One of our main aims for the new website was to get as much information on individuals was possible, including images. A good example is that of Airlie Abinda Campbell a member of the Special Duties ATS.
One of the most remarkable stories associated with Airlie, is how she met her husband, George Gascoyne (https://www.staybehinds.com/george-archibald-clive-gascoyne) an Auxiliary who accidentally stumbled across Airlie’s wireless bunker, descended down the ladder and was confronted by her pointing a revolver at his head (photo attached of their wedding day)!
If anyone has any images of any other ‘Secret Sweeties’ (what the members of the Special Duties ATS unit were, rather politically incorrectly called), we would love to see them.
Indeed, if anyone has any information on the Special Duties branch we would love to hear from you!
We must be now very near to losing all members of the Auxiliary Units and Special Duties, but we are more determined than ever to remember them and the sacrifice they were willing to make for the country.
When looking at an Operational Base, a plan can helpful to understand what can be seen in specific photos. It is often difficult to understand a structure from a single image or series of images. But a plan, or series of plans, can only show two dimensions at once.
The simplest way to address this is with a sketch, that adds the third dimension. Our Admiralty 4 (Prior Park) Patrol report contains an example of this. The sketch makes clearer how an underground structure is arranged, when that cannot be easily seen from the images alone.
Software has made it possible to build virtual 3D models from measurements of an Operational Base. Once the realm of specialists, there are now entry level software options to build a virtual 3D model and colour it to create an accurate reconstruction of an OB that may be collapsed or overgrown. An example of this can be seen with theseimages of a very overgrown OB at Portesham in Dorset, with a simple 3D model showing much more clearly than any of the image the layout of the operational base.
We have been fortunate enough to have a professional showing us how it should be done. Matt Brazier kindly produced a couple of models of Operational Bases for CART and has animated these into a walk through which further improves the understanding of design. We have seen his model of the Salisbury In-station already. He produced another of Operational Base of the Drellingore Patrol. The OB in this instance was collapsed, though the shaft and escape tunnel remain intact. The reconstruction video allowed the original structure to be visualised as it would have been. There is always a risk of introducing interpretation into a model and making assumptions. The initial model of the Binnegar OB seen in the report, assumed the shaft was a rectangle shape. However, once excavated it became clear it was narrower at one end than the other, as can be seen in the images. Experience has shown that you can’t take too many measurements and it is is also worth planning a follow up visit to repeat the measurements that were overlooked the first time!
More recently archaeological recording has advanced to incorporate 3D scanning technology. Issues of missed measurements are overcome as the laser scanner takes thousands of measurements to create a point map. This plots each measurement in three dimensions to create a virtual model of the structure. This model can be rendered with either illustrations or photographs mapped onto the images. Recently, AOC Archaeology were contracted by Forestry and Land Scotland to record an Operational Base that came to light during felling works. This was an OB in a relatively good state of preservation, belonging to the Beattock Patrol in the Scottish Borders and ideal for this technique. Of particular interest was the linking of scans above and below ground to generate an illustration of the location of the structure in the landscape. As these structures are vulnerable to rust and other natural damage over time, this has to be the modality of choice to record these structures where possible. We are grateful to AOC for sharing the final report and the images. These images are very effective and certainly captured the imagination of the press, resulting in numerous articles including one in French!
Investigating buried structures using geophysical techniques has been increasingly common in recent years. It allows large areas to surveyed relatively quickly and uses differences in the responses generated by the buried archaeology and natural or fill materials to locate structures and identify their extent. If you have ever been confused by what it involves, Historic England have a straightforward explanation in their guide to research techniques.
The use of such techniques on Auxiliary Sites has been relatively limited. This may relate to the belief that the sites are identified and not recognising that elements of the structure may extend beyond the immediately visible OB, as we saw with the ventilation systems at Binnegar and Bromyards Downs in previous pages. Many structures are in woodland, where the application of the techniques are more difficult.
At Coleshill, a metal detecting survey and magnetometer was used to identify metallic targets for investigation. A ground penetrating radar was briefly trialed over the known demonstration Operational Base at Coleshill House and showed that it was detectable to the technique.
