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The Pen-y-Stryt Pillbox & Loopholed Wall

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.

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The pillbox at Llandegla was designed, it seems, to defend the route to Wrexham from the west, the Nant-y-Garth Pass. It is a matter of some curiosity that the mediaeval Tomen y Rhodwydd, built some 800 years earlier, was raised to serve much the same purpose. It sits on the River Alyn crossing, much of it concealed by trees and hedgerow - perhaps this was ever the case from its building in 1940. It rests on a massive plinth to elevate it to the level of the A525. In design it is a Mk24 pillbox, almost identical to the Oernant Uchaf Pillbox on the nearby Horseshoe Pass. Both were part of the Clwydian Stop Line, stretching from Mostyn Docks alongside the western side of the Clwydian Range, through Ruthin and terminating at the Horseshoe Pass. Of the many pillboxes that would have defended this line, only those at Mostyn, Llandegla and Llangollen now remain. The purpose of the Clwydian Line was to defend against a German invasion from the west, from neutral Ireland which the British were concerned would be quickly overwhelmed by a German attack, effectively opening a second front against the British Isles.

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Embrasures facing the approaches along the A525 Nant-y-Garth Pass - notice the internal walls to protect against richochets.

The Mk 24 is the most commonly remaining pillbox in the British Isles. Built to an irregular hexagonal plan, the pillbox is entered through the rear wall with embrasures on either side. Further embrasures are to be found on all sides, giving firing solutions in all directions. It was built to be bulletproof at the very least, with some built to be shell proof. Soldiers within would be armed with rifles and light machine-guns with which they would attempt to hold off a German advance. Within the pillbox is a series of walls, designed to defend the inhabitants from ricochets. At the entrance is a rather curious AB incised into the floor, which is probably contemporary to its building in 1940 - who or what is AB remains a mystery.

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The entrance to the pillbox - notice the curious AB inscription on the floor, probably contemporary to the original raising of the building.

But the pillbox is not the only vestige of the defences raised at Pen-y-Stryt. Within the grounds of the Crown Hotel, facing the route down to the Horseshoe Pass is a rare example of a loopholed wall. These curiosities were often requisitioned walls in convenient positions with embrasures built into the face. What was lost in designed protection was made up for by their near perfect camouflage. And the camouflage here is exceptional - the embrasures barely noticeable. One imagines a short sharp engagement here, since it is unlikely an organised attack with heavy weapons would have been withstood for any length of time.

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Near perfect camouflage within this loopholed wall at the Crown Hotel, would enable an ambush of any would-be invaders approaching from the direction of the Horseshoe Pass.

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In this glorious corner of north east Wales, then, remains evidence of a much darker time. Drivers on the A525 are likely to miss this little concrete gem as they whizz past on their way to an exciting elsewhere.

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