Conflict archaeology — the archaeology of communities preparing for, or involved in, military or civil strife — is a relatively new discipline, asking questions about the physical and cultural landscapes of wartime Britain. In this light, the order quoted above becomes a check-list for the landscape of defence created by the British Government between 1936 and 1944. At Shooters Hill in south-east London, we have been exploring various strands of evidence, trying to reconstruct that landscape.
This is important because World War II, and especially the invasion threat of 1940-1943, is the subject of much modern folk-lore. Could conflict archaeology contribute to an understanding of what really happened? Our starting-point was a sequence of air photographs studied on behalf of a local educational charity, The Woodlands Farm Trust.
On 7 August 1944, the pilot of a photo-reconnaissance aircraft of 309 (Polish) Squadron RAF took a sequence of vertical exposures, flying from east to west over Shooters Hill. We do not know why the sortie was flown; it might have been a training flight, or even part of a mapping programme to assess bomb damage with a view to post-war reconstruction. Whichever, the flight created a unique record of the wartime landscape of Shooters Hill.
Frame 3144 showed six rectangular buildings inside an enclosure on the western margin of Woodlands Farm. The huts did not appear on any maps, nor did they feature in any of the extensive oral history work carried out by the farm’s history group. They also appeared to be separated from the farm by the enclosure and linked by a track to another installation sited on the golf-course immediately to the west. The buildings appeared to be of Nissan Hut-type, so, on the assumption that this was a wartime installation, we consulted the Defence of Britain database and the Greater London Sites and Monuments Record.
The site was soon identified as No. 7 Z AA Battery, Royal Artillery. It also transpired that Z (anti-aircraft rocket) batteries were rare, with only 51 examples recorded for the whole of the UK, with just one, Roan Head in the Orkneys, surviving in recognisable form. Further research showed that by 1943 these manpower-hungry sites were operated largely by the Home Guard. It took 128 operators simply to crew the 64 projectors, with numerous others involved in ancillary tasks ranging from staffing the control room to running the NAAFI. Most would have been local men and women, leading to hopes that some of them, or their families, may well be traceable.
This preliminary work took place in 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, and that summer the Woodlands Farm Trust obtained a grant from the Home Front Recall Fund of the National Lottery to carry out a new programme, ‘The 05.45 Project’. The aim was to tie archaeology, the air photographs, and the results of topographic and geophysical surveys undertaken by Birkbeck College into a project involving local children from Plumcroft Primary School, and members of the wartime generation contacted through word-of-mouth and an appeal in The South London Mercury, a local free newspaper.
For the full article, see Current Archaeology 228
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