Coleshill Revisited

(published in RMARGazine Number 37 Page 16)

Several RMARG members recently took part in a weekend of investigation at Coleshill. The event was arranged by CART with the kind permission of the National Trust. Don Summers reports some of what went on.

It's a few years since a team of intrepid RMARG members last conducted a 'dig' at Coleshill. The Operating Base (OB), so well hidden that it was discovered only after part of the escape tunnel collapsed, had been thoroughly investigated. The original entrance had been raised to make it safe and a new entrance had been cut through the soil to make the OB accessible for visitors. Several other locations had been investigated, and over a period of several years a number had been dug out to reveal some of their secrets. Along the way, there had been struggles with obstructing concrete beams, bees' nests, canine graves and sundry other obstacles that might have deterred the less resolute. Despite these snags, few of those taking part will forget the joys of excavating with the aid of ropes and bucket, or the characteristic humour that was ever-present. As a result of our efforts, some of the ingenious methods of constructing these underground 'hides' had come to light, along with a small collection of artefacts.

However, at that time, the National Trust, owners of the estate, weren't too keen on having this delightful area dug up, and investigations came to a grinding halt.

Recently, the wartime importance of Coleshill has gained national prominence, helped considerably by an 'open weekend' which drew a healthy crowd of paying visitors that even included former members of the 'Secret Army'. Hundreds of people had queued for the opportunity of visiting the OB. Subsequently a group (CART — Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team) was set up with the purpose of unearthing as many of Coleshill's secrets as possible. Realising that the existing OB has a limited lifetime — being constructed mainly of corrugated iron and in contact with damp soil for more than 70 years — CART is keen to erect an above-ground replica. This will allow future visitors to gain an impression of what it was like without being put at risk in the real OB, which will eventually become unsafe.

A second Coleshill open weekend event drew an even larger number of visitors, and the future for CART seemed set fair, with the realisation that the site and its history holds considerable public interest as a little-known aspect of wartime activity. With its connections to a number of reputable organisations, CART egotiated the National Trust's agreement for a weekend of organised investigation at the site. Not surprisingly, several RMARG members were keen to get involved.

So it was that during the cold but dry weekend of 22nd/23rd January about 35 individuals gathered at the site, itching to see what could be discovered. They came in a rainbow array of outdoor kit and included archaeologists, military history specialists from all over southern England, and a couple of staff members from the Archaeological Dept. of Bristol University, as well as some RMARG regulars.

On the first day, as has become normal practice, the leading light provided an introduction and gave a safety briefing (more about this later).

It had long been thought that there must have been more than one OB at Coleshill, as a large number of Secret Army groups had been trained there in a very short period. Surely that would not have been possible using only one practice OB? Also, one veteran 'Auxilier' claimed that there were several such practice OB's. The hunt was on to find signs of more underground structures, and to reveal the full extent of the other, above-ground buildings whose bases remained for all to see.

There were three separate activities scheduled for the weekend, and the throng divided itself into groups.

One group was to walk the edge of the wooded area, including the ha-ha wall, seeking signs of other OB's.

A second group was to begin carefully clearing the bases of the huts, generally thought to have been used to assemble special radios similar to those used by agents operating in Occupied Europe.

The third group, which included most of the RMARG participants, was to conduct a thorough metal detector sweep of the wooded areas.

In spite of RMARG's hard-won reputation for iron discipline, this was something very new. There was even an appointed leader, complete with notebook, find bags, and GPS gadget — an unheard of piece of organisation! Although the much-heralded 'Geo-Phys' kit didn't materialise, one enthusiast carried a huge double-looped metal detecting contraption that looked very impressive. However, the illusion was swiftly shattered when he admitted he'd never used it before. This cumbersome piece of kit wasn't easy to use among the trees, but in clearings, it was said to be able detect metal at a depth of three metres.

The three groups split up and trudged off into the woods with their assorted paraphernalia. On reaching our designated search area, we were soon unearthing metallic objects, and discarding the usual pull rings, shot-gun pellets and cartridges, chocolate wrappers, etc. Several military objects to light, including a couple of unusual pistol cartridges found by James, and a few .303 blanks. All were duly bagged, logged and GPS'd.

