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Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 View of Nitration Hills, Unit 2 (Edingham)

Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie
World War II Cordite Works

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Air Observation System :

Key Points :-

  • 3 Air Observation Towers.
  • 1 auxiliary location on Service Reservoir.
  • Possible fourth Observation Point on Service Reservoir.
  • No indication of Anti-Aircraft guns.
  • Low level air attack warning system.
  • May also have been used to watch for fires in the Factory site.
  • Similar structures are reported at the site of ROF Wrexham.

Air Observation Tower by Magazines, M/S Factory Dalbeattie
Air Observation Tower by Magazines
M/S Factory Dalbeattie

Air Observation Towers and Warning System at M/S Factory Dalbeattie :


Ministry of Supply Factory Dalbeattie was a critical part of Britain's ammunition supply industry, as such a presumed target for air attack, fifth-column sabotage and possible commando raids. Perimeter defence is discussed elsewhere, this page concentrating on arrangements for warning of air attack. The site was equipped with three Air Observation Towers of a type not commonly used, the examples at Dalbeattie being amongst the few still surviving. The name 'Air Observation Towers' is the writer's own title, Matthew Taylor, the landowner, referring to them as 'Watchtowers'. Their exact function and layout took time to work out, like other aspects of the previously unresearched M/S Factory Dalbeattie. It has been realised that they were used to warn of low-level attacks by 'hedge hopping' aircraft and also that they provided good points for watching for the effects of bombing, industrial explosions and fires. There is no sign of fittings that could have supported light anti-aircraft guns or served as barrage balloon anchorages or winch points. However, the Towers do have fittings for mounting field telephones and slots for their cables.

The most unusual feature resolved was the presence of a watch point on the service reservoir on Aiket Hill. Simple map surveys and ground observations have shown that this could act together with the three Air Observation Towers to cover all valleys and hilltops that could conceal an approaching low-level bomber. It is ironic that the nearest bombs to fall on Dalbeattie were some miles away and in locations concealed from the Factory's Air Observation system. All the same, the primary function may have been the monitoring of damage within the site from fire or explosion, whether the result of an air raid or an industrial accident.

Archaeological features of the Air Observation Towers :

Magazine Tower - Interior
Magazine Tower - Interior
Magazine Tower - Roof
Magazine Tower - Roof
Edingham Tower

The three Observation Towers consist of a hexagonal concrete structure with long horizontal slits below roof level, the doorway protected by a blast wall, that wall supporting a metal ladder to the roof. The roof is ringed by a metal railing with a flagmast clamp near the entry from the ladder and offers good views of the surrounding area. It is not clear if there was ever any light anti-aircraft gun mounting there, although a Lewis light machine gun or a 20-mm Oerlikon machine cannon could have been fitted. There are no signs of bolt studs to attach any gun mountings on the roof of any Tower. Each Tower was built with a small cable slot above the left doorjamb at ceiling level.

The following list summarises the main features at each Observation Tower. All are located on or near the 55 metre contour, near the highest points within the Factory site. :-

  1. Magazine Tower (Unit 2) : Sited on a ridge overlooking both the magazines site and the cordite loading station. Very well preserved. Roof carries sandbags from suspected 2004 use as an Observation Point in Army exercises. Remains of hook on inside wall to the left of the doorway and a slot through the brickwork above, possibly for telephone cables.
    Views across Unit 2 and south towards Aucheninnes Moss and the Southwick Lane valley.
  2. Edingham Tower (Unit 2) : Overlooking the Cordite Milling Houses and Wet Mix units. Has the best view of the entire site. Mounting plate for phone unit at a similar position to that in Magazine Tower and a similar cable slot, blocked by a piece of wood. Roof has a ring of sand from rotted sandbags and floor inside has sacks of Army blank cartridge boxes.
    Views across Units 1 and 2, south towards Aucheninnes, west towards Dalbeattie, north up Culloch Lane valley and east towards Kirkgunzeon. Best visual position overall.
  3. Plantation Tower (Unit 1) : This was found overlooking the Drying and Burette ('Wet Mix') buildings in Unit 1, on the now-wooded ridge in the north east side of the works. Sadly, this Tower now has a fallen tree upon it and there is a need of a chainsaw to clear it. Even more sadly, the Tower floor is full of binbags of old beer cans, probably dumped there by soldiers on exercise, as there are far too many to be accounted for by forestry or farm workers.
    Views towards Kirkgunzeon, Dumfries and Southwick, also back across Units 1 and 2, but now obscured by trees.

