Air Observation Towers and Warning System at M/S Factory
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 :
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. :-
- 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
Views across Unit 2 and south towards Aucheninnes Moss and the Southwick Lane valley.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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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