Adding a New Layer: 20th Century Heritage in Worcestershire – Defence
- 2nd September 2020
The landscape of Worcestershire, like the landscape of many rural counties, is scattered with the remains of buildings and places associated with World War I and World War II military infrastructure, civil defence and commemoration. From airfields, army camps, military hospitals, munitions factories and prisoner of war camps to anti-invasion defences, air raid shelters, drill halls, memorial halls, stabling for horses and allotments, many of these buildings and places have been recorded by volunteer researchers as part of the Council for British Archaeology’s Defence of Britain and Home Front Legacy Projects and the Defence of Worcestershire Project.
Over the past two years Worcestershire’s Historic Environment Record has been working to identify, record and better understand the significance of 20th Century buildings and public places across the County. Many more await discovery and assessment!
Funded by Historic England, this project has also aimed to strengthen the public’s awareness and appreciation of ‘everyday’ 20th Century heritage, its conservation, value and significance.
From County Small Holdings and Schools to Village Halls and National Chain Stores, this blog will – over the next couple of months – explore the diverse range and legacy of our 20th Century heritage and celebrate the extra layer of richness it brings to both our lives and landscapes.
Official clearing schemes and the temporary nature of many buildings and structures has already resulted in a high level of loss. Many extant buildings and places remain vulnerable to neglect, decay and re-development. Despite extensive research and programmes of recording there remains buildings and places yet to be discovered. Two recent discoveries include a WWII Bailey Bridge, over Dowles Brook in the Wyre Forest and a reused WWI accommodation hut, known as an Armstrong Hut, in St Johns, Worcester.
As a rural, inland county, far-removed from the theatre of war, Worcestershire became the temporary home of many military personal in need of convalescence; the tranquil landscape being part of the cure. Properties across the county were offered or requisitioned and hospitals were upgraded or newly constructed to both deal with the expected casualties and respond to medical advances, which included X-Ray and Psychology. It wasn’t just British troops that were stationed in the county. During World War II, Blackmore Park near Malvern was requisitioned by American forces, and two 1,000 bed general hospitals built (Collins and Collins 2008, vii). Three other sites in the area – Brickbarns, Merebrook and Wood Farm – were also set aside for U.S hospitals, each specialising in different types of treatment and surgery (Collins and Collins, 2008, viii). Wolverley Camp, at the Lea Castle Estate in Kidderminster, was also funded by American lend lease funds and, with accommodation for 500 patients, was used by American servicemen until the end of World War II.
The mobilisation of society during both World Wars was complex and required organised administration. Although bombing in Worcestershire was minimal, the county had nevertheless, prepared itself for heavy raids. Schools were requisitioned as emergency feeding stations, and villages had a designated first aid point; most often the Village Hall. Larger villages, towns and cities had first aid posts, manned by health professionals. Factories were requisitioned for military production, manufacturing all manner of munitions as well as staple products such as blankets and jam, and hundreds of acres of pasture was ploughed up or ‘improved’ to increase agricultural production. Several Prisoner of War camps were also established in the county, their rural and often remote locations making it difficult for POWs to escape. Many POWs were accommodated in barrack-style camps and deployed as agricultural labourers. At their peak, in 1946, POWs formed one fifth of the British rural workforce (Custodis 2012, 243).
Worcestershire was also intended to be central to the nation’s resistance movement with Worcester City and Kidderminster designated as anti-tank islands—strongpoints to threaten the flank of an enemy but also to act as ‘honeypots’ to draw them in and allow the regular army to then attack in force (Atkin, 2003, 2). Stop lines were established at strategic points to slow the enemy down should there be an invasion, with pill boxes and anti-tank defences concentrated at nodal points – such as around Pershore – considered to be of high strategic importance.
During World War II Worcestershire had been chosen to re-house the government and key government departments and institutions, should London have fallen (Wilks 2007, 22). Both the British and Dutch Royal Families would have also been temporarily accommodated in the county before making their way up through Shropshire to Liverpool, where they would have made their way to Canada. Many institutions and services were relocated or partially relocated to the county including the BBC, the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), the Air Defence Research and Development Establishment (ADRDE), the Admiralty and the Bank of England. Numerous temporary office buildings (TOBs) and ancillary buildings, such as canteens and air raid shelters, were constructed and housing estates expanded to accommodate workers (including those moving to work in factories) re-locating to the county.
Buildings and places associated with the Cold War are less well documented, with many, until very recently, shrouded in secrecy and without official acknowledgement. As the tensions between East and West escalated, during the Cold War, Worcestershire was appointed one of ten Regional Seats of Government (RSG), in England. Established at the WWII government owned ‘Shadow (Dispersal) Factory’ at Drakelow the RSG was designed to accommodate 300-350 members of staff, link into communications systems such as the BBCs Emergency Broadcasting Network and be capable of self-sufficiency for several months, following a nuclear attack. The site continued in use as a Regional Government Headquarters until 1993/4 when the site was cleared, and land put up for sale. Several Cold War bunkers and listening/transmitting facilities are known across the county, including the BBC built nuclear proof transmitting facility at Wood Norton
Atkin, M 2003 The Archaeology of World War II. West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Seminar 7
Collins, F and Collins, M 2008 Blackmore Park in World War Two: An Account of the US Army Hospitals at Blackmore Park, Malvern, 1943-1945. Warwick: Brewin Books
Custodis, J 2012 ‘Employing the enemy: the contribution of German and Italian Prisoners of War to British Agriculture during and after the Second World War’. Agricultural History Review 60, No. 2. [Accessed 2019]
Drakelow Tunnels. 2014.
Wilks, M 2007 The Defence of Worcestershire and the Southern Approaches to Birmingham in World War II. Hereford: Logaston Press
The Bank of England 1939-45 (Unpublished War History) (last updated December 2019).