After having presented some large scale projects, its time to recognise that not every archaeological excavation needs to be on this scale. The two projects described here are on a smaller scale, but produced very useful findings.
In Herefordshire, the Bromyard Downs Project undertook an investigation of two possible Auxiliary Units hides identified from oral accounts. One consisted of nothing more than a depression in the ground. The other was only approximately located. Metal detecting revealed a possible locaiton for the latter and the presence of some concrete blocks.
The findings confirmed the oral history of the area. In this project we saw that even the history of the site from the 1970s and 1980s had been lost. One OB had been intentionally destroyed. However, with only the entrance shaft excavated, it is not impossible that some significant part of the main structure remains. A number of sites have been found where the entrance shaft was lowered and filled in, while leaving the main chamber of the structure intact.
CART undertook a small excavation on private land near Puddletown Forest, near Dorchester in Dorset. The location of the Operational Base had been identified by the landowner, who invited CART to investigate, though there were few visible remnants to see at the start. This excavation identified a section of brick wall, at the entrance to the OB. In other areas there was little apparent, but careful excavation revealed the remains of corrugated iron sheeting placed vertically. Groups of nails were found in clusters with occasional fragments of wood preserved where the iron had leached into the wood from the nails, slowing its decay. The original wooden framework had rotted away, as had the majority of the corrugated iron. Changes in colour and texture were all that identified the edges of the structure and where the corrugated iron walls had been.
Nearby in a large hollow, a number of .45 calibre cartridge cases and bullets were found. Possibly from a Thompson Sub-Machine gun, these might have been the result of practice by the Auxiliary Units men. However, the US Army also trained in the area and used the same weapon, so could also have fired this weapon here. The presence of 1942 dated .300 rifle rounds supported the latter interpretation.
Excavations are not complete at this site, but current findings suggest that the structure was a box like underground hide built with a wooden frame. When the area was planted as forest, after the war, the weight of the trees above the OB appear to have caused it to collapse.
We have a small gallery of this excavation for you to view.
Tomorrow we look at Sussex and the work of Chichester and District Archaeology Society there.
And when Scheduling sometimes may not be the best approach
Normally when we find out about a site it is because someone is inviting us to take a look, or because hunting for a location we have come across the owners. Almost all of the time they are keen for us to come and visit, take a look around the remains and record what is left, and explain how it was it used. The Salisbury In-station site has been a bit different.
We first became aware the site in 2001 from letters from the late Bert Davis, a member of the Royals Signals team who helped fit it out, shortly after the OB was built. He provided an approximate location but the Foot and Mouth epidemic rather limited countryside access at the rime. An initial reconnaissance in 2003 revealed it was in publicly accessible woodland managed by the Forestry Commission. Contact with them revealed that they were very much aware of the site, not least as a contractor had previously put the wheel of their tractor through the roof and damaged it. Subsequently they had fitted bat grills to the entrances and reportedly bats were in residence. Since disturbing bats, for example by flash photography, flood lighting or indeed simply a noisy presence is illegal, they were understandably reluctant to allow access.
In 2013 CART was approached by a local resident who had found the site simply through walking in the area. We visited the site and did not enter, but recorded what could be seen above ground. At around the same time, a group of “urban explorers” visited the site, reportedly broke the locks off of the bat grills and entered, taking photos and video of the site. These were posted online, making the existence of the site public knowledge. With a lot of images it was clear this was a site in remarkably good condition, with a large part of the original fittings in situ. It was also significantly larger than most other “Zero” In-stations, which tend to follow a similar design. The transcription of the Beatrice Temple Diary at about this time included reference to this site as a “Superzero” indicating it’s special nature. Attempts were renewed to see if officially sanctioned access would be possible but came to nothing.
In 2014, independent of CART, a submission was made to have the site scheduled. There is no doubt that it is deserving, being in a good state of preservation and being unique even among other surviving Auxiliary Structures. The application was successful and the listing can be read online.
