Military Sites research

Control room, York nuclear bunker

1. Background

Since 1994 English Heritage has been commissioning and undertaking research with the aim of improving understanding of recent military heritage as a sound basis for meeting future management needs. This sits comfortably within corporate and political agenda as set out in Power of Place and Force for our Future, which together recognise the need to view the historic environment in a holistic way, and engage a wider community by recognising and interpreting the historic landscape in all of its diversity.

Although surviving military airfields, coast batteries, radar stations and pillboxes for example were acknowledged as having historic and archaeological interest since at least the 1970s, knowledge was insufficient to support robust conservation management decisions. We didn’t know how rare a surviving example of a wartime Chain Home radar station was for example; we didn’t know how unusual it was to find an intact heavy anti-aircraft gunsite. Yet, for a resource increasingly under threat, for example with brownfield development and reorganisation within the armed forces, the need to respond was immediate. From the mid 1990s it also became obvious that public interest in this subject was immense, as evidenced by numbers of book sales, television viewing figures for programmes covering recent military archaeology, and the numbers of visitors to monuments such as the wartime hospital at Dover Castle. Part of this was due to a burgeoning interest in the history and material culture of the familiar past, and part to the  memory of these sites, in addition to their wider cultural significance.

It is a popular subject therefore, yet we were aware that sites were increasingly vulnerable to development pressure and new uses. It was for these related reasons that English Heritage undertook studies to improve understanding of recent military heritage. Some of the key issues are outlined here, with details of some recent projects. A selection of weblinks provides more information.

2. The recent past: why it matters

It is sometimes said that the cultural heritage sector should not concern itself with the recent past: it is too recent to be considered ‘archaeological’ or even historic, or for objective judgements to be possible, for example concerning the significance of particular sites or artefacts.

Furthermore, some consider archaeology of this period to be unnecessary: ‘we know everything we need to know through documentary sources and oral history’. We disagree on all counts. Archaeology is not in our view something necessarily ‘ancient’ or beyond memory. Archaeology is a method of exploring and interpreting the world around us; it is an approach, a set of skills and ideas which together combine to frame certain types of question. We deal in structures and objects, which can be both old and recent, and there are many published studies now which emphasise the benefits of using archaeology to ask new questions about our own times, recent times – as a critique on modern life (see for example our Change and Creation programme –, and the Modern Times issue of Conservation Bulletin). Recent military heritage is therefore one branch of a wider field of study and in turn needs to inform and be informed by approaches in other disciplines such as military, social, economic and industrial history, and strategic studies. But it is appropriate also, in view of its distinctive sites and buildings, and the conservation challenges it presents, that we treat it separately.

Until recently this military heritage was poorly understood and focused research into particular classes of monument has sought to redress that. We needed to know for all monument classes what matters and why, and to do that we needed first to establish what was built originally, how broad the typological range was, where these sites were, why they were there, and when they were subsequently removed. How many of the original population of sites survives today, and how complete are they? Are the surviving sites legible and coherent? Could a visitor understand the workings of a World War II bombing decoy from what remains? Could visitors understand the enormity of contruction effort in the Cold War by visiting the sites of that period that remain today?

History can tell us so much, for example about the political climate of the time, and what might have happened if certain defence measures were not put in place. Local folklore and folk memory will contribute to understanding the impact of airfields, for example, on local communities. Artists inspired by monuments of war will offer an interpretation of current values that people attribute to what are often perceived as ugly, unsafe and unprepossessing places. Yet archaeology and the characterisation of this resource are best placed to determine the questions that require answers in the name of informed conservation and management.

