On the 15th April 1912 the RMS Titanic, billed as ‘unsinkable’, sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage, killing 1,517 people. The United Kingdom’s White Star Line built the Titanic as the most luxurious cruise ship in the world. It was nearly 900 feet long and more than 100 feet high. The liner could reach speeds of 30 knots and was thought to be the world’s fastest ship. With its individualised watertight compartments, it was seen as virtually unsinkable. On its first voyage, from Southampton to New York with stops in Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, the Titanic was carrying 2,206 people, including a crew of 898. A relatively mild winter had produced a bumper crop of icebergs in the North Atlantic, but the crew, believing their ship was unsinkable, paid scant attention to warnings.
On the night of Sunday, April 14, other ships in the area reported icebergs by radio, but their messages were not delivered to the bridge or the captain of the Titanic. The iceberg that struck the ship was spotted at 11:40 p.m. Although a dead-on collision was avoided, the Titanic‘s starboard side violently scraped the iceberg, ripping open six compartments. The ship’s design could withstand only four compartments flooding. Minutes later, the crew radioed for help, sending out an SOS signal, the first time the new type of help signal was used. Ten minutes after midnight, the order for passengers to head for the lifeboats was given. Unfortunately, there were only lifeboats for about half of the people on board. Additionally, there had been no instruction or drills regarding such a procedure and general panic broke out on deck.
The survivors, those who successfully made it onto the lifeboats, were mostly women who were traveling first class. In fact, the third-class passengers were not even allowed on to the deck until the first-class female passengers had abandoned the ship. White Star President Bruce Ismay jumped on to the last lifeboat though there were women and children still waiting to board. At 2:20 a.m., the Titanic finally sank. Breaking in half, it plunged downward to the sea floor, taking Captain Edward Smith down with it. The Carpathia arrived about an hour later and rescued the 705 people who made it into the lifeboats. The people who were forced into the cold waters all perished.
Official blame for the tragedy was placed on the captain and bridge crew, all of whom had died. In the wake of the accident, significant safety-improvement measures were established, including a requirement that the number of lifeboats on board a ship reflect the entire number of passengers.
The sinking of the Titanic has become a legendary story and 1985, after many attempts over many years, divers were finally able to locate the wreckage of the Titanic on the floor of the North Atlantic.
Our Norwich Couple:
Today, the 15 April, is the 106th Anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912. Much has been written since with facts – such as were known, fiction, dreamed up novels, short stories, myths and movies, most with a profit motive in mind. This blog is not about the whole gambit, but only about a Norwich couple, who possibly would never had hit the history books if they had not bought tickets to emigrate aboard that ill-fated ship.
Edward Beane was born in Hoveton, Norfolk, England on 19 November 1879. He was the son of George Beane, a brewery worker who worked for the large Bullard Brewery in Norwich, and Mary Ann Cox; both had been Norfolk born and bred, marrying on 29 November 1877. Edward, our subject, was one of ten children, his siblings being: Sarah, George Herbert, William, Charles Archie, Caroline Augusta, Ernest Christmas, May Christine, Robert and Bertie Stanley.
Edward first appears on the 1881 census living with his family at Armes Street in Heigham, Norwich, Norfolk but they then moved to 231 Northumberland Street, Norwich by the time of the 1891 census. Between then and the next census in 1901 the family had moved further down the same street to Number 188 where Edward was described as a bricklayer. It was a trade that was to stay with him beyond the time when the family lived at 43 Bond Street in Norwich.
Ethel Louisa Clarke was born on 15 November 1889 in Norwich, Norfolk, England. She was the daughter of Boaz Clarke, a boot factory warehouseman, and Louisa Webb, both natives of Norwich who had married in early 1881. Ethel was one of their five surviving children from a total of eleven, her known siblings being: Flora May, William Webb, Sydney Charles p, Gladys Lilian, Reginald Boaz, Dorothy and Ellen.
Ethel first appears on the 1891 census, living at 172 Northumberland Street, Heigham, Norwich and was still at this address for the 1901 census. So for this period of her life she knew the ten year older Edward Beane. By the time of the 1911 Census, Ethel was still living with her family but at 21 Churchill Road, Norwich where she was described as a single dressmaker and furrier.
At 17 years of age, Ethel Louise Clarke was not ready for either marriage or emigration when Edward Beane raised the topics prior to his first departure to New York in 1907. However, both proposals appealed to her when he asked her to wait until he had saved enough money. Ethel, of course, said yes.
On the 13 April 1907, Edward, a bricklayer aged almost 28, crossed the Atlantic to New York on the Philadelphia with his two brothers, all travelling in steerage to save money. This was their maiden voyage and they sailed in the knowledge that each one of them would earn better wages than at their old construction jobs in Norfolk. Edward, at least, was to share his time between New York and Norwich, writing to Ethel in between and right up to the time when he returned home aboard the Adriatic, arriving in Southampton on 22 December 1910. It is not known if he continued commuting thereafter but it was at this point in his life, at the age of 29 years, that he intended to finally ‘tie the knot’ with his chosen bride Ethel Louisa Clarke. However, that did not happen until March 1912 when, by this time, the couple had saved something in the order of 500 dollars plus, plus enough for two second class tickets on the Titanic. A day or so before the 10th April when this ‘unsinkable’ ship would set sail on its maiden voyage, Edward and Ethel said goodbye to their families and left for Southampton. At the Terminal they bought two second class tickets for the sum of £26 (ticket number 2908), boarding the Titanic on the 10th, not only as emigants but also ‘honeymooners’
Edward and Ethel were one of 13 honeymoon couples and were in their cabin when the ship struck the iceberg at about 2.00am on the 15 April 1912. They did not think much of the jolt they felt until a woman in a nearby cabin came to tell them about the order to go to the boat deck with lifebelts and to wear warm clothes. Subsequent reports say that Edward urged Ethel to hurry and not to worry about bringing any of their few valuables; most of their savings were locked in the Purser’s office.
On the boat deck, Ethel was quickly ushered to Lifeboat 13 and had no time for more than a quick kiss from Edward. Three or four more passengers were loaded before it was launched, but Ethel lost sight of her husband and hoped that he would surely take another lifeboat. Edward was indeed rescued, but the stories conflict of how it happened. The problem was that both he and Ethel were to tell different versions of that night to reporters. In one, Edward stated he kept an eye on his wife’s lifeboat from the deck of the Titanic. Then, as the ship sank, he jumped and swam “for hours” until he reached it and was pulled aboard. The problem with this version is that no one would have survived that long in icy waters. Also, a passenger in Lifeboat 13, Lawrence Beesley, wrote a detailed account of the entire night shortly afterward and never mentioned rescuing anyone from the water. Because Lifeboat 13 was, apparently, only half full, some passengers did want to return to help those in the water, but most refused because they felt that their boat would be swamped.
In another version that the Beane’s gave to the press stated that Edward was picked up by lifeboat 9 and he didn’t find Ethel on the Carpathia until after it docked in New York. This, again, seems unlikely because great care had been taken to compile accurate passenger lists and roll calls were also taken to help passengers find each other. It is possible, however, that Edward did jump aboard Lifeboat 13 at the last minute before launch, when no other women or children were available or willing to board. No one knows, but if he was like some other male survivors who panicked and ‘smuggled’ themselves into lifeboats, he probably would have met with public ridicule for not being “a gentleman” and going down with the ship – if indeed this was the case? Maybe, he and Ethel made up their stories to ease any guilt on his part? These questions and any viewpoints here are, however, purely speculative! However, bear in mind that another statement from an independent source said, perhaps in their defence: “They (the Beanes) were one of a few honeymooners who were not parted by the rule “women and children first”. Both were rescued in lifeboat 13”. As it is, Edward Beane is also listed as being a Lifeboat 13 passenger by Encyclopedia Titanica, the main source for all things Titanic and the principal aid in compiling this account.
Edward and Ethel settled in Rochester, New York where Ethel gave birth to a stillborn baby on 13 January 1913, making it likely that she was pregnant whilst on board the Titanic. The couple settled at 44 Michigan Street for the rest of their lives, never to return to England. Edward continued to work as a bricklayer and was a member of the Bricklayers’ Union. Ethel, for her part, delivered two children, both sons: Edward (1913-1982) and George (1916-1998) and during the rest of their lives seldom spoke about the Titanic, giving only the odd newspaper interview. Ethel was widowed in 1948 when Edward Beane died in the Rochester State Hospital on 24 October, just shy of his 69th birthday. A local newspaper reported: “Mrs. Beane is survived by her son, George Beane of Rochester, four granddaughters and six great-grandchildren”.
Ethel continued to live at the family home in Rochester before entering a nursing home in the last two years of her life. She died on 17 September 1983 aged 93 (although she had convinced everyone she was only 90) and was buried with her husband in White Haven Memorial Park.
There is a grave in Halifax – a humdrum, unadorned marker, modest in comparison with many of its fellows, victims all of the RMS Titanic disaster. The stone at Fairview Lawn cemetery in Nova Scotia bears the number 227, the date of the epoch-making disaster, and the terse inscription of a name: “J. Dawson.”
For years it was just another name, a headstone and a footnote. Until a 1997 cinematic blockbuster that propelled the Titanic catastrophe back to the forefront of public consciousness. J. Dawson didn’t matter until James Cameron made the fictitious character of Jack Dawson a vehicle for his ice-struck love story. Leonardo Di Caprio broke more than the heart of his screen sweetheart, the equally fictitious first class passenger Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet).
Were Jack and Rose Based on Real People?
You won’t find Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater on any passenger list (Jack only won his ticket at the last moment!
They were both fictional characters. As this articles explains there was a J. Dawson on the Titanic, but his life was very different to the one portrayed on the screen. There was even a Rose travelling in First Class… but Rose Amelie Icard was only a maid to one of the wealthy passengers.
A modern generation of young females pined for the young vagabond – and allowed their tears to blur their perceptions of reality. Websites like Encyclopedia Titanica were plagued with questions asking whether Jack and Rose were real people. The grave marker suddenly became a focal point for adolescent emotion. The nondescript body fished from the sea by the Mackay-Bennett and buried in Canadian clay on May 8, 1912, was now a “somebody.” Floral tributes sprouted in front of the J. Dawson stone.
Admirers left photographs of Di Caprio and of themselves, tucked cinema stubs beside the granite, took photographs and clippings of grass, even left hotel keys…….Movie director James Cameron has said he had no idea there was a Dawson on shipboard back in April 1912. There are those who don’t believe him, choosing to see instead the hint of an eponymous “jackdaw” plucking an attractive name – and subtly creating an extra strand to the myth.
So who was the real Jack Dawson?:
A Discovery channel documentary aired across the USA in January 2001 addressed that question, drawing on new research in which I have played a part through my book, The Irish Aboard Titanic, the first text to draw attention to the real identity of body 227. Many more details have been unearthed in further research since.
Titanic folklorists long held to the oddly unshakeable belief that J. Dawson was a James, but this is now shown to be just another false assumption. His dungarees and other clothing immediately identified him as a member of the crew when his remains were recovered, and it is ironical that there are indications that Dawson had gone to some length at the time of deepest crisis to assert his right to an identity. Because off-duty when the impact occurred, crewman Dawson had time to root through this dunnage bag to equip himself with his National Sailors and Firemen’s Union card – before finally being allowed topside with the rest of the black gang when all the boats were gone. It appears the 23-year-old was determined that if the worst should come to the worst, then at least his body might be identified for the sake of far-flung loved ones.
