Student Research Post: Searching for World War II Remains

This is a post written by student Dan Joyce, who is currently studying on the Archaeological Computing MSc at the University of Southampton.  Dan is one of the team who have been on site during the two surveying weeks that we have been running at Basing House, and is doing his major project on Basing House. 

Although I was actually on site to continue a survey of the buildings within the Old House the corner of a drawing from the 1964-1996 excavations preliminary report peaked my interest by mentioning a 1939-45 Gun Site, while a quick search on the Pastscape website brought up a record on a Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery and Radar site in Basing although it suggested that there were no remains. A search of the usually useful Defense of Britain database brought up no results.

Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery. From Brown et. al. 1996. 20th Century Defences in Britain - An Introductory Guide. CBA. P.53

Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery. From Brown et. al. 1996. 20th Century Defences in Britain – An Introductory Guide. CBA. P.53

One of the drawbacks of being a Conflict Archaeologist is that you spend a great deal of time dragging yourself through dense undergrowth or up the side of hills in search of some interesting overgrown structure. And these snippets of information led me to be in the same situation on an overcast Tuesday morning, walking through some woods searching for evidence of a structure.

This continued until I came across what was obviously a railway rail sticking upright from the ground. I knew that they had been used in the War in some defensive situations and thought it likely that this was another instance of a World War 2 construction. In all 8 similar rails were discovered in 2 groups of 4 and a poke with a stick as well as the boggy state of the ground made it obvious that a concrete slab was located between them.

A cursory survey of the ground between the rails also discovered another interesting metal object set in the concrete that may possibly have been the foot of the gun emplacement that I was looking for. And upon searching the internet when I returned to University I came across a number of other examples of similar objects associated with gun emplacements.

Photograph of the structure. Taken by Dan Joyce.

Photograph of the structure. Taken by Dan Joyce.

Further searches in the woods came across a second apparently identical structure, although this one was possibly damaged.

But having seen Heavy Anti-Aircraft Batteries at more than one location I knew that these were much larger concrete structures with concrete walls and compartments around the gun for storing ammunition, this structure was much smaller with no evidence of ancillary structures although there were bricks strewn across the woodland floor.

Location of the structure, according to Combley et al. From Combley, R C, J W Notman & H H Pike 1968. 'Further Excavations at Basing House, 1964-66', Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club 23 pt 3, P.102

Location of the structure, according to Combley et al. From Combley, R C, J W Notman & H H Pike 1968. ‘Further Excavations at Basing House, 1964-66’, Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club 23 pt 3, P.102

Due to the size of the structures it appears that this might be a Light Anti-Aircraft Battery using a gun such as the 20mm Oerlikon. Further research will hopefully answer the many questions about these interesting structures.

— Dan Joyce

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15 comments

  1. Ian Barefoot · · Reply

    Have you checked out the ‘Defence of Britain’ project? This looks similar to an anti-tank gun emplacement at Waverley Abbey near Farnham which was part of the GHQ defence line based on the River Wey. The GHQ line took on natural and manmade watercourses like canals – and Basing House isnt far from the Basinstoke Canal.
    Interesting area tho’. Shows we potentially know less about 1939-45 than we do about 43-450AD!

    1. Dan Joyce · · Reply

      Hey, yeah have looked on the ‘Defence of Britain’ project website (and their really useful plugin for Google Earth), sadly nothing. The grid co-ordinates for the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery mentioned on the Pastscape website closely match the location of this. But it certainly doesn’t look like one.
      I know the Waverley Abbey area quite well, and it does look like that sort of thing, I would expect a pillbox if it was an anti-tank gun though, and even if the bricks strewn around were part of the site I am not sure there are enough to make one, and there is no evidence around the base that suggests that there was any concrete coming up from the ground.
      Yeah I must have a look at the defences along the canal when I have a chance.
      It certainly is very interesting and it does seem strange that something so relatively new seems to have been forgotten.

  2. Russell Priest · · Reply

    Have you had a look to see if there are any aerial photos which show these structures? They could well be a LAA, but some of these are pretty rudimenary and quickly got rid of..

    1. Dan Joyce · · Reply

      Looking at aerial photos is certainly on my list of things to do, as is finding where the reference to the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery comes from so I can research it further. Yeah it certainly looks far more rudimentary than the massive amount of work that was put into constructing Heavy Anti-Aircraft Batteries. Finding examples of LAA batteries seems to be quite difficult, probably because of their rudimentary nature.

