

(Photograph omitted)

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