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20th Century Military Heritage NHPP Activity 4E2

Research carried out 2011-2015 to assess the significance and character of 20th century military heritage; a century of major conflicts that resulted in increasing use of land for military purposes.

An aerial view of the vast Shorncliffe Camp, Kent
Shorncliffe Camp, Kent. During rationalisation and improvement projects English Historic England works with the Ministry of Defence to ensure this long military heritage is respected in future developments. © English Heritage Archives 24775-007

Scope of the activity

The modern industrialised warfare that characterised the major conflicts of the 20th century, saw the mobilisation of a large percentage of the population and through growing mechanisation, the militarisation of vast tracts of land.

By the end of the Second World War around one fifth of the land area of the United Kingdom was occupied for military purposes. Land was required for munitions factories to equip the large citizen armies, for camps to house these forces, and extensive training areas to perfect mechanised military tactics. The 20th century also witnessed the development of military aviation that in turn required hundreds of airfields for its operations.

Since the early 1990s we have been at the forefront of understanding and protecting modern military remains. Some topics remained poorly understood and further research was required to determine their significance and to make sure they are protected.

Aerial view of a group of 3 former missile launch emplacements
Harrington, Northamptonshire. A group of three listed Thor missile launch emplacements. During the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, its three nuclear armed intermediate range ballistic missiles were held on alert © English Heritage Archives 21741-23

Expected protection results

Protection results included:

  • The listing and scheduling of the nationally most significant monuments.
  • The projects were also designed to provide advice for individuals, local communities, and other organisations to recognise and assess the significance of modern military remains and to work for their protection through master planning, local listing and other measures.

The image shows two men recording a First World War site
Dan Snow, President of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), and Stephen Fisher, CBA Wessex Group, create the first record for the Home Front Legacy 1914-18 project, Gosport practice trenches. © English Heritage

Projects in this activity

First World War

2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. We reviewed existing records of First World War related sites in England to identify gaps in knowledge and protection. This information will be used to start assessment projects of poorly protected classes of First World War remains.

A pilot project has been funded to develop a methodology for researchers to record the legacy of the First World War in their localities, and to produce electronic records that may be used to improve national and local records. Find out more about this pilot project and if you would like to get involved in documenting traces of the war in your area see the website of the Home Front Legacy Project, coordinated by the Council for British Archaeology.

The common image of the First World War is of the trenches of the Western Front. But, off our shores an equally deadly battle was waged on shipping by German warships, submarines, and mines. A number of coastal towns were also bombarded from the sea. A report on the East Coast War Channels highlights the measures that were put in place to safeguard allied shipping in the North Sea and looks at their submerged and terrestrial heritage.

You can discover more about investigations into First World War remains in England in an edition of Conservation Bulletin dedicated to this theme and through the Historic England First World War web pages

Find out more about the global commemoration of the Centenary of the First World War.

Temporary Airfields of the Second World War

The Second World War saw major changes in the pace and design of building military airfields. To meet the increased needs of the war as economically as possible, hundreds of temporary airfields were constructed. Their remains are a challenge for conservation and protection, partly because they were built in materials that were originally only intended to last for the duration of the war. We commissioned an audit of these temporary airfields and you can download the report.

Defence disposals

During the next decade an increasing number of Ministry of Defence sites will be declared surplus to requirement and put up for disposal. In many instances, due to their closed and secretive nature, their historical significance is not well understood, and many are inadequately recorded in national and local heritage databases. We believe their heritage value to be significant in some cases.

The project’s principal aims were the timely dissemination of information about historic character and significance and, in some cases, a focussed assessment of individual structures. The results of the project were published online via the PastScape website and through Historic Environment Records. We piloted the project in Wiltshire, see the results in a report here.

Visits were made to 24 disposal and major redevelopment sites, these included:

  • St Georges Barracks, Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire.
  • Daws Hill, Buckinghamshire; Foxhill, Bath.
  • Warminster Road, Bath; and Ensleigh, Bath.
  • Defence School for Languages Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.
  • Turnchapel, Plymouth.
  • Arborfield Barracks, Berkshire.
  • Deepcut Barracks, Berkshire.
  • RAF Welford, Berkshire.

Desk based assessments were also completed for 40 Reserve Forces sites.

Corsham mines

Corsham Mines, a former Bath stone quarry, was used as an underground arsenal in the Second World War. It was further adapted during the Cold War to serve as the Central Government War Headquarters in the event of a nuclear war. We worked with the Ministry of Defence to safeguard historic murals, sites and artefacts at the tunnel complex, through monitoring their condition. This included using photographic surveys.

Cold War designation

The Cold War, the ideological stand-off between the largely democratic and market-oriented economies of the West and the communist dominated countries of the East, defined the bi-polar world of the late 20th century.

In England, it is the military expression of this stand-off that has left the most marked effect on the built environment. This project assessed the key sites of the period to ensure that the most significant remains that exemplify our national experience of the Cold War are safe-guarded. Structures and buildings on 17 sites were listed or scheduled. These include:

Find out more about protecting Cold War sites from our English Heritage blog "Heritage Calling" . You can also learn more about the military heritage of Foulness and Fort Halstead from two earlier research reports.

Aircraft crash sites

It has been estimated that around 10,000 military aircraft were lost during the 20th century over the United Kingdom. Of these only about a fifth are recorded on heritage databases. Although various wartime records of these losses do survive, their precise location was often poorly recorded or in the 21st century is no longer immediately obvious.

This project engaged with local Historic Environment Records (HERs) and volunteers to better identify locations of crash sites. A trial project with Kent County Council explored how HER volunteers might contribute to the enhancement of aircraft crash site records. In Kent 635 records were added to the HER, more than doubling the total. This improved information will allow greater respect and caution to be shown to crash sites threatened by development proposals.

The English Heritage guidance note on military aircraft crash sites will also be revised and reissued.

Military communications

During the 20th century the application of telecommunications and wireless technologies transformed the conduct of military operations. Through the development of electronic eavesdropping, it also opened up the possibility of gaining an unprecedented knowledge about an enemy’s intentions.

Notable protected examples of interception sites include the code breaking centre at Bletchley Park and its outstation at Beaumanor, Leicestershire. From the 1930s governments recognised the value of the radio to broadcast propaganda to their citizens and beyond their borders. This project audited existing records and to identify gaps in our knowledge and in what needs to be protected.  We commissioned a study of First World War wireless stations in England, enabling this class of site to be better understood.

photograph of a village sign recalling its wartime airfield
Connington, Cambridgeshire, the memories embodied in wartime airfields are valued by veterans, friends associations and in their localities, where they are often commemorated by memorials and representations on village signs. © WD Cocroft

Links to other NHPP activities and projects

  • Military towns improving our understanding of the growth of the civil and military elements of towns associated with the military (Activity 4A1).
  • Civil defence for transport this included a small project to assess the legacy of aspects of air raid precautions for the railways. (Activity 4B3)
  • Naval dockyards – enhancing our knowledge of the development of naval dockyards in the 20th century (Activity 4A3).
  • Drill Halls – an architectural and historical review of this understudied class of buildings (Activity 4A4).
  • Grants for war memorials scheme – support for the conservation and repair of war memorials (Activity 8A3).

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