Many places now looked after by the National Trust played their part in defending our country during the Second World War. As we mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day on 8 May, we look back at the role these places once played…
View from pillbox at Sheringham Park
Troops get royal send-off at Melford
Just a few days before the D-Day landings in June 1944, King George VI visited Melford Hall in Suffolk to inspect British soldiers preparing for the Normandy landings. The men of the 1st Battalion, Royal Hampshire Regiment, were about to go into action as spearhead troops in the assault on Gold Beach, one of the landing sites in the battle to wrestle Europe from Hitler’s grasp.
Melford Hall, still in private ownership in those days, had been requisitioned and occupied by the British Army earlier in the war. This event was undoubtedly something that brought home the harsh realities of the Second World War to rural Suffolk, which was a relatively safe place when compared to the urban centres suffering so badly from German bombings.
By the end of the war 12 successive battalions from nine regiments had made the Estate their home, living in the house or camped out in Nissen huts in the surrounding parkland.
“My final memories of the war are as a child on VE Day, standing by the biggest bonfire I have ever seen, on Long Melford Green. There were no fireworks during the war, so the army fired endless flares that criss-crossed the sky like searchlights, but in red, green and yellow. There were troops from the camps at Melford Hall and Kentwell Hall, Americans from the aerodromes at Alpheton and Acton, and us from Melford with the many evacuees who came from London to live with us.” Sir Richard Hyde Parker
Preparing for the D-Day landings at DunwichThe Coastguard Cottages with the lookout added (Photo: Justin Minns)
Preparations for war were also taking place on the Suffolk coast. Dunwich Heath had been requisitioned for military training, including for the D-Day landings. Shooting butts, still visible at Dunwich today, were used by soldiers for target practice and tank traps designed for both training purposes and to stop any possible German invasion, can also still be seen.
Dunwich may have been used primarily for training, but the threat of a German invasion fleet coming over the North Sea horizon was ever present. A tall lookout was added to the seaward end of the Coastguard Cottages in the early part of the war as an observation post, while anti-aircraft guns were sited on the cliffs and the beach was fortified with large concrete blocks, tank scaffolding and mines in a bid to stop invading forces.
Top secret weapons testing at Orford Ness
Just down the coast and Orford Ness was the base for a top secret weapons testing programme, designed to give the allies the upper hand in the war. Experimental work concentrated on bomb ballistics and firing trials, experiments which grew in sophistication as the speed and height of aircraft increased and bombs became larger, culminating in the 22,000lb ‘earthquake’ bomb.
During the war and for some time afterwards, experiments also focused on determining the vulnerability of aircraft and aircraft components to attack by various projectiles. Whole aircraft or individual parts – such as fuel tanks, oxygen tanks or running engines – were subjected to carefully controlled and recorded simulations of attack.
Many of the former buildings and weapons testing laboratories used by the military, from before the war until the base’s closure, can still be seen at Orford Ness.
Preparing for an invasion at Sheringham ParkPillbox with view towards the sea
Imagine it’s 1940 on the North Norfolk coast and nervous soldiers look out from positions in Sheringham Park, towards a horizon loaded with anticipation and fear. Hitler’s plans to invade Britain were well known and the whole of the area south-east of a line from Bristol to the Wash was placed on high alert by military commanders.
Sheringham Park, became the base for uniformed soldiers armed with Lee Enfield rifles, mortars and PIAT anti-tank weapons. Pillboxes were hastily constructed on the estate’s coastal edge and preparations made for possible German landings at Spalla Gap, a low-lying dip on the coastal ridge between Weybourne and Sheringham. An anti-tank ditch was also dug 30 yards inland and formed the first line of defence.
It’s easy to forget that all this actually happened from the relative security of the 21st century, the reality of Britain falling to invasion seems almost unthinkable. But if you take a trip to Sheringham Park you can still see the remains of these wartime defences.
Saluting the brave aircrews flying from Blickling
The fact Hitler’s planned invasion never came to fruition is in no small part thanks to the brave men of nearby Royal Air Force Oulton, which was a bomber base created on the Blickling Estate in 1939 that undertook work vital to the war effort. Remains of the airfield can still be seen in Oulton Street, just over a mile from Blickling Hall itself, where the aircrew were billeted. In 1940 it was home to 2 Group.
Flying lightly-defended Bristol Blenheim aircraft and facing the might of the Nazi’s air defences, these brave crews carried out bombing raids on key ports in occupied Europe. The success of the raids prevented Hitler from launching Operation Sealion – the codename for the invasion of Britain – by destroying important invasion shipping, installations and forcing the Germans onto the back foot.
But the success came with a very high price. Corporal W.D. ‘Skull’ Thomson was a member of the ground crew for 114 Squadron, part of 2 Group. Writing in 1983, he said:
“The growing casualties were horrendous, the average life expectancy of aircrew being some six weeks. There were many harrowing scenes of utter despair among the young wives who lodged nearby when their husbands did not return from ops.”
Blickling Hall was attacked regularly, with Luftwaffe pilots strafing the land with machine gun fire. On one occasion, the men were just tucking into their evening meal when the sound of low-flying aircraft was heard rapidly approaching Blickling.
“Suddenly came the ear-splitting crack of bombs exploding in the immediate vicinity,” said Cpl Thomson. “To a man, everyone moved at the same time – and all in different directions. Men could be seen everywhere with a plate carefully balanced in one hand and a full mug of hot tea in the other, all moving at a fast but carefully controlled pace, the top priority being to avoid spillage.”
Later in the war, RAF Oulton was the base for 100 Group, which flew missions using top secret radio counter-measures. Their job was to confuse and deceive the enemy, allowing the rest of the main force to complete their bombing runs.
The Second World War changed the country forever. Over the coming decades many of the places requisitioned during the war would in turn be placed in the care of the National Trust. Next time you visit, why not take a look at some of our nation’s hidden wartime history or delve into the past at places like Blickling’s RAF Museum?