When the Defence of Britain Project was compiling lists of wartime sites in 1995-2000, one intention was to use the results to schedule a selection. Discussions around that time reflected that scheduling provides little in the way of benefit to a site in secure ownership, but does allow prosecution in the event of deliberate damage. For Auxiliary Units OBs, their survival has often been the result of not being widely known about. Keeping a site secret cannot protect from a major road being built over it, or a housing development. However, they are rarely placed in locations where this is a real risk. One of the results of scheduling a site is that its location is revealed. In the case of the Salisbury In-station, this meant an 8 digit map reference was put online, making it easy for anyone with a GPS system to locate the site with no other knowledge. In addition a supplemental “Heritage Highlights” press release included images of the site, in case of any doubt
Subsequently the site has been revisited repeatedly by urban explorers, damaging locks and indeed breaking the grills beyond repair in order to gain access. Understandably for those tasked with the care of the site, this is a major problem. They know there are risks to entry, this is a confined space and parts of the structure have been damaged. Images from within show the presence of asbestos boards in use for internal dividers with some of these damaged. The law places the responsibility on the owners for the safety even of those who break in. Scheduling doesn’t appear to have helped this site, except to make it more more widely known.
How to record a site when you can’t get in?
CART Researchers have visited the site on a number of occasions. We have surveyed and recorded those elements visible from the surface. This includes not only the entrance shafts, but the presence of ventilation pipes on the surface. Some items removed from the interior by visitors have also been recorded on the surface. The surrounding area was examined for the presence of aerial trees, but all the trees in the surrounding area appear too young. The site was felled in the past and it was during logging that a contractor vehicle damaged the roof of the entrance chamber. CART researchers also identified the location of the above ground hut, which does not feature in the scheduling. It has also been identified that the orientation of the structure on the scheduling report is incorrect.
In addition information has been collected from the illegal access recordings available online. Using these, Matt Brazier has produced an excellent 3D walk through. This can be seen on the Salisbury In-station page.
This is why we are happy to talk about this site at this point, as it is obviously already common knowledge, and presumably for every visitor that posts a video online there have been a number of others
It is clear at both this an other sites, that repeat visits can mean new findings come to light. As the vegetation differs with seasons or weather, different elements become more or less obvious.
CART continue to work towards the goal of being permitted to safely document the interior of this site. We have engaged in a positive dialogue with the site managers and we hope our determination will pay off some time soon. We have worked to identify periods when entry would not result in bat disturbance and the requirements for safe access, both in terms of confined space working and asbestos risk management. We have explored the possibility of remote access with drones or remote controlled vehicles. If access ever is possible, we want to record it in as many ways as possible to make the most of the opportunity. Not just with photos or video, but detailed measurement or ideally 3D scanning to ensure the site is recorded comprehensively. We would be interested to hear from anyone with skills in those areas who might wish to cooperate either in providing the relevant schemes of work or risk assessments or later in any investigation. It would be a shame if this site if further damaged or decays without being properly recorded. At present the only records have resulted from illegal access which surely is not what was intended by those creating the relevant legislation. From CART’s perspective, doing the right thing may take longer but we hope that is of more benefit in the future in relations with other landowners than earlier access to a single site, no matter how interesting.
Following the most visit video, all the entrances have been welded shut to prevent access.
Tomorrow will be looking at some smaller scale projects with interesting findings.
CART are approached from time to time about excavating Operational Bases. We are not too enthusiastic unless there there is a good reason to. It is an awful lot of work to properly excavate one. When we were asked to advise about an Operational Base found during an archaeological survey at Binnegar Quarry in Dorset, we certainly didn’t realise the scale of the project. We were fortunate to have professional archaeological advice from Andrew Joseph Associates and a great deal of support from Raymond Brown, the quarry contractors. The site was due to be totally destroyed by quarrying and the state of the surviving remains of the Operational Base meant that it was not a candidate for scheduling and preservation. The County Archaeology Service and Historic England were consulted and approved the plans.
