Dalesman January 2014: Preparing to deal with the invader

Defence of North Yorkshire and Cleveland


For Dalesman this month, I spoke to John Harwood and Stuart McMillan, who I first met many years ago. They’ve spent decades studying the 20th century defence installations of North Yorkshire, and are now publishing books that document their researches.

John has so many anecdotes about war time installations in North Yorkshire that it’s hard to believe that one man can hold so much information inside a single head.

He’s aided by a large and complex computer database, into which he’s been logging details of defence installations for over twenty years. But he began surveying the defence sites of North Yorkshire long before that – back in 1948.


It’s a lifelong interest which is culminating in the publication of a series of volumes, detailing the structures and sites where people worked to defend their country during the 20th century.


John Harwood with a book fresh from the printer

John Harwood with a book fresh from the printer

John’s marathon labours are matched by those of his business partner, Stuart McMillan, who is in charge of illustrating the texts that John has written. Stuart has visited thousands of sites to photograph them. And if it’s an installation that has been removed, or decayed with the passage of time, Stuart has painted a picture, informed by his researches, to show readers what the place once looked like.


Typical is Danby Beacon. During 1939-45 War, this was a top secret radar site. Eight towers, 360 feet tall, were part of the country’s network of early warning radar. It was top secret, cutting edge technology: even the people in the village had no idea what went on there.


The site continued to operate into the Cold War, until, in the late 1950s, it was replaced by newer equipment, and the towers dismantled and removed.


Now all that can be seen of the original the site are the decaying concrete bases. However, a memorial beacon was dedicated in 2007, and a book of memories from the people who worked there is kept by the National Park.


A memorial beacon now marks the site of the former RAF Danby

A memorial beacon now marks the site of the former RAF Danby

However, Stuart, using resources such as aerial photographs, historic records, and eye-witness accounts, has painted a picture of what the base would have looked like in its hey-day. It’s one of dozens of pictures he’s made, illustrating features ranging from Zeppelin raids to Cold War bunkers; mine laying in the Tees to searchlight batteries; PoW camps to a Vulcan aircraft flying over his school when he was a boy.


The work would have been impossible without a huge network of volunteers, who helped to discover many hidden sites. John says, “In any village, we sought out the oldest inhabitants.”


From these inhabitants, they collected information previously unavailable in any documents. Along the way, they’ve picked up endless anecdotes.


Stuart says, “We were told of a gun in an old mine-house near Saltburn. The people manning it were ‘well lubricated’ and took a shot at the moon.”


Radar, says John, “Was developed in the Thames basin. The first experimental radar station in the North was at Ravenscar. They sent a young RAF chap in December, in the snow, with a tent, to set up a radar mast. While he was living in his tent, he met the farmer’s daughter and fell in love.” Happily, the couple were still together decades later, when John sought them out to learn about the Radar.


John and Stuart also tracked down members of a secret army recruited in the 1940s, trained to fight a resistance in the event of invasion. John met one man, who he says, “Disappeared into a bunker every night. His role was to relay ops messages to the Northumbria HQ, which was in a shooting lodge at Danby.” He adds, “We’ve found numerous underground bunkers of this secret army, and spoken to people who were in it.”


The men have also recorded industrial installations that contributed to war work. John says, “Parts of the Bouncing Bomb were made in Yarm – we got witness accounts.”


And, adds Stuart, “A vital part of the atom bomb was made in a private garage in Acklam. It was so secret, that, for cover, the chap had to work in a factory, then work on the A-bomb in his garage in his own time.”


John corroborates: “I’ve spoken to the gentleman, but he’s since died.”


However, they believe that plenty of other writers have written personal accounts, and in their books, they’ve confined themselves to describing the sites, what they were used for, and how the systems worked. It’s an area, says John, “That’s been neglected. There are lots of books full of events, and people’s memories. But we’ve concentrated on systems that no-one knew existed, because they were highly secret. People we’ve met who were involved with them still think they’re under the Official Secrets Act.”


Stuart McMillan with one of paintings, illustrating installations now long gone

Stuart McMillan with one of paintings, illustrating installations now long gone

He’s pleased that they’ve done the work, as, says John, “Things are disappearing quickly.”


The 1939-45 war was, says John, “Total, everyone contributed, even down to food allocation. There was a strategic food store near the station in Northallerton, since demolished. I spoke to the lady who was trained in World War II and the Cold War to establish emergency feeding centres using strategic supplies.”


During the Cold War, there was a network to let off the Four Minute Warning for nuclear strike. John says, “The warning came to farmhouses, pubs, police stations, and even private houses, all equipped with hand held sirens. We met one of the poor farmers’ wives – they used to come and test the sirens.”


Thankfully, the warning never sounded in earnest. But, lest we forget, John and Stuart have carefully catalogued all the precautions that were taken to protect our lands. It’s a marathon task that can never be repeated, as many of their informants, have now, sadly, passed away.


For instance, Stuart says, “We did the Battle of the Beams. The Germans invented as system to fly on a radio beam. When it intersected with another beam, that was when to drop their bombs. So the British set up ‘bending’ stations to set them off track. There was one site within four miles of my home. It was originally down as a searchlight station, but it was actually one of the most secret sites in the UK. We only found out because a man told us.”


“We’ve located three secret Beam Bending sites.”


“But it’s not all military – there were civilians too. People worked in shadow factories, making wings for aeroplanes, and there was a place just outside York where they made all the webbing.”


Stuart says, “There wasn’t a square mile not affected by war activity.”


To read more, the books can be bought, directly from John and Stuart, at http://www.defenceofnorthyorkshireandcleveland.co.uk/


About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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