What is a Pillbox?

The legacy of the Second World War in Malta varies from damaged limestone walls to national holidays partly dedicated to its memory. There are also ample relics: posters, helmets, small-arms, uniforms, and much more. The architectural heritage of the conflict, apart from air-raid shelters, is less known. 

In the late 1930s and early 40s the British military built hundreds of defensive positions across the island. Unlike the large military structures of the Victorian era such as Fort Bingemma and the Victoria Lines, 20th century military architecture had to address the aerial threat of bombers. Thus, defences were built to prevent detection from above, and inherently prevent unnecessary damage.

A unique example is Fort Campbell, with its dispersed layout and perimeter wall. Unlike a Victorian Fort, this then-modern fortification was in fact a series of positions connected together as a system, rather than one whole structure. It is precisely in this sense that the British also built defensive positions around Malta, dotting the coastlines, valleys, and airfields. The new defence was a collection of small, individual concrete positions, interlinked and overlapping. 



These positions were known, informally, as ‘pillboxes’. There are multiple etymological theories on the origin of the name. One of the stronger theories is that it originates in the term ‘pillar boxes’: the British term for their pillar-shaped post-boxes in use since the mid 19th century. The pillbox does in fact translate into a position with loopholes or ‘slits’ from which small arms and machine gun fire could be effected. 


Maltese pillboxes were largely built using concrete, sometimes also utilising local stone and rubble. One can also find a variety of building designs but also certain types that are easily distinguishable, each with their own historical period of construction or purpose. Namely, different designs catered for different strategic requirements such as defending a stretch of coastline or denying access to the entrance of a valley. 

Pillboxes were built to house infantrymen which, using small arms and machine guns, could defend against enemy infantry from the protection offered by such a position. The operation of the machine gun was an integral part of its design, and was in fact constructed largely to accommodate the efficient and effective fire of machine guns such as the Vickers MG. Early examples reached this aim by constructing a semi-circular machine gun table with which gun teams could traverse left to right. Later, early war examples utilised local technological innovations to house the machine gun on pivot mountings, reducing the size of pillboxes and lowering the costs involved in building them. 

One finds ample estimates on the real number of pillboxes built in Malta. The truth is, although there are several primary sources which point towards a definitive number, one cannot be sure. Battlefront Malta has documented over 200 individual sites which can be classified as pillboxes. That is, enclosed structures built to house one or multiple machine guns as well as small arms. A range of similar but distinct defensive positions exists, including such things as observation posts and position finding stations, not to mention fortified farm houses. The study of Second World War military architecture is far from complete. Less so, the conservation of what is known and extant.