- Contributed by
- Conal O'Donnell
- People in story:
- The people of Stanford,Tottington and West Tofts
- Location of story:
- Norfolk 1942
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 November 2004
A 7th Armoured Div Cromwell tank stands silent sentinel on the border of the Stanford Battle Area in Norfolk.The "Desert Rats" trained here before D-Day June 6th 1944.This is their memorial.There is no commemoration of the Breckland villagers who sacrificed their homes so proper D-Day training could take place
In July 1942 about a thousand men,women and children were compulsorily evacuated from 17,500 acres to the north of Thetford. It is an area of heath,meres and light agricultural land forming a large part of the unique Norfolk- Suffolk Breckland landscape
At the stroke of a War Office pen three villages Stanford, Tottington and West Tofts to-gether with the parish of Sturston and parts of the parishes of Lynford,Ickburgh,Hillborough,Little Cressingham,Merton, Thompson, Wretham, Stow Bedon and Croxton were cleared to make way for an army training area where troops could manoeuvre using live ammunition.
Settlements that first peeped forth out of the neolithic gloom,survived the Norman conquest, the Black death,centuries of soil erosion, the Reformation, the Civil war and the Agricultural Revolution succumbed without too much fuss to Part IV of the Defence Regulations 1939.
Now after decades of continuous army occupation only the ghosts of the forgotten villages names linger on to haunt the ordnance survey map.The original villages and scattered farms were quickly blasted out of existence as troops using live rounds,mortars, artillery and tanks trained month after month for D-Day.Then after the war the Russians became the enemy.
The Stanford Principal Training Area (PTA) as it officially came to be known was kept on by the military.It played a vital preparation role in every major post war British military deployment from Korea, Suez,Malaya,Cyprus,Aden,Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Bosnia, right down to Iraq.The only time the British public caught a glimpse of it was on TV.
"Dads Army" made extensive use of Stanford.The unmarked narrow tarmac roads and the countryside vistas completely free of modern clutter-pylons,telegraph poles,communications masts and the rest- were an ideal unspoilt 1940 backdrop preserved in a kind of aspic by the military.
The villagers who were forced out of their homes were mostly tenants of the largest local landowner Lord Walsingham.
At a series of sometimes rather stormy public meetings they were unequivocally promised that they would be able to return after the war.However it was a promise broken by the post war Labour government.Today the area it is still occupied by the MOD .
Why did they do it?The fire and movement revolution in warfare-" Blitz Krieg"- is really the answer.Suddenly men - most of them civillians- had to be taught to function properly in the terrifying confusion and din of modern,mobile warfare.It was called "Battle innoculation"-the process of responding properly under fire.
After Dunkirk a large part of the conscript British army was cooped up in the United Kingdom with no prospect of sharpening its skills in action.General Alexander realised this and set up a pioneer battle school in Lincolnshire where troops were subjected to small arms and artillery fire directed at them on a "near miss " basis.The CIGS ,General Dill, was so impressed he ordered more .And so from late 1940 onwards troops around Stanford began using live ammunition in set piece engagements .
At first it seemed as if the army was trying to compromise for people were allowed to remain in their homes despite the high risk of accident.It was an uneasy arrangement as a Tottington man Leslie Macro remembers from both sides.As a soldier he took part in a "fire and movement " exercise with an armoured brigade in the Stanford area in 1941.With typical Breckland guile he "never let on " that he was a local man,winning high praise from his CO for his amazing map reading!
He overheard officers moaning about "civies "getting in the way-most of them his friends and relations.
The Brecklanders too were not happy.Troops and tanks were constantly damaging crops.Firing and explosions upset livestock.Some affected a lofty disrepect for the military. Maud Hancock remembered her husband brushing aside a sentry to cross a live firing zone to get his lunch.He told the soldiers he 'd never been late for a meal in his life .They obligingly ceased fire.
On another occasion a vivid,independent woman farmer called Lucille Reeve strode furiously into a formation of tanks which had strayed onto her Bagmore Farm.After shooing them off with the help of her dog she started to march towards a VIP observation post on Frog Hill where Churchill was rumoured to be watching the exercise.Wisely the brasshats retreated.Even Churchill couldn't face Lucille became the local joke!
But farce inevitably gave way to tragedy.In May 1942 Chester Riches , aged 53, was accidently shot dead as he drove his cattle onto marshland near Orford in Suffolk where the army also trained.The CIGS convinced the War Cabinet that realistic battlefield training could only continue if the civillian population was totally cleared.Stanford's fate was sealed.
