It’s difficult now, perhaps, to appreciate the deeply perilous position Britain found itself in May 1940. While the evacuation of 338000 troops, both British and French, was something of a miracle, much equipment had been left behind on the beaches. An attempted invasion by German forces was considered to be likely, a mere matter of time. Churchill’s defiant calls of resistance were not empty words, however, since in a short time, Britain undertook to build an extraordinary amount of civil defence infrastructure - including pillboxes.
These stout concrete and brick defence posts had first appeared during World War 1 and are thought to have been named after the cylindrical and hexagonal boxes from which chemists dispensed pills. The etymology is confused however, and it remains a possibility that were so named after pillar boxes, the letter slot bearing a considerable resemblance to the loopholes of a pillbox. They were built at strategically important locations, often on the coast, on rivers, canals and along major roads - anywhere it was thought German forces might land or use for transport purposes. Some 26000 were built during the War, though now around 6500 remain, scattered about the country, hidden away in fields, in hedgerows, amongst cliff faces. In north east Wales, the majority of pillboxes were built, fairly predictably on the Flintshire coast between the Point of Ayr and Chester, protecting the Vickers-Armstrong factory at Broughton (now Airbus) and RAF Sealand, as well as the Dee estuary. However, certain other important areas in north east Wales were heavily fortified with a mixture of pillboxes, observation posts and air defence positions, including RAF Wrexham, at Borras and the nearby Ordnance Factory, which of course is now Wrexham Industrial Estate.
The pillbox at Oernant Uchaf, overlooking the Horseshoe Pass was part of the Western Command, Clywdian Range Stop Line, which ran from Mostyn along the north coast of Flintshire to Gronant before running south along the western line of the Clywdians to Dyserth, Rhuallt and Bodari, before moving south east to Llandegla and the Horseshoe Pass. Remaining pillboxes on this Line are rare, with the only examples, other than at the Horseshoe Pass to be found at Mostyn and nearby Llandegla.
The Oernant Uchaf pillbox was obviously built to defend the route through the valley and indeed, the valley itself, owning sweeping, commanding views of the surrounding landscape from the embrasures. It is a view that today is one of real beauty, but it’s worth remembering that it was built with a fear that the view could well have been very much different. It is a Type 24 (FW3/24) pillbox, built some time between 1940 and 1941, constructed either by military engineers or, possibly more likely, civilian contractors to a standard hexagonal design. Though the five embrasures are small, the walls are thick. The military personnel inside would have probably been armed with a mixture of rifles and light machine guns.
By 1944 it was clear that the Germans were not going to be in a position to invade these Islands and pillboxes were already being decommissioned and reused, sometimes even removed. It is quite something to come across one of these little fortifications, perhaps quite by accident, a stark reminder of a time when Britain was in perhaps its darkest time.