WEST DEREHAM HERITAGE GROUP
A report on the Group's activities including the successful illustrated talk by Mike petty rntitled the Fens at war
Officers of the group held a meeting at Hilgay Road to plan next years programme and discuss the possibility of another coach trip to a place that will interest most members.
The work to refurbish the Village Hall is likely to start soon so the group will probably hold future meetings in the Church. Grants obtained by the Village Hall Committee have reached about £85,000.00 plus the Village Trust's contribution bringing the total to £185,000.
Fairhaven & White have completed another phase of the work to restore and stabilize parts of St. Andrews Church. The Church is open for worship again and the Harvest Festival was one of the first services to be held in the Church since it closed to allow the new Nave windows to be fitted. There will be a Christmas Eve Service with Holy Communion and Carols at 11pm
The Group meeting in October proved to be another popular open to all event when a packed hall welcome again Mike Petty with an illustrated talk entitled "The Fens at War 1939-45".
With the recent 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain it seemed appropriate to remind ourselves of the huge sacrifice so many of our parents and grandparents made at that time.
The Fens of West Norfolk and Cambridgeshire did not escape the conflict in spite of the areas isolation. In many instances it became a front line zone because this large flat area became home to so many Airfields and other military installations.
At the end of 1939 many Villages were involved in the war effort from Digging For Victory, issuing gas masks, taking in evacuees, which in most cases was compulsory to forming the Local Defence Volunteers, later re-named The Home Guard.
Air Raid Precautions units were formed as the Spanish Civil War had given the world an example of what concentrated bombing from the air could do to towns and cities.
By early 1940 rationing started to take hold of everyday life and many foodstuffs were in short supply.
Day to day life would not be normal again for a decade. Self help was the way for a lot of towns and villages, we grew most of our own vegetables and fruit, kept a few hens in the back yard, collected jam jars for Mum and any spares went to the Women's Institute ladies. There were Beetle and Whist Drives to raise money to build Spitfire fighter planes, iron railings were collected to boast metal supplies, aluminium pots and pans donated to provide the metal vital to aircraft manufacturing..
It became essential to produce more food in the UK as World War one had seen the German submarine campaign in the Atlantic take a huge toll on our merchant shipping bringing in food and materials from the Empire and North America.
History was to repeat itself in this aspect of the conflict and farming was put on a war footing having been neglected for years due to cheap imports from abroad.
War Agricultural Committees were formed mainly of farmers and Government advisers to show others modern farming methods and to increase mechanization.
A great deal of land in the fens was pasture and the Committee went round ordering farmers and landowners to plough it up. Posters went up in rural areas showing a tractor and driver half in sunlight, half in moonlight with a slogan underneath in large letters, Plough, By Day and By Night.
The Women's Land Army was re-formed having been raised in WWI and on one occasion in 1940 a group of the women were picking potatoes on a field in Cambridgeshire when a couple a large highly polished cars pulled into the field from a nearby drove. Who should get out but the King and Queen, George VI and Queen Elizabeth along with a few Officials, all these moral boasting trips were kept very secret for obvious reasons. They spent 15 minutes talking with the women many still in their teens and taking an interest in all the work that was being done to bring in the 1940 potatoe harvest. One little interesting aside to this event was that there were a small group of men working in the same field but apart from the others. The King And Queen did not go over to speak with them and they were ignored by the rest of the workers. It would seem that these men were all conscientious objectors and had chosen to work on the land rather than put on a uniform.
The area saw increasing militarization, barracks being built at Ely which saw its first occupants come home from the beaches of Dunkirk. Concrete blockhouses appeared near to many by roads and defences were put up in towns and cities often being huge walls of sand bags. Shelters were put into gardens, schools and streets as Cambridge suffered one of the first air raids of the war on the 19th June 1940. Many shelters became flooded because they were below the water table.
Observer Corps watched enemy aircraft movements and were able to contact the Royal Air Force control rooms to indicate numbers, height and direction of enemy planes. There were aircraft down all over the Fens both friendly and hostile, far more of the latter of course. RAF Grange at Littleport later moved to Ely and the Battle of Britain came to an end in 1941 and although air raids continued not on the same scale as the Nazi regime had turned it's might on the Soviet Union.
At the beginning of 1942 the United States had entered the war and began to deploy the 8th Air Force into East Anglia and the Fens for the daylight bombing of Germany.
Air fields were being built on these ideal flatlands along side which were the bomb dumps and the railways were employed to move them from the ports. A bomb loaded train moving at night was approaching Soham station when a fire was noticed in one of the wagons which along with another wagon and locomotive were detached from the train by the driver and his fireman who then attempted to move the burning wagons up the line away from the station but unfortunately only got as far as the signal box before the wagons exploded. The signal box had all but gone and the locomotive was blown to pieces along with the driver and his fireman. Their bravery and quick thinking had saved a whole village from disaster as was graphically illustrated by the photograph of the incident in the Cambridge Daily News the next day.
The war went on relentlessly but people enjoyed life when they could, it was not all work and no play. Villages were bombed but the dances and concerts were popular and the pubs were the hub of local social life. Food and clothing rationing continued right up until 1953 but farming was starting to pay dividends, food production had gone up dramatically culminating in the record harvest of 1944. D.Day came with the invasion of Nazi occupied France by the Allied armies and the end of the war was in sight which came in May 1945 when the conflict in Europe ceased.
Mike was born just after the war and he ended his talk with, "This is where I came in so it's here that I'll finish, thank you all for coming.
A vote of thanks was given by Jack Walker.
Richard C. French