At first glance there wasn’t a great deal to see. A long depression in the ground and the remains of one shaft with a more intact one at the other end. The whole area covered in rhododenon, meaning that LIDAR was ineffective. We have been looking to see if was possible to use LIDAR to locate OBs in woodland, as the technique allows a ground map to be created even through tree cover – except when there is rhododendron growing! CART produced an initial report. (more on LIDAR later this week)
Raymond Brown kindly arranged to clear the rhododendron for a professional survey to be done. This revealed earth banking around the site not immediately apparent to the naked eye. It is clearest on the cross section profiles. An initial metal detecting survey was undertaken of the immediate area prior to excavation. This identified a number of finds which were plotted on the initial survey. All were located around one of the shafts with nothing around the other end. We utilised metal detectorists with specialised expertise in military ordnance and everyone working on the site attended a briefing about the recognition of potential ordnance risks and the process for site evacuation and calling in experts in safe disposal . Finds of live ordnance material are unusual on Auxiliary Units sites, but not unheard of, as the Coleshill Uncovered project demonstrated. Fortunately, while a number of booby trap devices, fitted with explosive caps, were discovered, all showed clear signs of having been fired. No live ordnance material was found on this OB site at any stage. Finds images.
Subsequent to this the collapsed area over the main chamber was excavated in alternating blocks to create sections. Once these had been recorded, the corrugated iron roof was cleared. This revealed that the roof was crumpled down and overlapping, but with evidence of the centre of the roof having been removed – evidence by the lack of in situ bolts. Later a number of these were found in a pile at the site of the OB, at the base of a tree stump.
Clearance of the open shaft uncovered the remains of the counterweight at the base of the shaft. The other shaft could not be fully excavated initially due to the confined space and danger of working within it. The sections developed during this stage revealed that the OB had been deliberately filled with sand from the northeast end shaft. It was subsequently confirmed that during a previous phase of gravel extraction the then operators had done this to prevent access by children. At that point the sand was considered a waste material. We appreciated that they had used sand as it made the digging much easier!
One of the major features uncovered was the extensive ventilation system. Runs of glazed earthenware pipe with concreted joints were found heading in all directions from the OB, with evidence of pipes entering the roof and also the lowest level of the floor. There was a larger pipe running down the outside of the OB the take air to the floor level and hollow concrete blocks were found which had been used as ventilation in the centre of the roof, similar to those seen at the intact Beaminster OB. The album of images has an awful lot of images of pipes! Where we found intact runs, the pipes had been embedded in sand and at the end there was evidence that there had been a wooden box – perhaps with a mesh cover. There was also a deliberate up then down down arrangement to stop water running down the pipes into the OB. it appeared that the prevailing wind was used to assist cold air to the base, with the warm air rising through the roof, to create a flow inside. The only other location we know where the pipe work has been similarly excavated is at the Bewley Down Outstation, which is documented in the book “Chirnside 1” by Hugh May. Those excavating OBs should be aware of how far around the obvious structures, the ventilation system may reach. Excavation Images
The NFNPA also helped by processing our photogrammetry images into this model hosted in Sketchfab
Following a week of excavation, the site was backfilled, allowing the clearance of the trees form the site and removal of remaining vegetation. A further metal detector survey was then undertaken over the wider area now exposed which made numerous finds of booby trap devices, again all having been fired. They were largely clustered in one area again, suggesting possible training at a distance from the OB. We we also received support as a group throughout this project from the New Forest Community Archaeology project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. This included help with processing some photogrammetry images and training in the use of the QGIS plotting system which we put to use in plotting the new finds.
We returned to complete the excavation of the shaft and tunnel section. This was undertaken by digging out around the shaft and then breaking away the concrete blocks, level by level to allow excavation of the interior. This was a truly massive undertaking, and would have been impossible without the excavator provided by Raymond Brown. Using this method meant we could identify the extents of the original hole dug to install the OB and also identified a soak away system for drainage. Bitumen felt had been used to damp proof the exterior of the structure.
Clearing the shaft revealed very little in the way of finds until almost at floor level, when, in a moment that that could have graced a Time Team episode, numerous finds appeared in the last metre of infil of the shaft and tunnel on the final day. This included remnants of the counterweight hatch system, and boxes of booby traps devices, specifically Pull Switches, Pressure Switches and Time Pencils scattered through the fill. All had been dismantled to remove the small explosive caps. Possibly this was done by members of the Patrol to make the devices safe. While they might have been found by children at a later date, the systematic way they had been dismantled with none in a fired state suggests a deliberate action. Within weeks the entire area had become a 20 metre deep sand quarry with no trace of the OB surviving. Finds Images
We had hoped to mount an exhibition of the finds nearby this year, but have not been able to do so as a result of the covid-19 pandemic.