And so it proved – Card number 35638 gave the key – the corpse was that of one who signed himself J. Dawson. The name duly appears on the Titanic sign-on lists. J. Dawson was a trimmer, a stokehold slave who channelled coal to the firemen at the furnaces, all the time keeping the black mountains on a level plateau, so that no imbalances were caused to threaten the trim, or even-keel of the ship. The sign-on papers yielded more – that Dawson was a 23-year-old, much younger than the estimated 30 years of age thought by the recovery crew who pulled him from the Atlantic’s grasp. His address was given as 70 Briton Street, Southampton, and his home town listed as Dublin, Ireland.
But the man whose body wore no shoes – many firemen pulled off their heavy workboots on the poop deck of the Titanic before the stern inverted, hoping to save themselves by swimming [Thomas Dillon was one of the few who succeeded] – was to leave no footprint in Southampton. Later researchers would wander up a dead end, for there was no number 70 at Briton Street in those days. The numbers did not go up that far, and the trail was cold.
It is only through his Irish roots that the true J. Dawson begins to emerge.
A little over a mile from my house in Dublin there is a nursing home, where the oldest surviving member of the Dawson family lives out a feisty twilight at the age of 88, surrounded by crosswords and puzzle books. May Dawson was born in that year of 1912. She remembers tales of Joseph Dawson, the family member who went to sea aboard the greatest vessel of her time. The trimmer who signed with a modest and economical first initial, instead of the Christian name that pointed to Catholic upbringing, identified with a plain “J”, just as he had been when voyaging on the RMS Majestic, his first ship before Titanic.
How Joseph Dawson, a trained carpenter whose toolbox survived in the family for many years, left his home city and found a berth on the ship billed the “Queen of the Seas” is a story in some ways more fascinating than even that woven around his invented namesake, Jack Dawson. The similarities between fact and fiction are striking however – both were young men, both largely penniless, who “gambled” their way aboard Titanic. One a serf to coal, the other a character who wielded charcoal to woo; and both were intimately bound up with beautiful sweethearts.
Yet the Joseph Dawson story has more with which to amaze and enthrall than that of the Di Caprio portrayal. There is more to it, indeed, than can be told in an hour-long documentary tailored for a TV mass market. Charlie Haas, Brian Ticehurst, Alan Ruffman and your essayist herewith all contribute interviews to the programme, “The Real Jack Dawson” which was made by BBC Manchester, and aired in 2001. While others touched on varying aspects of the disaster and the vessel as it affected a lowly trimmer, I hope here to tell the extraordinary personal story that shaped Joseph Dawson. He was a child born in a red-light area to a father who should have been a priest.
Joseph Dawson was born in the slums of Dublin in September 1888 – at the very time when Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror among prostitutes was at its height in the gas-lit cobble lanes of neighbouring London. The mewling infant that came into the world in the sordid surrounds of “Monto”, the inner-city Dublin demi-monde whose trade in a myriad predilections was later to provide the backdrop for the Night town chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses, could not have known the circumstances of his birth. Those details are indeed obscure – and deliberately so. The birth was never registered. The mother was a widow. The father was a widower who had once simply “jumped the wall” in family folklore to escape an o’er-hasty decision to enter as candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood.
If Patrick Dawson, Joseph’s father, was ever married to Catherine Madden, there is nothing now to say so. This union – a union that begat Joseph – was itself never registered. There is nothing to show the parents were married at the time of birth, not in the records of Catholic inner-city parishes where tenements bursting at the seams provided an endless succession of tiny heads to be wetted at the font, nor in the ledgers of the State which, since 1864, had been dutifully recording every marriage and each new citizen of Her Imperial Britannic Majesty, Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.
The failure to comply with the dictates of colonial masters is hardly surprising – up to five per cent of recalcitrants avoided official registration in those days – but the dispensation with Church sacrament for the wailing whelp is indeed extraordinary. It suggests an impediment, as indeed may have existed in the marital stakes. Perhaps Patrick Dawson had burned his bridges. As a “spoiled priest,” his choices in personal relationships were strictly limited in a society deferential to its clergy. And Patrick Dawson’s family was steeped in the faith. It provided a living for many of them in uncertain times. And it had done so for the extended Dawson clan since the days of the late 14th century, when proud kinsmen had been stripped of their lands around Tullow, Co Carlow. This vengeful scattering of the once-wealthy forebears followed the assassination of Richard Mortimer, Earl of March, heir to the English throne, ambushed and slain by the leading MacDaithi at nearby Kellistown, on July 10, 1398.
MacDaithi, in the Irish language, means “David’s son”, pronounced MacDawhee – and the native phonetics would later engender a simple Anglicisation to Dawson. From a place as patriarchs, the Dawsons were reduced to the status of beggars, mere tenants on their former pastures. Thus the Church would become a refuge. It provided a living. One Dawson established an entire convent, and a tradition of Holy Orders grew through the centuries. In 1854, the father of the man fated to die on the Titanic was born in Tullow. Patrick Dawson was one of four sons born to slater Thomas Dawson and his wife Mary. All four of these sons would enter the seminary. Only Patrick blotted the family escutcheon by “jumping the wall.”
Patrick’s three brothers – who became Fr Thomas, Fr William and Fr Bernard – were versed in Latin and Greek and moved up in the church. Patrick, the sole escapee, reverted to his earlier training as carpenter. He moved to Dublin. He married a widow, when he was 24. The spoiled priest was lucky that any woman would have him. Maryanne Walsh, a maker of corsets, from Fishamble Street, where Handel had given the first-ever performance of his celebrated “Messiah”, agreed to be his wife. After all, she already had a daughter, Bessie, to care for, and could not afford to be proud.
Patrick Dawson and the Widow Walsh were married in St Michan’s Church, North Anne Street, in the heart of Dublin’s markets area, on June 23, 1878. They lived at Dominick Place in the city. The Widow Walsh bore him two sons, Timothy and John, bound to become a slater and tea porter respectively. Timothy, who would later serve in the Boer War with the Dublin Fusiliers, arrived first, in 1879, and baby John two years later. Tragedy would strike with the third child.
The Widow Walsh developed complications in delivery at the couple’s cramped rented rooms in Copper Alley. She was rushed to the Coombe lying-in hospital where her child was born stillborn as its mother lapsed into coma. She died six days later, on February 22, 1883. She was only thirty.
Life was cheap, the pressures intense. The family had already hurtled from one rooming house to another, surviving on the piecework Patrick found as a coachmaker. One of the streets on which they lived had no fewer than three pawn shops, a sign of the widespread misery in a city long-before swollen by a tide of famine fugitives from the countryside.
Patrick was down on his luck when he fell in with Catherine Madden – another widow, again with a child of her own to rear. Soon they were living together in a room in Summerhill, close to the yard where Patrick worked. They moved again and again, ever downward it appeared. Joseph Dawson, the focus of this article, arrived in 1888, followed by a sister, Margaret, four years later. This time the birth was registered, the parents formally identified.
By 1901, all the other childen save Joseph and Margaret were sufficiently grown up to have moved away or into the homes of other relatives. It is in the Irish Census of the turn of the century that we find Joseph Dawson listed for the first time – and the record, in the Irish National Archives, is the only piece of contemporary paper to list his full name.
Patrick Dawson, described as a joiner, aged 44, is found living at a tenement in Rutland Street, north Dublin. Catherine, a year older and listed as Kate, is described as his wife although no certificate was ever issued. Here are the children – Maggie Dawson, aged 8, and Joseph, 12.
It is April 1901. In eleven years, Joseph Dawson will be the 23-year-old trimmer from Dublin who signs aboard the RMS Titanic. For now however, the family must live in just two small rooms, one of nine families compressed into the four-storey tenement. And they are among the lucky ones – other families of eight and nine members make do with a single room. Determination drove them on through a widespread squalor, now thankfully consigned to the past. Joseph received an education, learned his father’s trade of carpentry, was taught lessons by Jesuits who brought a crusading zeal into the community from nearby Belvedere College – later home of Fr Francis Browne SJ of Titanic photography fame – and grew to manhood. Then an event, in March 1909, catapulted him towards his fatal encounter with the White Star Line.
Catherine, mother to Joseph and his sister Margaret, succumbed to breast cancer. Her distraught husband Patrick, now 55, turned to his wider family for solace, just as relatives rallied round to provide opportunities for Joseph and Margaret in the wider scheme of things. Fr Tom, Joseph’s uncle, offered to provide them with accommodation and a start in a new life. He was now based in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, England. Joseph Dawson and his sister took the boat for Britain, as so many Irish emigrants before them. Margaret went into service, and Joseph took the King’s shilling, enlisting in the British Army as his half-brother Timothy had done only a decade before. Joseph chose the Royal Army Medical Corps and liked it. He took up boxing in the regiment, and was duly posted to Netley, one of the largest military hospitals in England. The magnet of Titanic now draws him closer. Netley is but three miles from Southampton.
Joseph chose to leave within a few years. He had heard about the great Transatlantic liners that promised good pay for those unafraid of hard work. A temporary certificate of discharge was issued at Netley on June 30th, 1911, and survives in the family to this day. It reads: “CertifiedThanks , that number 1854, J. Dawson, is on furlough pending discharge from 1st July 1911 to 20th July 1911, and that his character on discharge will be very good.”
There was another reason for leaving. On previous leave, which inevitably led to the bars and bright lights of Southampton, Dawson had made the acquaintance of a ship’s fireman, John Priest. More importantly, he also came to know Priest’s attractive sister, Nellie. The Irishman and the seaside girl began courting.
It was John Priest who poured into Dawson’s ears the tales of the sea as they sat in pubs like the Grapes or the Belvedere Arms. And when discharge came, Dawson moved in as a lodger with Priest’s mother at 17 Briton Street. The man inking the crew lists for the stokehold of the Titanic would hear the address incorrectly, writing it down as number 70, instead of seventeen. Perhaps Joseph’s Irish accent was to blame; another Irish crew member, Jack Foley, had cried out that he was from Youghal, Co Cork. They put him down as coming from York.
John Priest was fated to survive the disaster. The Southampton Pictorial would report in 1912 that Mrs Priest had “one son restored to her, but her daughters Nellie and Emmie both lost sweethearts.” Poor Joseph Dawson, thinking of his Nellie as he stuggled up from a liner’s innards to a star-pricked sky that night in April. Had it really come to this? But a few months journeying with the Majestic, a glimpse of home again when the Titanic called to Queenstown, and now to face a lonely death in freezing wastes. He began taking off his shoes. buttoned the dungaree pocket in which he’d placed his Union card, and bit down hard on his lip.
There was a belief in the family that Joseph Dawson might have married Nellie Priest. The newspaper report and a search of Southampton marital records for 1911-12 are all against it. Perhaps they had simply pledged their love forever. The idea of a marriage is also suggested by a letter, which also survives in the family, sent from the White Star Line to “Mrs J. Dawson” at 17 Briton Street. It reads:
Further to our previous letter, we have to inform you that a N.S. & F. Union book No. 35638, was found on the body of J. Dawson. This has been passed into the Board of Trade Office, Southampton, to whom you had better apply for the same.
Yours faithfully, for White Star Line – “
…….and a squiggle. The union card was all she ever had. No-one claimed the body of Joseph Dawson, and it appears the relatives might not even have been told that it had been buried on land. But branches of the family in both Britain and Ireland hold on to their memories – and Seamus Dawson, the oldest male relative and a nephew of Joseph, now lives by the crashing surf at Skerries, Co Dublin, looking over the waves to Lambay Island, where the first White Star Line maiden voyage disaster came with the loss of the Tayleur in 1854, the very year of his grandfather’s birth.
