Norfolk Coast at War

Neil Storey
16th March 2021

Pill box

It was simply joyous to see so many members of our History Group join our first Zoom meeting. I felt heartened that we were able to be together, albeit at a distance and on a screen.


It was a first on several fronts, not least the first time we have been able to  share each other’s company in a year; the first time we entered into this new format called Zoom, with Neil Storey who spoke at our first meeting some 10 years ago.  So it was fitting to invite Neil to present our first Zoom meeting for members.


Noel introduced Neil, thanking Ann and Peter for organising the evening. After a patient wait we sat back and watched and listened.


The Spanish civil war of 1936-1939 was supported by various countries and Claude Bowers, the US Ambassador to Spain during this time, called it “A dress rehearsal for World War Two”.  This was the start of Neil’s journey, taking us with him through those difficult years along our coastline.


The Munich crisis of 1938 encouraged local communities to come together.  Shelter trenches were dug in villages.  Martham had its own  trenches dug in the playing fields of the local school.  Courses for managing poison gas attacks were carried out by St. John Ambulance and the Red Cross.  Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister of the day, took the decision to start anti-aircraft training.  The Norfolk Regiment became the Royal Norfolk Regiment in 1935; they raised seven active service battalions.  Over 2,000 soldiers were lost during the following 5 years.


The area from the Lincolnshire coast to London was seen as vulnerable to invasion from the sea.  Training camps were set up: Neil showed us photos of the camp in the Weybourne area in 1939 with mostly bell tents and no permanent buildings.   The weather in summer 1939 was terrible.


The last few months of 1939 and the first few of 1940 was known as the ‘Phoney War’ because it seemed far away in another land, but reminders like the blackout, rationing and preparations for war were clear to see.


On the 2nd June 1940 we saw a picture of Vauxhall Station in Great Yarmouth, with parents waving to trains carrying children being evacuated to safer places.  On this day over 47,000 children were evacuated from 18 East Coast towns on 97 special trains.  Evacuees, some from London, were billeted in Martham. 


Around our coastline 50 Trinity light ships patrolled the sea, the fishing fleet was suspended and many trawlers were requisitioned to war duties. Lifeboats also helped in rescue missions. The Air Sea Rescue Service provided four high speed gun boats which were stationed at Great Yarmouth.  The beaches were restricted areas as they became mined.  There were however other areas of the beaches where the public were permitted.


Our seaside piers were seen as possible invasion landmarks.  The centre portions of both Cromer and Great Yarmouth’s Britannia piers were blown up to create anti-invasion barriers.  In Yarmouth, the revolving tower dating to 1897, just north of Britannia pier and standing 150ft tall, was seen as a landmark for enemy aircraft.  It was demolished and used for scrap to assist the war effort.


We looked at pictures showing roads barricaded with blocks of concrete and barbed wire.  Herring Barrels loaded with concrete blocked all roads leading to the seafront in Great Yarmouth.  Pill boxes came into their own once again and many more were constructed, mostly hexagonal in shape along the coast and inland; these supported gun emplacements which were strategically placed up and down the coast.  In Yarmouth three gun batteries were built, the northern battery stood at the junction of Jelicoe Road and North Drive, the second at the harbour mouth, the third on Gorleston Cliffs.  These sites held a combination of searchlights and a selection of various light weapons.


Early in 1940 a national force known as the Local Defence Volunteers were formed; they later became known as the Home Guard.  King George V1 visited the area in 1941 inspecting the Royal Norfolk battalions billeted at Yarmouth race course, and locally based WRNS were also inspected.


With great depth of feeling Neil told of the horrors which were about to bear down on the East coast.  As the threat of land invasion receded, air attacks now seemed inevitable.  Neil explained the main types of bombs used by the Luftwaffe. High explosive bombs contained 50 to 500 kilograms of explosive.  Incendiary bombs, weighing 21 pounds and only 18” long, were dropped from various sized containers, each with an average content of 72 bombs.


The bombing started during the summer of 1940.  The heaviest bombing took place in Great Yarmouth in 1941 when over 7,000 incendiary bombs and 800 high explosives were dropped on the town that year, with the loss of 109 lives and most of the old town destroyed. Both Cromer and Lowestoft were bombed but Great Yarmouth was the most bombed coastal town in the country during WW2.  In June 1942 incendiary bombs fell on St. Nicholas Church: “Flames leaped from the roof, the steeple fell, windows shone red with flames”.


Neil, very eloquently recalled the story of Sefton House on North Drive, now the Burlington Palm Hotel. The Auxiliary Territorial Service were billeted here and 30 girls had just come back from exercise.  At 8.45am on the 11th May 1943 out of the sun and through the mist Sefton House took a direct hit killing 26 ATS girls.


In November 1944 the Home Guard was ordered to stand down and in September 1945 the war was finally over.


The evening ended with a question and answer session.  Neil mentioned our Martham Stories which is an oral history of Martham filmed some years ago.  Here there are memories of the war years.  Just search for Martham Stories: they are on U Tube and mentioned with a link on the website. 


On behalf of the Committee, we hope you enjoyed the evening, trusting in the fullness of time we will be able to meet in person once again.


Janet Edwards

March 2021

(Above and below: pill box)

Pill box 2

(Below: St Nicholas Church, 2021)

                Nicholas Church

(Below: WRNS quarters, Queens Road, Great Yarmouth, March 18, 1943  (Great Yarmouth Museums)

WRNS quarters, Queens Road, Great Yarmouth, March
                18, 1943 (Great Yarmouth Museums)
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