The large number of photographs taken by the RAF in the 1940s means that military remains feature strongly in the survey. Although dominated by the remains of the Assault Training Centre that prepared troops for the D-Day invasions, infrastructure put in place in the early years of the Second World War to defend against attack was also recorded. A few Cold War era structures were fleetingly visible in aerial photographs from the 1950s and 1960s.
Longer lived are the earlier substantial earthwork fortifications of probable Iron Age date, and some other more enigmatic sites that might possibly be related to Civil War or perhaps even Roman endeavours to control the landscape.
- Ancient Fortifications
Just like Cornwall and south and east Devon, imposing Iron Age defended enclosures along the coast survive as substantial earthwork ramparts and defensive ditches. Archaeological investigations undertaken as part of the RDPE funded Unlocking Our Coastal Heritage project have been carried out at Hillsborough Promontory fort (MDV2210), and the findings from this project correlate well with the ramparts visible on aerial photographs. Some of the forts are vulnerable to erosion, and Embury Beacon (MDV48) has also been the subject of recent excavations to help us understand more about this site before it is lost completely as the cliff edge erodes into the sea.
The earthwork banks enclosing Windbury hillfort (MDV71) were obscured by scrub cover on some of the aerial photographs, but a programme of scrub clearance was instigated in 1999 and its ramparts once again dominate this clifftop site. Another well-known fort is visible on aerial photographs of the area east of Buck’s Mills (MDV181). These large scale constructions must have been extremely striking from land when first established, and presumably also had commanding views, and perhaps control, of the coast and out to sea.
However we cannot be sure of what may have once existed on the seaward side of those that have suffered from considerable coastal erosion.
One of the interesting sites identified from aerial photographs and not previously recorded on the Devon Historic Environment Record is the distinctive double banked enclosure near Seckington (MDV102282). It is similar in size and shape to the Roman fortlet or signal station at Ide near Exeter, but its location less convincing. Could this be another Roman military site, extending the Roman influence to the North Devon coast, or does it have a later origin?
Another newly recorded but substantial earthwork that could have had a military function was identified from aerial photographs south of Clovelly (MDV102409). Possibly octagonal in plan, but with an unfinished or damaged western half, it is not easily classifiable. The pointed shape of a possible earthwork on its north-west corner is roughly analogous to bastions of English civil war fortifications. Although no features are depicted here on the 1840 Tithe map, a field on higher ground approximately 400 metres to the west is named ‘Becka Borough’, possibly suggesting a fortified earthwork in this area. ‘Bloody Park’ field names south of Buck’s Cross, 4 kilometers to the east, relate to a Civil War skirmish; is it possible that the earthwork feature is a fortification, perhaps unfinished, of Civil War date?
- The Second World War – Defending the Coast
The very real fear that Britain would be invaded in the early part of the Second World War led to the construction of a ‘coastal crust’ of anti-invasion defences. North Devon offers numerous potential landing sites for air and seacraft, and aerial photographs taken in the early 1940s give a tantalising glimpse of how this newly defended landscape would have looked.
Anti-invasion posts at Croyde Sand in 1942. NMR RAF/140/S747/H56 PO-3007 SS4339/3 06-FEB-1942. English Heritage (RAF Photography).
So-called ‘passive’ anti-invasion defences were frequently observed and take many forms, from minefields (MDV55666) and barbed wire obstructions (MDV102486) around Northam Burrows, to anti-glider poles on Braunton Marshes (MDV102619), anti-glider ditches utilising the pre-existing drainage ditches at Northam Burrows (MDV55668) and a notable chequerboard pattern of anti-landing posts at Croyde Sand (MDV103040). The latter may have been replicated by posts at Woolacombe Sand (MDV74997), which were not visible on the aerial photographs but the remains of which are occasionally exposed in the sand.
The aerial photographs may provide the only record for some of these ephemeral defences, many of which seem to have been removed by the mid to late 1940s to facilitate use of this section of the coast as the U.S. Army Assault Training Centre.
Places that had a theoretically more ‘active’ role in defence range from the obvious pillboxes, such as those on the periphery of RAF Chivenor airfield (MDV78321 & MDV51991), to now vanished slit trenches in which armed personnel could take cover. Both open and infilled zig-zag trenches were recorded at Woolacombe in the 1940s (MDV103257 & MDV103263), and are mentioned in oral history accounts.
