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.