Talk of lunch 'and a pint or two' in the pub caused us to exchange glances, but we kept our counsel, and when lunch-time arrived, we returned to the site office for our sandwiches and soup. On our way, we passed the hut base area, where a team of scrapers had been hard at work. As we admired their handiwork, one of them was foolhardy enough to place a muddy boot on a freshly cleared patch of concrete. This brought forth a bloodcurdling screech from Brunhilda the Disemboweller (aka one of the ladies involved in the task). As the miscreant slunk shamefacedly away, someone near me muttered, ''Remind me to stay out of her kitchen!''

By RMARG standards, the lunch break was a fairly leisurely affair, and we were surprised when Brunhilda wandered over, all sweetness and light, to offer us cookies — obviously an attempt to recruit us. However Colin reminded us about the legend of the Lorelei and her siren approach was in vain. After about 45 minutes, we cleared up, collected our gear and wandered off, to be overtaken by a breathless leader, muttering about us being 'a bit keen'.

Passing the tent near the gate, we were offered sweets from a large bag. Suspicious, we looked around us, but there was no sign of Brunhilda, so we accepted. Outside the tent, we came across Keith, who amid all the to-ing and fro-ing seemed to be the only person to realise that the OB access steps were inches deep in leaf litter, and brush and shovel in hand, he was making his way there to clear it.

Our search was now concentrated nearer the OB, and we began to find pieces of aluminium, obviously from an aircraft. As the collection grew, there was speculation whether a plane had crashed nearby or whether perhaps the resistance training had included instruction on aircraft demolition. We learned later that a high-altitude mid-air collision had occurred nearby between a Lanc and a Wimpy, which may have spread debris over a wide area that included Coleshill. Perhaps a careful search of the RAF accident records will yield confirmation.

It was towards the end of the day that the mortar round was found, while searching for signs of an underground cable that might have linked the OB with the observation pit on the other side of the road. To tell the truth it was just as well that the guy with me had found similar objects before, because I didn't recognise the thing at first. He had unearthed the remains of several mortar rounds in the course of investigations on the Wiltshire Downs, and identified it instantly. Only the rear part of this one was visible; the alloy fins had disappeared, so that it looked like a piece of metal tubing. After a little bit of scraping, I was convinced it was a length of heavy-duty coaxial cable. Luckily, I was quickly corrected, for after some more very careful soil scraping, it became apparent that it was indeed a mortar round and most definitely live. It would be wrong for the reader to imagine that my main interest at this point was mere self-preservation, but I admit to a heightened sense of caution.

What followed really surprised me.

We called up one of the event organisers, expecting him to mark the spot with a flag or something and surround the area with coloured tape, but no. A stray piece of plastic tree mesh was used to cover the object, and the location was marked with a discarded (but brightly coloured) drink can.

Our safety briefing had laid particular emphasis on the action to be taken in case of live ordnance discovery. ''Do not attempt to dig up the item. Mark the location, inform the organisers and keep everyone well away.''

What actually happened was that word spread like wildfire, and before you could say 'live ammo', everyone and his granny had arrived and was taking a look at the object. (It is with pride that I can report that the RMARG contingent declined to join this bunch of gawpers.)

We ended the afternoon session about 100 metres from the OB, pondering over a strong response. Everyone's detector registered something, but it was the two-looped gadget that came to the fore here — it went completely berserk with a cacophony sounding like something between a badly-tuned radio and a variation on Tubular Bells. Significantly, the response extended over an area of several square metres. Naturally, there followed an excited discussion over the possibility that here indeed was a second OB. However, in allowing this weekend of investigation, the National Trust had given permission to dig only to the depth of the leaf litter, so that even if this were an additional OB site, we were prevented from investigating further. But in any case, the light was starting to fade and it was time to call it a day. As we made our way back to the site office, we arranged to continue at the same location the following morning.

It was amazing how well the hut base clearing had progressed, with several of them completely exposed. We learned that the Army had been informed about the mortar round and had promised to deal with it.

Next day, we arrived promptly and made a start where we'd left off. There was no sign of anyone else. After half an hour or more, we were asked to join the others at a different area. Once again we had the impression that we were regarded as 'overzealous' (that would have been a first!).