The Emergency Battery at Instow (MDV39540) is well known, ideally located at North Devon Cricket Ground for defending the mouth of the Taw and Torridge estuaries. The layout and form of the buildings is particularly clear on an oblique aerial photograph from 1960, giving a good indication of how the battery might have appeared during its operational phase. The importance of defending the sites along the estuary – including the airfields at Wrafton (MDV54163) and Chivenor (MDV51992) – is demonstrated by the anti-aircraft battery at Home Farm Marsh (MDV102603). This had not previously been recorded on the HER, probably because the earthworks and structures had been so thoroughly removed soon after the end of the war. Additional detail was recorded for an unusual example of an anti-aircraft battery at Sticklepath near Barnstaple (MDV57480).
An integral component of the national defence strategy included enemy craft detection using radar, and the buildings, roads, masts and other structures of several stations were recorded during the survey. Although previously recorded by various sources, significant details were accurately mapped for the complexes at Northam (MDV155665) and Hartland Point (MDV52951) and a distinctive building at Baxworthy (MDV102248) was added to the HER.
Unusual triangular structures in Ilfracombe harbour were initially puzzling, but they could be identified as marine bombing range targets (MDV103129), which had been moored at the time the photographs were taken in 1946. These may have been associated with other bombing range infrastructure such as the direction arrow and observation post at Putsborough (MDV52950), which contributed to the active defence of the coast.
Some indication of the civilian experience of wartime was also seen on the aerial photographs; 22 Emergency Water Supply reservoirs were visible as large circular structures. Their construction was implemented in vulnerable areas across the country to provide access to water when the normal supply network had been disrupted during bombing raids. An unexpectedly high number of EWS’s were identified during the project, reflecting the intensity of military impact on these North Devon communities: Appledore (MDV102533, MDV102531 MDV102536, MDV102541), Instow (MDV102593, MDV102579, MDV102577), Ilfracombe (MDV103127, MDV103131–MDV101133, MDV103143), Barnstaple (MDV102956–MDV102960) and Braunton (MDV102616–MDV102618) and Northam (MDV102805).
- The Second World War – Preparing to Attack
After the immediate threat of invasion in the early part of the war had passed, the U.S. Assault Training Centre (ATC), together with its associated infrastructure, supplanted parts of the defensive ‘crust’ to encompass a vast coastal area centred on Woolacombe (MDV73990). Operational between September 1943 and April 1944, this area hosted thousands of American soldiers preparing for Operation Overlord, which included the D-Day landings. It is no surprise that aerial photographs document how swathes of the landscape were transformed by the short-lived, but considerable, influx of troops and equipment.
Woolacombe and Saunton turned out to be ideal surrogates for the Normandy beaches, perfect for rehearsals of the beach landings that took place with devastating loss of life in June 1944. A major focus of activity was areas A-D of the ATC, covering Braunton Burrows. This was peppered with imitation ‘Atlantic Wall’ defences that must have made this part of North Devon resemble German occupied France for a time. The D-Day landings were a key turning point in the Second World War, and it is hard to argue that archaeological remains of this unique training site do not have an international significance.
Almost all of the individual ‘training aids’ marked on U.S. Army plans could be recorded from the aerial photographs. Often, more visible detail of the structures and their surrounding defences was apparent than had been expected, and many additional obstacles were mapped and recorded. Mock pillboxes (e.g. MDV74059; MDV77540) created by U.S. troops were the most numerous type; their barbed wire aprons and mortar shell craters are visible on aerial photographs, adding detail to the records and helping us to understand the different obstacle layouts and firing patterns that the combatants would have faced during manoeuvres.
More complex sites such as the engineer demolition range (MDV57349) had specific functions where soldiers acquired specialist experience – depending on the site this might include detonating charges or using a flamethrower – which would prove invaluable in the push to seize the heavily defended land behind Omaha beach. The exercises were not without danger and a number of casualties were reported as each new batch of soldiers underwent the training.
Perhaps the most evocative structures are the Landing Craft Mockups (MDV57287), from which soldiers rehearsed their future descent into the surf at Omaha. Several survive as haunting monuments to this terrifying event. Embarkation points (MDV102736; MDV102710) on the shore were also recorded from a few runs of aerial photographs, although these structures did not remain in place for very long after the war ended. An array of other training sites included a mock German Heavy Anti-Aircraft Artillery (MDV57289), anti-tank obstacles (MDV57292), and some interesting sites of as yet unexplained function that were spotted within the dunes (e.g. MDV102638 & MDV102682).
The aerial survey has been instrumental in changing our perceptions of the intertidal areas at the Skern Northam, and at Broadsands. Because these were home to transient and moveable obstacles, historic military activity in these locations was relatively under-recorded on the HER. However the aerial photographs provide a rich seam of evidence which helps us to appreciate the impact of this density of training sites and structures on the landscape and local communities, and the experience of the forces who trained here.