The War Office and the Home office both feared resistance to compulsory evacuation so they got together to devise what Herbert Morrison , the Minister for Home Security ,described as "an elaborate procedure to mollify the inhabitants".The idea was that Lord Cranbrook-the deputy regional commissioner for Eastern England -and General K.A.N. Anderson GOC Eastern Command would break the news to the inhabitants at a public meeting.
In June 1942 Anderson and Cranbrook travelled to Norfolk.Two public meetings were held.One in the blacksmith's forge at Tottington;the other in West Tofts school yard.On both occasions Lord Walsingham, a retired Norfolk Regt Lieutenant Colonel , introduced the speakers and pleaded with his tenants to accept evacuation with "fortitude and courage".
General Anderson told them this was the most unpleasant task of his army career."There's little you will want to hear in the way of sympathy and the last thing anyone wants to do is turn Englishmen from their homes" he said.
But he went onto explain that of all the armed services in Britain the Army saw very little action. The RAF and the Navy were involved in clashes with the enemy daily.By contrast many army units hadn't been in contact with the Germans since 1940.Some had seen no action at all.Without proper training he went on the Germans could never be tackled.
"We've got to train the men to get their nerves steady",he added.
To achieve this live ammunition would be used and mistakes would be made.But it went without saying he explained that we will do our utmost to do the least possible damage .Houses would not be deliberately shelled and street fighting would not be allowed he assured the audience.
" We are not going to smash up anyones home if we can avoid doing so".
Then it was Lord Cranbrook's turn.Re-housing would be a problem he agreed. Farm labourers could easily be placed elsewhere.Farmers would find it more difficult.There were no vacant tenancies.The major problem would be the elderly.Those who couldn't be accommodated by friends or relatives would be given a room in a recquisitoned country house while their furniture would go into store"until the time comes when you can go back".
Cranbrook pledged all in authority would " do their best to mitigate the very real hardship which is being inflicted upon you by this job."
Lt Col Reed-the army's land agent-advised tenant farmers and small holders to hire valuers to avoid compensation quibbles.Ordinary tenants were assured they would be paid the value of the vegetables in their gardens, and no one would mind very much if they also picked and kept what was ready.
The news was greeted with sullen ,subdued silence.A newspaper reporter at the Tottington meeting got a bit patriotically carried away."Farm workers came straight in from the fields to hear about the fate of the crops and at the end of the general's speech they cheered him"
Lord Walsingham was nearer the mark.Later he recalled" the general attitude of the people was very hostile".Bob Espie from Tottington,who was to have nine homes in as many years,recalls the Stanford newsagent David Maddock unsuccessfully pleading with the others to oppose the evacuation.Once they were in he warned the army would ruin the place and no one would be able to return.
Lucille Reeve bitterly commented on the intimidating numbers of armed troops and police who attended the Tottington meeting.She said they looked as if they had come to quell a mob of rioters in Ireland.
The most poignant and reliable account came from Vera Czeres,then a Mrs Tolman,headmistress of West Tofts School.
"We were all called to a meeting which was addressed by General Anderson under those lovely Beeches in the playground.He gave us the fatal news.He didn't have to ask for silence -we all stood there stunned-even the babies and the children were hushed.I don't think we even discussed it with one another.We just went home too unhappy to speak.The war had taken our husbands and now our homes and way of life was to go .Perhaps that wasn't so much amongst all the carnage and loss,but it was too much for us to ignore".
A few clung to the vain hope that something could be done. A petition was sent to the King.He replied that "while feeling the deepest sympathy"he approved of the decision
The requisition notices soon plopped through the letter boxes.In the precise langauge that government reserves for such occasions the recipiants were informed that Maj- Gen K.J. Martin " gives notice that I on behalf of the Secretary of State take possession of the land and buildings described on the reverse hereof".
It continued the entire area must be cleared of people "together with personal effects ,including furniture and live and dead farming stock by July 30th 1942".It amounted to four weeks notice.In the same envelope came a message from Lord Walsingham assuring tenants they could have their homes back after the war "provided it is my power to do so".
So what kind of people were they -these rural dispossessed.?At the top of the social tree were Lord Walsingham and the de Grey family who first settled the area in 1306.According to the present Lord Walsingham the family were" a pretty pedestrian lot really with one or two genii" .