Plantation Tower - Fallen Trees
Plantation Tower - Fallen Trees
Plantation Tower - Can Dump
Plantation Tower - Can Dump
Service Reservoir, Aiket Hill
Service Reservoir, Aiket Hill

Aiket Hill Service Reservoir : During 1990 the writer was searching for ROC (Royal Observer Corps) posts and noticed a small shed on top of Aiket Hill. After a hard slog up the hill amongst bluebells, the writer found the Service Reservoir and scaled its end to find the dilapidated shed on top. Unfortunately, the shed is now demolished and removed, but fragments of a metal staircase remain beside the south west corner of the tank. It is suspected that this position - offering as it did an excellent viewpoint - supplemented the three Towers' air warning capability. Barclosh Hill masks the western view from Magazine Tower, but the Service Reservoir offers a good view southwest into the Urr valley.

Currently, no evidence has been found for field telephone lines or similar fixed lines to any of the observation positions, but this has not been specifically searched for.

Comparable Structures :

Ian Sanders of 'PillboxesUK' has confirmed that similar structures exist at the Royal Ordnance Factory Wrexham, a site that unfortunately is being demolished for housing and industrial estate use.

The Royal Air Force's Observer Corps Posts in the area :

An attack by the Luftwaffe's longer-range bombers was the only credible way to attack the Dalbeattie cordite factory. The RAF considered an attack in the 'Back Areas' unlikely, but it did set up Observer Posts along the Solway coast and inland, to monitor aircraft movements. The earliest to open in the eastern part of Kirkcudbrightshire was one in September 1939 at Kirkbean, about 9 miles to the south east of MS Factory Dalbeattie. Others opened in August 1940, the nearest ones to Dalbeattie being on the coast at Rockcliffe (7 miles) and inland at Castle Douglas (6 miles) and Kirkgunzeon (6 miles), that last visible from the a 711 Dumfries road. The Posts were spaced about ten miles apart throughout Britain, so there is no deliberate sign of a concentration on the Dalbeattie area.

Camouflage Arrangements :

Although little or nothing survives today, the ruberoid roofs of the Factory buildings were painted in disruptive camouflage patterns, as the 1941-1946 RAF air photography shows. The camouflage was very good at confusing detail but less effective at hiding the shapes of structures. The camouflage would nevertheless have been a nuisance to a bomb aimer even if it would be easily penetrated by a trained photo-interpreter.

The Factory's Air Raid Warning System :

When examined on a map, the four observation points form a triangle with Edingham Tower at its centre. This is the absolute minimum needed for a system with one or two of the triangle points making a report of an approaching aircraft and the centre position confirming it.

The warning probably depended upon a central control room for factory sirens, into which reports from the four observation positions could be phoned. Alternatively, something as simple as four alarm lights on a board or a bell system, could give warning of an attack and its approximate direction. Leafield Tower's remarkably good observation location then makes sense, even though it is hidden from view from the main road and could not support the pillboxes in ground defence. The sirens would send staff to the air raid shelters, hopefully saving their lives, key staff having instructions to close down processes that could not be left to run unattended. However, even in good conditions, the visibility range would only be three to four miles at maximum, which at 1940s bomber speeds (c. 200 mph) means low-level warnings of a minute or less, even if the watchers were as good as the Observer Corps. It is suspected that the warnings relied upon came from the RAF, from its radar chains and national Observer Post network.

Following a fire, explosion or air attack, the four observation points would then serve as 'eyes' triangulating the position of the point or points of damage for the two blast-protected fire stations/chemical decontamination units. The Factory staff would then know where to concentrate their resources and be able to estimate the need for any outside support. This is most likely to have been the chief role of the Observation Towers, much as was the case with forestry hilltop Fire Towers.

Conclusions :

These unusual structures had a logical function that could provide valuable early warning to save lives and production in the event of air attack. Much of their function has been deduced from position and an understanding of Observer Corps procedures, but this may be relevant. The locations of the structures are well sited to cover known low-level flight approaches. However, their principal role was more likely to spot fires and accidents within the works and to report these in to the Fire Stations. Further investigation is suggested.
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