Recovering WW2 relics in the UK
by @Steve T
It was Christmas 1976 when I got my first book about World War 2 (WW2), and it sparked an interest that grew and grew. Like many young lads, I was an avid builder of aircraft model kits, all hanging from my ceiling on cotton threads, positioned so they looked like they were in one enormous dogfight. Back then my interest centred on what I perceived to be the heroic nature of aerial combat, even pretending to be flying an aircraft whenever I got on my bike, machine gunning my way down the road. As I got older I started collecting books and the thought of owning an actual relic from WW2 never really crossed my mind. That one book, (a gift from my father), still sits on my bookshelf, but it has been joined by more than 500 others covering every aspect of WW2, from the battles themselves to the kit people wore, and the weapons and ordnance they used.
Spin forward 20 odd years to a camping holiday in Normandy. I spent the week dragging my family round the various museums, battlefields and cemeteries, stopping frequently to take photographs of the numerous tanks and gun emplacements that were dotted around the countryside. On the last day of the holiday my son and I were sitting on the sea wall at St Aubin Sur Mer, watching the waves of a rough sea crash onto the beach. Suddenly, my son jumped up from the wall and ran to the water’s edge, picking something up and running back to me, his hand tightly clenched. He held out his fist and slowly opened it, a broad grin on his face. It was a cartridge case. At that time I didn’t know how to tell what weapon could have fired it, or how old it was, but I knew it was an old rifle cartridge, possibly fired on D-Day itself. Goosebumps popped all over my body as I looked at the cartridge, realising that the last person to touch this could have been a soldier involved in the greatest sea borne invasion the world has ever, and will ever see.
And that is where it all began for me, with that one little cartridge case. A few months later I was the proud owner of a metal detector, with thoughts of digging up whole spitfires and entire weapon dumps. Of course the reality was a little less grand, but still incredibly exciting. Almost twenty years on and I have amassed a substantial collection of WW2 relics, and am the chairman of the WW2 Relic Retrieval & Preservation Group, (RRPG), a group dedicated to finding, recovering and preserving relics from the conflict.
I am often asked why I bother digging relics up when I can buy them. My answer is also the same. Firstly, why pay money for something when you can find it for nothing? Secondly, the history of every item I have is intact. I know where it was found, so know who probably used it, even down to a single unit, and sometimes even down to a single man. That is the big thing for me, the history.
I also proudly point out that many of my relics you could never buy, because they just don’t exist any more. Try and buy a sliding radio shelf from a P51B Mustang, or a Merlin engine exhaust manifold from a Mosquito nightfighter, (two of the hundreds of unique items I have dug over the years). You can’t!
Many people believe you have to visit the battlefields of Europe to find WW2 relics, but that is very far from the truth. The UK is littered with old airbases, gunnery ranges, POW camps, army camps, AA sites……they are everywhere. Many sites now have modern uses and the relics they hold are buried beneath housing estates, motorways and warehouses. However, some sites have never been built on and the relics they hold can be recovered, with the right knowledge and research.
I must stress that you can’t just pitch up at an old RAF base with a metal detector, a spade and a grin. If you do, you will be committing an illegal act. First and foremost you must have the landowner’s permission to enter any site you wish to detect. Without it you are trespassing and also, by digging a hole, you are committing criminal damage and theft, (should you find anything in said hole). You also need to be sure the site you wish to detect isn’t covered by any bye-laws, (many old gunnery ranges still have active bye-laws in place), and you must also ensure the site isn’t protected under the Heritage act, that it isn’t a Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), or protected under any other law. If you do find relics from WW2, they should be reported to the local archaeology officer so they can be recorded. Whilst the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), is meant to be for items over 300 years of age, it is still good practice to report younger items, like those from WW2.
Once you have landowner permission and have checked to ensure the area isn’t protected in any way, you can start hunting for relics from the conflict. I have visited numerous locations over the years, in some cases returning again and again to the same site for five years or more. Old airbases are always littered with WW2 relics, as are the sites of old POW camps and army camps. One site in particular has yielded an enormous quantity of WW2 relics over the past 5 years. The location of the site is a closely guarded secret, but it is basically an old British army dump site. Every base, (whether it be RAF, Army, POW or even a transit camp), had its own dump, where the rubbish produced by the base and its personnel was disposed of. Back then, it was just that. Rubbish. Now though, the items they threw away have become important historical artefacts.
This dump site has yielded some incredible relics over the years. The vast majority are identified the second they appear from the soil, but a small number still have us scratching our heads as to what they are. Some notable relics were quickly identified, but what we can’t explain is why on earth they were there!
The site was found purely by accident, and it took me around three months to track the landowner down and meet him. Once permission was granted, a dig was organised in conjunction with the landowner’s agent, who even came on the dig with us.
I will always vividly remember that visit. The first thing I found after only 5 minutes of digging was a brass butt plate from a Lee-Enfield rifle, and next to it a brass oil bottle for the same weapon. A second or two later and I had an ID disc from a Lee-Enfield rifle. I could easily have gone home then, totally ecstatic with my finds. However, that was never going to happen and, in what seemed like no time at all, 6 hours had passed and I had to stop digging as I had blisters on my blisters! I also had a bucket full of finds. In addition to the items already mentioned, I had trigger gauges, 303 inspection rounds, Lee-Enfield fore and rear sight protectors, Sten trigger covers, Sten spring caps and end caps, Sten stocks, Lee-Enfield No 1 nose caps…..the list went on and on.
Finding such a site leads to a unique problem. You have to allow time to clean and preserve the relics you’ve recovered before organising a return trip. Going back before you’ve cleared the back log just means you run the risk of items deteriorating beyond the point of no return before you can preserve them. Far better to leave them in the ground and recover them when you have time to save them.
