As an island nation, the fear of invasion has never been far from British minds. Tradition has it that Armada beacons were built on Sharp Haw, near Flasby and Penhill, in Wensleydale. In the early years of the 19th century, the threat was from France and Napoleon. In the summer of 1803, serious preparations were made for a likely invasion. Volunteer regiments were raised by local gentry, and in order to mobilise this defence and let the general population know what was happening, a system of communication beacons was set up. The Dales had at least one of these Napoleonic fire beacons, Beamsley Beacon and possibly another near Grassington. In the event of an invasion, the men guarding each beacon and keeping watch using a telescope would light their beacon as soon as they saw their neighbour’s alight. The War Office reckoned on the news of the invasion travelling at a rate of 75 miles a day by this method.
In more modern times, the threat of attack was from the air and communication networks became far more sophisticated. Volunteers of the Royal Observer Corps (formed in 1925) watched the skies of Britain from their observer posts throughout the Second World War. At Castlehaw, Sedbergh, the original post, opened in 1938, was equipped with flares to warn friendly aircraft of nearby high ground. After the Second World War, the threat came from Russia and its nuclear weapons. The ROC above ground posts were converted into underground bunkers. Castlehaw’s was built in 1965, one of several such Cold War observer posts built in the National Park. It closed soon after, in 1968 and the ROC was finally stood down in the 1991 following the collapse of Soviet Russia.
Men from the Dales have always been ready to defend their country but only the most aristocratic are commemorated before the 20th century. Virtually every community in the National Park, however tiny, has a war memorial, but they all date to the First and Second World Wars. An exception is the Boer War memorial at Sedbergh School commemorating eight former pupils who died during fighting in South Africa (1899-1902). This was the first major war to be fought following reforms of the British Army at the end of the 19th century. For the first time, regiments were recruited from specific localities and became closely associated with them. Many of the soldiers who fought in the Boer War were also volunteers rather than the long serving professionals of previous campaigns. From then on, war memorials became a necessary way to commemorate community losses particularly of ordinary soldiers rather than just officers.
The war memorial at Aysgarth is an interesting First World War example. It was paid for by local people. Villagers, including children from the school, carried stone for it from a nearby quarry down to the village. Many First World War Memorials had the names of local men who died in the Second World War added to them following that conflict. Aysgarth lost no one and has instead a tablet of thanks attached.
Because communities each paid for their own war memorials, their form and design is always unique. Thornton Rust built a village hall in 1924 to commemorate its dead, while the people of Langcliffe converted an 18th or early 19th century fountain into their war memorial in 1920.
Because of its lack of industry and cities, the Yorkshire Dales escaped the worst direct effects of the Second World War. However, its rough terrain was extensively used to train soldiers. In Wensleydale this included tank regiments. The concrete standings at Gayle Green and until 2004 at Bainbridge Depot were where tank training depots were located. Regiments working out of Bainbridge were billeted in Nissan huts built near the Depot and around the Low Mill. They practised with their tanks on Stake Fell. Soldiers from a tank regiment are also known to have been billeted at Gayle Mill. Second World War gunners practised firing their artillery on Grassington Moor and demolished several derelict lead mining buildings. Kettlewell Smelt Mill was demolished in 1942 when it was used to test a new sort of explosive.
Several planes crashed in the hills and a poignant memorial on Buckden Pike commemorates one crash and the lucky survival of a crewmember. An army training camp in Cracoe had a set of searchlights in part used to prevent friendly aircraft crashing into high ground to the south.
Just outside the park there was the opportunity to have actual contact with the enemy in the form of two prisoner of war camps built near Skipton. Raikeswood Camp housed German officers captured during the First World War while Overdale Camp was built during the Second World War to house first Italian, then German POWs. Men from Overdale Camp worked on several farms in the Craven area. At the end of the Second World War, at least two men from this camp stayed on and ended up owning local farms.
Some of the remote, inhospitable terrain of the moorland areas of the National Park has continued in use for military training purposes since the Second World War. Catterick Army Camp still uses large areas of the moorland above Swaledale.
Sachsse, S & Cossmann, R (1920) Kriegsgefangen in Skipton Munich: Ernst Reinhardt [an account in German, of life in the Raikeswood POW Camp]
Sanderson, Ian (2002) ‘Remains of the Invasion Scare of 1803’ Archaeology & Archives in West Yorkshire Issue 14 p3
Wood, Derek (1992) Attack Warning Red: Royal Observer Corp and the Defence of Britain 1925 to 1992 Portsmouth: Carmichael & Sweet
www.iwm.org.uk/collections/niwm – web site for the UK National Inventory of War Memorials, hosted by the Imperial War Museum
English Heritage report on Second World War Prisoner of War camps [Download English Heritage report PDF]