West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Seminar 7: Atkin 1
The Archaeology of World War II
Worcestershire Historic Environment and Archaeology Service
From 1995 - 2002, a national project - the Defence of Britain Project - ran to record
the surviving monuments of World War II on the home front, building on a long
tradition of work by special interest groups such as the Fortress Study Group and
individuals (see http://www.britarch.ac.uk/projects/dob/). The spur to the project was
the realisation that time was fast running out to assess priorities for long-term
preservation of monuments that were never expected to last even 60 years.
Nonetheless, they represent the physical inheritance of a critical time in the country’s
history. Future generations may expect to be able to inspect the physical record as
they do with monuments of prehistoric, Roman or medieval periods. Parallel to the
Defence of Britain project, English Heritage commissioned a series of documentary
surveys of monument types.
The Defence of Britain project was conceived as being based around the work of
local, amateur researchers but the national response has been patchy. One factor in its
success was the support provided by local archaeological services. Worcestershire is
acknowledged as one of the success stories, with a dedicated team of volunteers based
in the SMR of the Archaeology Service. Indeed, the efforts of Worcestershire to build
up as complete a record as possible of all known defence sites has somewhat distorted
the national distribution map of the DoB. Since the closure of the national project, the
local team have continued as the ‘Defence of Worcestershire’ project and extended
their remit back into the Napoleonic period. The paper will be mainly illustrated from
Worcestershire examples, but they do fairly represent activity of what exists – but in
an increasingly parlous state – throughout the Midlands.
If the upstanding monuments built of concrete or brick are fragile, already we are
seeing earthworks being absorbed into the archaeological landscape. Shallow
earthworks may represent the firebreak trench for a Q decoy site, designed to confuse
enemy bombers into attacking empty fields rather than airfields or towns. Somewhere
nearby such features will be their control bunker. As a lesson for the unwary, from an
aerial photograph the ploughed out remains of a searchlight battery (such as from
Cradley, Herefordshire) may suggest the presence of prehistoric barrows.
The short paper presented to the seminar focused on anti-invasion but wider coverage
will be provided in the paper that will follow. Suffice to say here that there is a wide
variety of surviving features that illustrate and inform the events of the period, and the
planning of the military and government strategy. Many can only properly be
interpreted with the help of surviving documentary evidence and, crucially, by the
testimony of those who took part. The latter is in itself a diminishing asset. Who
would think that a very ordinary hut at Guarlford, just outside Malvern, once played a
historic part in the war effort. It was from here that a RAF identified the movement of
specialist German units to the Baltic in 1944. As a result the RAF were able to
West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Seminar 7: Atkin 2
identify and bomb the V bomb development site at Peenemunde – putting back the
deployment of the weapon for several months.
I must also make a special mention of airfield sites. They have an importance in their
own right with distinctive layouts and buildings – hangars, air raid shelters, huts,
control towers, battle headquarters (to control defence against parachute or glider
landings). But work at Throckmorton airfield in Worcestershire has also emphasised
their potential in preserving large areas of underlying earlier archaeology.
We can identify a range of features that give a physical, and at times chilling,
expression to Churchill’s famous declaration in 1940 that ‘We shall defend our island
whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in
streets and on the hills’. The surviving documentary evidence provides information on
the military strategy and logistics – but the physical evidence brings home actually
what was intended. The original anti-invasion plan was to hold the beaches. The
next, from June 1940, was for static lines of defence in depth across the country using
‘stop lines’. Although the emphasis was shifted to more mobile defence from August
1940, the development of strong points, based on strategic locations on the stop lines
still continued until August 1942 when the construction of pillboxes was abandoned.
Despite the modern impression of the Home Guard from ‘Dad’s Army’ and all the
inadequacies that the series fairly accurately portrayed, they were intended to be the
cannon fodder whose sacrifice would buy the regular army time to regroup. Most of
the features described below were manned by the Home Guard. Perhaps even more
unsettling is the fact that whole towns were designed to be ‘anti-tank islands’ –
strongpoints to threaten the flank of an enemy but also to act as ‘honeypots’ to draw
them in and allow the regular army to then attack in force. This was to be the fate of
Worcester and Kidderminster.
The main features that we should be seeking to identify and record are:
Loop holed walls
Spigot mortar pedestals
Heavier anti-tank positions
Their context will be to defend
linear stop lines which may incorporate rivers and canals.
Anti-tank defences are rarely in situ. As well as the common cylinders – originally
designed to carry a metal spike and barbed wire entanglements, steel stakes might be
set into sockets let into road surfaces. These can still survive.
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The discrete cutting of a loophole in a property boundary wall, or in the wall of a
building can easily be missed but they do represent an important indicator of how a
strongpoint was intended to be defended, and the broader strategy of defence.
The mountings for spigot mortars are not obvious but still quite common. They were
introduced in 1941 (range of 100m, black powder – Blacker Bombard). The
reinforced concrete central pedestal was originally surrounded by a weapons pit, now
usually back-filled. The stainless steel pintle carried a remarkable mortar that had the
unnerving characteristic of firing in a straight trajectory, which meant that it could
ricochet back towards the weapons crew!!!
Pillboxes are the most obvious survival of anti-invasion features in the landscape.
