When it comes to understanding UXO contamination in the UK, you might have heard of bombing decoy sites – cleverly crafted illusions designed to deceive enemy forces during WWII. The majority of these sites were destroyed after the war, but their legacy can remain until this day, threatening construction and development projects across the country.

What Were Decoy Sites?

The construction of decoy sites in the UK started in January 1940, prior to the first air raids in July 1940. Sometimes known as dummy sites or decoy targets, they were designed to divert enemy attention and resources away from their intended targets by deception, tricking German bombers into targeting unoccupied areas of countryside.

Decoy sites were crafted to mimic real targets such as airfields, factories and major cities and towns. They often consisted of dummy buildings, runways, vehicles, and other infrastructure that was strategically positioned to appear as legitimate targets from the air.

The concept was created by Colonel John Turner, an engineer and retired Air Ministry officer. Turner formed a team using the best film studio tradesmen, engineers, and carpenters to construct a network of decoy sites across the country.

Their primary objective was to confuse enemy reconnaissance and bomber missions. By creating convincing replicas of actual targets, commanders hoped to lure enemy aircraft away from their intended targets, reducing the impact of bombing raids and preserving vital resources.

Exploring wwii decoy sites in the uk

Types of Decoy Sites

These sites came in various forms, each tailored to deceive enemy forces in specific ways:

Airfield Decoys: These decoys simulated operational airfields complete with dummy aircraft, hangars, and runway lights, and were devised into daytime (K) and nighttime (Q) decoy sites. By drawing enemy bombers to these decoy airfields, real airbases could be spared from destruction.

City and Industrial Area Decoys: To protect urban centres and industrial complexes, decoy sites were constructed to mimic the layout and infrastructure of factories. Fake buildings, smoke generators, and even artificial lighting were used to create the illusion of bustling activity.

Following the devastating bombing of Coventry in November 1940, Turner was tasked with creating decoys for many major cities and towns. Designated as QL decoy sites, they included street lighting, lights from open doors and flashes from tram wires.

Port Decoys: Ports and harbours were crucial strategic targets during WWII. Decoy sites, adopted as N-Series decoys, were designed to resemble ports featuring dummy ships, docks, and warehouses, all intended to divert enemy naval forces and bombers.

Railway Decoys: Railways were vital for the transportation of troops and supplies. Decoy sites imitated railway marshalling yards, junctions, and stations, aiming to mislead enemy intelligence regarding troop movements and logistical routes.

Starfish Decoy Sites: In response to the Luftwaffe’s use of incendiary bombs, Turner added fires to some of the decoy sites to simulate a town or city that had been attacked. The theory was that the fires on the decoy sites would be started after a first wave of bombers had attacked the real target, hoping that the following waves of bombers would be drawn to the decoy site to carry out their attacks.

Turner referred to these new sites as Special Fire or SF, however, one of the earliest sites near Bristol was nicknamed Starfish. The nickname stuck, and ended up being used for all decoy sites of this type throughout the war.

The most successful of these SF decoy sites was erected on Sinah Common within Hayling Island in Hampshire, with the aim of deflecting bombing away from nearby Portsmouth, eventually being adopted as a naval decoy for Portsmouth Harbour.

It is believed to have experienced the most successful SF operation during one heavy air raid on the night of 2nd/3rd April 1941; only eight bomb strikes were recorded within Portsmouth out of over 500 bomb strikes recorded during that raid, with the decoy site experiencing the majority of the bombing.

The Legacy of Decoy Sites

While not all decoy sites were attacked during WWII, they were deemed to be a success that helped save lives and protect infrastructure.

Despite only being temporary, some bombing decoy sites have left a lasting legacy on the areas they occupied, including UXO contamination. This potential hazard can be found not just within the boundary of the decoy site, but in the surrounding areas too.

As decoy sites were often established in the countryside and on greenfield land, UXO contamination might exist in unexpected areas. This is one of the reasons why UXO risk assessments are so important and should always be considered before any ground intrusions on projects across the UK. The UXO risk assessment will be able to identify if any decoy sites existed on or near your site, and if they were attacked.

Exploring wwii decoy sites in the uk

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