On the Skern (MDV102555) are more probable mock ‘ships sides’ (MDV102558) and what appear to be well ordered minefields (MDV102565), amongst many other and varied pieces of apparatus associated with specialist training. At Broadsands (MDV102705), a range of training devices have been newly recorded, including possible ‘ships sides’ for practising embarkation onto landing craft (MDV102729) and extensive areas of craters and other earthworks. A large number of the distinctive metal constructions known as Czech hegehogs (MDV102731) are an unusual component of the landscape here, more usually seen in continental Europe. Similar structures may be part of the parallel rows of training defences seen on 1940s aerial photographs at Instow (MDV102587).
Anti-tank obstacles on the Skern, Northam with Braunton Burrows in the background. Photograph: Stephanie Knight.
Of the numerous other designated ATC training areas, the complex at Area F (MDV21118) was particularly clearly visible on aerial photographs of Baggy Point, as a network of barbed wire obstructions, buildings, structures and trackways with a wide scattering of mortar shell craters. The stand-in ‘pillboxes’ within this slightly different system of defences may not bear much resemblance to the original structures they were intended to emulate, and some of them can still be visited.
Requisitioned holiday camps are discussed here, but the scale of the operations also required extensive purpose-built accommodation, including semi-permanent (MDV52983) and temporary camps (MDV57317 & MDV102707), administrative centres (e.g. at Woolacombe MDV103262), road infrastructure (e.g. MDV102711, MDV102510 & MDV102514), redistribution centres (e.g. MDV103378) and works sites (MDV50888 & MDV102580). In some cases these covered relatively large areas of farmland, but many left only ephemeral traces on the ground. The aerial photographs are a crucial source, and sometimes the sole evidence, for some of the considerable landscape transformations that the people living and farming in North Devon encountered during the war.
An interesting exception is Fremington camp (MDV59361), constructed by the Ministry of Works and Planning as a US Army hospital with 834 beds and intended for the rehabilitation of troops returning from action following D-Day. Only closed by the MOD in 2009, many of the buildings survived in early 2013, although their future was uncertain. The incongruous markings of three baseball diamonds and a possible American Football pitch were visible in the field immediately to the north of the camp, and sport was clearly considered an integral part of the hospital. Physical exercise was obviously encouraged and probably considered to have an important therapeutic function.
- The Cold War
Many of the Second World War military training sites became obsolete and visibly deteriorated or were deliberately removed in the years following the war. However this was by no means the end of military activity in North Devon, with training manoeuvres continuing through to the present day on Braunton Burrows and exercises occasionally caught on (airborne) camera through the 1950s.
Military manoeuvres on Braunton Burrows in the 1950s. RAF/58/2205 F21 0061 05-JUL-1957. English Heritage (RAF Photography).
The advent of the Cold War fundamentally changed the nature of warfare, and the focus had shifted by the 1950s to early detection of ‘acts of aggression’. North Devon continued its military role in this new era, and although there is little to see above ground today, two distinctive elevated ‘Orlit’ monitoring posts have been captured on aerial photographs at Saunton Down (MDV103029) and Woolacombe (MDV72371). Produced from 1951-2, these structures were made of precast concrete and had a small shelter and an open area from which observers could report aircraft activity. The Orlits at Saunton and Woolacombe were replaced in the 1960s by underground posts, which were intended to monitor fallout in the catastrophic event of a nuclear strike.
The political mistrust and paranoia of the Cold War had many more significant consequences for the landscape, one of which was the upgrading and expansion of radar stations. The aerial survey provided the opportunity to map the new domestic complex (MDV72114) for the Hartland Point ROTOR site under construction in 1954, as well as the recently erected buildings and masts of its remote Fixer station at Baxworthy Cross (MDV102234). A large aircraft direction arrow at Bursdon Moor (MDV102324) resembles the Second World War bombing range target indicator at Putsborough , but it is not visible on aerial photographs before 1959. Could it also be associated with the radar station, or does it perhaps show the direction to a bombing range in the Bristol Channel – if you remember what this arrow was used for we’d love to hear from you.
Harder to define are the structures that were briefly visible on Broadsands in the 1950s (MDV102705). A network of masts was visible in 1952, at least 250 metres long and 12 masts deep. It was later apparently replaced by a different enigmatic structure; by 1956 the masts had gone and a rectangular barge or platform was established in the intertidal zone. Both are likely to be military, again perhaps related to radar – if you know more why not let us know!
An extensive network of masts on Broadsands in the process of distribution or removal in 1952. RAF/540/1949 5032 24-NOV-1952. English Heritage (RAF Photography).