  3. Excellent post Danny. I’m soon to be in receipt of Dobinson’s AA Command if you need a look. Have you found anything on view coverage from pillboxes on your travels?

    1. Dan Joyce · · Reply

      Why thank you, sorry for late reply. Yeah that would be amazing! Was talking to Graeme about someone who did a dissertation here on pillbox fields of fire it that helps, am gonna go look at it at some point.

  4. Tony Honeyman · · Reply

    Hi

    This is a really interesting find. There was an anti-aircraft position as you say but the remains could be from another World war II structure. In 1940 an anti-tank ditch was dug across the field to the south of the Basing House motte and bailey. This was part of the Salisbury East Line which went from Salisbury, south of Basingstoke and over to Fleet. The ditch was about eight feet deep. Gaps or weak points would have been filled with obstacles and one type used was lengths of rail line set vertically in to concrete bases. Those I have seen tend to have the rails in a line. Could it be this?

  5. Dan Joyce · · Reply

    Hi Tony,
    I was thinking the same thing when i first discovered them, and i had already researched about them setting rails into concrete, although i haven’t personally seen one. But the fact that upon investigation, by poking a stick into the ground, the concrete slab appeared to be roughly circular and 3m in diameter and the rails were set in a circular arrangement around the edge suggested to me that it was something more substantial, and there are at least two of them. Since the gun emplacement was meant to be temporary I was thinking that this may be all the construction that was required.

    1. Tony Honeyman · · Reply

      Hi Dan
      You are right that they were mostly in a line or in a large concrete raft if they were anti-tank defences. Here are some I found near Pangbourne. http://www.flickr.com/photos/23690313@N04/4558337141/in/set-72157623821007293
      I have gone to the original documents from the National Archives in Kew and the Basing site is shown as a Heavy Anti-Aircraft site (BY10) and so the buildings would have been substantial and not really temporary (altho all these defences were not made to last for ever). The circular areas could be the gun holdfasts (normally four) but they seem small if your dimensions are right. There are photos of the remains of other HAA sites on the web, particularly at Derelict Places.

    2. Tony Honeyman · · Reply

      Solved!!! I posted the link on to the Pillbox Study Group site and Alasdair Ford posted a photo of a HAA holdfast base at Otley with the same rails showing.
      http://pillboxstudygroup.freeforums.org/basing-haa-site-t1241.html

  6. it looks to be a standard HAA holdfast there are several examples of complete mounts without an associated gun pit on the periphery of surviving HAA sites, I’ve not found a satisfactory explanation as to why they are there. There is a picture of the example at Otley in my flickr set http://www.flickr.com/photos/fanatical/9653997991/in/set-72157635350863304 the gunpit in the diagram is a 1938 pattern pit – later ones incorporated crew shelters as at Otley however many gun sites later in the war particularly those constructed to counter the v weapon attacks had earthworks rather than concrete pits although I assume the holdfast was identical. it could be that you’ve found an orphan holdfast or perhaps a site that had limited earthwork protection. almost all of the later sites I’ve seen photos of do have a full command post though.

  7. Dan Joyce · · Reply

    Brilliant, well done Tony it looks almost identical! And the ground is certainly soft. Just have to find the other two now.

    1. Tony Honeyman · · Reply

      So if it was a HAA site it is likely that not only did it have the four (?) holdfasts but it also had other features such as stores and a command bunker. These have almost definitely been demolished but it could be that their bases remain and so will crop up in any wider surveying of the site. It would be interesting to find out where they were. The best way is aerial photos….does the project have any of the site from either 1943 (USAAF most likely) or 1946 (RAF)?

      Let me know if you want a jpeg copy of the document from Kew with the mention of the HAA site for the project records.

  8. Dan Joyce · · Reply

    Yeah according to the pastscape website it certainly had four guns and it should have a GL Mark II radar site as well.

    I went to Hampshire council to look at their aerial photos, but they are slightly later ones (1950s also sadly I only got a photocopy for copy-write reasons). They don’t seem to show anything certain except the backfilled anti-tank ditch although you can see a cleared area of forest where it was located. Since then the woods have grown quite a bit so nothing is now visible from the air. We didn’t have the budget to get any other aerial photos.

    Nothing appeared in the geophys results adjacent to this area on the common so anything else is most likely hidden in the woods.

    Yeah a copy of the Kew records would be great thanks, my email is djj1g12@soton.ac.uk

  9. Tony Honeyman · · Reply

    Alasdair

    This site is recorded on a 1942 Defence Plan so it is likely to be of early-war design rather than the later designs.

    All the best
    Tony

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