There is a long history of Wanstead Flats being used for military purposes. Large scale exercises were carried out there with horses and cannons throughout the nineteenth century.
The lead image is the West Essex Yeomanry cavalry exercising on the Flats in 1853. George III was present for one of these reviews.
World War 1 saw anti aircraft guns on the Flats as it is often forgotten London was bombed from aircraft and from Zeppelin airships in WW1. But the era we most associate with the military on the Flats is World War 2. Large areas were requisitioned by the War Department and put to various uses. Anti-glider trenches were dug across the Flats to prevent German airborne landings.
Some bomb craters can still be seen on the Flats and in Wanstead Park.
One crater can be clearly seen by the mini-roundabout at the corner of Aldersbrook Road and Blake Hall Road.
There was a large anti aircraft gun battery on the Flats in huge concrete emplacements just south of the current Esso petrol station on Aldersbrook Road. Adjacent was a military camp to house the soldiers and one hut from that time survives in the changing rooms compound there. Next to that white hut is a small brick built structure that was a gas decontamination centre, an elaborate shower and changing facility for troops (the British believed the Germans were bound to use chemical weapons as both sides had in WW1.) After the end of the war the camp became a hostel for families whose houses had been destroyed by bombing.
A little to the west of these guns was an anti aircraft rocket system, called a Z battery, and the base of the huts that housed the crews can still be seen in Long Wood.
South of the rocket battery towards the end of the war there was a huge aerial system, using radio detection methods to spot incoming enemy aircraft and rockets.
There were at least two prisoner of war camps on the Flats, one for Italians close to the fairground site, and a separate one for Germans near Lake House Road.
Some Italian PoWs towards the end of the war repaired bomb damaged houses locally and from 1944 helped build the large “prefab” housing estates on the Flats. The biggest was on Capel Road just west of the Golden Fleece.
Older local residents interviewed a few years ago remembered the build up to D Day in Forest Gate in June 1944 when huge numbers of military vehicles were parked up in the area including along Sebert Road, and troops slept in tents on the Flats.
There were also barrage balloon emplacements on the Flats. These huge balloons many metres across designed to impede enemy aircraft were on steel hawsers which were affixed to trucks. They could be raised thousands of metres using a drum on the back of the lorry.
After the war, these same balloons were used by a military parachute training school on the Flats and recently some photos of these have emerged from a local family’s photo albums.
Pictured below is a parachute landing dated 1949 in a recognisable location on the Flats where in the distance the trees round the Alexandra lake next to Aldersbrook Road.
Large parts of east London had been destroyed by bombing during the war, and local councils needed to re-house many homeless families.
Rapidly constructed prefabricated houses (the “prefabs”) were part of the solution. Both East Ham and West Ham council built prefabs along the southern edge of Wanstead Flats. The lady and child in the photo below are in front of the East Ham council prefabs on Capel Road.
Meant to be a temporary solution, these much-loved homes survived for many years. The last prefabs were only removed from the Flats in 1962.
Peter and Mark are the authors of the 2022 book “Forest Gate - a short illustrated history“ available from Number 8 Emporium.