Pillboxes and Lyon Lights around the coast of Hong Kong island | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Pillboxes and Lyon Lights around the coast of Hong Kong island

The following post is courtesy of Rob Weir. He describes the pillboxes the British built around Hong Kong's coastline in the lead-up to the Japanese invasion. Over to Rob:

Pillboxes around the coast of Hong Kong island

Pillboxes (PB’s) were built on all beaches around HK Island considered suitable as landing sites for water borne attackers, as well as the waterfront areas along the northern coast in built-up areas [1].

[Each red marker shows one pillbox. Click any marker to see its name. Click the name for more details, and to see if we have any photos of that pillbox.

Subscribers - if you can't see the map, please click here to view the web version of this page.]

The map shows an obvious exception to the waterfront location: PB 45, built overlooking the valley behind Quarry Bay.

Originally, 72 pillboxes were planned, but as a result of exercises this was increased by at least a further six, and a photo exists of another one previously unknown [2].

Built to house the Vickers machine gun, they were considered bullet- and splinter-proof. Walls and roof were 12 inches (30.5 cm) thick, reinforced concrete. Each pillbox had between two and four firing loopholes, covered with outward-opening steel doors. Soldiers entered via an outward-opening, lockable steel door.

Pillbox 030, Turtle Cove

Pillbox 30 at Turtle Cove, viewed from the sea side. We can see two firing loopholes with their steel doors, and the round Commander's Turret on top.

Stanley Pillbox

Close-up of a loophole and its outward-opening steel doors on Pillbox 29.

A Commander’s Turret protruded from the roof, accessed by a steel ladder inside the PB. This allowed him external visibility through an open slot, which could be closed by a sliding steel shutter. Ventilation within the PB was through a vertical airshaft on the outside rear wall and external airducts on the roof, to preformed holes through the roof. Construction of a two loophole PB was costed at £260.

Pillbox 022

The view of the Commander's Turret of Pillbox 22 from below.

Pillbox 017, remains of sliding metal shields in tower

The remains of the sliding steel shutter in
the Commander's Turret of Pillbox 17.

A PB crew consisted of a commander and six men for a two-gun PB, increasing by two per additional gun fitted. Fold-away canvas stretchers were used during rest periods. Two of the PB crew were designated to operate the associated, adjacent, Lyon Light (LL). This was controlled by the PB Commander through voice via a speaking tube connecting the PB and LL, or predetemined whistle signals.

PB 21

Remains of a couple of the fold-away stretchers on the walls of Pillbox 21.

Construction of these PB’s did not commence until after the revised Defence Plan of 1938 aimed to fully defend HK Island only. Initially, only those on the West, South and East coasts were constructed, due to difficulty in obtaining suitable land in the built-up area along the North coast.

As the probability of war increased in 1941, PB’s were built in the missing areas, but these were of a slightly different design, characterised by individual air vents on the roof, and vertical “steps” in the sides of the loopholes. These “steps” were a result of experience gained in the war in Europe, where it was found that smooth sided loopholes, as previously used in HK designs, deflected bullets and shrapnel into the loophole openings.

Attempts were made to camouflage the PB’s on beaches, using stones and rocks attached to the exterior faces, and at least one is known to have been painted to resemble adjacent beach huts. PB’s and LL’s were surrounded by fences and barbed wire entanglements.

PB crews were considered expendable. "INSTRUCTIONS FOR CLOSE DEFENCE OF BEACHES HONG KONG" states, in part:

There will be no withdrawing from M.G. Pillbox. By remaining in action even if completely surrounded a delay will be imposed on the enemy during which it may be possible to launch a counter attack and drive them back into the sea.

Lyon Lights

The Lyon Light was a small (20" diameter) carbon light projector (searchlight) used to illuminate the area of water in front of the defences. The light had a maximum range of 1,000 yards under favourable atmospheric conditions, reducing in poor conditions, for example, mist. It had its own self-contained generating set, powered by a Briggs and Stratton petrol engine, producing 12V power for the light. 

The lights formed an important part of the beach defence. They generally had their own small concrete shelter, positioned to the side and behind the PB, so as not to blind the PB crew. A path connecting the two often had a protective wall on the sea side. (This can still be seen at PB/LL 30).

The shelter contained the light, mounted on a concrete shelf, behind steel shutters which opened out and down when the light was being used. The engine was mounted on other concrete shelves at the back, with holes through the wall for its air intake and exhaust, and there were two stretcher beds which folded up against the wall. An airshaft and duct on the roof formed a ventilation system through an outlet above the light. Construction cost of a concrete shelter was £60.

LL 016

Lyon Light 16 can be seen on along the coastal path between
Deep Water Bay and Repulse Bay.

Pillbox 004

The view inside Lyon Light 4, showing the steel shutters that would fold out and down when the light was in use.

The LL was manned by two personnel from the PB crew. Communication between the PB and LL Shelter was by a speaking tube connecting the two.  Colour coded arcs were painted around the shutter opening, corresponding with the same colours in front of the PB loopholes. This ensured that, through a series of whistle blasts initiated by the PB Commander, the light would be pointing in the same direction as the guns.

In some flat areas it was not possible to get the light to a higher position, other than by building the shelter on top of the Pillbox. There are several known positions where this was done, and probably others, but the only remaining example is PB 33a. Along the built-up area of Central, space precluded the construction of separate shelters, and lights were installed in adjacent buildings.

Several LL Shelters have been identified on post war aerial photographs on the mainland, but no sites or remains have been found. No written records appear to exist.

The lights were considered such an important part of beach defence at night that written instructions at the time bore the ominous note that, once the light had been exposed (illuminated), it should remain illuminated until the landing was defeated or the light was destroyed.