Patrick Dawson, spoiled priest, died penniless at the age of 77 in 1931. True to family form, he passed away in the care of the church, under the ministrations of the Little Sisters of the Poor. His son Joseph – carpenter, boxer, lover, trimmer, Irishman – lies half a world away, sleeping in a green slope in Nova Scotia, his grave now more popular than even that of the Unknown Child. It is a must-see site for the passengers of cruise liners that placed Halifax on their itinerary after the success of the highest grossing motion picture of all time. So, Jack Dawson never did exist. But Joseph Dawson was a man of flesh and blood, ripped from the veil of life at a tragically early age. So were’t they all flesh and blood? And their stories deserve to live, those of all the humble headstones serried nearby, tales untouched by a brush with recent fame.
The following text is of Brian Mace talking to WISE Archive on 17th November 2017 at Haddiscoe – with additional photos where appropriate. See Soundtrack below.
Generations of marshmen:
My family has lived on the marshes for generations. My grandfather Reginald Mace was a marshman on the Reedham level and he had a fairly large family. There were eight children: four brothers, four sisters. So times were tight and during the war he used to go out shooting. They used to live off the land. He would shoot starlings. I think, one day, he got 76 in one shot. And he used to take them to Pettit’s in Reedham and get about a penny a piece for ‘em. And during the war he was involved with the American bomber that crashed at Reedham. They helped carry some of the crew off to Reedham on a gate used as a stretcher. And times just were very hard to them in that period of time.
My father became a marshman. He was the opposite side of the River Yare to what Grandfather was. He came over here for a week’s work mowing thistles and stayed all his life. He got the BEM for helping finding copper deficiency in the grass and then the cattle. He had a hard life. He used to live off the land. He used to go shooting and get ducks and rabbits, hares – but we had a good life in all.
My mother Violet was station mistress at Berney Arms and looked after the Post Office and she was like the driving force behind Father. They were hard times. When we lived on Haddiscoe Island, she used to make butter and take it up to Reedham and sell it. We used to have to go to Reedham by boat to get the shopping. We didn’t have a telephone. We used to have to go, either up to Reedham to use the phone box if any of the animals were ill or anything, or later on Grandfather got a phone on his side of the river and we used to go over there and use his phone.
My mother’s grandfather was a marshman, her uncle was a marshman and her father was a ganger on the railway from Yarmouth to Reedham. He used to look after that section of the track.
Childhood by the river:
I was born at Berney Arms. Lived there ‘til I was five. Then we moved over to Upper Seven Mile House on Haddiscoe Island where I had to go to school by boat. The first years Father and Grandfather Albert used to row me up the river to Reedham and then later on we got a little motor launch and when I was about 14 I used to take myself up the river to school. I was an only child. All on my own down here and some of the boys from Reedham they used to walk down the river wall and give a shout when they got opposite the house and we used to set off down the river for the boat and they used to have two or three hours down there with me and then they go back off home.
Winter of ‘63:
I wasn’t keen on school. In the big winter of ’63 the river froze up so I had a bloomin’ good excuse for not going to school. I went shooting nearly every day of the week I think. I had a 410 at the time and I’d go after ducks and pheasants and whatever was about, and they used to end up on the table.
And then there was the coypu. We used to go after the coypu. We had a run of snares on the river wall to catch ‘em. We used to shoot them. I had a little Scottie terrier that absolutely hated coypu and she would swim in the dyke over the top of the coypu when that was on the water and wait ‘til it came up and used to grab ‘em in the back of a net and kill ‘em. So we used to get a lot of coypus like that. That was before the coypu campaign started and the owner of the marshes used to pay us sixpence a tail to kill the coypu because they done so much damage to the banks and what have you. Cattle, you know, they could put their leg in a coypu hole and break it so they were glad to get rid of the coypu. But the coypu campaign then started and they more or less took all the credit for what we done.
Before that, Dad used to skin the coypu and sell the pelts, the nutria, and I believe it used to go into fur coats and hats all such stuff like that. So the actual coypu was being used for what that was brought over to this country for, for the fur. Well we done that for several years. Lots of different things we used to do with them. Well, I once shot one during the hard winter, during the ’63 winter. And the tail had been frozen off. So I was most annoyed I’d missed out on my sixpence!
Life after school:
When I left school I went to work at Browne & Sons Garage at Loddon. From there I went to Corona soft drinks, then they finished in Yarmouth and I got a job with Sacret & Co on The Conge in Yarmouth as a delivery driver. They were general wholesalers – chocolates, cigarettes. And then after that I went to Priory Craft at St Olaves and I was fitting engines and jet units into speedboats and then when they packed up I decided to go self employed and went reedcutting.
We done the reedcutting for several years and that was bloomin’ hard work. You earnt every penny you got out of it. The reed from the Island was some of the best reed in Norfolk and that went all over England and there was even an order for some to go to Disneyland in America. The reed was a good time but that was hard work. When we started doing the reed I think if I remember right it was about three and sixpence a bunch. That’s what we used to get for it and I think now they’re getting over £2 a bunch for it.
We done the reedcutting with an Allen Scythe to start with. And then we went for a Mayfield Cutter which was a bit bigger, bit quicker and by the time we finished we’d gotten an Olympia rice harvester that actually cut it and bound it but the only disadvantage with the Olympia was you had to cut all your strings, clean it all out and then retie it all up again.
It was very hard work on your hands. We had one patch of reed, that was 500 yards from the river wall and we used to have to carry the reed from off the rond over the top of the river wall, stack it at the bottom and we had all sorts of things to try and do it quicker. We used to put about 10 proper bunches into one big bunch, hoist them up on your back and walk. Then I made a sledge out of some old gates and we used to pull that across the rond with a tractor and a long rope. But the trouble was that the tractor used to go half way across the marsh before the sledge moved because the rope stretched. And then that came in rather a hurry when it did come.
It was different when my father and grandfather done the reedcutting they used to have to use a hand scythe. And mow the reed and tie it up and carry it off because they used to take a lot longer.
Travelling around the marshes:
They would have walked round the marshes mainly. Some people had a horse. My uncle he used to have a horse to go round the cattle on and to go out shopping they had a horse and cart. And eventually my uncle, he got a bullnosed Morris Motor car and then that’s how he got about. But life in them days was very hard on the marshes ‘cos we used to, well I can remember Father used to walk two mile to get the cattle off the lorry and then used to have to walk them all the way back down to the marsh. They’d got to go on the island and I can’t remember it but he used to say about the cattle coming by train, by rail and being on-loaded at Haddiscoe. And they used to have to walk them from Haddiscoe down onto the marshes.
Cattle (and some sheep) on the marshes:
After I packed up reedcutting I looked after the cattle on the marshes. The Pettengill family moved out from down the marshes and I took their level over. When they hired the marshes, they hired the marshman with the marsh. They hired me automatically. I’ve been doing it ever since.
These days I start, well, as early as I can, at about six in the morning and go round the cattle. I use a four-wheel drive nowadays to go round the cattle. That’s a lot easier. Some people, like Tony Clarke, he uses a quad and what have you. But I use a four-wheel drive.
We check the cattle to make sure they’re all in good health. Make sure there’s nothing wrong, there’s no colds or pneumonia or anything like that. Or any foul of the foot or anything, and if there is, then we phone the actual owners and it’s up to them then to get the vet in and sort things out or take the cattle home.
The cattle calve on the marshes. Sometimes we have to help with the calving. If there’s a cow in trouble calving then I automatically get the vet in and if a caesarean that’s needed then it’s done down here. We have to cart water and everything down so it’s clean and fresh when that’s done. Well, there’s one particular farmer. The first time he come down here I was out with him until two o’clock in the morning worming cattle by torch lamp. And I quickly told him, if he couldn’t come in the daylight, he needn’t come at all.
I do that 30 weeks a year and in the winter we go round mending the gates and supervising the dykes being cleaned out and posts – we have to put in the digger nowadays where we used to do it all by hand. We used to have to dig the hole and put the rails up and what have you. But that’s a lot easier with a digger. Just give it a push and that’s it.
There are also sheep on the marshes. I got one farmer who actually owns the marshes and he’s got sheep. He has anything from 300 plus, 300 to 500. The marshes are dry enough for sheep.
Future of the marshes:
I think the marshes are going downhill all the time. There aren’t so many cattle to graze ‘em. There used to be all dairy cattle down here but now we got suckler herds and what have you. And there just isn’t the stock about there used to be so the marshes are gradually going downhill and they don’t seem to want to put the money back in to ‘em that they used to. Like the thistle spraying and the cutting of thistles. There’s not so much of that going on as what there used to be.
From coypu to mink:
My grandfather, my father and I were marshmen. My son, Stephen, he works for the mink control, the mink project. He’s still on the marshes. He’s about the marshes. He’s all over Norfolk. You know, supplying people with traps and going despatching mink and all sorts of things you know. They’re getting on top of the mink quicker than they got on top of the coypu. The coypu were about for a long while before they started being controlled.
The mink were introduced for the fur trade and then someone thought that would be a bright idea to let these lovely little furry creatures out into the wild and that’s when the problems start with an non-native species. The mink don’t burrow so much, they just kill for the sake of killing. They will kill stuff and leave it and not eat it. They’ll have rabbits, they’ll have chickens, they’ll have anything and they just kill for the sake of it. They will even get into fish ponds and kill the fish.
It is becoming a bigger problem cos they have spread into places like Bradwell and that and the fishponds and killed people’s fish and Stephen, he’s quite often called out into a town to go and set a trap to try and catch it.
The following text is of Arnold ‘Archie’ Rednall (b. 1941) talking to WISEArchive in Freethorpe on 28th February 2017 – with appropriate additional photos added. See soundtrack below:
I was born in London, but my Dad moved to Reedham in 1947. He bought Brick Kiln, which was the old Reedham brickyard, although it was redundant at the time. My uncle, who lived at Ship Cottages, Reedham, told my dad that Brick Kiln was coming up for sale and so dad come down and bought it from a Mr Elvin. Mr Elvin had TB and we weren’t allowed to go and live in Brick Kiln to begin with, so I went and lived with my auntie and uncle in Ship Cottages.
When we stood on the steps of our house ready to move, the telegraph boy came up and told my mum and dad that my cousin Robert from Ship Cottages was missing, presumed drowned. So the young lad, who was to be my playmate, had drowned, which was quite sad. I went and stayed with my Auntie Ivy in London for about three months, before we actually were able to make the move to Reedham.
I can remember the first morning Jim, my brother, and I woke up at Brick Kiln and we went out in the garden, which was two to three acres, and at the back there were lots of apple trees. We made our way through all these and climbed up onto the fence, overlooking the school playing field. I can always remember it; we hung onto the triangular bits of the fence and watched the kids kicking a football about. These were the children we eventually joined at school and then, in due course, I used to kick a ball about too…
Reedham was a very sociable community. For instance, if someone was ill, I can remember my mum used to cook food and take it round to them on a plate with a dish over the top; ‘oh so and so she’s not very well; she’s in bed; she’s got a heavy cold…’ People used to go round and sit with them and cook for them, take them out for a walk, take the dogs for a walk. My sister, who’s now 86, still lives in Brick Kiln and we used to walk to school and other children would join up with us. Also, if need be, a mum would maybe take five children to school.