Subsequently a formal magnetometry survey was conducted by the short lived Churchill’s Underground War Group, at Langrish House in Hampshire, in an attempt to identify a possible Operational Base in the grounds. Nothing was found though documentary evidence has subsequently suggested the OB was elsewhere.
The Buckland St Mary In-station was known to have been built at Castle Neroche. The Castle was an Iron Age Hillfort converted into a Motte and Bailey Castle during the Anarchy period. Sergeant Arthur Gabbitas who documented the role of his Royal Signals colleagues in the Auxiliary Units Special Duties Branch was stationed there for a while. He left a brief description of the site. Historian and former Royal Signals Officer, David Hunt, visited the site in 2008, obtaining a useful first hand account of the location of the Operational Base, a “Zero” station for the the Chirnside Network, from a local resident who remembered it. His account included the presence of ventilation pipes showing like rabbit holes in the side of pits in Castle grounds. No remains could be found at the time but the site was recorded on the Somerset Historic Environment Record. There are separate records for the above ground Met Hut, which David remembered as still present during his own childhood visiting the site, and the Operational Base.
In 2017, CART arranged a visit to the site, to see if any evidence remained. David’s reports provided a focus for the search. The Met Hut base was measured and photographed. The location of the door could be identified. A search of the surrounding area found a small fragment of wire on the adjacent bank, twisted as if to connect to a terminal, perhaps for a battery. At the location identified for the Operational Base, fragments of glazed earthenware pipe were found, a feature often seen at such sites. A very careful search found a small hole near the edge of the bank with the top of two earthenware pipes just visible at its base, just a few centimetres below ground level. The earth had washed down into the pipes over the years, creating the hole. The pipes were almost certainly part of the ventilation system previously noted. Nearby an aerial tree was identified with fragments of the aerial feeder cable projecting from the bark. Because the entire site is a scheduled monument, no excavation of any sort was possible.
A report was prepared and submitted to the County Archaeologist who fortunately was interested enough to arrange for a further non-invasive investigation after obtaining the necessary permissions. Liz Caldwell from GeoFlo (www.geoflo.co.uk) was commissioned by the Southwest Heritage Trust, which was organised by Chris Webster, to survey the site. We think that this report represents the first time that an Operational Base was located by such techniques. With permission we include images from this report in an album of images form the site. The survey was conducted with a Fluxgate gradiometer (Bartington Grad 601-2 ) and Resistivity meter (TR/CIA Resistance Meter) processed with Geoscan Geoplot 3.00v software. The survey showed with a high degree of confidence the location of a structure underground, with a high magnetic signal, consistent with an elephant shelter structure. The ventilation pipes were not visible using these techniques.
On a repeat visit visit to the site, with a change in the conditions, a very shallow regular depression could be identified at the site identified by the non-invasive techniques. A further hole with a pipe junction was identified, in line with the first, supporting the interpretation of a ventilation system. Two aerial trees were identified. We do not believe there is a third extant tree at the site, though there is another tree with a lightning scar, an appearance that can look similar to an aerial scar. As both aerial trees and lightning strikes are located on high ground they can exist in close association.
Coming right up to date, a group from Keele and London South Bank Universities have published a pre-print paper utilising several techniques, namely, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), Resistivity, Conductivity and Metal detecting across three Operational Base sites, one intact, another collapsed and a third destroyed to test the modalities. Metal detecting proved valuable in locating the site of the structures, with GPR showing extant chambers and depths. The other modalities also produced useful information and allowed the construction materials to be identified. This is an interesting proof of concept study and suggests that the study of buried structures of the Auxiliary Units with non-invasive techniques is both useful and practicable. We look forward to further investigations of this nature.
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
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!
We are delighted to inform you that a memorial will be unveiled in recognition of the Pelynt Patrol Auxiliary Unit.
This will take place on Saturday 21st March at Pelynt Village Hall, (near Looe), PL13 2LP. We will have a display of Auxiliary Units equipment and local patrol information inside the village hall from 12:00pm. The unveiling of the memorial will take place by the Lord Lieutenant Edward Bolitho OBE, at 2.30-3.00pm.
The memorial will be sited in the garden area directly outside the village hall where a place for it has been specially prepared. All welcome.