Successful heritage research helps reduce isolation from Covid 19

The Covid 19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has put enormous strain on the mental health of us all and resulted in the cancellation of projects and events designed to support the wellbeing of groups such as injured veterans. With funding provided by The National Lottery Community Fund as part of their Covid 19 projects, Wessex Archaeology launched a training and research project based around the wrecks of two WWII X-Craft mini subs resting in Aberlady Bay, East Lothian. 

Over the course of one year the Aberlady X-Craft project, led by Wessex Archaeology and supported by Breaking Ground Heritage, provided hands on survey training for the veterans and produced an updated condition report of the wrecks. The project engaged over 30 veterans and provided support for eight individual projects, five of which have been taken through to completion. Alongside these projects we have provided a space for discussion, a wide range of training materials and an opportunity for veterans to make contact with others at a time when their traditional networks and meeting places were unavailable. The project is part of Wessex Archaeology’s longstanding work using heritage to support mental health and well-being, and our ongoing commitment to supporting wounded, injured and sick veterans.

The project began with the completion of the on-site photogrammetric survey of the two wrecks, completed at low tide during spring tides in September 2020. This allowed us to collect all the necessary data for the condition survey while also completing survey training for the veterans able to attend. From the data collected our geomatics department produced a digital 3D model enabling anyone who couldn’t access the sites to investigate the current condition of the wrecks.

Aberlady X-craft wrecks

Using this as inspiration, the project then assisted the volunteers to develop their own research projects. These included the construction of scale models of an X-craft with associated training in artefact scanning/photogrammetry, the investigation of the loss of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious by a relative of one of the crew members lost, research into the use of X-Craft in the Far East, research in to the medical conditions that particularly affected submariners and the assessment and collation of the Fred Bown archive, one of the survivors from K17, a submarine lost during fleet exercises in 1917 in the Firth of Forth.

k class postcard

Above: postcard commemorating the loss of K Class Submarine K17 (Copyright Jack Robson)

The levels of engagement by volunteers varied from ad hoc inclusion in discussions and training via the project’s social media page to active engagement in research projects. For some of the veterans these projects were an opportunity to connect a hobby they loved doing e.g. scale modelling, with an aspect of historical research, while for others it was an exercise in developing their research and academic writing abilities. Others were keen to investigate family history, honour former servicemen and women from their own branch of the services or to complete a project that had interested them but they had not had the resources or support to do. Whatever the reasons for doing their projects, it was great to see them build up their data, develop an argument or line of investigation and then to bring it through to completion.

Thanks to Wessex Archaeology’s sector-leading coastal & marine and marine geophysics departments we were able to match up two researchers with the project team at Neart na Gaoithe Offshore Wind Limited, who had completed high-quality marine geophysical survey over the wrecks of two K-Class submarines from WWI which had been lost during the Battle of May Island.

k class subs

Above: multibeam image showing the K-Class submarine wrecks (Copyright Wessex Archaeology)

Our exceptional Studio team completed 3D virtual modelling of the scale model of the X-Craft built by one of the volunteers using the Artec Spider artefact scanner, which allowed the 3D models of the wrecks to be compared with a complete X-Craft. The scale model itself is now being worked up into a dockside diorama which will be donated to the Aberlady Historical Society for their community museum. The project looking at the X-Craft in the Far East has also put together service biographies of X-Craft crews and we are investigating publication options for this output.


“This has been a great project to be involved with, I work through a lot of service records and military postcards to piece the bits of the history back together in my spare time so when I was asked by Dickie from Breaking Ground Heritage, I knew it was something to be involved with. Last year during lockdown was particularly hard for a number of people, however I believe the project has given a purpose to many veterans who would normally assist on digs but has meant they have still kept their hand in, including myself. For myself it has been really interesting to work through Fred’s service records and write a summary of his time spent in the Royal Navy, after being interested in military history for many years, to work on the Battle of May Island has been a great eye opener of history that has been covered up for many years.” - Aberlady X-Craft project volunteer

Due to the uncertain nature of life, some projects were unable to be completed but the skills and training provided to those who took part remain with them, ready to be used in the future. All of those who took part were able to progress their abilities and knowledge in some way, and we would be delighted to see any or all of them return to future projects. Feedback from the volunteers has been very positive, with several highlighting how important having something to focus on and enjoy was during the 2nd and 3rd lockdowns. Several of the projects are in the process of either being turned into publications (the first for several of the volunteers) or have been accepted into appropriate archives- a great morale boost for the researchers as well as demonstrating the worth of their work.

Aberlady x-craft document

Above: a research project by one of the Aberlady X-Craft project volunteers

“My contribution was a fact-finding project on X-Craft which included visiting X24, the only surviving WW2 midget submarine displayed in the Submarine Museum in Gosport.  It gave me a sense of the size and internal structure of the Aberlady X-Craft wrecks we were investigating. In addition, I conducted a literature review of published research into the medical problems experienced by British submariners in WW2. It was fascinating – not surprisingly life onboard a WW2 submarine was hazardous!  My report has been added to the archive in the Institute of Naval Medicine, Gosport. It was a great to be part of The Aberlady X-Craft Projects team. It came at a time of isolation and loneliness during the COVID lockdowns of 2020/2021 and the project kept me busy, engaged and mentally stimulated which increased my self-confidence and self-worth.” - Aberlady X-Craft project volunteer

We hope to use the results from the Aberlady X-Craft project to refine and improve our own delivery of these, in order to ensure that the volunteers get the most out of the next series of works. The project overall has been a great way to bring volunteers together in an online environment, while encouraging and supporting them to complete their own research. Hopefully the next projects can be a hybrid of in-person training/discussion and online support to enable any veteran to take part.

Thanks to all the volunteers for taking part; to Wessex Archaeology staff in C&M, Marine Geophysics, Studio and Geomatics for their support; to NnGOWL for the provision of the marine geophysics data for the wrecks and to NLCF for their funding. The project overall has been an inspirational combination of development led archaeology, community impact and individual research which I am very proud to have been part of.

By Ben Saunders, Senior Marine Archaeologist

National Lottery Fund