3. Initiatives

Second World War Monument Classes

English Heritage first commissioned work in 1995 into some of the more significant classes of Second World War monument and – to a lesser extent – the Cold War. This work also covered in part monuments of World War I and the inter-war years. Work was confined to sites in England, though subsequent projects commissioned by other national agencies extended coverage to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Our approach was to use documentary sources held in the Public Record Office (now the National Archive) to examine in detail the following classes:

  • Anti-aircraft gunsites
  • Operation Diver gunsites
  • Bombing decoys of World War II
  • Anti-invasion defences
  • Coast artillery
  • Civil defence
  • Airfield defences
  • Acoustics and radar
  • Cold War (specific classes only)
  • Operation Overlord preparatory sites

This work was undertaken by Colin Dobinson, much of it in partnership with the Council for British Archaeology. Colin Dobinson also undertook a scoping study using official records for airfields. Two of these studies have now been published as books, in the Monuments of War series, by Methuen (Dobinson 2000; 2001). The remainder will be published in 2009, starting with the volume on airfields and their defences.

This documentary work represented Stage 1 of our approach, determining what was built, where and why. A second stage was required to determine which sites have survived and this was achieved using 1946 and recent aerial photographs. By examining the earlier source and then the later it was possible to determine which sites remained, and measure survival according to completeness. The result was that, despite their comparatively recent date, very few of these sites have remained, and that only a small percentage of those are anything like complete, with buildings and plan form remaining intact. Some classes have fared better than others, largely through their continued use through the Cold War period, though this inevitably involved significant alteration. This was the case with radar stations for example. The ‘Stage 2’ study was only possible for those classes consistently visible on both sets of aerial photographs. The study was completed successfully for:

  • Anti-aircraft gunsites
  • Operation Diver sites
  • Bombing decoys
  • Coast batteries
  • Radar

The work was undertaken by Michael J Anderton. A similar project has recently been completed for prisoner of war camps by Roger JC Thomas, and this can be accessed online at A separate study by Paul Francis was undertaken to cover airfield defences, based on the research and archives of the Airfield Research Group. Research has also now been undertaken for army camps:, and control centres.

Since January 2008 a project to aid the dissemination of some of the datasets mentioned above, funded by the Historic Environment Enabling Programme (HEEP), has been underway as part of an EU Culture 2000 Landscapes of War project. The reports series is being used to create database records in the National Monument Record’s Archives and Monuments Information England (AMIE) database, with recording contracted to a Wessex Archaeology staff member based at the National Monuments Record. The database feeds into the PastScape website, which in turn is a resource searchable on the English Heritage/ HER community partnership website, Heritage Gateway

Beyond these studies into specific classes of monument are various other targeted research programmes, covering anti-invasion defences and defence landscapes, airfields, naval heritage, army and naval barracks, military aircraft crash sites, Cold War (beyond the four specific classes of monument referred to above), and wall art. We have also undertaken some landscape characterisation work on the military estate. A short explanation of each of these research areas follows:

Anti-invasion defences

Anti-invasion defences were initially the subject of documentary research (referred to above). This provided context, information on typology and the strategic framework within which anti-invasion defences were constructed during World War II. What documents could not provide reasonably and cost-effectively however was specific information on where sites were, and what survives today, information that was needed if surviving defence landscapes were to be evaluated, and the most deserving cases subject to appropriate conservation and management. Between 1994-2002 the HLF-funded Defence of Britain Project used volunteers to record nearly 14,000 anti-invasion defences in Britain, of which nearly 8000 are pillboxes. Although not as comprehensive or as precise as the statistics now available for other classes of World War II monument, these figures are broadly accurate of what survives, and can be set against the reliable estimate of 28,000 pillboxes originally built in the UK, suggesting c. 21% survival. From this work we know how many of each type of anti-invasion defence structure survives, where they are and in what condition. This has enabled us to determine which examples in England warrant conservation management, and in some cases statutory protection.

But the significance of these structures often rests more with their group value and landscape context. Here we have completed a national study of defence areas, to determine which are the most complete, the most coherent and the most legible. We have examined both the defence structures themselves, and their landscape setting using aerial photographs from 1946 and today. We have also studied transcriptions made during English Heritage’s National Mapping Programme, for example in Suffolk. In all, sixty-seven areas meet the criteria of completeness and cohesion, ranging from discrete defended locations to longer stretches of defensive stop-lines. It is hoped that these areas can be used for public interpretation and access. A book describing this project and the areas identified and studied is available (Foot 2006).


To provide context for the more focused research programmes outlined above, two parallel studies have been commissioned.