We learnt that fully excavating an Operational Base is a major undertaking, even with big machinery and plenty of personnel. The ventilation systems can be extensive and extend far beyond the main structure and may need to be excavated first to allow heavier machinery to approach without causing damage. A full excavation should really only be undertaken when the structure is likely to be destroyed in order to “Preserve by Record”. Excavation is a destructive process and if not carefully recorded then information is lost forever. We are still working on a comprehensive write up of this project to fully record all that we found. The final result will be lodged with the Dorset County Archaeology Service. Raymond Brown kindly donated the finds to CART for use in future displays and also printed an article on the project in their company magazine. CART would like to thank Raymond Brown, the New Forest Community Archaeology Project and Andrew Josephs Associates, for all their assistance.
CART’s first archaeological project investigating the Auxiliary Units was Coleshill Uncovered.
As the headquarters of Auxiliary Units Coleshill House and Estate was known to have housed the training facilities and hosted many Auxiliers through the war. However the only previous investigation had been by the Ridgeway Military and Aviation Research Group (RMARG). They had made some significant finds, not least the demonstration Operational Base. They excavated the escape tunnel which had collapsed, creating a walk in entrance. They also found an observation post and possible ammunition bunker.
Coleshill Uncovered took a variety of approaches;
The underground water tunnels, reportedly used by Auxiliary Units, were investigated
A survey of the site identified a number of structures not previously recorded.
Metal detecting revealed evidence of training and men living at the site.
Using a magnetometer allowed the OBs and demonstration hatches to be found.
Excavation revealed details about surviving structures that indicated their design and construction.
Some of the highlights were;
The discovery of a bayonet concealed in wall close to where the escape tunnel of the demonstration OB exited. Once a stone was removed it could be retrieved. It is thought this was was part of the demonstration of how to prepare for the worst, but it is remarkable to think this had stayed on place for so long.
The uncovering of a number of demonstration hatch covers, showing the range of designs in use. It was remarkable to be able to match one of these to the plans handed out as part of the Patrol Leader’s Course at Coleshill to men from across the country
Being able to see the internal layout in one of the Nissen huts due to marks left on the concrete floor, once a mat of vegetation had been rolled back
Finding identifiable fragments from an aircraft and a German artillery piece, which confirmed verbal accounts of Coleshill in wartime which had been recounted to the National Trust staff by visitors over the years.
CART hosts the reports from this series of studies and also images of all the finds
For the first day of the Festival we at CART would like to introduce you to archaeology as it relates to the Auxiliary Units.
Conflict Archaeology is the term used for the archaeology of modern warfare, typically of the 20th Century. It also includes the wealth of material, including personal accounts of use, from those that were involved with locations. This is somethig that rarely if ever exists for more ancient sites. It considers more than just what can be dug up, including how sites are perceived over time.
Until quite recently, structures left over from the Second World War were generally considered eyesores, something to be cleared out of the way to get to the actual archaeology from hundreds of years ago. However, archaeological techniques can be applied to excavating wartime structures. It can uncover information that has otherwise been lost, despite being in the recent past.
When we think about Auxiliary Units perhaps the most obvious structures are the underground Operational Bases (OBs). Yet we know relatively little about when most were built, and even less about how they were built. We have a couple of documents showing designs, yet almost all OBs differ in some way.
But Auxiliary Units did not spend all of their time underground, in fact documentary and personal accounts indicate quite the opposite. They had training centres and headquarters, and practiced their skills against various military structures.
If we start at the beginning, perhaps the first attempt to apply some archaeological process to the Auxiliary Units story was the Defence of Britain Project. This aimed to document the location and type of all wartime sites in Britain, with some basic information and in some cases images or measurements, or other written evidence. It ran between 1995 and 2001 and although administered by the Council for British Archaeology, the fieldwork was almost entirely done by volunteers without any formal training. There was no follow up investigation of the sites by excavation or any other means. The result was a database that is still available to search online.