One particular trip yielded two items that simply shouldn’t have been there. I was digging through some particularly tough clay when a metal box began to appear through the orange earth. I dug round it carefully, spending 20 minutes ensuring I got it out intact. Once free of the earth I lifted it up for closer inspection. It was heavier than I anticipated, and was, much to my dismay, corroded beyond any saving. The thin metal of the box walls were almost entirely rusted through, but the box seemed familiar. My son was with me that day and I handed him the box. ‘There’s something in here’ he said, peering through a hole in the rust. We carefully took the box apart and were amazed to discover two German 20mm magazines inside! The box had ‘taken’ most of the corrosion and they were in remarkable condition, given they had been in the ground for 70+ years. But what on earth were they doing there? Perhaps they could have been spoils of war, brought back by the units serving in Europe, but who knows. We have found more German items since then, one of which was an early aluminium ammunition box for 7.92mm ammo.
Being able to identify relics when they are covered in a thick layer of mud and rust, soon became second nature. I had become something of an expert in aircraft parts and aircraft ordnance over the years, spending many an hour on old RAF or USAAF bases. I also took it upon myself to learn about cartridges and shell cases, how to identify them and how to preserve them. Mortars, grenades and artillery shells I also had an in depth knowledge of, but weapon parts and sling buckles? This was a whole new kettle of ordnance and kit! Digging this site has lead to an enormous increase in my own personal knowledge, to the extent that I’ve gained a bit of a reputation amongst my group members. It is said I can identify a rusty hunk of metal from 50 yards, so long as it has something to do with WW2. Also, if one of my digging colleagues finds something good, particularly if I haven’t found an example of what they’ve found, I tend to curse them a little, (all in good humour of course).
I’ll give you an example. I was digging with a good friend of mine, Richard. He was clearing the vegetation away from an area we wanted to dig when he bent down to pick something up. ‘Oh. It’s the sole of a shoe’, he said. I looked up and started swearing at him, telling him I should never have brought him with me and that he should probably go home straight away. He laughed and said ‘I see. Not the sole of a shoe then!’. ‘No’, I replied, ‘it flipping isn’t’, (or words to that effect), ‘it’s the rubber shoulder pad from a PIAT!’.
That sums up the site really. You never really know what you are going to recover. The army in the 1940s seemed to have dumped anything and everything in this rubbish pit. Recent trips have yielded huge quantities of Lee-Enfield, Springfield and Thompson (Kerr), sling buckles. Then we hit a spot that seemed to be where they had dumped Bakelite spike bayonet scabbards. In amongst these, we started to find a few curious little brass frames with ‘P14’ stamped on them. These were eventually identified as adapters for fitting a Lee-Enfield grenade discharger cup to a P14 rifle. This little relic is so rare, I can find virtually no information about it at all.
One recent dig was note worthy, not because of what I found, but because of the sheer volume in one small hole. I had hit a spot full of Lee-Enfield No 1 nose caps and rear sight protectors, with more than 30 nose caps and 80 rear sight protectors recovered in 30 minutes.
We also find items from Vickers and Browning machine guns. I have two aluminium pistol grips from a Browning MG, along with various parts from the M1917 water cooled MG. One of these took some time to identify. We kept finding these strange little brass spouts. They had obviously been attached to some type of cloth or leather as they had rivets around the edge, but it wasn’t until I posted pictures of them on an American weapon collectors forum that they were finally identified. Turns out they are the spouts from the leather funnels used to fill the water jacket of an M1917 Browning MG.
As for Vickers MG relics, muzzle boosters, rubber hose connectors, bottom pawl springs from the feed block and even a steam pipe from inside the water jacket have all been recovered, not to mention the large numbers of spare parts, brass ribs from the cloth belt and numerous bits of tripod, including an elevation wheel.
Everything we find is cleaned and preserved. Over the years many different methods have been tried with mixed results, but the method I’ve now settled on brings astonishing results. It involves an electric pillar drill with a wire brush attachment, a small hammer and a vice, (among other tools), and a citric acid ‘bath’. These methods can seem harsh to some, but they get results.
I prefer to keep the aged patina on my relics, as it forms part of the history of each item. Every now and again though, especially if I find large numbers of one item, I will take a few back to shiny metal. I do this to show what can be done with ground dug relics, as many people simply don’t believe you can get something, buried for 70+ years, back to almost brand new condition. In some very rare instances, I will even totally restore a relic back to how it originally looked. On one of my first visits to the site, I recovered 4 Browning M1917 MG water chests. These were the original Mk 1 chests and all of them were in a sorry state. Once I had stopped any further deterioration, I decided to fully restore one by repainting it. I carefully matched a paint colour to the tiny patches of colour still left on the chest and, after a couple of days of sanding, rust treating, patching and painting, brought the chest back to how it looked the day it entered the dump.
People often ask what is the best thing I’ve ever recovered from this site. This is very difficult to say, basically because in my eyes, every relic is as historically important as the next. It’s like asking me to choose between my son and daughters. What I can say is that there are two items I will always show to visitors to my museum. One is a complete trigger housing from a Besa machine gun. The other is a little brass bore mirror. Each has a story to tell, each has its history intact, and it is that that draws me to them.
The recovery work will carry on at this site for many more years to come, partly due to the size of it, and because it can be slow going and difficult to dig. In some areas the dump layer extends at least 8 feet beneath the surface of the ground. However, many of the relics buried here are unique, and the digging will continue until as much as possible has been recovered and preserved for future generations.
Words and Pictures © @Steve T 2016
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