An analysis of airbase architecture and survival has been compiled by Paul Francis, author of Military Airfield Architecture and the acknowledged national expert on the subject. Additionally, Colin Dobinson has undertaken archival research, exploring certain themes relating to airfield planning and architecture, particularly from 1923, which has enabled us to gain a fresh overview of the subject at a strategic level and understand the rationale and forces which determined the typology, distribution and development of military sites. He also undertook specific studies of some key sites such as Netheravon (Wiltshire) and RAF Cranwell (Lincolnshire).

This work informed the thematic survey of airfields which highlighted the need to consider them as functionally-interdependent ensembles. The criteria by which sites were selected for protection through listing focused on a range of factors, in addition to the degree of completeness of individual buildings or groups. Over 250 buildings are now protected, the majority of these concentrated on the 26 ‘key’ aviation sites in England which, as a consequence of events on the world stage, military imperatives or varying degrees of public and political support, best reflect the development of military aviation from 1910 to 1945 (see Knowledge of the international context has been vital to our work, providing additional confidence to difficult and sometimes controversial decisions about what can or cannot be protected and has enabled a sharper and more critical focus to be brought on what has survived in this country and elsewhere in Europe. It is now known, for example, that the group of sites developed around the army training areas at Salisbury Plain before 1914, and that have survived remarkably intact, represent a uniquely important survival (see Lake et al. 2005).

Naval heritage

By the end of the eighteenth century the dockyards of the Royal Navy were the largest industrial complexes in the world. By the 1850s the fleet was mostly powered by steam, a close co-operation between the state yards and the private sector resulting in the construction from the 1830s of new steam factories designed around new types of industrial plant, initially for the fitting out and maintenance of boilers and engines in line-of-battle ships which looked little different from their predecessors that had fought at Trafalgar half a century earlier.

Even before the end of the Cold War the privatisation and rationalisation of the naval dockyards at Sheerness, Chatham, Portland and parts of Portsmouth made them much more widely accessible to the public, and their buildings receptive to a new diversity of civilian uses. Whilst the structures associated with the ‘Wooden Navy’ had been studied, the designations needed to be evaluated and the sites assessed in their broader national and international context. As a result English Heritage commissioned a study of the nineteenth-century Steam Navy (Evans 2004). Similar documentary studies of the naval ordnance yards was also commissioned, in close collaboration with Gosport Borough Council who owned Priddy’s Hard (Hampshire) (Evans 2006). Typescript reports are available online for ordnance yards and depots and for Naval dockyards.

Finally, a character-based study examining and guiding management of the rich archaeological potential of the Royal dockyards at Plymouth and Portsmouth has been completed and should be available online soon.

Shipwrecks are another aspect of England’s naval heritage. The National Monuments Record dataset of wrecks is constantly being added to. This dataset includes large numbers of military vessels and also merchantmen lost due to warlike action. A recent addition includes records for Norwegian shipping lost in English waters to German submarines in the First World War: despite being a neutral country the Norwegians lost 50% of their merchant fleet in 1914-18.

Army and Naval Barracks

One of the first thematic studies undertaken for recent military heritage was of barracks to 1914 (Douet 1998). This study raised the profile of the subject at a critical moment, when many of these sites were being sold for development or reorganised for changing military requirements. It emphasised that national protection can stimulate rather than constrain imaginative new development that responds to a sense of place, many of the sites affected by our recommendations for protection being transformed from candidates for demolition into highly sought-after real estate. It also served at an early stage to emphasise the historical and international context that is fundamental to the study of military sites.

Military aircraft crash sites

Given the scale of aerial operations over the UK since the earliest experiments with flight in 1911-12, it is not surprising that many aircraft have crashed in or around the UK, mostly during World War II. Interest in military aviation and aviation archaeology is growing, meaning that the archaeological remains are increasingly vulnerable. Currently licences for excavation are granted by the Ministry of Defence who in determining applications will take the likelihood of human remains and live ordnance surviving within the crash site into consideration. Work by English Heritage, supported by MoD and the British Aviation Archaeological Council has suggested that historical significance should also be a factor. It isn’t suggested that crash sites should be preserved in situ necessarily. Rather that crash sites should be considered alongside any other archaeological site, with any excavation fully justified, properly executed and archived. The English Heritage survey noted that particular care should be taken with those crashed aircraft which have historical significance, and criteria were defined for determining this. A Guidance Note is available online (see Reference below), and via the HELM webpages.