On our way to the assigned area, we were shown the damaged mortar round. Apparently, earlier that morning the road had been closed by police while the Army Ordnance people had set off a small charge next to it. One Coleshill resident claimed the explosion woke everyone in the village, despite it being over half a mile away. Clearly this was more effective in calling the faithful to prayer than ringing the church bells (or perhaps the church didn't have any bells). To our surprise the detonation had only split the casing of the mortar- the charge must have been damp — and the business end of the round was almost complete. Nor was there much trace on the ground of a controlled explosion (very clever those EOD boys!).

Some of those present wondered if the discovery of this mortar round might affect the prospect of further investigative events, while others thought the opposite, thinking that the NT would sleep easier in their beds following the demonstration of detection and proper disposal of live ordnance found on the estate. With the discovery of this mortar round, the question would be bound to arise ''Are there any more live explosive items lying around in the woods?''

Our area of search today was close to the hut bases, and in no time there were beeps from all around, as a wide variety of metals bits were brought to the surface. Find bags were in great demand and GPS gismos were glowing red-hot.

At the end of a busy morning, we bowed to the pressure (actually it was another offer to buy us all a pint) and made our way to the pub for lunch. However, on arrival we could see that our dress code didn't match the rest of the clientele, so we beat a tactful retreat, muddy boots and all. As we munched our sandwiches outside the site office, news came that a bayonet, complete with scabbard, had been found hidden in the ha-ha wall! This was a real surprise to those of us who recall the difficulty in finding the OB exit in the ha-ha, even though we had known where to look! The bayonet, after being triumphantly paraded for all to see, was to be sent away for expert conservation (these were the professionals, no WD-40 squirting or soaking in diesel for them). There was another offering of home-made cookies from Brunhilda, and this time we accepted.

The finds continued to come thick and fast during the afternoon, and one in particular proved informative. At first, James thought he found a piece of live ammunition. It turned out to be an electronic capacitor, an item widely used in radio circuits. This find was good evidence that the huts were used to assemble radios. Metal detecting and unearthing responses in this area of heavy undergrowth was hard work; we were getting tired. Among the finds in this particular area had been the usual collection of barbed wire oddments, but also several large steel items resembling tent pegs. We debated whether these could have supported a barbed wire fence, or whether they might have secured camouflage netting. James led me to where there was a line of heavy vehicle ruts, leading out of the woods. The missing section of ha-ha wall strongly supported to the likelihood that the tracks had been made during demolition of the buildings at the end of the war and the attempts to destroy all traces of activity.

It was very gratifying to be promised a preliminary plot of the finds, and the team leader was glowing in his appreciation of our efforts. As we exchanged addresses, packed our things and prepared to leave, a figure appeared through the woods, riding a mountain bike. Ignoring us, he rode muddy-wheeled straight across three freshly cleared hut bases and off into the distance. We looked at each other open-mouthed — there's never a Disemboweller around when you need one!

It was late afternoon, and some of the party had drifted away, but the remainder gathered near the estate office to say their farewells.

The organisers thanked us all profusely for our participation, saying they regarded the weekend as a great success. There was no doubt that the efforts of this fairly large and multi-disciplined group had produced a great deal of information and finds. Vast areas of the hut bases had been laid bare. All in all, the weekend had been a very promising start to a complete survey of the site. There remained a lot of work to do and there was still a large area of woodland yet to be investigated. The spot previously (and it now appears, incorrectly) thought by RMARG to have been the generator base had been uncovered and provided ample food for thought. Almost a hundred metal detector 'finds' had been logged and bagged. A number of significant military items had been found and, by no means least important, a live mortar round had been found and rendered safe by the proper authorities.

The work was featured in the local tv news broadcast the following day, which no doubt ensured that future open days and working weekends will be well attended.

In due course, a full report of the weekend's activities will be passed to NT who will then decide whether to allow further such events in the future. RMARG's metal detecting contribution had been very successful, while evidently those hard-working members involved in hut clearing are made of sterner stuff!

RMARG members involved were: - Alan Bovingdon-Cox, Keith Blaxhall, Colin Shewry, James Harris, Pete Long, Simon Rogers, Gerry Lambourne and Don Summers.