Beach Defence Units

The "Infantry Beach Defence Unit" was the official title of the combination of a Beach Pillbox, and its associated Lyon Light.

Depending on the length of the beach, there may be more than one unit (e.g. Repulse Bay beach had three, 17,18 and 19). Each unit was surrounded by barbed wire.


  1. The reference for the PB positions is the HK Interim Defence Plan. A copy can be viewed at the UK National Archive, their reference WO 106/2379.
    It was produced after the 1938 decision to attempt to defend only HK Island. It has some hand-written amendments dating up to Nov 1941, so presumably it was sort of current. It doesn't, however, have any details of Mainland defence using the extra forces created by the Canadians, and also misses out on positions of 'fill-in' PB's e.g. 51a.
  2. Pillbox ???: http://gwulo.com/node/2110


  • Because the LL and PB were so close, in many cases the same coordinates have been used for both.
  • This is best information available I have at present (2014). Further information or corrections will be appreciated.

Thanks to Rob for sharing the results of many hours of research and field trips. If you can add any photos or information about Hong Kong's pillboxes, please get in touch.

Elsewhere on Gwulo.com this week:



1940s Coastal Pillbox. Location Unknown. More information on pillboxes can be viewed here

1940s Coastal Pillbox

Philip's blog has a good write-up about the coastal pillboxes and their lyon lights. My favourite line is:

The PBs had stores of kettles, spades, maps, prismatic compasses, binoculars, sandbags and other equipment.

The British soldier was powered by tea, so it's good to see kettles listed!

1940 British Pathe Film of the Defence of Hong Kong. See here


Hi David,

I note your comment on the stores kept inside a PB. This newspaper clipping reveals that the stores were targeted by thieves, who in turn were targeted by soldiers - literally!

China Mail 10th March 1941.jpg
China Mail 10th March 1941.jpg, by China Mail 

Hi Moddsey,

Thanks for the video link. I'm wondering if the footage at 0:31 - 0:33 shows PB and LL 14 at Deep Water Bay? The video is a bit blurred but I think it shows a LL shelter a short distance above, behind and to the left of the PB - same as at Deep Water Bay. Both the video and at PB 14 have a flat area infront of the PB with the land rising steeply to the rear and left. Most intriguingly, the video shows a dark, narrow, vertical slit on the left of the PB's front wall, which is very similar to the entrance to the narrow passage at PB 14 - a feature unique to PB 14 amongst the surviving PB's as far as I am aware.

On the negative side, the loops of the PB in the video appear to have small protruding frames above them, and the far end of the PB's front wall appears not to be flush with the remainder of the front wall, neither of which are present at PB 14 today.

The video footage at 0:41 - 0:44 is of the minefield and boom across the Tathong Channel with Cape Collinson Lighthouse on the left and Joss House Bay on the right.  

Hi gw, had the same thoughts about the location being Deep Water Bay. To film the pillbox, I would assume it would be a location that would be easily accessible. Thanks. 

Thank you for the Gaumont British News footage of the pill box and Lyon Light shelter.  On the whole I agree with gw and Moddsey about the likely location being PB14.  However, I have two comments.  The soldiers climbing from the pill box up to the Lyon Light shelter are going round to the left and not taking the flight of steps that appears on a slightly later image and was/still is immeditely on the left of the pill box.  Another image on Gwulo clearly shows soldiers climbing those steps. This could easily be explained if the steps were built at a slightly later date to the shooting of the Pathe newsreel. My second thought is that at 37secs it would seem that there is no steep hillside behind the pillbox as shown on the earlier footage.  My recollection and photographs taken in 2006 are also of a high, steep and rocky hillside - allbeit showing lots of landslip on and around the pill box.

I was interested to see the footage from 41sec showing the Cape Collinson lighthouse - an alnost identical view well remembered from my time in 1957/8. 

Cape Collinson Lighthouse ex Cave Window
Cape Collinson Lighthouse ex Cave Window, by Andrew Suddaby

However, the newsreel footage was almost certainly taken from the Cape Collinson Road a several hundred yards further to the East of its junction with the old Little Sai Wan camp road (Leaping Dragon Trail).  Two things stem from that.  If the camp road had been there in 1940, a closer and better view would have been had from the spot on that road where my photograph taken the 'cave' window overlooked the sea.  So, in 1940 the camp road had not been built, and PB37 and its Lyon Light must have been serviced from the sea as I have recently speculated.  Secondly I was intrigued to see that the Eastern boom defence was placed at such a wide part of the Eastern approaches.  I had always thought that it must have been at the much narrower Lei Yue Mun, but this location ties in with the proxinity of the Cape Collinson battery.

I'll shortly add some photographs taken in 2006 into and around PB14 in my 2000 gallery.  Cheers, Andrew

I hate fuzzy old pictures which promise so much, but only succeed in adding the identification difficulties. The video showing the beach PB looks similar to PB 14, but with enough differences to make me cautious about it, particularly the background and around the LL Shelter. The second I doubt is a PB as such, the loophole cover apparently opens downward onto the supports below, and this has not been seen on any other PB on the Island or Mainland. The PB that is firing is certainly not the first one shown - nor the second. The void shown on the right side of PB 14 is not unique, however its purpose is unknown. It goes along the side and back walls, but does not give access into the PB.

The film was obviously a PR exercise, whereby a number of troops were dragged around different places and told to do this or that, with the usual licences being taken. For example, why should a large number of troops, possibly six including one lugging a machine gun on his shoulder, be going to a LL Shelter whose crew was only two and had no room or mountings for a machine gun.

The pillbox in the video at 35s looks remarkably similar to the one at Pom fu Lam reservoir (but I'd 

07C79FCB-6814-4FD9-860A-BD653C88E38A.jpeg, by MalcolmM

guess it's a pretty standard design)

B&wpillbox.png, by MalcolmM