Reedham School and ‘Larning Norfolk’
I was just seven when I started at Reedham School, my first school, in 1947. When I first joined, as a Cockney kid, I think I was just a bit of a novelty really… Now my brother, who was 6½ years older than me, started at Reedham School and he struggled, basically having to fight his way through school, because they all would try and see how strong London boys were compared to Norfolk boys… I was lucky, because I went to the infant school and we had a woman teacher, who handled me well; she blended me in with the class and taught me to slow down and slowly get to talk Norfolk… It was difficult at first though getting used to the broad Norfolk accent.
We did Christmas songs there and I could sing. I sang solo and that brought me in. I was part of the team, because I could sing all the solos they wanted to sing at Christmas… My mum, dad and granddad were musical. Both my children are musical too, so it’s obviously in the family blood and runs in the genes…
I went to Reedham School originally, but then they decided that one boy from each village school could go to Holt Hall, which was a boarding school, and I went there. It was in the middle of woodland, with two big lakes. I think there were 60 boys and 60 girls and we had four classrooms. I absolutely loved going to Holt Hall and my spare time spent on the marshes with Brian Mace, Keith Patterson and Derek Elvin, my friends, with all the canoeing, camping and so on.
So I moved to Norfolk and grew up here and it’s the best thing my dad ever did. I loved Norfolk. I loved school, going down Reedham riverside and living in the Ship Cottages with my uncle and auntie too.
Reggie Mace, a Marshman:
One of the first boys I palled up with was Brian Mace. He and his two sisters used to walk down the railway line every day to go to school from Five Mile House, which is the last house between Reedham and Berney Arms. I used to go down to Berney Arms with him and play on the marshes and he used to show me round.
His dad, Reggie Mace, was a marshman, and I used to watch him carrying out his various jobs. He had to make sure that the marshes and dykes were clear of harmful plants, thistles and so on, because of feeding the cattle and also that all the gates were in good working order.
Slubbing the Dykes Out:
There were a couple of men who used to work with him. I don’t know whether they were family members or not. They used to slub the dykes out using a spade, shovel and fork, all on long poles. They’d put all the stuff from the bottom of the dyke up onto the edge, forming a little barrier, but the dyke was cleared. Then when the water and all the sediment settled, you could see the bottom of the dyke and the fish swimming.
He kept an eye on the levels of the dykes. He controlled the water flow from the river into the dykes and vice versa by the mills. When the dykes got low, originally they had a water wheel operated by a windmill. Very soon that was replaced by a big diesel pump house, for the obvious reason they could just switch it on and off and they didn’t have to worry about the wind.
He looked after the cattle, made sure they were safe, and then they used to take them back down to the farms to milk them, or whatever they used to do. In those days, the marshes were full of cattle. There were also a lot of horses about, because that was still the very early days of tractors and in a lot of cases they still used the horses for pulling carts. I can remember them even ploughing a field with a horse and plough; that’s going back some…
There were, in fact, marshmen all the way from the rond at Reedham right up to Berney Arms looking after the dykes and caring for the cattle.
The windmill, steam and diesel pumps:
There was also a wrecked, derelict old steam pump, but why that was there and whether it ever got used, I don’t know. So there was this, a windmill and a diesel pump all within a matter of yards of each other and I found it all interesting.
I was fascinated by the windmill. The steps from the ground floor to the first floor had been taken away, to stop us climbing up it, but we went down to a local shop and got some six inch nails. We nailed these into a wooden post, about a foot square, up the middle of the windmill and we climbed up to get onto the first floor. Once we got onto the first floor, you could then go up the steps to the very top, the dome bit and that was our den. That’s where we had all our Eagle comics and all the rest of it…
On the back of the windmill there was a big chain and by pulling that, you could turn the sail into the wind, or slightly to the wind, depending on whether you wanted it to go fast, or slow. All that was in operation at first when I was there, but over the years, from the age of 9 right up until I was 14, eventually the windmill finished; that seized up and they used the diesel pumps to pump the dykes in and out.
Spinning for pike:
When I first went down there, the dykes were all straight, level and clear and we used to go fishing. We used to go spinning for pike. We used to tow a piece of string with a spinning hook on it in the water and as you walked down, the hook used to spin and the pike would be attracted by this shining, spinning thing and go after it, grab it and then they were hooked. We’d then pull it out of the water, cook it and eat it.
‘Babbing’ in the river:
We used to go babbing in the river on a big rubber dinghy. You would get worms and sew and tie them all together. Then you’d drop them in the river until they sunk to the bottom. The eels used to suck onto the worms and you’d pull them up. You’d bring two/three, or maybe just one eel into the rubber dinghy, shake it and it would fall off. We used to cook these. I can’t honestly say I was too fond of eating eels, but that was all so much of an adventure…
The 1953 floods:
When we had the floods in 1953, I was in bed one morning and my mum came into my bedroom and she said ‘son come and have a look at this’. She rolled my blind up and I looked down towards Berney Arms and I could see the sea round the edge of Reedham Church. Unbelievable. The whole of the marshes was covered in water and on the high bits, the cows were all up in the gateways trying to get out of the water. It wasn’t deep; I mean it was only about 2ft deep, but it was an incredible sight.
That finished the dykes off and I think all the fish were killed. It never did recover after that and you no longer had the people working on the marshes.
The mill dykes:
The mill dykes were 6ft to 8ft wide and you could row a rubber dinghy down them. We cut a door off one of the derelict mills and made it into a raft and we used to float down the mill dykes on this, which was probably a silly thing to do, but we did it…
When the mills were running, that’s where the water was pumped in and out. They were pumped out from the mill dykes and all the other little dykes used to feed into the mill dykes. The normal dykes were about 3ft wide, but the mill dykes were 6ft or 8ft wide and it was like an artery of water and used to pump the water into the river, or vice versa.
When the mill was working, there was a tunnel underneath, which used to go into the river. If you looked down there, you could see half of it was full of water and the other half was just curved and that’s how they controlled the water. The water was pumped from the river into the dykes, or vice versa, by the water pump on the side of the mill. You could rotate the mill top to speed the mill up, or slow it down, or stop it. Then that was replaced by the diesel pump house, which had a big concrete square outside that was about 4ft deep. We used to go swimming in there and that was like the reservoir to prime the pumps.
Singsongs at The Ship and The Nelson, Reedham:
My mum used to play the piano and my dad used to play the mandolin-banjo down at The Ship, or The Nelson, on a Saturday night. Occasionally somebody with a violin, or some other sort of instrument would join in.
I can remember when Eddie Calvert came on the scene, who was my hero, so I decided to learn the trumpet. Then when Lonnie Donegan came along with skiffle, I decided I’d had enough of the trumpet, so I took up the guitar instead and also played at these two pubs.
People from the boats used to come in and have a drink, sing songs and dance and there would probably be 40/50 and we all used to have incredible times.
“The River Yare Commissioner’:
Mum and dad got very friendly with Jack Hunt, who lived next door to The Nelson. He was a river inspector and he had a boat, which was the River Yare Y90, and on the back was a big flag, which read ‘The River Yare Commissioner’. He used to come in the pub when mum and dad were playing and Jack said to my mum one day ‘would your boy like to come out on my boat?’ I grabbed the chance and he gave me my ongoing interest in boats…
He was in charge of the river. He checked on the boats in the summertime when the holidaymakers came down, making sure they drove safely and that there were no accidents. Unfortunately, he was also responsible for anybody that drowned in the river and had to dredge the river and bring the bodies up, which wasn’t a nice job, but that was part of his duties. All the time we lived there, there was only two or three people drowned, but my cousin was playing with his toy boat on a bit of string apparently and was leaning over the edge of the quay. He obviously toppled in and Jack Hunt found him and pulled him from the river.
We used to call them river policemen, but his proper title was River Commissioner and his area was from Berney Arms to Brundall. There was another person that covered the area from Brundall to Norwich. His boat used to be tied up underneath the swing bridge over the railway line. We used to go across this bridge to get to his boat. Leaving Reedham, just round the corner before you went up towards Berney Arms, there was Dewhurst Quay, which was where the local GP lived. I used to have to hide up in the boat until we got past this quay and then he’d let me drive his boat down to Berney Arms. We used to tie up at the Berney Arms pub and Jack used to go in there for a beer and I used to go walking down the river wall onto Breydon Water and just look round there and watch the birds.
The Wherry Albion:
One of the skippers of The Albion was a chap called Denny, he lived in Reedham and knew mum and dad. He let me go on The Albion and we sailed up from Reedham to Berney Arms…
It was a very large sailing barge, known as a wherry. The hold would be filled with various goods, for example, sugar beet, cattle feed, in fact, anything you wanted to take to Yarmouth, Norwich, or Berney Arms. It had one mast and a great black sail and it was just incredible. I loved the boats and one of my hobbies in the summertime was to go down to the riverside and collect the boat numbers. Some people would keep train numbers; I used to collect boat numbers…
There were reedcutters in those days and reed was another item the The Albion carried. They used to tie the reed up in big bundles to do the thatching and they used to cut the reeds all the way down from Reedham right down to Berney Arms. A lot of houses were thatched and they may even have sold it abroad, but there was certainly a big business in reed cutting.
The first tractor in Reedham and harvest time:
Bertie Dawson was a farmer in Reedham and my mum used to cook for him. There was an elderly lady, who lived with them and nuns used to come down from a Roman Catholic church at Yarmouth and look after her, as she was bedridden. She was a nice old lady and I used to go and sit and talk to her. Bertie had the biggest farm in Reedham and he was the first farmer to have a tractor. All the village went down there to see this tractor…
He had three or four people who used to work with him and they had horse and carts. When they used to plough the field, or load the horse and carts up with sugar beet, or turnips, or whatever it was on the back, they used to let me sit on the back of the horse and cart and I used to pretend I was driving it…
At harvest time, we had the old sail binders, which were originally pulled round by horses, and they had a sail on the side. They flattened the corn to enable it to go through the cutter. They used to go around in a big circle and, as the field got smaller, the whole village used to stand round the outside with dogs, sticks and guns and then when wild rabbits eventually ran out with nowhere else to go, they caught them and then we would have rabbit pie for days afterwards…
There were only two or three little local shops, but a lot of people grew their own vegetables, caught rabbits, shot partridges, pigeons, or whatever else was going and they lived off the land.
The ‘Thunder Box’ and the ‘Night Soil Man’:
We didn’t have conventional toilets when we first moved to Reedham, but we had a shed in the garden, which we used to call a ‘thunder box’. Inside was a wooden seat with a big hole for the grownups and there was another with a little hole for the children and you had a pail underneath.
Then on a Friday night, a man known as Hilton would bring this big horse round with a big metal cart behind, a big square box, and they used to tip all the night soil in the back of that take it down onto the allotments…
Running water and other utilities now taken for granted:
There was no piped water in the village. At the bottom of the garden at Brick Kiln was where they dug the clay out to build bricks and next door, where Keith Sales lives now, there was a sandpit. Down a slight slope there was a well, which was 10ft to 15ft deep. You had a bucket on a long piece of rope, which was used to bring the water up. The water was then tipped into another bucket and brought into the kitchen. This was stored under the sink in a porcelain pail, with a lid on the top. This was the drinking water, which was ice cold and lovely…
We used to have a galvanised bath, which you had to fill with a pail. My mum used to have an electric copper, in which she boiled the water for the bath. My sister would have a bath first, then my brother, then I would have one… So by the time I got in there, that was cooled down quite a bit, but that’s what you did.
They put in sewage and a water supply in Reedham when I was still a youngish lad. A company called Briggs Wall installed a water main and then suddenly we had taps and baths, which was incredible.
