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Second World War Heritage

This September sees the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. This global conflict cost the lives of 50 to 70 million people, re-shaped national boundaries and international alliances and had long term effects that are still being felt today. Although England was not successfully invaded, the war had a massive effect on the landscape; with large areas of land being requisitioned for military purposes such as, training establishments, storage facilities, secret experimental and intelligence sites and military airfields

In 1940 the threat of invasion was acute and in response a national programme of building anti-invasion defences was implemented. These defences were erected in great haste along coastlines and strategic positions inland. Most of these defences were thankfully never put to the ultimate test; other installations such as anti-aircraft batteries and airfields saw direct action: for example in the latter case either in the vital defence of these Islands during the Battle of Britain, or in the bomber offensives directed against the Axis powers. The air-war resulted in about 10,000 Allied and Axis aircraft crashes in England and its territorial waters. The maritime sphere was also affected; beaches and seas were mined and the sea floors were peppered with the wrecks of vessels that had been mined, bombed, torpedoed or sunk by enemy gunfire and of aircraft that had been shot down or forced to ditch.

Using a mixture of documentary, archaeological and aerial photographic evidence English Heritage has recorded a wide spectrum of sites relating to Second World War Heritage. Other thematic surveys such as the Defence of Britain Project, a very successful volunteer initiative carried out in the 1990s, have been incorporated into its database. Recently the English Heritage contribution to a European Culture 2000 project Landscapes of War: Remembering conflict in 20th century Europe has added or improved a further 2000 records for themes such as: bombing decoys, communal civil defence sites, coastal batteries, D-Day preparatory sites, prisoner of war camps, radar stations, and searchlight batteries. There now are nearly 30,000 records available on PastScape relating to Second World War sites, making PastScape one of the single largest holders of such records in England and one of the best starting points to research such sites.

 
 
Anti-aircraft battery, Trimley St Mary, Suffolk
©  English Heritage.NMR
Reference Number: NMR 23915/11
The library, Holland House, Kensington, London.
Reproduced by permission of English Heritage.NMR
Reference Number: BB83/04456

More about English Heritage policy and research on modern military heritage

Training establishments

During the Second World War, large tracts of land came into use for training purposes: whole villages were taken over for troops to practice, and country houses and their grounds also served for war work. An interesting example is Osterley Park, where the Home Guard were trained by radical guerrilla warfare expert Tom Wintringham.

Osterley Park


Storage facilities

These varied from modest affairs to complex and expensive underground complexes such as Corsham Tunnels (which was almost redundant by the time that it was built but gained a new secret lease of life in the Cold War).

Corsham Tunnels

Secret experimental and intelligence sites

Perhaps one of the most fascinating formerly secret sites of the Second World War is the code breaking centre at Bletchley Park. Not only is it a key site in the history of code-breaking and intelligence sharing but it is also the birth place of the computer.

Bletchley Park

Military airfields


Haresfield Airfield, Haresfield, Gloucestershire ©  Crown copyright.NMR
Reference Number: HAW 9436/1

Military airfields form a major but vulnerable part of Second World War heritage as they are often seen as prime sites for re-development. They played a vital role in saving the country during the Battle of Britain in 1940; some were also platforms for the Allied bombing offensive against the Axis and acted as the starting point for some of the airborne operations of D-Day, as well as in the Battle for the Atlantic. The “morale bombing” campaigns against German cities with terrible loss of life amongst civilians led to much post-war controversy. Some airfields were already in existence prior to the war- many of these were extensively remodelled to meet new technological needs, whilst others were “stamped out of the ground” during the conflict, or extensively altered, for example as heavy bomber airfields by the Americans PastScape contains an extensive set of data on Second World War military airfields in England.

Biggin Hill
RAF Scampton


Anti-invasion defences


Spigot mortar pit near West Tilbury, Essex ©  Crown copyright.NMR
Reference Number: BB94/08195

The high point of building networks of defensive installations was in 1940-41 when the country was most threatened by German invasion. PastScape contains in excess of 11,000 records of pillboxes and other defences such as road blocks, anti-tank or aircraft obstructions and spigot mortar emplacements, most from either the Wills Collection or the Defence of Britain Survey, which was carried out using volunteers. These are among the most numerous and immediate remains of the war to be found in most localities in England.

Pillbox on Kennet and Avon Canal
Pillbox near Dunster and Blue Anchor on West Somerset Railway Line


Aircraft crash sites

The war in the air is believed to have resulted in excess of 10,000 aircraft crashes in England and its territorial waters, just under one fifth of these are recorded in PastScape. Some of these crashes occurred as the result of combat, others due to tragic accidents, especially during training. Some of the most visible sites are in remote upland areas used for training. Because of the possibility of disturbing human remains and the danger of unexploded ordnance military aircraft crash sites are protected by the 1986 Protection of Military Remain Act; this means that anyone wanting to investigate such a site must first contact the Ministry of Defence to ask for permission.

The wreckage of aircraft LL05 at Great Carrs


Wartime maritime wrecks

PastScape contains just over 2000 records for maritime wrecks for World War two, of these 898 are known wreck sites. These records contain a wealth of fascinating historical detail, for example the wrecks of the Aircraft catapult ship HMS Patia and her airborne German Heinkel attacker the Richard Montgomery, a liberty ship which became stranded and which still has a dangerous load of bombs; or the German submarine U400, mined off the coast of Cornwall

HMS Patia
Heinkel attacker
The Richard Montgomery
German submarine U400


Bombing decoys

These ingenious sites were part of Britain’s war of deception against German attacks and were designed to simulate various potential types of targets such as airfields, factories or even whole cities. PastScape contains a representative sample of over 650 of these sites.

One of the bombing decoys for Bristol

Communal air raid shelters

A regular feature of life for civilians in the Second World War was the threat of air attack. Various forms of individual air-raid shelters existed, but there were also larger communal shelters attached to factories or urban areas.

Chancery Lane Deep Shelter


Coastal batteries


Coastal battery near Bawdsey, Suffolk Copyright English Heritage.NMR
Reference Number: NMR 23964/06


In addition to the other static defences noted above, England’s shores were protected against attack by coastal batteries. Some specialist batteries, code named “Diver” batteries were later deployed at the coasts to intercept German rockets, the new V-weapons.

Ramsgate Emergency Coastal Battery


D-Day preparatory sites
PastScape contains a small dataset of the sites of special launching points used for D-day.

An embarkation hard at Fawley

Prisoner of War camps

Initially, because of the threat of invasion, Second World War Prisoner of War camps in England were intended to hold prisoners for a short time before being shipped to more distant destinations such as Canada. However as that threat receded axis POWs were held for longer. A filtering scheme based on a questionnaire was devised to grade enemy prisoners according to the security risk they posed and their level of commitment to Fascism/Nazism

A well preserved example of a camp at Harperley for low-risk prisoners

Radar Stations

The development of radar provided the country with early warning of enemy air attack and a complex web of stations of varying types and roles were deployed and would be later further developed during the “Cold War”.

A ground controlled interceptor station near Exminster


Searchlight batteries

A further defence against attack from the air were searchlight batteries, sometimes crewed by female personnel; Royal Artillery or Home Guard units. The PastScape dataset has over 1000 records, and is currently being added to by an ongoing project. Some have been mapped from aerial photographs, whilst others like this example below are only known from documentary sources.

Brent Pelham searchlight battery