After the war, farmers were paid £1 to try to demolish them – but most failed. They
were made of concrete, or concrete poured between brick shutters. They fall into a
number of well-defined types of which the following is merely a selection:
Type 24 at Rotherwas munitions factory
Type 22 (heightened) at Wormley rail crossing, Herefordshire
Type 28 Double decker (anti-tank guns) Summerfield Ordnance factory, Worcs.
Open topped at Blackpole aircraft factory, Worcester
Pre-fabricated at Avon stop line, Eckington, worcs.
Oakington type for 360 degree airfield defence at RAF Long Marston
Today we see them usually in a bare form. In use, they would be camouflaged with
netting, paint or sometimes more elaborate disguises.
A larger type of emplacement was the 6lb gun emplacement. This carried a 6lb
hotchkiss gun – originally mounted in 19th-century battleships, then in WWI tanks and
finally given to the Home Guard. This, from Holt, Worcs., is one of the best
surviving in the country.
Features such as the above rarely appear in isolation. Usually they formed part of a
group of defensive features. A survey should therefore be made of the surrounding
landscape. At Bretforton, Worcs., there is what appears to be an unremarkable tin
shed behind the spigot mortar emplacement – but this was the guard hut and
Such features have an intrinsic interest but their main value is in establishing and
illustrating the strategy that would have been deployed during invasion. The two
spigot mortars at Bretforton were designed to cover the road junction and prevent any
break-out from any enemy landing at Honeybourne airfield.
Although many anti-invasion features are designed to protect individual sites
(factories, airfields, etc.), others form part of an organised network of General
Ironsides’ ‘stop lines’. These might be artificial defence lines or based on natural or
pre-existing features (rivers or canals). One stop line was formed by the River Avon.
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A postcard of 1944 got past the censor and shows two Type 26 (square) pillboxes on
Pershore Bridge over the Avon. A combination of field survey and interviews with
surviving Home Guard members has revealed a remarkable concentration of
defensive positions here. The main position – a 6lb gun emplacement was designed
to cover both an attack from east and west, supported by the two pill boxes, spigot
mortars and a trench system. The Shropshire Union canal was also to be employed as
a convenient anti-tank ditch, protected by pillboxes such as this Type 24 (hexagonal).
If the enemy did break through the stoplines, and the fighting moved to defending
isolated pockets of resistance, then the government had one last hand to play.
Military Intelligence had put in place a system of resistance cells – the ‘Auxiliary
units’, nominally part of the Home Guard but better equipped than most regular units
and highly trained. Their task was to harry the rear of German troops, disrupt
communications and engage in sabotage against pre-planned targets (typically
airfields and railways). There was an organised system of operational and signals
units, supported by couriers and intelligence officers. The physical survival of the
system is represented by the remaining ‘hides’ of the operational and signals teams.
These are rare, and now usually derelict and unsafe - but are a high priority for
preservation. The members of these units were told never to reveal their existence and
most have now taken their secrets to the grave. The recovery of the history of these
units in Worcestershire and Herefordshire has been one of the most surprising aspects
of the DoB project – now published as The Mercian Maquis (Logaston 2002). The
work of the authors, Bernard Lowry and Mick Wilks, amply illustrates the importance
of combining oral history, documentary research and archaeological survey.
The known distribution of sites in the Midlands clearly indicates that the first priority
has to be a greater degree of systematic recording. Without this it is difficult to make
informed judgements about priorities for preservation and the scope for additional
research/presentation. The work in Worcestershire may provide a model for this work
to be achieved through volunteers attached to SMRs/HERs.
Archaeological recording of such sites has largely been confined to basic survey. A
detailed programme of survey of pillboxes is now underway in Worcestershire. This
has revealed local variations, with just three pre-cast concrete examples now
surviving in the country. Details of construction have identified some as having been
made by Dorset labourers. The most complete excavation of a WWII site in
Worcestershire has been of a Bofors anti-aircraft gun site in Brockhill, Redditch
(BUFAU 1994). Sadly, it was recorded in the early stages of the DoB project and if
discovered today would, I believe, warrant preservation in situ. Only 3% of such sites
now survive nationally.
But what is to be done with all of these features. Overall, the priority, as stated in the
English Heritage booklet Twentieth Century Military Sites (English Heritage, 2000)
must be to improve our overall understanding of the resource as it survives,
principally through documentary research and field survey. Only then can we provide
informed guidance for protection and management of key structures. Many are
derelict and overgrown. Others are blocked up to prevent vandalism. On occasion,
imaginative uses can be found for them – as in the case of this 6lb gun emplacement
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converted into a TIC in Stourport. Unfortunately this has since been demolished, as it
had no formal protection. The features are part of a national phenomenon – but also
have considerable local interest. It is regrettable that English Heritage in 2003 would
not list the Drill Hall in Stourport (with an intact rifle range inside) before its partial
demolition on the grounds that ‘others of this type exist elsewhere in the country’. It
will probably be possible to actively protect a minority but this will be immeasurably
assisted if we can improve public awareness of them and increase the sense of
community ownership. Interpretation panels have now been erected at Pershore
Bridge and the Parish Council have placed their own commemorative plaque of the
spigot mortar bases at Bretforton.