One was William de Grey , first baron Walsingham ,George III's Chief Justice.Nigel de Grey was another.One of the great cryptographers of all time,he was responsible for de-cyphering the Zimmermann telegram that brought America into the first world war in 1917.
It was George de Grey ,eighth Baron Walsingham ,who had to deal with the evacuation.He was a professional soldier ,winning the DSO for tackling a Turkish machine gun post in Mesopotamia.He was also mentioned in despatches five times , and seriously wounded on four occasions .By 1918 he was CO of the 2nd Btn The Norfolk Regiment.But peacetime soldiering held no attractions so he retired on half pay in 1923 , inheriting the title four years later.
"Lordy" as he was called was held in high regard by most.One day he pulled up farm worker Cyril Spragg who continually referred to him as "my Lord"."One my Lord is enough "he told Cyril "I'm the same as you".
He and his brother ,the Hon Richard de Grey, both drank at the Stanford Cock and played village cricket.Richard joined the Cambridgeshire Regiment."I could smell a scrap in the air and I weedled myself in ,although I was strictly speaking to old".He was 42 when taken prisoner by the Japanese at Singapore, just as the family land was being taken.
"I was in the bag for a year before I heard any news.I got a postcard from my brother which said "I can't tell you what the shoot is like as the land is no longer mine".I knew what had happened".
As a magistrate Walsingham was lenient.He sometimes talked in a Norfolk accent, and never pressed for rent during hard times.It may sound a bit too good to be true , but it also provides a contrast to the usual cliche of the wicked squire.
There were a few members of the middle class, a clergyman or two,a teacher or two, a handful of superior tradesmen ,a blacksmith and carpenters.Gamekeepers and warreners were next in the simple hierarchy .The rest -the majority - were farm labourers ."Everyman" if you like, those who were paid their wages and now are dead.
They were poor,hard working unsophisticated souls, some of whom it was claimed could trace their families back 500 years in the same community."Hard up but happy"is one verdict on life then.Labourers earned 24-30 shillings a week during the run up to the war,hardly enough to keep a family .The deficit was made up by rearing their own pigs,cultivating vegetable gardens and usually a bit of poaching on the side.
It was an incredibly insular place.A few still believed in witchcraft.Anyone outside the Brecks was a "furriner".Locals spoke in a sing song dialect that could baffle other Norfolk people.Talk was direct.One woman was heard calling out as her husband was poised to slaugther the family pig:-"George,wipe you that shit off the pig's arse do you'll datty your trousers!"
Sex before marriage was common.One sympathetic local clergyman explained children were so important as future household earners that men wanted to be sure their bride was fertile!.Social life revolved round The Cock at Stanford, where after hours drinking was frequent,a teetotal social club at Tottington and The Three Horsehoes at West Tofts.
It could also be very boring , especially for the young.Kath Reeve's father Claude was a warrener.She remembered with glee the look of consternation that appeared on the face of a young woman researcher from the British Museum who was working on a rural life project .She asked Claude about his diet.
"What do you have for breakfast?"
"Rabbit"came Claude's monosyllabic reply.
She like many others fled the simple life for domestic service in London."As soon as I set foot on Liverpool Street station I felt alive".
One anecdote perfectly illustrates the naive nature of the community that was about to be betrayed .Just after the war began Mary Bishop and Lucille Reeve toured the locality with a hurdy-gurdy selling national savings stamps for the war effort.For weeks afterwards letters were being returned to Tottington post office because people had been putting them on letters.
The evacuation that followed was "an absolute shambles" according to the present Lord Walsingham who was 17 in 1942.
"They had about a month to get out.No arrangements were made ,no nothing.It was a tremendous upheavel.You had for instance Tottington post office run by Mrs Balls.Now she was 63 and had hardly ever been as far as Watton in her whole life.Her mother,who was 84,had never ever been as far as Watton !"Well,you can just imagine the commotion when they were just posted over the fields to go and double up with some other family.
There was virtually no official relief or relocation organisation. Freda Noble from Tottington was an area officer for the WRVS.Entirely on her own intiative she set up a housing bureau in her front room.A large military style map complete with coloured stickers showed which houses were inside the evacuation zone .
"A lot of people were very cross"Freda remembered."They used to say 'you won't have to go ,neither will old Walsingham'.I just pointed to the map which clearly showed our homes inside the zone and then they shut up".
It was the distress of the older people that she found most upsetting,and she had no doubt some died prematurely because of the evacuation.One old man she had to drive to the coast to end his days with relatives kept up a continual barrage of demented protest throughout the journey .She was awarded the BEM in 1943.She said it should be for all the villagers.
