Back Brisley Common, Norfolk

This pillbox is a Type 22 (a regular hexagon with embrasures on five sides and an entrance on the sixth) and is typical of what was known as a ‘bullet proof’ type with an internal ricochet wall. The occupants would have been infantrymen. The pillbox has lost its original brick shuttering, but this does reveal some of the details of construction. The poor quality of the concrete is readily apparent, which in all likelihood reflects the haste with which it was built during the invasion crisis of 1940. The brick base can clearly be seen, as can the first stage of concreting, which was up to the level of the embrasures. The ‘second lift’ can also be seen, which was up to the level immediately below the roof.

Brisley Common is a good example of a ‘random pillbox’: a Second World War fortification situated in the middle of the rural countryside with seemingly no obvious purpose. In many respects this is typical as it is not uncommon to find wartime archaeology in places that, at first sight, seem unconnected with the conflict.

The Brisley pillbox  owes its existence to the Corps A Stop Line, a fortified line that ran diagonally across East Anglia from Burnham Market on the north Norfolk Coast, to Beccles on the Norfolk-Suffolk Border , from where it became part of the ‘Back Line’ and ran south through Suffolk into Essex. Although much of this line comprised a demolition belt, where bridges were to be blown up in the event of invasion, in places additional fortifications were constructed.

In the case of Brisley, the existence of the pillbox owes its existence to the nature of the immediate landscape, which is somewhat unusual as the village common is unenclosed; that is, it remains a wide, open space. Most commons in Norfolk were enclosed and converted into fields two centuries ago, but Brisley is a good example of a common that resembles its original medieval appearance.

The road that runs across the common was once a major route that connected the medieval ecclesiastical site of North Elmham with King’s Lynn and it remains an important road today. Perhaps more importantly, however, the large flat expanse of common marked it out as a site suitable for the landing of gliders, or probably more importantly, a place that could be used as a grassy airstrip. In 1940-1, it was well-known that the Germans would use glider-borne and parachute troops as part of any invasion and, while it was impossible to stop gliders (due to their short landing run), troop-carrying planes could be stopped.

As Brisley is so far inland, the idea of a glider landing was remote, but the common was an obvious place where a German transport plan such as the Junkers 52 could be landed. The pillbox was probably intended as a place to cover as much of the area as possible with defensive fire and from its location could cover both the road and the common on either side. As with most pillboxes along Stop Lines, this example would have been manned by the local Home Guard. If tradition is to be believed, the existence of the nearby pub was also deemed to be useful.

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