I would recommend that anyone thinking of searching for World War Two relics go with an experienced digger first so they can give you tips on how to keep safe as well as help you stay within the law. I would also recommend you have a good knowledge of the firearms act ( Many items you may find on old World War Two sites are illegal to possess, either because they are ‘live’, or perhaps form part of a firearm. Remember that it is illegal to possess live ammunition without the relevant licence, and certain kinds of bullet, (i.e. the projectile itself, even if not attached to a cartridge case), are also illegal to posses. All small arms ammunition should be handed in to the police. Anything explosive should always be left in situ and under no circumstances should you attempt to move it. Moving explosive ordnance is not only downright idiotic, (not to mention life threatening), but you may also be prosecuted for public endangerment, along with numerous other offences under the firearms and anti-terrorism acts. If you find explosive ordnance, call the authorities immediately, keep people away from it, and wait for help to arrive.

Before you get started, here are a number of videos giving you great hints and tips, from both myself and Beau Ouimette, star of History Channel’s ‘River Hunters’.

50 cal ground
50cal cartridge cases, just being unearthed

Many people believe you have to visit the battlefields of Europe to find World War Two relics, but that is very far from the truth. The UK is littered with old airbases, gunnery ranges, POW camps, army camps, AA sites…they are everywhere. Many sites now have modern uses and the relics they hold are buried beneath housing estates, motorways and warehouses. However, some sites have never been built on and the relics they hold can be recovered, with the right knowledge and research.

So what about research? The first place to start is the internet, and especially Google Earth (GE). You can get add-ons for GE that show you all the airbases that ever existed on UK soil, with place markers on your map showing precise locations and info about what the base was used for. You can also get an add-on called ‘extended defence of Britain’ that shows everything to do with WW2, from AA sites, to Starfish sites, tank traps and pillboxes. Be careful though, as it adds so many flags to your GE map that it slows it right down. I only turn it on when I’m zoomed in to a map section.

This will give you starting points for areas to search, but then comes the real research. Old aerial photos help, if you can find them, as well as plans of the location……again, if you can find them. I often use local libraries as a source of information, using old maps to get a better idea of the layout of sites. Another way to find decent locations is old memoirs written by locals, again usually kept at local libraries. Often you can stumble across information in lots of different locations, but the important bit is to get your research right as it pays dividends in volume of finds. Once you’ve identified a site and are confident that you will find WW2 relics there, your next step is getting permission to search the area you’ve identified.

I must stress that you can’t just pitch up at an old RAF base with a metal detector, a spade and a grin. If you do, you will be committing an illegal act. First and foremost you must have the landowner’s permission to enter any site you wish to detect. Without it you are trespassing, by digging a hole you are committing criminal damage and should you find anything in said hole and take it, theft. You also need to be sure the site you wish to detect isn’t covered by any bye-laws(many old gunnery ranges still are), ensure the site isn’t protected under the Heritage act, isn’t a Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), or protected under any other law. Always remember that ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law. If you don’t check your site for such things or enter land without landowners permission expect to find yourself up before a judge!

Also be mindful that ALL land has an owner, even common land and parkland. A criminal case a few years back set the precedent for detecting on such land as, at appeal, the judges concluded that metal detecting did not constitute a recreational act and was therefore illegal without the permission of the park owners, (i.e. the local council). The same applies for common land. You always need permission!

50 cal group marked
50cal cartridge cases unearthed at an old USAAF base. There were 38 in this one hole, along with all the links as well

Once you have landowner permission and have checked to ensure the area isn’t protected in any way, you can start hunting for relics from the conflict. I have visited numerous locations over the years, in some cases returning again and again to the same site for five years or more. Old airbases are always littered with relics, as are the sites of old POW camps and army camps, and some take many trips to recover all the relics they hold.

Digging World War Two relics is not like digging a coin, as the hole you dig is much much bigger, and coins very rarely contain explosive material. That said it is important to adhere to the following rules when digging these relics:

  • Never dig directly on a detection
  • Dig at least 12 inches away
  • Work your way towards the detection

Once you reveal the relic, you must identify what it is before removing it from the ground. If you’re in any doubt at all about what it is, LEAVE IT ALONE! If there is one piece of advice I will repeat over and over again it is this:

If you have any doubt that what you’re digging is safe, LEAVE IT ALONE and CALL THE AUTHORITIES. No relic is worth losing limb or life.

If you do find relics from World War Two they should be reported to the local archaeology officer so they can be recorded. Whilst the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), is meant to be for items over 300 years of age, it is still good practice to report younger items, such as those from World War Two. Ensure you record as much detail as you can about the finds. Exact locations, (GPS positioning or map grid reference), depths and precise identification are the bear minimum requirements for reporting purposes.

Merlin engine exhaust manifold, recovered from behind an aircraft pen on an old USAAF airbase. I found twelve behind this one pen, all from a Mustang.

The best areas to search are always those of high activity. Places where there were lots of men going between buildings; Areas where aircraft were parked and repaired; Gun butts and rifle ranges; Communal sites with concentrations of large numbers of living quarters; Parade grounds. Once you’ve found a location that yields finds, start searching it methodically. Work the area in a careful grid pattern so you cover every possible inch of ground.

Research certainly helps pinpoint likely sites, but remember it is often down to pot luck. Some of the best finds I’ve made have come from locations where they shouldn’t have been! When you’re using a metal detector, you have to walk over an object to detect it, which is why you should ensure you do your best to cover every inch of ground.

20mm group
20mm cartridge cases, links still attached but badly corroded.

One other major source of relics is rubbish dumps. The majority of bases had their own rubbish dump and, if you can find that, you normally don’t even need a metal detector. Simply dig a hole and recover the relics. It isn’t easy finding dump sites though, and takes a great deal of research and practice, but if you find one, they can yield a huge quantity of important artefacts. You will need to review old aerial photos of the site, looking for areas of disturbed ground, usually with a trackway leading to them from the main base. Of course you can also get info from the locals or landowners, as often they will know of an area that is covered in broken bottles and crockery, or areas where no crops grow. It’s all down to research!