May 2014: Pillboxes – Surrey’s WWII Defences – Chris Shepheard

In the Surrey Hills we frequently come upon the remains of pill-boxes. Chris Shepheard, who is the Director of the Rural Life Centre at Tilford, told us their story. When Britain faced invasion in May 1940, the appropriately named General Lord Ironside was put in charge of the nation’s defences. Woefully short of trained manpower and equipment, he created defences along the south and east coasts with a series of defence lines behind them. One of the most important ran through Surrey along the North Downs. Pill-boxes were a key feature of the defence system and were completed in just two months, a remarkable achievement.

The pill-boxes fortunately never came to be tested. After the war farmers were given £5 to demolish the pill-boxes, but most simply pocketed the money. It is believed that about 28,000 pill-boxes were built and that some 6,000 remain today; many are in Surrey. In 1985 Henry Wills did a study of UK Defences and it was recognised the pill-boxes were important historical relics. They were deteriorating and local surveys were carried out to help decide which should be conserved. Today quite a few have new uses – as cattle sheds, storage buildings; bus stops and bat sanctuaries – and a number are protected.