The military archaeology of Dartmoor encompasses an enormous range of features which are the result of a wide variety of different activities. They also cover a considerable period of time and include both Iron Age hillforts and medieval castles which, whatever their other functions, had their origins in conflict. Indeed, the town of Lydford was established as a defence against Viking aggression by the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex.
More modern military activity has been concentrated in the last two hundred years, the earliest being the construction of the prison in Princetown to house French and then American prisoners of war in the early 19th century.
Military manoeuvres took place on a number of occasions in different place from the early 19th century, but have left little trace. However, from the 1870s regular, large scale exercises began to be held on an almost annual basis on both the north and south Dartmoor, but especially to the south of Okehampton where, by 1892, a permanent camp had been established. This became the first purpose-built artillery range in the country, with large areas of northern Dartmoor leased from the Duchy of Cornwall as ranges. Although the military have continued to use Dartmoor’s open expanses for training ever since, the nature of the activity has changed and expanded over time as military technology and roles have changed. Each change has left its mark in the form of different types of features, from the remains of slit trenches and practice fortifications, to observation posts, target railways and the buildings of Okehampton Camp which remains in use.
Although training activity has been and continues to be prominent, Dartmoor also contains archaeology derived from other forms of military activity. Perhaps most obvious is RAF Harrowbeer in Yelverton, a well-preserved Second World War airfield from which fighter squadrons flew in defence of Plymouth. Other defensive features from this time include Royal Observer Corps positions, the anti-glider posts which still survive on Hameldown and bombing decoys such as that at Hawk’s Tor.
Some facilities with Second World War origins continued in use into the Cold War period. RAF Sharpitor, a radar guidance station, was upgraded in 1956 and only closed down in 1970. Others were newly constructed, such as the Royal Observer Corps position at Peek Hill which was intended to monitor the effects of a nuclear weapon strike on Plymouth!
Dartmoor, as an elevated landmass, has also been the scene of numerous military air crashes dating to the Second World War and after. Often, there is little surface trace of such events.
In parallel with much military activity on Dartmoor has been public unease and sometimes protest which has served to constrain potential excesses and minimise damage to the landscape and the natural and cultural heritage it contains. Both sides of the debate, which is still very much alive today, are an important and integral part of Dartmoor’s human story.