The Secret Tunnels of South Heighton
Hillside Pillboxes, North. Before & After 2000.
These pictures show the access to Pillbox 3 as found in 1994, and again in 2006.
I entered this pillbox in 1946 by ascending three wooden stairways to this point, then climbing the 9 ft (3 M) vertical wooden ladder visible in the first picture. By 1994 that ladder had seriously decayed, doubtless aided by the builders disposing much of the hardcore following the destruction of the pillbox c.1972. The 2006 photograph reveals that a considerable accumulation of top soil has entered the pillbox access shaft. In wet weather water runs freely down this incline and into the tunnel giving cause for concern regarding the integrity of the ground above. The 35-degree gradient is difficult to appreciate until you consider the last RSJ is actually vertical.
Two interior views of Pillbox 3, typical of the other three.
The left hand picture, taken through the embrasure opposite to the one in the picture shows a quarter of the interior, the other three quarters being identical. Each pillbox had four fields of fire, and each embrasure was fitted with a Vickers machine gun mount. The four pillboxes were initially manned by the Home Guard who kept their weapons and ammunition in the former St. Martin's church that served as a village hall. Every night they met at the church hall, collected their Vickers machine guns and ammunition, walked down The Hollow, and entered the tunnel by the western entrance. They then proceeded along the west adit as far as the west airlock, and turned left and right respectively towards their appointed pillboxes. They then climbed at least two flights of stairs to arrive at the bottom of the nine-rung vertical ladder that they next had to climb with all their gear. Once inside the pillbox they closed the trap door in the floor and spent the night on duty, reversing the procedure in the morning before they returned to their homes and daytime occupations. In the summer the pillboxes were cold and draughty; in the winter they were much worse. No form of lighting or smoking was allowed in the pillboxes.
The graffiti on the wall lists the names of the post-war visitors (mainly juveniles) who sought to record their visit. One name in particular earned its author an ear-bending some thirty years after I took this picture. This person had been sternly lectured by his father (who was an ex-Home Guard who served in these pillboxes) never to go into the tunnel because of the inherent dangers and risks involved. When shown this picture in all innocence, my interviewee burst into a string of expletives after he noticed his son's name clearly plastered all over the wall in his own hand-writing! His remarks are best left imagined than recorded.
The right hand picture shows the (27" x 29" or 686mm x 737mm) pillbox access shaft in the floor. The black bar is a length of electrical conduit fixed across the tops of the ladder styles as a grab-rail to hold whilst hauling equipment in or out of the pillbox. This wooden trap door had long been liberated before the picture was taken.
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These pictures show the access to Pillbox 4 as found in 1994, and again in 2006.
I entered this pillbox in 1946 by ascending two wooden stairways to this point, then climbing the 9 ft (3 M) vertical wooden ladder visible in the first picture. By 1994 that ladder had seriously decayed, doubtless aided by the builders disposing much of the hardcore following the destruction of the pillbox c.1972. Subsequent deterioration of the ladder has released some of the rubble, but a considerable amount remains perilously poised rendering further assessment far too dangerous. The prospect of out-running several hundredweights of concrete cascading down a 35-degree incline is best left to Indiana Jones movies! The 35-degree gradient is difficult to appreciate until you consider the last RSJ is actually vertical. A disturbing fact though, is the evidence of topsoil now entering through the access shaft. Is some unsuspecting soul about to lose his/her garden - or even worse? When that ladder gives way it will leave the surface above (27" x 29" or 686mm x 737mm) totally unsupported and liable to immediate catastrophic collapse with possibly serious consequences. Disturbing thoughts for those who believe the tunnel poses no threats!
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These pillboxes were built in 1941 beneath a swathe of camouflage to avoid detection by enemy aerial reconnaissance. All materials used were transported back and forth on a miner's tramway laid on the public footpath so that tell-tale vehicle tracks would not be impressed upon the grass. These 'trams' were a source of delight to the youngsters in the village. Before the soldiers went off-site for the day they would leave the 'trams' at the top of the hill in front of South View Terrace - but they were seldom there next morning. Somehow they had become de-railed at the end of the track near pillbox 1 where they'd overshot a turntable! (Today, the carriageway outside 34 Glynde Close).
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Twenty years weathering reveals the secrets of the unique HMS Forward pillboxes; and the footpath down which the tram track ran. The hillside was not cultivated in the 1940s, nor were there any buildings or huts seen here on the skyline.
In 1964 when I learned that the hillside was going to be developed, I took pictures of these pillboxes as a reminder of those bygone days. The tunnel had been a feature of my early life and I wanted some mementos. The film was developed, but it was not printed until I decided to research the tunnel 28 years later! I now realise that these hillside pillboxes and the observation post (a.k.a. the hen-house) are unique, and my pictures contain the only tangible evidence of their appearance/construction.
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All illustrations and text on this site are © 1941-2021 Geoffrey Ellis, or The Friends of HMS Forward, or Nick Catford.