- Contributed by
- Conal O'Donnell
- People in story:
- The people of Stanford,Tottington and West Tofts
- Location of story:
- Norfolk 1945
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 November 2004
A "Desert Rats" plaque outside the Stanford Battle Area.Thetford Forest is amongst its impressive geographical battle honours.The divison trained around Stanford,Tottington and West Tofts from Jan-May 1944.There is no permanent recognition of the deserted villages.Only Tottington's war memorial stands alone by a Breckland road .
In 1945, while the war was spluttering to its bloody close , the War Office secretly decided it wanted to hang onto Stanford.The WO admitted that its occupation of land was "intrinsically unpopular" so it stressed the urgent need to finalise the full time occupation of Stanford while the forces were still basking in the general glow of victory.
And so they and the government embarked on a voyage of evasions,half truths and stupendously obscure civil service double think in their campaign to go back on their word.At first the GOC Eastern Command ,Lt Gen Cunningham, made the bold assertion that no return pledge had ever been made .He saw the transcripts of the speeches made by Anderson and Cranbrook.
"No categorical promises on the part of any speaker was made" he concluded triumphantly , adding though that if the WO kept Stanford "it will have to face the fact that the whole question has a very definite background and vehement objections will be raised".
Of course in a plodding literal way Anderson was right.In the uncertain dark days of 1942 it was impossible to say ' you will be allowed back at such a date and such a time'.However the return pledge was the unspoken assumption that permeated the whole conduct of the two public meetings,and the reason they agreed to go quietly.General Anderson put his finger on the understanding when he told the West Tofts meeting:-"It goes without saying that we will do our utmost to do the least possible damage to houses and farms".
Why would he have made this point so clear to his audience if they hadn't the underlying confidence they'd be allowed back?.It goes without saying.And privately Lord Cranbrook and Colonel Reed told the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison that the promise to return had been made and often repeated in public and in private whatever Cunningham's transcripts said.
Morrison overruled Cunningham .In his view "the public faith had been pledged in a manner which must be regarded (as) over riding army requirements".As Minister for Home Security in 1942 Morrison-Peter Mandelson's grandfather- felt personal responsibility for the return promise. And he worried about the embarrassment it would cause him , and the government ,if the pledge was ignored.
But the War Office would not give up.The variety of the terrain,and the relative proximity of London and the Midlands ,in their view, made Stanford ideal to train the large numbers of Territorials and National Servicemen needed to deter Russia after the Nazi defeat.
Students of Whitehall "Yes ,minister" double speak will love their next tactic. Yes!- the return pledge had been made.But it was "surplususage".What a word ,and not to be found in the Concise Oxford Dictionary at least.Essentially the War Office now said because an unecessary "surplususage " return pledge had been given at recquisition in 1942 the government was released from feeling any obligation about purchasing Stanford under different legislation passed after the evacuation.
This is how Lord Nathan , a junior war minster persuaded himself that this course was the right one."As I see it , a promise is an undertaking to do or refrain from doing something which the promiser is not already under an obligation to do or refrain from doing.In the case of Norfolk the evacuated inhabitants had the statutory right to return after the war when the land was de-requisitioned .From a legal point of view ,there was in fact no need for those "so called" promises to have been given at all and its a pity they were given in such terms ....but under no stress of the imagination has any promise displaced the rights of the War Department under the permanent legislation of the land "
Nathan realised there were a few tricky problems regarding this approach-not least the petition to the King in which the return assurance was acknowleged.Nathan remarked no doubt this "difficulty" could "be got clearer ,with a proper explanation."Another greater difficulty was that legally the government would be obliged to repair and renovate the whole area under the evacuation legislation before compulsorily purchasing it again at enhanced cost afterwards. In a bankrupt post war Britain this was unacceptable.
Nathan summed up the new position to Morrison in classic style:-"If,but only if the retention of a particular area to which a promise might be held to apply ,is felt to be inescapable a better course would be to say so:circumstances have changed markedly and new public necessities have arisen".
This was the basis of the justification for keeping Stanford that was put to the Attlee cabinet sometime late 1946 early 1947.They accepted it.
While Whitehall decided the Brecklanders fate in secret concern among the villagers grew.Lord Cranbrook asked Morrison for assurances in early 1946.Having got none he moved a debate in the House of Lords in which he criticised the government for the "inordinately long time" taken to come to a decision.
Lord Walsingham in his maiden speech mixed rustic complaint with high morality.Ragwort had re-established itself thanks to army neglect killing three of his horses.A bit quaint that, but few were unmoved by his closing comments:"They belong there :we can trace some of the family's back to Saxon times.They have simply hated to be moved".
Nathan wouldn't give any assurances over Stanford despite announcing that the Suffolk battle area was being returned "because it has ceased to be necessary for the army and irrespective of any so called promise made".The key fact here of course was that many Suffolk owner occupiers particularly in Orford had been making a fuss.The Stanford people -almost all tenants -had no such clout.
The bureaucratic noose tightened.A petition calling for their return was ruled not worth the paper it was written on by the House of Commons Committee of Public Petitions. Lots of signatures were in the same hand they complained ,ignoring the fact that some couldn't write at all.Then came the public inquiry in 1948.
Many thought it was a put - up job from the start when the presiding inspector, Sir Geoffrey Whiskard , told the objectors the question was "not whether there should be a training area in Eastern Command but whether it should be in Stanford or some other district"
Three months later the government announced its irrevocable decision to disregard the return pledge and keep Stanford.Prior to the official announcement the Minister for Town and Country Planning Lewis Silkin held a private meeting with the Stanford evacuees asking them to absolve his government from the return pledge.They refused.
