The Giant Concrete Directional Arrows of Wartime Britain

Discovering the abandoned concrete directional arrows of WWII Britain (Image: James T M Towill; abandoned concrete directional arrows of WWII Britain)

All across the UK, from the country’s most remote corners to locations surprisingly close to civilisation, the ruins of wartime bombing ranges still hide amid the countryside. Some firing ranges remain in use today, such as Otterburn in the Northumberland National Park. But many others lie dormant and forgotten, save for the broken remnants of hastily-built World War Two structures that betray their original purpose. Among the more interesting relics of that turbulent period are the giant concrete directional arrows that once pointed incoming bombers towards practice targets. A number of wartime navigation arrows survive today, including the seven examples documented below.

Abandoned Navigation Arrow on Ashley Walk Bombing Range

Abandoned Navigation Arrow on Ashley Walk Bombing Range (Image: Mike Searle)

One of the best documented concrete directional arrows of World War Two lies on the abandoned Ashley Walk bombing range, a once-top secret facility in heart of the New Forest. Under the control of RAF Boscombe Down, the classified firing range was established in 1940 to test a new generation of bombs that would bring the UK’s arsenal up to speed with its Luftwaffe adversary. It was here that the 22,000 lb Grand Slam earthquake bomb – the largest bomb ever dropped on British soil – was tested, dropped from Avro Lancaster PB592 from a height of 18,000 feet on the range below.

(Images: Martin VaughanMike Searle)

Today, these once-closely guarded secrets are out in the open. The Ashley Walk bombing range has long been decommissioned and hikers are free to wander the wild heath-land and the ruins within. One of the most photographed of these structures is the large concrete directional arrow that helped bomber crews navigate to their targets. (View the concrete arrow on on Google Maps here.)

The giant military direction arrow on Ashley Walk bombing range in the New Forest (Images: Mike Searle)

Still visible amid the heath, if somewhat overgrown, the giant arrow lies on Deadmans Hill, and pointed towards a series of practice targets on Leaden Hall, across the valley. You can find out more about this fascinating period of European history in our detailed article on the abandoned Ashley Walk bombing range here.

Braid Fell Bombing Range (Concrete Directional Arrows & Target Wall)

Giant arrow on Braid Fell Bombing Range (Image: James T M Towill)

Our next concrete navigation arrow takes us north of the Scottish border to Dumfries and Galloway. Braid Fell bombing range was established during the Second World War to the east of Cairnryan, near Loch Ryan. Fast forward to the present day and the large directional arrow can be found immediately adjacent to the single-track road from Innermessan to Penwhirn. The concrete arrow points towards a large reinforced target wall nearby, which has an undeniably military look to it.

The abandoned wartime direction arrow and concrete target wall on Braid Fell Bombing Range in Scotland

The concrete target wall from WW2 (Images: James T M TowillOliver Dixon)

Like the arrow, the old target wall has stood the test of time, certainly moreso than other wartime ruins reported to lie in the area. Secret Scotland writes that the site of a dummy factory lies about a kilometre to the north of the wall. The WW2 indutrial mockup reportedly had to be rebuilt between exercises. According to Secret Scotland, no evidence of the factory remains, though its location is marked ominously by a series of bomb craters. (Reports suggest a second concrete arrow pointed towards this full scale factory replica. If you find it via Google Earth, be sure to leave us a message in the comments below.)

(Image: Billy McCrorie)

However, we don’t advise straying far onto the abandoned Braid Fell bombing range. Secret Scotland reports that unexploded ordnance is still found out on the range, and bomb disposal experts have regularly scoured the moors looking for potentially dangerous wartime leftovers. For the roadside arrow, click here.

Concrete Directional Arrow on Lilstock Royal Navy Range

Concrete Directional Arrow on Lilstock Royal Navy Range (Image: Hywel Williams)

We covered Brean Down in another article earlier this month. On that occasion we were looking at the Somerset promontory’s Bronze Age heritage. This article delves into its more recent history and the role that it played during World War Two. Here, on this spectacular headland near the resort town of Weston-super-Mare, a large concrete arrow can be found pointing out into the waters of Bridgwater Bay (see here).