Cold War

Monuments of the Cold War – focusing on those at most risk of destruction without record (airfields and associated radar and missile sites, civil defence and industrial complexes) - have been the subject of a major national study, culminating in the book Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation (Wayne Cocroft and Roger JC Thomas 2003). This is a detailed account of the archaeology and architecture of the Cold War in England, covering everything from the United States ‘umbrella’, to observation and monitoring, to defence technology. Some sites which came to define Britain’s experience of the Cold War, and its role within NATO – such as Greenham Common – are described in detail. Alongside this study English Heritage also completed an assessment of Cold War sites in England, determining which were the key sites: which were considered of national importance or of special historic interest. This assessment was distributed to local authorities in 2001. Establishing a European and global context for this work has involved close liaison with other European heritage agencies and interest groups and researchers in universities around the world.

Wall art

Wall art includes paintings, engravings and graffiti painted on military buildings or in buildings in the context of military use. These representations serve a variety of purposes but have significance in documenting military occupation and the use of space. Cultural differences between the services for example and between nations, and differences in the expressions of public and private space provide information on military buildings that cannot be drawn from other sources. English Heritage has produced a Guidance Note on this subject: A book has also been published (Cocroft et al. 2006).

Characterising Military Landscapes

Historic landscape characterisation (HLC) emerged in the 1990s in order to bring a stronger landscape dimension to heritage management practices, both within English Heritage and its local authority and other partners. Alongside HLC were urban characterisation programmes, for larger urban centres (the so-called ‘intensive’ surveys) and of smaller towns (‘extensive’). The military estate bears comparison with both of these landscape types. The urban progammes refer to sites that are often comparable in  size to military bases, have mixed use and similar population densities. The difference, often, is simply that these bases are enclosed, and access is closely controlled. Some military training areas are large and diverse enough to merit HLC. Some areas, such as Salisbury Plain Training Area, are comparable in size to local authority areas, the scale at which HLC is typically undertaken.

Given the pressure for change of use, downsizing amongst the armed forces, and the vulnerability of brown-field sites for development, characterisation provides a helpful framework for managing military sites. Studies have been undertaken at RAF Scampton (Lincolnshire) and Upper Heyford (Oxfordshire) to inform future management options. A study has also been undertaken at Bletchley Park, the Government Code and Cypher School in Buckinghamshire, and at Corsham (Bath). A further study has been completed using HLC principles at the largest active armoured post in the USA, at Fort Hood, Texas (Dingwall and Gaffney 2007). The intention with all these studies is not to simply identify which buildings should be preserved, but to create a broader framework within which informed management decisions can be made. For further information, see Finally, English Heritage survey teams have completed a number of studies in sites and landscapes characterised by their military occupation: at Spadeadam (Cumbria) for example, Foulness (Essex), the Needles (Isle of Wight) and Orford Ness (Suffolk).

European contexts

Culture 2000

English Heritage is a partner in a current Culture 2000 Landscapes of War project, which aims to promote the study and wider understanding of the heritage of European twentieth-century conflicts. Other partners in the project are: Coventry University, the Regional Government of Calabria (Italy), Conisma, a consortium of Mediterranean maritime scientific specialists, Bluimage, an underwater exploration and filming company; the Hanseatic City of Rostock (Germany), two Spanish cultural agencies - the Conseli Valencia de Cultura and the Federació Valenciana de Municipis i Províncies, and the French Centre de Conservation du Livre  The project has a number of outputs including the organization of a series of workshops, bringing together experts from across Europe to debate key themes such as Public Archaeology, Methods of Investigation, Values and Significance and Management and Conservation. Selected papers will be published by English Heritage/Cambridge University Press in 2009. Other products are inventories of sites in partner areas to be displayed via a website and public GIS, and promotional material including a brochure and video and an educational pack. A small travelling exhibition of information panels has been produced.