I think most houses had electricity, but it was very primitive. You tended to have one plug in the kitchen and you had a light in each room, but when I was very young, a lot of people still used candles.
We had a little narrow kitchen with just a big sink in it, a pail, a table and an electric cooker. ln the front room we had a big black stove. You had a coal fire, or wood fire, one side and then next to that was an oven with a grill on top, so you could cook on it. Before we had a very basic electric cooker put in we cooked on the fire, as did many people in the village.
Many people used to go out and gather wood, to save money basically, but there was also a coalman come round delivering coal, or coke.
Several people had paraffin stoves to heat the house with and paraffin cookers. My school friend Keith, his mum was bedridden, and in his kitchen there were paraffin heaters and a paraffin stove and so they did everything by paraffin. The Co-Op had a big tank outside and I remember you could go round there and get a gallon of paraffin for 10p.
At the top of Mill Road, where I lived, over the railway bridge there was a telephone box, which is still there, but derelict. Nobody had a telephone though, except for the doctor, as far as I know.
Church Road allotments, prize potatoes and water radish:
There was a massive field on Church Road, which consisted wholly of allotments and nearly every household in the village had one and grew all their potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and all the rest of it. Dad had the last allotment and that’s where Hilton spread all the sewage and the joke was that his potatoes were the biggest in Reedham, but nobody would eat them…
At the bottom of the allotments there was a dyke and there used to be a plant growing there called water radish and they used to take it around and sell it to the people on the boats. When I went down Berney Arms one of the things I learned, which probably I shouldn’t have done, but I did, was how to fire rifles. There was a Ray Parrot, who went out with the girl Mace, who he later married, and he taught me how to fire a gun. I fired a 410, a 12 bore and a pump gun, that for an 11/12/13 year old boy was really something, but you did those things then…
Getting out and about:
There were only a few cars in the village at that time. Humphrey’s next door to the railways station ran a taxi service, picking up people from the train and taking them to their houses, or whatever. A local vicar had a very old one with like a canvas roof over the top, which was quite a novelty. The policeman, Mr Flint, had a car. The school master and also the doctor had them, but that was about it.
Everybody else were either on bikes, or the odd one or two had horse and traps, or you walked, and that was it. There were no buses, so if you went out of the village, you went down to the station and you got on a train and you went to Yarmouth, or Lowestoft, or you went to Norwich. If you went to Norwich, you got off at the station there and you had a massive walk up to the marketplace, but you did it, because everybody just did it.
Charabanc trips, carnivals and whist drives:
On special occasions, once or twice a year, they would organise a bus, which they used to call a ‘charabanc’, and they’d all go off to Gorleston, or somewhere, and have a day out, or have a day on the pier, or Pleasure Beach, at Yarmouth, something like that. We also used to go to the circus at Yarmouth. I can remember doing that and really enjoying it.
In the summertime we used to have a carnival on the village green and everybody in the village was there. There would be marquee tents and big tables you’d sit round and have tea, coffee, cakes and so on. All the children used to be in fancy dress.
Then in the evenings, they used to have whist drives in the village hall and mum and dad used to go, in fact, the whole village would. They also held a concert party in the village once a year and I used to go and get involved with that. There was also Boys Brigade, Scouts, Cubs, Girl Guides and Brownies.
Boatbuilding and the tourist trade:
There were two boatyards in Reedham called Pearson and Sanderson, where mainly holiday boats were built. Down at the riverside there was a massive shed, where The Albion was built. This was later used as a mushroom factory. In the holiday season, there were boats two deep and people used to go round with a basket on their arm, selling vegetables and whatever else they could.
There was a little shop down there, selling things like cups of tea and ice cream. Then, of course, you had the two pubs, plus you had the Top House and The Eagle, which was next door to the railway station. You also had The Ferry, by the ferry river crossing. In those days, five or six people worked on the railway, including porters and ticket office staff.
We had Pettitt’s in Reedham and a lot of people worked there in those days, in fact, my sister was there all her working life. They used to do what they called feathercraft; making flowers and so on out of feathers. They also did taxidermy.
Cantley Sugar Factory:
My father was a carpenter. He was what they called a ‘first fix carpenter’. When he first moved to Reedham, he worked with a local builder installing stairs and cupboards. He used to bike to work but when it got to a stage where it was too far for him, he applied for a job as a carpenter at Cantley sugar factory. This was the first sugar factory in the country built in 1912, which was originally the Anglo-Dutch Sugar Company.
When my dad went to work at the factory, one of the foremen was a Dutchman from the original Anglo-Dutch company. His nickname was ‘the farmer’s boy’, because he dressed like a farmer… I met him too, because when I started my apprenticeship as a trainee fitter, he was just retiring. They had a carpenter’s shop with three carpenters.
They had their own brick company and bricklayers and a painting gang, in fact, every trade you can think of.
My brother worked for the Eastern Electricity Company and when he went and did his National Service, they guaranteed him six months’ work when he came back. After he’d worked the six months though, they made him redundant but, fortunately, my dad got him a job at the factory.
I always remember when I first went along to Cantley, I went into the office in front of Frank West, who was the manager at the time, and I sat down there and I was trying to think of something intelligent to say to him, just to get my apprenticeship… He just said to me ‘you’re Bert’s boy aren’t you?’ and I said ‘yeah’. He said ‘alright, well you can start on Monday’ and that was it…
I did a five year apprenticeship and I got day release, one day a week, to Norwich College. I had a motorbike then and I used to drive up to Norwich on it and go to the college. In the morning I’d be in the machine shop learning how to operate the machines, including turners and grinders, and then in the afternoon in the school rooms learning Maths, English, Science and so on. In the evening we’d be doing Technical Drawing.
One of the teachers was a chap from Lawrence & Scott’s and I got on very well with him. He taught me how to do Technical Drawing and I really enjoyed it. You’d do engineering drawing; you’d be drawing machinery notes and I had five years’ day release at Norwich College. I learned a lot and it certainly prepared me for my job at the factory.
I was a maintenance engineer. There were three shifts: A, B, C. rotating 6am – 2pm, 2pm -10pm and 10pm – 6am. I was on A shift. There were three fitters, two electricians, a welder and a plumber and basically our job was to maintain the machinery. I was maintaining mechanical machinery. If a diesel pump went wrong, I fixed it. If an elevator went wrong, for example, I would see to the mechanical parts and an electrician would handle the electrical parts. You also had an instrument mechanic.
There were also people looking after the coal-driven boilers in the boiler house, which supplied the steam running the turbines, which produced the electricity to run the plant. The coal was delivered into the rail yard. The sugar beet came in by rail truck too, or lorry; originally even on horse and carts, also wherries.
The last year I was there they had what they called ‘a two hat’ system. [An electrician had a black hat, and an engineer a red one. ‘Two-hat’ meant multi-skilled.] The Engineering Department and the Electrical Department amalgamated and I had to become a mechanical/electrical engineer and the electricians had to become electrical/mechanical engineers, so we could all work across both areas. As my brother was an electrician, I have quite a good knowledge of this work, because I used to help him with some of his jobs. I learned how to wire up motors and lights, although I wasn’t allowed to work on high voltage cables.
I also did a course on boilers, so I could operate a coal boiler… I wasn’t terribly good at it, but that was okay, because you had more experienced workers overseeing you. There must have been at least 200 on a shift, but everybody knew each other, many of them also related, and worked together. It was like a family firm and everybody pulled together and that was good. Slowly though, unfortunately, as technology came in, employee numbers dropped.
During the sugar beet campaign, which was when they used to grow and cut the sugar beet, they would bring in a lot of casuals and double the crew and you worked round them. When the campaign was over, you’d strip out and overhaul all the machinery ready for the next year.
I worked at Cantley until I was 62, when I was offered voluntary redundancy, which I took. They did say to me though that I could go back in the campaigns and do oiling and greasing. So I used to go back for the duration of the campaigns, going round oiling and greasing the machines and so on, which I was quite happy to do. So working at Cantley was very good, they looked after me and gave me my pension.
A few miles west of Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, between the villages of Stow Longa and Kimbolton, rests a flat, windswept area of farmland that the B-road snakes across. One can easily miss the short stretch of narrow road that cuts across the older, crumbling concrete of class-A taxiways that once carried B-17 Flying Fortresses to the main northwest-southeast runway. If you stop and trudge out across the muddy public footpath which heads due west, you will come across patches of concrete, often covered in hay bales for the local livestock. It is an eerie scene, for one cannot help but picture the heavy bombers coming back from a mission deep over Germany, and in the strong winds that blow across those flat fields, one can almost hear the engines of the bombers. These flat fields with their small patches of runway and tarmac are all that remain of Royal Air Force Station Kimbolton, a Class A airfield used by the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Eighth Air Force from 1942 through the end of the Second World War.
To this airfield came the 379th Bomb Group (Heavy), with its famous “triangle-K” markings on the vertical stabilizers of the B-17s, which would operate from RAF Kimbolton until the end of the war. Four squadrons: the 524th, 525th, 526th and 527th Bombardment Squadrons comprised the 379th which flew its first combat mission on 19 May 1943. Focused on the war-making capabilities of Germany, the 379th flew raids on heavy industry, refineries, warehouses, submarine pens, airfields, marshalling yards and command and control centers across occupied Europe. They flew bombing missions against the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt and Leipzig, against synthetic oil plants at Merseburg and Gelsenkirchen, against the chemical plants at Ludwigshaven and airfields from Occupied France to Berlin.
It was from Kimbolton that a certain B-17F Bomber – nicknamed “Ye Olde Pub” – took off on December 20, 1943 to target an FW-190 factory at Bremen, Germany. It was a cold, overcast winter day when 2nd Lt. Charles L. Brown took the controls; it was his first combat mission as an aircraft commander with the 379th Bomb Group.
The bombers began their 10-minute bomb run at 27,300ft with a temperature of minus 60 degrees. Flak was heavy and accurate as “Ye Olde Pub” was to find out. Even before they had dropped their payload under the instructions of “bombs away” Brown’s B-17 took hits that shattered the Plexiglas nose, knocked out the number two engine, damaged number four, which frequently had to be throttled back to prevent over speeding and avoid damage to the controls. These initial hits forced Brown to drop out of formation with his fellow bombers and become a straggler. Almost immediately, the solitary, struggling B-17 came under a series of attacks from 12 to 15 German Bf-109s and FW-190s that lasted for more than 10 minutes.
In that time the number three engine was hit and oxygen, hydraulic, and electrical systems were damaged and the plane’s controls were only partially responsive. The bomber’s 11 defensive guns were reduced by the extreme cold to only the two top turret guns and one forward-firing nose gun. The tail gunner was killed and all but one of the crew in the rear incapacitated by wounds or exposure to the frigid air. Charlie Brown took a bullet fragment in his right shoulder.
Charlie Brown figured out that the only chance of surviving this pitiful, unequal fight was to go on the offensive; each time a wave of attackers approached, he turned into them, trying to disrupt their aim with his remaining firepower. The last thing oxygen-starved Brown remembers was reversing a steep turn, becoming inverted and looking up at the ground! When he regained fill consciousness, the B-17 was miraculously level at less than 1,000 feet. Still partially dazed, Lieutenant Brown began a slow climb with only one engine at full power. With three seriously wounded on board, he rejected bailing out or a crash landing. The alternative was a thin chance of reaching the British mainland.