Lord Cranbrook recalled another elderly man who stoutly refused to move.His neighbours said he only became lucid during the full moon.Cranbrook persuaded an aristocratic helper , Lady Albermarle,to arrive outside the old man's home one moonlight evening to take him to another house
"Whether it was Lady Albermarle, who was very pretty,or whether it was the full moon that got him to go I never worked out "mused his lordship years later.
Others relied on their own efforts.Cyril Spragg cycled around for miles looking for a job and a home for his wife and young family "otherwise you'd be herded in with everyone else".Maud Hancock shared a similar concern.She and her husband were offered rooms at Stow Bedon but "that was full of Irish and Londoners and my husband said 'we're not having any of that'"
Eventually she found a flea infested cottage where the rent was four times more than they'd been paying
It was all pack and rush.Farming stock had to be sold off ,often at knock down prices.There were endless forms to be filled in.For compensation purposes the villagers were to be treated in the same way as if they had been bombed out.In other words no compensation for lost businesses and loss of earnings-just the bare minimum.
The Tory MP for south west Norfolk , Capt Somerset de Chair, complained that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Kingsley Wood , was being mean. Sir Kingsley retorted he was "the protector of the public purse".Average compensation worked out at £12 per household.This was paid by cheque , much to the consternation of many who'd never seen such a thing before, and didn't believe it was "real money
The evacuation was complicated by the fact that troops were continuously training while the villagers were pulling out.Lucille Reeve wrote bitterly about the behaviour of the military.
"No sooner would a family take away one load of furniture and these hooligans -I am sorry to have to use the word-would go back into the houses and loot and even befoul it before the people came back for the rest of their things....There appeared to be absolutely no discipline in the army we saw in the weeks of that summer .(1)
It needs to be said here that Lucille Reeve was certainly a woman with an agenda.She was a supporter of Oswald Moseley and a friend of another famous Moseleyite,Henry Williamson-the author of Tarka the Otter.She made no secret of her extreme right wing politics. At the start of the war she was widely suspected of being a spy.Its rumoured only Lord Walsingham prevented her from being interned .Nonetheless villagers who knew her said she was a reliable witness.
In any case the army denied the hooliganism charge.Eastern Command's war diary records:-"Damage has been caused by civillians to properties in training areas AFTER they have been requisitioned by the army but before they have been taken into use,thus causing intense indignation amongst dispossessed owners."
Lord Walsingham was no exception to the general discomfort .He had to leave West Mere Farm .The family seat Merton Hall had already been requisitioned so he had to live in a Boulton and Paul pre-fab.As Lord Cranbrook quaintly put it "people had to double up and get used to a sort of club life".
The final day was dawning. .Bert and Mary Bishop were one of the last to leave Tottington.They considered themselves fortunate as they loaded up a creaking old lorry with their belongings from Eastmere Farm.Bert had found a good job managing a duck farm nearby.As the family trundled away on Monday July 20th 1942 Mary Bishop clutched the backdoor key in hand. She was never to use it again.
Lucille Reeve also had an emotional leave taking .She gathered up a few ears of corn and other samples of the crops she'd managed to cultivate on Bagmore Farm "to prove to the doubtful that I did grow something".Then after taking cuttings from her garden she drove "sadly away towards Sturston" and her new pre-fab home .Eight years later she hanged herself in an outhouse.Many believed the loss of her farm was the major cause of her death.
Vera Czeres gave a last disturbing glimpse of West Tofts . She was allowed back in after evacuation to collect coal from the school bunker.She cycled in alone:-"I never want another experience like that again.It was all so eerie and quiet.It wouldn't have been so bad if the place had been derelict,but the gardens were so full of flowers and relatively tidy.
"People had still left some curtains in place and all the ghosts of those happy people seemed to walk along the streets with me .But not even a bird sang for I stopped to listen.Even the be-grimed coalman noticed it.I have never seen a coal shed emptied so quickly.
"I locked the school door and gave a last glance across the park .There stood a great antlered deer.He just gave me one stare from his gentle brown eyes then we turned our backs on each other and I left West Tofts for ever".
The villagers moved out, the army moved in and the shooting began immediately. An Eastern Daily Press reporter was invited to see one of the first " mock battles".He described how a battery of 25 pounder field guns "tucked well away behind the Georgian farmhouse we had just left let fly with all they possessed."
