Treasured Places In Focus
Recording Conflict: Defences of WWII
Susan Casey, Treasured Places Research Officer
Scotland's landscape bears the evidence of defence and warfare across millennia - our brochs, forts and castles all reflecting periods when displays of power and security were required. RCAHMS routinely undertakes surveys of these sites, and this includes 20th century defences - from pre-First World War batteries to Cold War bunkers and modern day firing ranges.
Survey of structures dating from the Second World War helps us to understand the upheavals of this period. During the conflict, the changing nature of warfare and the speed at which it developed resulted in massive disruption and the need for large-scale civil defence. Across Scotland, the structures which were built in response to this reflect both the actual and perceived threats caused by the war.
RCAHMS' survey of Second World War sites begins in the office, where our extensive collection of aerial photographs is explored for views of the area to be surveyed. This includes an extensive collection of photographs taken by the RAF during, and immediately after, the war and reconnaissance photographs taken by the Luftwaffe. Evidence of reuse or destruction can be obtained from more recent aerial coverage. Information obtained from The National Archives in London can include details of the arming and operation of batteries and other defences.
A specialist investigator then makes a field visit. During this, notes are taken on the structures - layout, condition, evidence of reuse and any unusual features. Of particular interest are any signs of original paintwork, contemporary graffiti or the survival of any metal fixtures and fittings. Sometimes, a photographer accompanies the investigator, or photography or measured survey is requested at a later date. All the information gathered during these field visits is recorded on the RCAHMS database, making it publicly accessible.
Recent survey work has been carried out around the Firth of Clyde, a shipping artery and vital route to Clydebank and Glasgow during the Second World War. Two sites illustrate well the different aspects of the war - the experiences of the civilian population and those of the military.
Larkfield Anti-Aircraft Battery is positioned on a hill above Gourock and illustrates the vulnerable position that the town was in. An area just offshore Gourock and Greenock, known as the ‘Tail of the Bank', served as a convoy assembly anchorage for merchant shipping. The skies above the Firth of Clyde were also a common approach route used by German bombers travelling up river towards Clydebank and Glasgow.
The remains of the battery exhibit the standard arrangement used across Britain, comprising gun emplacements, ammunition magazines, an engine room and command post. There are substantial remains of the original four emplacements, and grass-covered mounds represent two later additions which appear to have been deliberately demolished after the war.
Records show that the battery was in operation during the war, and aerial photographs taken by the RAF show bomb craters in the vicinity. This one site represents a substantial operational presence as each gun emplacement required three rotating shifts of seven men.
Below the battery stands Gourock Gas Decontamination Centre, now three dilapidated buildings on the edge of a public park but an important reminder of the fear of gas attack prevalent during the war. The flat-roofed, concrete and brick buildings each have a large water tank and there is an ancillary structure that was probably a boiler house. This gas decontamination centre was intended for civilian use. Upon entering at one end of a decontamination building, gas victims would process through areas for undressing, eye baths, showering and dressing before exiting at the other end.
Although the threat of gas attack was not realised, Gourock did suffer two bombing raids, which resulted in the loss of civilian life.
These two sites illustrate different aspects of the war - the experiences of the civilian population and the military. Recording these structures, and the many more that stand across Scotland, now often dilapidated or under threat of demolition, ensures that their important historical purpose is not lost and that future generations can understand the landscape of a nation at war.