"The blow has fallen and it is difficult to see what more we can do "said Lord Walsingham.The High Sherrieff of Norfolk A.P.D. Pensrose asked :"Can the argument for expediency excuse a government for breaking a categorical promise,or dare governments ,setting such a standard of public morality ,demand a higher code among citizens?Matters of this nature concern the rights and liberties of the British people no less than the honour of Parliament itself".
But there was no huge public outcry ,partly because the government's "compelling reasons" for training an efficient army grew more obvious each day.Earlier in the year Czechoslovakia had fallen to a Communist coup , and international tension was at its height with the Berlin airlift threatening to turn into war with the Soviets.All that now remained was to agree final compensation.
Lord Walsingham suffered most financially.According to his son he thought the government's terms for purchasing 7000 acres around and including Tottington ,Sturston and most of Stanford were "bitterly unfair".
"My father didn't think the terms were acceptable until some dreadful "pin stripe" colonel from the War Office came down and said if you don't agree we'll make a compulsory purchase order and you'll do far worse.It was like holding a pistol to his head.He signed on the dotted line".
"I won't say my father never smiled again ,but it was the most upsetting thing that ever happened to him in his life"added the current Lord Walsingham ,who like his father served 23 years in the Regular Army winning the M.C.
Lucille Reeve,always brave , oversensitive ,outspoken and awkward gradually lost her reason.In November 1945 she illegally went back into the battle area .
"I cycled to see the ruins of what had once been my home .It was gutted by fire following shelling by tanks in August last year.The Scots and Corsican pine,the fruit trees and shrubs had grown so they almost hid the ruin from view until the gateway was reached.
"It was a sad sight but I shed no tears as I walked round past the one wall still standing ,with brick work only slightly blackened from fire.The garage was undamaged and the door swung open.I noticed the two holes we had cut in the door for the swallows to get to the nest ....It's the little things of life that we so often remember in our darkest hours.Now,back once more to the wooden huts which have been my home these past three years and may be for many more.I look across my village to its farthest boundary .To the woods in their autumn glory and the avenue of cedars.Beyond them lies Bagmore and my farming hopes." Despair and death weren't far off.(2)
Ordinary folk fared better.Resilient and usually not given to over sentimental reflection they were eventually re-housed properly.Local authorities were given money to build them council houses which as compensation were let at fixed pre-war rates.This caused a lot of friction in the late 50's and 60's when other tenants discovered ex - battle area neighbours were on perpetually cheap fixed rents.
And so the Breckland villages were laid to rest with a whimper-the banging has gone on ever since.The army allowed former residents in once a year to see their old homes if they so wished and burials continued at Tottington and West Tofts. Maud Hancock organised an illegal coach trip back in with friends and relatives.
"I didn't get permission .I didn't see why I should.It was my home before the army took it away "she informed me. But it wasn't an experience she'd ever repeat.
"I saw my house in ruins .I started to cry.I wanted to go back right away but some of the others wanted to stay on. It was dreadful"
How does one get the Stanford evacuation into perspective?. Doubtless an injustice was done during a war to end injustice, or so it was hoped. A war about decency ,and keeping one's word.The suffering of the battle area people was real, but not unique.Thousands of city folk lost life and property through enemy action. Others lost their homes so the military could train in Suffolk and in the South Hams area of Devon to name but two.They got their homes back though.
I interviewed Lord Cranbrook in 1975.He was still a fine figure of a man with longish snow white hair and a mischievous sense of humour.Thirty three years on he still felt the villagers had been poorly treated."But"he explained " we were all brought up on Kipling and ' Dulce et decorum est' and all that sort of thing you know.You can get over anything in time can't you?Life is a series of troubles.Either a girl or a bullet!"
By then Cranbrook was showing dogged determination himself in the face of failing eyesight. Over each open doorway in his Suffolk farmhouse hung a handkerchief secured by a drawing pin to help him navigate unaided from room to room.It was grit which he took for granted in himself, and virtually everyone else he met, including Brecklanders..
And of course losing ones home wasn't everything. Cyril Spragg mourned the loss of his 7 year old son.The lad caught whooping cough from their new neighbour's children after the evacuation.He died of pneumonia."That was a bit of a bad time"he said with typical Breckland understatement.
Bob and Margaret Espie lost their home in 1942.But their real tragedy had already happened.Their 19 year old daugther Hazel was run down and killed outside the Kings Head in Mundford in 1940.The alledged culprit was a drunken Sergeant Major .Nobody was ever prosecuted .
Bob,who 'd served in the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers during the First World War when Churchill was the commanding officer,was furious at the army's apparent indifference.
"He couldn't stand on his feet when he came out of the pub.Nothing ever happened to him,very sad,very sad.Sergeant Majors allowed to kill people just as they like"
This was Bob and Margaret's great injustice capable of bringing forth tears in front of a complete stranger over thirty years afterwards.Nobody I met ever shed a tear for bricks and mortar.
Sources:-personal interviews with 9th Baron Walsingham John de Grey MC, the late Lord Cranbrook ,the Hon.Richard de Grey,Maud Hancock,Ernest Reynolds,Cyril Spragg,Freda Noble,Leslie Macro,Jane Chilvers,Kathleen Reeve,Bert and Mary Bishop,Bob and Margaret Espie,Frank Speed ,Colonel Patrick Winter,Richard Baker,Fred Woolsey .Correspondence Claude Reeve,Vera Czeres ,Alice Macro,Somerset de Chair.
The interviews took place between 1974-80.Sadly many of these fine people have passed on.
Printed sources;-Eastern Daily Press,East Anglian Daily Times,Public Records Office WO 32 series,The Sunday Times.
Books (1)" Farming on a Battleground " by A Norfolk Woman (Lucille Reeve) George R.Reeve,The Model Press,Wymondham.
(2)"The Earth No Longer Bare" by A Norfolk Woman George Reeve.
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