Located between Brean Down and the tiny hamlet of Lilstock, a Second World War gunnery range was established in connection with RNAS Yeovilton. The Lilstock Royal Navy Range is still in use for Fleet Air Arm helicopter crews to practice their gunnery skills. It was also used by fixed-wing aircraft dropping inert bombs until 1995.

Concrete navigation arrow on Brean Down, Somerset, pointing to the Lilstock Royal Navy Range (Image: Google Earth)

The Lilstock Royal Navy Range incorporates a series of practice areas, including the Kilve Bend Range, and has also been referred to as the Bridgwater Bay bombing range. The shallows may be out of bounds (for good reason) and navigational aids far more sophisticated than their World War Two predecessors, but the abandoned concrete directional arrow built to guide bomber crews onto their dummy targets remains extant – assuming you know where to look.

Abandoned Navigation Arrow at Skipness Point

Abandoned Navigation Arrow at Skipness Point (Image: J M Briscoe)

Another Fleet Air Arm gunnery range in Scotland, Skipness bombing range lay off the east coast of the stunning Kintyre Peninsula. Approaching bombers were guided onto their targets out in Skipness Bay by the large concrete directional arrow that remains clearly visible on Google Earth today (here). The giant arrow lies in a field alongside the attractive ruins of the old village chapel, immediately adjacent to the graveyard wall.

The giant wartime directional arrow next to the ruined Skipness Chapel (Image: Dan)

According to Secret Scotland, several observation posts overlooked the shallows of the bay where targets were moored. Observers would report the result of each bombing run to the aircrew, who mainly flew out of RNAS Machrihanish (also known as HMS Landrail) on torpedo and bombing practice sorties. One observation post (now demolished) is reported to have stood near the giant navigation arrow. The other tower survives and can be found by a cattle grid on the edge of the village.

Ruined Concrete Arrow on Normandy Down, Isles of Scilly

Ruined Concrete Arrow on Normandy Down, Isles of Scilly (Image: Andrew Abbott)

Situated on the east side of St Mary’s, the largest of the Isles of Scilly, this rather ruined concrete directional arrow may be the most remote wartime example on our list. Built during World War Two on a clifftop area known as Normandy Down, the large arrow once pointed aircrew towards a floating target moored in Crow Sound. According to Strolling Guides, the target offered bombing practice for six locally-based Hawker Hurricane aircraft. An intriguing wartime relic set amid an landscape of compelling ruins spanning the ages, this navigation arrow can be hard to spot at ground level, despite (and perhaps because of) the rough track that runs straight through it (see here).

Concrete Directional Arrow on Challochglass Moor

World War Two Concrete Directional Arrow on Challochglass Moor in Scotland (Image: David Baird)

Isolated and alone on Dumfries and Galloway’s rugged Challochglass Moor, this abandoned concrete directional arrow might be the best preserved of all those featured in this article. The giant navigational installation, like others shown here, once pointed the way to a forgotten World War Two bombing range that has now been lost in the moorland (here). Despite its remote location, a farm track runs just to the south, no doubt providing access for military personnel during World War Two, and allowing intrepid rural explorers to easily uncover it.

Restored Target Arrow at Musselburgh (297 Squadron ATC)

The Restored Concrete Target Arrow at Musselburgh (297 Squadron ATC) near Edinburgh, Scotland (Image: M. J. Richardson)

The site of our last wartime directional arrow is far less remote and has enjoyed an overhaul in recent years thanks to the cadets of 297 Squadron, ATC at Musselburgh, just outside Scotland’s capital Edinburgh. The arrow points towards the chilly waters of the Firth of Forth, where a series of targets were positioned in a bid to train pilots operating out of surrounding airfields like RAF Turnhouse (now Edinburgh Airport), RAF Drem and RAF East Fortune. Among the targets moored off the east coast are two midget submarines wrecks, which remain in Aberlady Bay today.

(Image: M. J. Richardson)

A plaque next to the Musselburgh directional arrow reads: “This concrete arrow was renovated by cadets of 297 Squadron, ATC in recognition of its original purpose of training bomber crews by aligning their aircraft up with a target in the Firth of Forth.” (See here.)

Related: Explore Dartmoor’s Obscure Rowtor Target Railway

 
 
 

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