Whilst nursing the battered bomber towards England, Brown looked out of his right window and saw a German Bf-109 flying on his wing, so close that the pilot was looking him directly into the eyes and making big gestures with his hands that only scared Brown more. The German pilot was motioning Brown to land in Germany which the B-17 commander refused to do. His bombing mission targeting a German munitions factory had been a success, his B-17F bomber had been attacked by no fewer than 15 planes and so far had survived; now, Charlie Brown’s attempts to get home safely seemed doomed to failure. The Bf-109 and its pilot was between him, the remnants of his crew and his almost crippled plane and safety. It was at that moment when the German pilot decided not to shoot at his ‘enemy’ because he ‘fought by the rules of humanity’
Second Lt. Charles L. Brown (left). Oberleutnant Franz Stigler (right).
The pilot of the Bf-109 was Franz Stigler and he had remembered the words of his commanding officer, Lt Gustav Roedel. “Honour is everything here,” he had told a young Stigler before his first mission, adding: “If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself. You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.” Stigler’s moral compass was more powerful than his need for glory. “For me, Shooting down that B-17 would have been the same as shooting at a parachute, I just couldn’t do it,” Stigler was to say later.
The New York Post detailed Brown’s ensuing 40-year struggle to come to terms with why that German pilot decided to go against orders and spare the Americans – allowing him to fly and land his battered plane safely and go on to live a happy and full life after the war. The pilot in question was, as we now know, Franz Stigler, a 26-year-old ace who had 22 victories to his name. Earlier that day, he had downed two 4-engine bombers and needed only one more to be awarded the Knight’s Cross. But on that day, as his Bf-109 closed in on the US plane he had to consider the consequences for not finishing off an enemy plane – a court martial and certain execution. But, he sensed something was wrong – the enemy plane was not engaging with him; in fact, unbeknown even to Brown, the plane had lost it’s tail-gun compartment and one wing was badly damaged. As Stigler drew closer he saw the gunner covered in blood, and how part of the plane’s outside had been ripped off. And he saw the wounded, terrified US airmen inside, trying to help one another tend to their injuries. However, he was still fearful that with other German guns likely to come into view at any time and he needed to make a quick decision. Stigler ended up, not shoot the B-17 down but escorting it for several miles out over the North Sea, still fearing that if he was seen flying so close to the enemy without engaging, he would be accused – and doubtless found guilty – of treason. But, as he flew in formation with the B-17 “….the most heavily damaged aircraft I ever saw that was still flying……I thought, I cannot kill these half-dead people. It would be like shooting at a parachute”. Meanwhile, the B-17 crew had begun to train their guns on Stigler’s Bf-109.
Without further ado, the German pilot saluted his counterpart, motioned for him to fly away from German territory and pulled away. The moment had been fleeting and it would take many years before answers to so many questions would be answered. The only thing that was known that day was that following the disappearance of the Bf-109 into the clouds, the B-17 did make it acrross the 250 miles of storm-tossed North Sea and landed at Seething near the coast of Norfolk, the home of the USAAF 448th Bomb Broup which had not yet flown its first mission.
The crew was debriefed on their mission, including the strange encounter with the Bf-109. For unknown reasons, the debriefing was classified as “Secret” and was to remain so for many years, Lieutenant Brown went on to complete a combat tour, finish college, accept a regular commission, serve in the Office of the Special Investigations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other Air Force and State Departments until his retirement. Throughout all that time and into retirement, the image of his strange encounter with that German Bf-109 remained firmly embedded in Charlie Brown’s mind and in 1986, more than 40 years after the incident, Brown – who was still traumatised by the events of that fateful day – began searching for the man who saved his life even though he had no idea whether his saviour was alive, let alone where the man in question was living.
In 1990 Brown bought an ad in a newsletter aimed at former German fighter pilots, saying only that he was searching for the man ‘who saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.’ The former Oberleutnant Franz Stigler saw the ad. in his new hometown of Vancouver, Canada – where he had moved after the war, unable ever to feel at home in Germany. By comparing time, place and aircraft markings, it was established that Stigler was the chivalrous pilot who had allowed Brown and his crew to live. Charlie and Franz got in touch. “It was like meeting a family member, like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years,” Brown said at the pair’s first meeting. Stigler revealed how he had been trying to escort the B-17 to safety and had pulled away when he feared he had come under fire. He told Brown that his hand gestures were an attempt to tell him to fly to Sweden.
Franz Stigler’s act of chivalry was justly, though belatedly, honoured by several military organisations in the US of A and elsewhere. On the other hand,Charles Brown was not decorated for his heroism that fateful day over Germany, for no other reason than the fact that the 448th Bomb Group at Seething, Norfolk never reported the incident – such was the secrecy perhaps! However, in 2007, Charlie submitted a request to the American Air Force for the ‘Silver Star Medal’ to be awarded to his nine former crew members of “Ye Olde Pub” for their part in the mission over Bremen, Germany on December 20, 1943. The citations were awarded in early 2008 and Charlie received the ‘Air Force Cross’ for his part as commander of that B-17. No other former WW2 aircrew has this distinction.
Their story, told in the book A Higher Call, ended in 2008 when the two men died within six months of one another, Franz Stigler in March, aged 92 and Charlie Brown in November, aged 87. In their obituaries, each was mentioned as the other’s ‘special brother’.
All that remains of the former runway from which Charlie Brown took off.
Fearless, ruthless and uncommonly lucky, Norwich schoolboy Philip Fletcher Fullard DSO, MC, AFC was one of the greatest fighter aces of the First World War. Relatively unknown and overshadowed by the likes of Ball, Bishop and McCudden, Philip Fullard was one of the highest scoring fighter pilots of WW1 being credited with a final score of 46. Many would have considered this score on it’s own a remarkable achievement, but what made it even more so was the fact that he achieved it in just six months, a period which included leave and a bout of sick leave. However his run of victories was finally brought to an end, not by an enemy bullet, but by a football injury acquired during a match just three days before the start of the battle of Cambrai in November 1917.
Fullard was born on the 27th May 1897 at Merton Hall Road, Wimbledon, Surrey to parents Annie and Thomas Fletcher. The family moved to Norwich sometime after 1901 where Philip Fullard was educated at the Norwich Grammar School – later to be renamed Norwich School. Fullard developed an active enthusiasm for sport while at school, captaining both the hockey and football teams. It has been rumoured that whilst at school, or shortly afterwards, he played for the Norwich City Football Club reserve team; subsequent enquiries indicated that the Club have no record of Fullard playing for them.
He enlisted in the British Army in 1915 and, initially, served with the Royal Irish Fusiliers. As with many other ultimately successful airmen Fullard sought and received a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1916, receiving training at the School of Aeronautics at Oxford and then at Netheravon and Upavon. He received his pilot’s certificate in the December of that year and went on to initially serve with the RFC in the capacity of flight instructor at Upavon. Fullard finally, in April 1917, achieved his desire for active combat with a posting to 1 Squadron on the Western Front in , the month of the highly successful Allied attack at Vimy Ridge.
At 20 and just two years out of school, he was already a combat veteran whose lethal record of success belied his boyish features. In a whirlwind five months tour on the Western Front, the prize-winning Norfolk scholar was becoming one of the rising stars of the Royal Flying Corps with 28 victories to his name and a Military Cross and Bar to add to his academic and sporting achievements.
Since joining No 1 Squadron at Bailleul in May 1917 as an already accomplished pilot with a penchant for performing stunts his career trajectory had been upward all the way until one day in September 1917 an act of folly very nearly proved fatal. It resulted in Fullard damaging blood vessels in one eye while out flying, brought on by his frustration of experiencing a fruitless chase above the war-torn battlefield in his Nieuport Scout, At that moment, he decided to make up for the lack of adrenalin-charged excitement with a little test of his own – as he explained:
“……..I thought that for an experiment I would see what would happen if a Nieuport was put out of control with the engine full on, so, letting go the controls, I waited. The machine fell 12,000 feet in a diving spin at great speed, when suddenly I felt an intense pain in my head and found I could see nothing at all. I thought I had been shot, and, managing to make the machine fly level at a slow speed and, after what seemed a long time, I began to see very indistinctly with one eye the blurred outline of white objects. I picked out the white cross on the aerodrome and landed safely, still in great pain in the eyeballs and quite blind in one eye………”
The resulting temporary blindness kept him away from the fray for much of the next month and it was this self-inflicted near-disaster which accounted for the presence, for the first time among his flying kit, of a pair of goggles. Until that spectacular brush with catastrophe, he had preferred to fly his wind-buffeted, open cockpit fighter, without any protection for his eyes and preferring nothing to hinder his sight of the enemy.
Though not of his choosing, the change to his flying face attire made no difference to his run of success in the warring skies above the embattled troops slogging their way across the Flanders bog below. The bitter fighting around Passchendaele showed no sign of letting up as Philip Fletcher Fullard made his way back to his fighter squadron after a month’s enforced rest.
He lost no time in continuing his amassing of a highly impressive aerial victory tally. During the four weeks following his return at the end of September 1917 he was as consistent and courageous as ever, equalling his best monthly return of his short combat career with five enemy aircraft destroyed, six shot down ‘out of control’ and an observation balloon ‘deflated’. All 40 of his overall total score of successes were achieved between May and November 1917. It was a performance which confirmed his status as one of the leading ‘aces’ of the British air services and would help to make him the highest-scoring Englishman to survive the First World War – flying Nieuport aircraft to great effect.
Such was his prowess that he briefly gained celebrity status when a reluctant high command bowed to media pressure and identified him, together with the legendary James McCudden, as one of the nation’s ‘Air Stars’.
That much was certainly true, along with his character traits which went unmentioned at the time but contributed to Fullard’s remarkable record as a fighter pilot, namely his: fearlessness, ruthlessness and self-confidence bordering on arrogance which, when allied to his supreme mastery of his flying machine, made him the most formidable of adversaries. Interviewed years later when he was in his 80s, his past self confidence, and probable arrogance showed through once more when he scoffed at the romanticised image of the first war in the air as a courtly joust between devil-may-care aviators portrayed as latter-day knights.
“I don’t think it existed,” he declared. “You couldn’t have operated like that……”. Clearly, his approach to aerial combat was also decidedly unsentimental. “I just felt I wanted to survive,” he said, “and the best way of doing that was to kill the other fellow.” By way of an example he recalled an early morning clash that took place some 2,000 feet above the shell-churned wilderness in October 1917 and at the height of the Passchendaele offensive. Having manoeuvred close beneath the tail of an enemy two-seater, he proceeded to shoot it up “properly”, as he put it. With the rear gunner seemingly silenced and the aircraft at his mercy, he then decided to change the ‘drum’ on his machine-gun which entailed him having to hold the joystick with his knees while he fumbled to replenish his ammunition. “Suddenly, the observer in the machine that I thought I had dealt with………came to life again and fairly shot me up properly”…….”The burst of fire ripped through my flying coat, punctured the oil tank, ignited a supply of Verey lights and, as I turned to look, tore off my goggles *#!”. Fullard’s reaction was anything but chivalrous. “I had no qualms about going down again and shooting him to pieces,” he said. “I mean, I wasn’t going to be insulted in that way……..I shot him down and he was seen to fall in flames quite close to the lines.”
The combat over Moorslede which resulted in his 37th aerial victory also illustrated another – arguably the most valuable if intangible of all – of his many virtues as a fighter pilot – it was his extraordinary good fortune. He was not one to carry a “good luck token” on any of his sorties and it was his enviable claim to fame within the squadron that he never lost anybody “who was flying with me in any formation, whether it was six, 12 or two aircraft”……..“As to my own machines,” he recalled, “I changed……two or three times because they were shot up but I was never shot down. Including the eye thing, I had to come down five times for one reason or another…….twice just behind the lines. Once, upside down and once, in a shell-hole…… and I don’t think I ruined machines except on one or two of these occasions.”
