by Jennifer Allison
Cultybraggan is a well-preserved Prisoner of War Camp situated in Comrie, western Perthshire. The camp represents the importance of Perth and Kinross during wartime, spanning from WWII until 2004, when it ceased to be used by the military. It was built in 1941 by the 249 (Alien) Company Pioneer Corps, a corps of refugees especially German and Austrian Jews who volunteered to support the war effort. After first operating as a training camp and then housing Italian PoWs until Italy’s surrender in 1943, the site was used as a holding camp for German soldiers towards the end of the war and up until 1948 (Thomas 2019, 156). It then became a training camp once again, and has since served as a nuclear monitoring post for the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) as well as a Regional Government Headquarters (RGHQ).
Unlike most of the camps built in Scotland, Cultybraggan retains almost all of its 100 characteristic Nissen huts which provided accommodation for guards and prisoners alike, and the central administration block is still standing. It preserves many of its original features, including the cell doors in the punishment wing. The other PoW camps in Scotland have either been entirely destroyed or demolished, leaving only the concrete floors of the prisoner blocks (Banks 2018, 32).
World War II
Designated ‘Camp 21’, Cultybraggan was intended to house up to 4000 Category A prisoners of war. By the end of the war, around 400,000 soldiers had travelled to Britain, including 70,000 prisoners held in so-called ‘black camps’, including Camp 21. The Allied nations had a classification for PoWs from Germany that categorised them based on their devotion to the Nazi ideology. This ranged from ‘white’ prisoners who were seen to be pro-democracy, ‘grey’, those who showed some Nazi sympathies, but were likely to respond positively to re-education, and finally the ‘black’ prisoners, the most devoted and unwavering Nazi supporters (Thomas 2019, 157). This means Cultybraggan was intended to hold the most committed Nazi prisoners, including Waffen-SS, Fallschirmjäger and the U-boat crew.
The main ‘black’ camp was Camp 23, at Devizes in Wiltshire, where PoW were routinely screened for their political sympathies following their capture. The presumed ringleaders of the 1944 ‘Devizes plot’, which aimed to break 250,000 prisoners free and overtake Britain from within, were sent to Cultybraggan as a punishment for their crimes and failed plot. Among these was Wolfgang Rosterg, a well-known anti-Nazi who was mistaken for a ‘black’ prisoner and ended up in Cultybraggan with the true leaders of the Devizes plot. Rosterg was beaten to death in Hut no. 4 by at least five Nazi sympethisers that same year. In 1945, the five men were hanged at Pentonville Prison, the largest multiple execution in 20th century Britain (Banks 2020).
Following WWII, in 1949, Cultybraggan was reopened as a military training camp for the Regular Army, the Territorial Army, and was popular with Cadet units for their annual camps. The camp accommodated 600 personnel in the Nissen huts and tents. Units rotating through the camp undertookover 80,000 ‘man training days’ of military exercising, including adventure training, cross-country driving, and helicopter operations, using the 12,000 acre Tighnablair Training Area at the nearby Drummond Estate.
As part of the Cold War defences of the 1960s, an underground ROC monitoring post was installed, which closed in September 1991 when the ROC stood down. In 1990, an underground RGHQ bunker was completed in the northeast corner of the camp in order to replace the Scottish North Zone Headquarters bunker at Troywood in Anstruther. In the event of war, the Secretary of State for Scotland, the BBC, British Telecom, and other important organisations would have operated from the bunker. However, the Cold War threat subsided before the bunker was completed, and the £3.6 million, two-storey, underground structure was closed. The bunker was then utilised by the army for military training along with the rest of the site.
In 2007, the residents of the village of Comrie, Scotland, collectively bought the site of Cultybraggan Camp through a ‘community buy-out’ scheme under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act of 2003. A Development Trust, made up primarily of local voluntary trustees, manages the site. the trust aims to promote environmental awareness, in additon to the unique cultural heritage of Cultybraggan (Thomas and Banks 2018).
In 2017, a project to investigate stories of escape attempts at Cultybraggan involved geophysical survey and excavation to try to locate escape tunnels. The excavation team, from the University of Glasgow and GUARD Archaeology opened three trenches in Compound B, following geophysical survey. Trench locations were determined by references to surviving plans of the camp’s layout. One trench exposed the gap between Compound B and Compound C, the second revealed the storehouse which was the most likely location for a tunnel that the camp commandant allegedly discovered, and the third was over one of the shower blocks, which had been described as the location of other tunnels. Community participation was part of the project’s design, and Comrie Heritage Group publicised participation opportunities within the village. While the limited fieldwork did not locate any traces of the tunnels themselves, the work provided insights into the psychology and practice of escape attempts amongst the German PoWs. Some of the demolished structures from Compound B were investigated, revealing the extent of the Ministry of Defence demolition within this compound (Thomas and Banks 2019; Banks 2020).
Banks, I 2020 ‘‘For you, the war is over? Not a chance!’ Captivity and escape at Cultybraggan prisoner of war camp, Comrie, Perthshire’, Journal of Conflict Archaeology 15(1), 32–64.
Thomas, S 2019 ‘Doing public participatory archaeology with difficult conflict heritage: Experiences from Finnish Lapland and the Scottish Highlands’, Post Classical Archaeologies 9, 147—167.
Thomas, S and Banks, I 2019 ‘Asset, burden, Cultybraggan. Community site ownership in a Scottish village’, Journal of Community Archaeology & Heritage 6(1), 51–68.