As part of CART’s history, this was an important project as it put researchers interested in Auxiliary Units from around the country in touch with others working cooperatively with a common purpose. Many of those original Defence of Britain volunteers are members of CART or have contributed information to this website.
Probably the first formal archaeological report on an Auxiliary Units site came from Wales. We would like to thank Martin Locock, the author for permission to host a copy here.
With decades of hindsight, we now know that the alcove described most likely would have housed an Elsan toilet, and that the winch mechanism was for the door. This highlights how knowledge alters the interpretation of the same findings. The Royal Observer Corps underground bunkers of the post-war era, were equipped with radio aerials that could be elevated by winding them up from inside. These structures had no need to be completely concealed from an enemy, as they were designed for monitoring nuclear fall out. We know now that Auxiliary Units had better ways to conceal an aerial from even close scrutiny, described in the Special Duties part of this website.
In Essex in 2006, came one of the first formal archaeologial excavations of an Operational Base. Based on a accounts of a structure and the presence of a depression, a small excavation revealed eveidence of the structure.
The site is now being preserved and hopefully its Auxiliary Units history can be incorporated in the future interpretation at the site.
Rather a nice example of the extended scope of Conflict Archaeology. We don’t just have the report of the excavation, but this prompted accounts of the use of the site to come to light. Providing publicly accessible reports brought forward more information over time. The presence of a boat in the mill race as a getaway vehicle was empheral and could never have been deduced from excavation. Yet it explains the structure, specifically why the escape tunnel was built to open into the Mill Race. For the modern volunteers restoring the Mill, it provides an alternative way to interpret the structure and an additional element to the history of the site.
We have been working tirelessly for the past few years on a new website, and are now in a position to launch. The official date is the 9th of July, but as email subscribers you get a sneak preview from the 7th July: www.staybehinds.com
While it’s not quite the finished article, we have compiled more Auxiliers in one place than has ever been achieved anywhere before (we’re quite proud of that). We have over 6000 names, and if you know someone we’ve left off, please get in touch.
We’ll be adding information over the coming months, including photographs, info on the Special Duties Branch, Coleshill House & Estate and Auxiliary Unit links with the SAS and SOE. If you notice any errors on the new site please contact us.
A huge shout out of thanks to everyone who has supported us over the years, and continues to support us. It really is appreciated – CART is a ‘not-for-profit’ organisation run by just a handful of enthusiasts. Thank you one and all.
To whet your appetite, here’s a brand new video brought to you by CART highlighting some of the archaeological projects we have been involved with:https://youtu.be/WCJjan8CWLo
We’ve chosen our new website launch to coincide with the digital Festival Of Archaeology running from the 11th to the 19th July, hosted by the Council for British Archaeology (CBA): https://festival.archaeologyuk.org
Bill was part of the Long Bredy Operational Patrol in Dorset.
SALISBURY William (Bill) Peacefully at Park House Care Home on 3rd April 2020, aged 95 years. Beloved husband of Jean, father to Lyn, Carol and Ian, grandfather to Emma & Luke, Michelle, Mark & Natalie, Craig & Matthew, Nathan and Charlie and great grandfather to Jake, Ivy & Oliver and Celine.
They are including a piece on the Auxiliary Units covering everything from the creation of the very first units (initially named the XII Corps Observation Unit) under Peter Fleming (brother of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond), to how they were trained in ‘thuggery’ and the types of weapons that made up their rather impressive arsenals! Make sure you pick up a copy!
Throughout the day we will be posting a few stories from Auxiliary Unit Patrol members and their memories on Facebook.
Search for: British Resistance Archive – Churchill’s Auxiliary Units or click on this picture-link below:
Obviously by May 1945 the Patrols had been stood down; however, many still had possession of a large amount of explosives, which created memorable firework celebrations!
Others were returning from fighting in Europe with Special Forces, or finding themselves in European countries having helped liberate them, or in hospital recovering from wounds received in the course of victory. We hope you all have a safe and peaceful VE Day and weekend!