However, his greatest stroke of luck came not in the air but on the ground. On November 17, 1917 he suffered a compound fracture of his right leg while playing football for his squadron against a team from an army battalion resting nearby. The 20-year-old patrol leader, who had escaped serious injury in countless combats during 250 hours of flying over the battle zone, was carried off to hospital never to return to front-line action.
“This happened immediately before the Cambrai offensive,” he later wrote, “so that I was very hurriedly evacuated to England to make room for the expected casualties…….Perhaps owing to this hasty move, my leg refused to set properly and, after seven attempts had been made, it was eventually plated more than a month after the fracture.”
The injury denied him the opportunity to add to his score of 46 victories, all of them achieved with No 1 Squadron within the space of a little under five months, but in all probability saved his life. Whereas many another great aces fell victim to the unrelenting strain of combat in the final year of the war, Philip Fullard recovered, albeit slowly, to take on the less glamorous but less hazardous role of an area flying examining officer. His venturesome war ended in Yorkshire as a 21-year-old major with a Distinguished Service Order, a Military Cross and Bar and just one big regret – that he had not been awarded the Victoria Cross for which he had been cited in the autumn of 1917 when his flying career was at its zenith. Though other awards came his way during a distinguished career spanning more than three decades the absence of the VC was to rankle with Fullard for many years after the First World war was over. Speaking about it in the late 1970s, Norfolk’s most successful fighter ace, still remembered being shown a copy of the rejected recommendation after it had been returned to the squadron adjutant. Scrawled across it in crayon was the brigade commander’s comment:
“Make him get some more.”
Despite Fullard’s disappointment at the time, he still elected to remain with the Royal Air Force, eventually reaching Air Commodore rank and serving once again during the Second World War (including a period as Duty Air Commodore at HQ Fighter Command); he eventually retired on 20 November 1946 at the age of 49.
The patriotic song ‘Rule, Britannia!, Britannia rule the waves’, is the regimental March of the Royal Norfolk Regiment; it is also traditionally performed at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ which takes place each year at the Royal Albert Hall.
Originally, Great Britain was called ‘Albion’ by the Romans, who invaded Britain in 55BC, but this later became ‘Britannia’. This Latin word referred to England and Wales, but was no longer used for a long time after the Romans left.
The name was then revived in the age of the Empire, when it had more significance. The word ‘Britannia’ is derived from ‘Pretannia’, from the term that the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1BC) used for the Pretani people, who the Greeks believed lived in Britain. Those living in Britannia would be referred to as Britanni.
The Romans created a goddess of Britannia, wearing a Centurion helmet and toga, with her right breast exposed. In the Victorian period, when the British Empire was rapidly expanding, this was altered to include her brandishing a trident and a shield with the British flag on, a perfect patriotic representation of the nation’s militarism. She was also standing in the water, often with a lion (England’s national animal), representing the nation’s oceanic dominance. The Victorians were also too prudish to leave her breast uncovered, and modestly covered it to protect her dignity!
The ‘Rule, Britannia!’ song that we recognise today started out as a poem co-written by the Scottish pre-Romantic poet and playwright, James Thomson (1700-48), and David Mallet (1703-1765), originally Malloch. He was also a Scottish poet, but was less well-known than Thomson. The English composer, Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778), then composed the music, originally for the masque ‘Alfred’, about Alfred the Great. Masques were a popular form of entertainment in 16th and 17th century England, involving verse, and, unsurprisingly, masks! The first performance of this masque was on 1st August, 1740, at Cliveden House, Maidenhead.
It was at Cliveden that the Prince of Wales, Frederick, was staying. He was a German, born in Hanover, son of King George II. His relationship with his father was strained but he came to England in 1728 after his father became king. The masque pleased Prince Frederick because it associated him with the likes of Alfred the Great, a medieval king who managed to win in battle against the Danes (Vikings), and linked him to improving Britain’s naval dominance, which was Britain’s aim at this time. The masque was performed to celebrate the accession of George I (this was the Georgian era, 1714-1830) and the birthday of Princess Augusta.
There were various influences on the poem. Scottish Thomson spent most of his life in England and hoped to forge a British identity, perhaps the reason for the pro-British lyrics. Another of his works was ‘The Tragedy of Sophonisba’ (1730). Rather than giving in to the Romans and becoming a slave, Sophonisba chose to commit suicide. This could have had an influence on ‘Rule, Britannia!’, with ‘Britons never will be slaves’. The words vary slightly between the original poem and the song we know today. Below is the poem, as it appears in ‘The Works of James Tomson’ by Thomson (1763, Vol II, pg 191):
When Britain first, at Heaven’s command/ Arose from out the azure main; floor/ This was the charter of the land,/ And guardian angels sang this strain:/ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
The nations, not so blest as thee,/ Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;/ While thou shalt flourish great and free,/ The dread and envy of them all./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
Still more majestic shalt thou rise,/ More dreadful, from each foreign stroke;/ As the loud blast that tears the skies,/ Serves but to root thy native oak./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame:/ All their attempts to bend thee down/ Will but arouse thy generous flame;/But work their woe, and thy renown./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
To thee belongs the rural reign;/ Thy cities shall with commerce shine/ All thine shall be the subject main,/ And every shore it circles thine./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
The Muses, still with freedom found,/ Shall to thy happy coast repair; Blest Isle!/ With matchless beauty crown’d,/ And manly hearts to guard the fair./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
The first public performance of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was in London in 1745, and it instantly became very popular for a nation trying to expand and ‘rule the waves’. Indeed, from as early as the 15th and 16th centuries, other countries’ dominant exploratory advances encouraged Britain to follow. This was the Age of Discovery, in which Spain and Portugal were the European pioneers, beginning to establish empires. This spurred England, France and the Netherlands to do the same. They colonised and set up trade routes in the Americas and Asia.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, England’s dominance grew, hence the significance of ‘Rule, Britannia!’. England had been unified with Wales since 1536, but only in 1707, by the Act of Union, did England join parliaments with Scotland, after years of tense relations. This occurred because it would benefit both countries. Scotland’s failed attempt to establish a colony in Panama costing £200,000, made a union with England look very appealing.
Scotland could use English trade routes without having to pay. England, which was experiencing fractious relations with the French, felt it made sense to have someone on their side, to fight for them, but also to simply not present a threat themselves. The Kingdom of Great Britain, the United Kingdom had been formed.
In 1770, Captain James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia, setting a precedent for later expansion in the Victorian era. In 1783 however, the nation experienced a set-back after the American War of Independence, in which 13 American territories were lost. Britain then turned her efforts to other countries, to try and establish more permanent colonies.
In 1815 after years of Napoleonic Wars, France was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, and this heralded the start of Britain’s century of power. At the height of the Empire, Britannia was in control of approximately one quarter of the world’s population and a fifth of the land mass.
The original words of the song altered with the fluctuations of Britain’s power; ‘Britannia, rule the waves’ later became ‘Britannia rules the waves’ in Victorian times, because Britain did, indeed, rule the waves! The famous phrase, ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’ at first seems simply hopeful and poignant, ever-glowing and successful. However, it was actually coined because Britain had colonised so many areas across the world, that the sun had to be shining on at least one of them!
The 19th century, though, was also a time of growth for Germany and America which led to conflict resulting in both World Wars in the 20th century. This began the decline of the British Empire. There was also subsequent decolonisation, and today only 14 territories remain.
Since 1996, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ has been transformed into ‘Cool Britannia’. This play on words reflects modern Britain, the stylish nation of music, fashion and media. It particularly encapsulates the atmosphere and buzz of cosmopolitan London, Glasgow, Cardiff and Manchester.
‘Rule, Britannia!’ has been so popular that it has been used in a variety of ways. In 1836, Richard Wagner wrote a concert overture based on ‘Rule, Britannia!’. Arthur Sullivan, who wrote comedy operas in Victorian times, quoted from the song too.
‘Rule, Britannia!’ became the Regimental March of the Royal Norfolk Regiment in 1881, and even today, some Royal Navy vessels are called HMS Britannia. The BBC’s Last Night of the Proms always includes an arrangement of the song too. ‘Britannia’ still conjures a sense of pride and patriotism today:
“Rule Britannia!/Britannia rule the waves/ Britons never, never, never shall be slaves./ Rule Britannia/ Britannia rule the waves./ Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
Footnote: The mistake that seems always to be made by ‘Promenaders’ (at the Last Night of the Proms) is that ‘rule’ becomes ‘rules’ and is expressed as a statement. It is more correct for the first line of this ‘anthem’ to be an instruction – or aspiration! We no longer have a ‘Navy’ worth boasting about.
This article is designed to tell the true story of what happened to the 1/5th Battalion Norfolk Regiment on 12th August 1915 at Kuchuck Anafarta Ova, Gallipoli, during World War One. Supported by recent research, it dispels many of the myths attached to the battalion including ‘disappearing into a cloud of smoke‘.
The first myth is that the 5/Norfolks were called the ‘Sandringham Battalion’ but this is not correct. It is incorrect because it recruited from all over North Norfolk, with companies being raised by towns as far apart as Great Yarmouth and Dereham. In fact what was known as ‘E’ Company (The Sandringham Company) ceased to exist on February 8th 1915, when during a major reform they converted to a 4 company battalion, merging with C Company to become ‘King’s Company’.
The second myth has to be covered by considering a number of claims:
A dispatch by Sir Ian Hamilton reported, ‘But the Colonel, with sixteen officers and 250 men, still kept pushing on, driving the enemy before them. … Nothing more was ever seen or heard of any of them. They charged into the forest and were lost to sight or sound. Not one of them ever came back.’
When the 50th Anniversary of Gallipoli came round in 1965, references to the Sandringham Company, Battalion and Regiment first started to emerge when three New Zealand veterans claimed to have seen a British regiment marching up a sunken road to be swallowed up in a cloud.
This led to other theories that they had been kidnapped by aliens who had landed in flying saucers and a book and TV adaptation depicted a highly charged new solution to the mysteries, suggesting they had been executed by the Turks.
We know that a number of the Norfolks managed to advance 1400 yards to a sunken road before stopping and awaiting the rest of the battalion. Second Lieutenant Fawkes commanded this small group and he was ordered to press on by the C.O. Colonel Proctor-Beauchamp. Virtually all of them were taken down when they bunched up in a gap covered by a machine gun.
A small element of the Norfolks managed to reach a small vineyard and another element managed to get to a group of small cottages where they were joined by Colonel Proctor-Beauchamp and the Adjutant. Beauchamp was seen by Private S T Smith to say ‘Hound them out boys!’ It was the last time he was seen alive and probably the last order he ever gave.
It was here that the surviving officers managed to take stock of what had happened and Major W Barton and Lieutenant Evelyn Beck led the survivors back to friendly lines when it became dark. And the mystery was, in fact, cleared up by the press very early on.
The local papers initially reported the loss of 5th Norfolk officers on 28th August 1915 and accounts from men who were there were published soon after, especially in the Yarmouth Mercury and the Lynn News. One article dated 27th August 1915 noted:
‘It is with the deepest regret that we publish the list of missing officers of the 5th (Territorial) Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment. At the time of going to press, no further information is available than the bare fact that they are missing.’
Hamilton’s dispatch did not appear until 6th January 1916 and on 7th January 1916 the Eastern Daily Press reported, ‘SANDRINGHAM MEN DISAPPEAR.’ The article went on to state that 16 officers and 250 men pushed deep into enemy lines and ‘…were lost from sight and sound. None of them ever came back.’ This directly quoted Hamilton’s after action report.