4. Managing change

The work summarised here provides for the first time a comprehensive account of the diversity of recent military heritage in England, and its wider geographical and historical context. Militarisation has had a significant influence on the changing character of the English landscape throughout the twentieth century, but only now can we appreciate fully the nature and speed of change and the scale of that influence. The research outlined here has value to archaeologists and historians studying the modern period, but also more specifically for English Heritage and others it has the related benefits of promoting public understanding and enjoyment of the historic environment, and providing the sound basis for informed conservation and management. Deciding what to protect for example, or what merits detailed consideration for determining planning applications can now be taken from a position of strength. We have a better understanding of the processes of change and decay. Within the context of the 1995 Monuments at Risk survey, our studies show significant decline of World War II monument numbers since 1946. We have a better appreciation also of managing what are often fragile structures and remains; work on wall art for example has caused us to consider methods for preserving spray paint graffiti, rather than just removing it. A set of published guidelines on managing military aviation sites has also been produced. Finally, we have a clearer idea of research priorities and future directions. ‘Modern Military Matters: studying and managing the twentieth-century defence heritage in Britain: a discussion document’ (J Schofield et al. 2004) has been published, and is now available at: This provides a statement of our current position, and where future priorities might lie.

5. Further Reading & Contacts

For general enquiries on military heritage, contact:

  • Dr John Schofield
    Head of Military Programmes
  • Roger J C Thomas
    Military Support Officer
  • Danielle Devlin
    Heritage Protection Team

Further reading

  • Cocroft, W.D. 2000. Dangerous Energy: the archaeology of gunpowder and military explosives manufacture. Swindon: English Heritage.
  • Cocroft, W. and Thomas, R.J.C. 2003. Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation, 1946-89. Swindon: English Heritage.
  • Cocroft, W., Devlin, D., Schofield, J. and Thomas, R.J.C. 2006. War Art: murals and graffiti – military life, power and subversion. Council for British Archaeology Research Report 147.
  • Dingwall, L. and Gaffney, V. (eds), 2007. Heritage management at Fort Hood, Texas. Experiments in historic landscape characterisation. Oxford: Archaeopress.
  • Dobinson, C. 2000. Fields of Deception: Britain’s bombing decoys of World War II. London: Methuen.
  • Dobinson, C. 2001. AA Command: Britain’s anti-aircraft defences of the Second World War. London: Methuen.
  • Dobinson, C., Lake, J. and Schofield, J. 1997. Monuments of War: defining England's 20th century defence heritage. Antiquity 71, 288-99.
  • Douet, J. 1998. British Barracks 1600-1914. London: English Heritage.
  • Evans, D. 2004: Building the Steam Navy. The Royal Dockyards and the Victorian Battle Fleet. Conway Maritime Press: London.
  • Evans, D. 2006. Arming the Fleet: the development of the Royal Ordnance Yards, 1770-1945. London: Explosion! Museum and English Heritage.
  • Foot, W. 2006. Beaches, fields, streets and hills: the anti-invasion landscapes of England, 1940. Council for British Archaeology, Research Report 144.
  • Hegarty, C and Newsome, S 2007. Suffolk’s Defended Shore. Swindon: English Heritage.
  • Lake, J., Dobinson, C. and Francis, P. 2005. ‘The evaluation of military aviation sites and structures in England’. In Hawkins, B., Lechner, G. and Smith, P. (2005) Historic Airports. Proceedings of the International ‘L’Europe de l’Air’ Conferences on Aviation Architecture. London: English Heritage.
  • Schofield, J. 2001. The role of aerial photographs in national strategic programmes: assessing recent military sites in England. In B. Bewley and W Raczowski (eds), The Use of Aerial Photographs in Europe, 269-82. Amsterdam, IOS Press.
  • Schofield, J., Klausmeier, A. and Purbrick, L. (eds) 2006. Re-mapping the field: new approaches in conflict archaeology. Berlin: Westkreuz-Verlag. Available at:

What's New?

Control room, York nuclear bunker © English Heritage Photo Library