A few weeks later there was a crops armistice. A motley collection of public school boys ,labourers and soldiers gathered in a harvest worth £40,000.The boys from Repton School (of Mr Chips fame ) wrote about it in their school magazine.The Reptonian helpfully headlined its article "The Norfolk Battle Area Harvest"specifically mentioning Tottington.The censor must have been livid.
Then it was back to hard battle training .It soon became obvious that all the assurances about not damaging homes couldn't be kept.Ernest'Tinny' Reynolds, who served with the Northamptonshire Regiment in the First War , had been a game keeper in Stanford. The army kept him on as a range warden He had the melancholy experience of watching troops destroy homes and farms he'd known since boyhood.Being an old soldier he appreciated how vital training was, and bore no grudge.
"There didn't seem to be any malice in what they were doing .It was the kind of training they had to do .Things just got out of hand to my way of thinking "
Gradually the army began to realise they couldn't live up to their no damage promises.A senior officer wrote:-"If the military must smash up the areas ,I think we should say,if we can fairly truthfully do so ,that unforseen requirements of training demand our abandonment of our undertaking not to damage property."
Private Frank Speed ,aged 21 from Birmingham, found himself in the Stanford battle area in 1944 with the Royal Norfolk Regt.
He didn't have fond memories ."They called it battle innoculation-to get you used to the sound of fighting and accepting orders under fire .Personally I came to hate the place .It was a lovely little village and no mistake .It was what went on there that I didn't like".
His training included street fighting in the battle area villages using live mortars,PIAT anti-tank weapons and small arms fire.He didn't recall any instructions not to damage property.
"We had a free hand.Buildings were used as target practice and a lot of damage was done with troops 'flushing' houses out.Hand grenades were thrown ,windows were broken and walls knocked through for fire positions .It seemed such a waste.It was such a beautiful little place".
Out in the surrounding countryside Frank Speed's company learned how to stay calm under the rifle and artillery fire that rained down about them with varying degrees of accuracy.
"It was pretty terrifying .You had to do exactly as you were told or you were a dead man.They threw everything at you".
Pte Speed had a lucky escape while grenade throwing."One of our blokes pulled the pin out , then dropped the grenade.The RSM shouted "duck" as he picked it up and just in time flung it over a parapet.It was a close call ."
A mortar section training alonside them wasn't so fortunate .They were all killed outright when one of them dropped a faulty round which exploded. Colonel Patrick Winter,then a Lieutenant with the Guards Armoured Division ,believed most of the training accidents were the result of a carelessness
He never forgot an instructor at Stanford who was killed by one of his own booby traps."He concealed them without noting their positions , and then blundered back into the thick of them blowing his legs off".
Its impossible to know how many men died while training at Stanford .Relatives were told they'd been killed in action.Eastern Command's war diary noted a number of men killing themselves by shooting or drowning.They too were listed KIA.
Wartime censorship forbade mention of accidents.Journalists witnessing a post war exercise - "Oil King" in 1949 saw a Meteor jet clipping a Comet tank after misjudging its height .The impact killed the pilot and tank crew instantly.Similar tragedies, though un reported , must surely have taken place between 1942-45.
There are few descriptions of the battalion,brigade and divisonal exercises which took place in the run up to the invaision of Europe.The 7th Armoured division -the Desert Rats -worked up towards D Day in the Stanford area.Montgomery was a frequent visitor .
Sir Denis Hamilton serving with the Durham Light Infantry was present at one of Montgomery's morale boosting pep talks.
"Some of you "he said "are going to be killed :but I will see that as few of you as possible are killed and there is ,in fact, no need for me to tell you what I am going to tell you:the responsibility you carry:the necessity to carry out orders"
"He inspected the brigade.He talked to some of the men,particularly Eighth Army men,but mostly he was just looking in their eyes. He wasn't looking at their boot gaiters or anything else-he was just looking at the mens eyes".
So it was from Stanford that the army sallied forth to liberate Europe in almost a year using the fighting skills most of them had learned at home.It was a great achievement, widely recognised.How much the sadder that no one recognised the sacrafice made by those who quit their homes to help make this possible.
As the guns fell silent in Europe and the Far East the dispossessed Brecklanders began to think of returning home.But it was not to be.
(1) "Farming on a Battleground" by A Norfolk Woman published by George Reeve, Wymondham,Norfolk.
For details of the post war betrayal of the Battle Area population see Breckland exodus-the forced evacuation of the Norfolk Battle Area 1942:Part 2 (A3258407)
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