But on 15th February 1916 the Lynn News reported that one officer was now recovering from wounds in a hospital as a prisoner of the Turks in Constantinople and noted:
‘This news of Capt. Coxon will come as a relief to not only his friends but also to those who are still awaiting news of other officers and men of the 5th Norfolks. It is obvious that an officer in hospital would have greater opportunities for writing home to his friends than others who were not wounded but are prisoners of war.
And there is this excellent article printed in the Lynn News from a survivor:
‘I did not see anything of the missing officers after I got lost. I heard the Colonel call out when we approached the huts I have referred to, but I did not see him then. I did not hear him again afterwards. During the attack I did not see anything of Capt Pattrick. I did not see any wood into which the officers and men could have disappeared, and I certainly did not see them charge into a wood: in fact the Norfolks did not charge as far as my knowledge goes. I know absolutely nothing about how the officers and men disappeared. At first, like others, I thought that the officers and men who are now reported missing had returned to other trenches but later I found that this was not the case. I inquired a lot about them but all I could find out was that they had disappeared-vanished. We could only come to the conclusion that they had advanced too far, had been captured and made prisoners of war. We knew that some of the men had been killed and others been wounded, so it did not seem at all unlikely that these others had been captured by the enemy. I heard no news about the 5th Norfolks charging into a wood until I came home.’
Private Sidney Pooley 1/5th Norfolk Regiment.
As with countless engagements in World War One, the bodies of the men who fell that day did not have the luxury of a burial detail. In fact, they lay where they fell until 1919 when the battalion’s Chaplin the Reverend Pierrepoint Edwards found them and reported at the time:
‘We have found the 5th Norfolks – there were 180 in all; 122 Norfolk and a few Hants and Suffolks with 2/4th Cheshires. We could only identify two – Privates Barnaby and Carter. They were scattered over an area of about one square mile, at a distance of at least 800 yards behind the Turkish front line. Many of them had evidently been killed in a farm, as a local Turk, who owns the place, told us that when he came back he found the farm covered with the decomposing bodies of British soldiers, which he threw into a small ravine. The whole thing quite bears out the original theory that they did not go very far on, but got mopped up one by one, all except the ones who got into the farm.’
And the actual casualty list, recorded between 12th and 31st August 1915, is 11 Officers and 151 Other Ranks killed. This total comes from a database called ‘Soldiers Died in the Great War’.
Supported by recent research, this article may perhaps help to clarify what actually happened to the 5th Battalion Norfolk Regiment and acknowledges their bravery and tenacity in the face of an extremely determined enemy.
The men of E Company had grown up together, playing cricket for the same village team, chasing the same girls and drinking in the same pubs and inns. And now, as members of the 5th Territorial Battalion the Royal Norfolk Regiment, they were about to go to war together.
It was during the hot August of 1914 when groups of friends, team-mates and work colleagues from across Britain eagerly enlisted to fight the Bosch. But what the soldiers of E Company, 5th Territorial Battalion the Royal Norfolk Regiment, had in common was something rather unusual: they all belonged to the staff of the Royal Estate at Sandringham.
The company had been formed in 1908 at the personal request of their employer, King Edward VII. He asked Frank Beck, his land agent to undertake the task. This he did, recruiting more than 100 part-time soldiers or territorials.
As was the custom in the territorial battalions of the day, military rank was dictated by social class. Members of the local gentry like Frank Beck and his two nephews became the officers. The estate’s foremen, butlers, head gamekeepers and head gardeners were the NCOs. The farm labourers, grooms and household servants made up the rank and file.
What happened to the Sandringhams during the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in the middle of their very first battle, on the afternoon of August 12, 1915? One minute the men, led by their commanding officer, Sir Horace Proctor-Beauchamp, were charging bravely against the Turkish enemy. The next they had disappeared. Their bodies were never found. There were no survivors. They did not turn up as prisoners of war. – They simply vanished!
General Sir Ian Hamilton, the British Commander-in-Chief in Gallipoli, appeared as puzzled as everyone else. He reported: ‘there happened a very mysterious thing’. Explaining that during the attack, the Norfolks had drawn somewhat ahead of the rest of the British line’. He went on ‘The fighting grew hotter, and the ground became more wooded and broken.’ But Colonel Beauchamp with 16 officers and 250 men, ‘still kept pushing on, driving the enemy before him.’ ‘Among these ardent souls was part of a fine company enlisted from the King’s Sandringham estates. Nothing more was ever seen or heard of any of them. They charged into the forest and were lost to sight and sound. Not one of them ever came back.’ Their families had nothing to go on but rumours and a vague official telegram stating that their loved ones had been ‘reported missing’.
King George V could gain no further information other than that the Sandringhams had conducted themselves with ‘ardour and dash’. Queen Alexandra made inquiries via the American ambassador in Constantinople to discover whether any of the missing men might be in Turkish prisoner-of-war camps. Grieving families contacted the Red Cross and placed messages in the papers, hoping for news of their sons and husbands from returning comrades. But all to no avail.
So what really happened to men of Sandringham?
Along with thousands of other troops, the 5th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment had set sail from Liverpool on July 30, 1915, aboard the luxury liner Aquitania.
At 54, Captain Beck need not have led his men to war. But despite his age, he was determined to do so.
‘I formed them,’ he said bravely, ‘How could I leave them now? The lads will expect me to go with them; besides I promised their wives and children I would look after them’.
The battalion landed at Suvla Bay on August 10, in the thick of the fighting, and was immediately ordered inland.
Officers and men were being continually shot down, not only by rifle fire from the enemy in front of them, but by snipers.
The climate was broiling by day and freezing at night. Men were already suffering from dysentery and from the side-effects of inoculations and seasick tablets administered during the voyage. There was a desperate lack of water – two pints were supposed to last each man three days.
Then, on August 12, just two days after they had arrived in this arid, hostile land, the 5th Battalion was told it was to attack that afternoon. The orders were confused. Some thought the plan was to clear away the enemy’s forward positions in preparation for the main British assault. Others believed their target was the village of Anafarta Saga on the ridge ahead of them. The officers were handed maps, which they soon discovered did not even show the area they were supposed to be attacking.
Having been in the baking sun all day the inexperienced troops were thirsty and scared – and now they were to launch a major assault on a well-armed enemy in broad daylight and with little cover. Only Private George Carr, a 14-year-old Norfolk lad, was to survive the bloodshed of that afternoon. Exhausted by the battle, he was saved by a stretcher-bearer called Herbert Saul, a pacifist who refused to carry a rifle on principle.
At 4.15-pm whistles blew and the Norfolks began to advance, led by Colonel Beauchamp, waving his cane and shouting: ‘On the Norfolks, on.’ Captain Beck was at the head of the Sandringhams. Even though they were still a mile-and-a-half from the Turkish positions, the order to fix bayonets and to advance at the double was given. The slaughter began immediately as the Turkish artillery trained in on the advancing British soldiers. By the time the Norfolks reached the enemy lines they were already exhausted.
A desperate battle ensued, officers and men being cut down all around by snipers hidden in the trees. Everywhere officers and men of the battalion were dying. A shell landed close to Frank Beck. He was last seen sitting under a tree with his head on one side, either dead or simply too tired to continue.In the midst of the bloodshed, Colonel Beauchamp continued to advance through a wood towards the Turks’ main positions, leading a band of 16 officers and 250 men. Among them were the Sandringhams.
Eventually, the Colonel was spotted, standing with another officer in a farm on the far side of the wood. ‘Now boys,’ he shouted, ‘ we’ve got the village. Let’s hold it.’ That was the last anyone saw or heard of Beauchamp, or any of his men, including the Sandringhams. They had all disappeared, amid the smoke and flying bullets, never to be seen again.
In 1918 when the war had ended, the War Graves Commission searched the Gallipoli battlefields. Of the 36,000 Commonwealth servicemen who died in the campaign, 13,000 rested in unidentified graves, another 14,000 bodies were simply never found. During one of these searches a Norfolks regimental cap badge was found buried in the sand along with the corpses of a number of soldiers. The find was reported to the Rev Charles Pierre-Point Edwards, MC, who was in Gallipoli on a War Office mission to find out what had happened to the 5th Norfolks. It was likely that he had been sent there by Queen Alexandra.
Edwards’ examination of the area where the badge had been found uncovered the remains of 180 bodies; 122 of them were identifiable from their shoulder flashes as men of the 5th Norfolks. The bodies had been found scattered over an area of one square mile, to the rear of the Turkish front line ‘lying most thickly round the ruins of a small farm’. This, Edwards concluded, was probably the farm at which Colonel Beauchamp had last been seen. The surrounding area was wooded, the only area in the Suvla vicinity that matched with General Hamilton’s description of a forest.
Four years later came news from Turkey of a gold fob-watch, looted from the body of a British officer in Gallipoli. It was Frank Beck’s. The watch was later presented to Margeretta Beck, Frank’s daughter, on her wedding day.
And so it is here that the story of the Vanished Battalion might have ended.
Many years later, in April 1965, at the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, a former New Zealand sapper called Frederick Reichardt issued an extraordinary testimony. Supported by three other veterans, Reichardt claimed to have witnessed the supernatural disappearance of the 5th Norfolks in August 1915.
According to Reichardt, on the afternoon in question he and his comrades had watched a formation of ‘six or eight’ loaf-shaped clouds hovering over the area where the Norfolks were pressing home their attack. Into one of these low lying clouds marched the advancing battalion. An hour or so later, the cloud ‘very unobtrusively’ rose and joined the other clouds overhead and sailed off, leaving no trace of the soldiers behind them.
This strange story first appeared in a New Zealand publication. Despite its unreliable provenance and inconsistencies (Reichardt got the wrong date, the wrong battalion and the wrong location), this version of events captured popular imagination at that time. More recent and detailed research for a BBC television documentary in 1991 called “All the King’s Men.” suggested that Reichardt’s story of the battalion-lifting cloud may have been a little confused. More significantly the BBC research unearthed two new important items of evidence.
The first piece of new evidence was an account of a conversation with the Rev Pierre-Point Edwards some years after the war, which revealed an extraordinary detail he omitted from his official report about the fate of the 5th Norfolks – namely, that every one of the bodies he found had been shot in the head.
It was known that the Turks did not like taking prisoners. This was confirmed by the second piece of evidence, which told the story of Arthur Webber, who fought with the Yarmouth Company of the 5th Norfolks during the battle of August 12, 1915.
According to his sister in-law, Arthur was shot in the face. As he lay injured on the ground, he heard the Turkish soldiers shooting and bayoneting the wounded and the prisoners around him. Only the intervention of a German officer saved his life. His comrades were all executed on the spot.
Arthur Webber died in 1969, aged 86, still with the Turkish sniper’s bullet in his head.
Can the true fate of the 5th Battalion now be more fully explained?
In that after their bold dash through the wood on the 12th of August…
Colonel Beauchamp and the Sandringhams were overwhelmed by their Turkish enemies…
They were either captured or they surrendered…
The Turks took no prisoners…
So they were butchered…and buried.
Is this what became of the Vanished Battalion?
By Ben Johnson
Update: Steve Smith, author of ‘And They Loved Not Their Lives Unto Death: The History of Worstead and Westwick’s War Memorial and War Dead’, has written an article “5th Battalion Norfolk Regiment – The True Story” which is reproduced on this site – it may shed some light on the fate of the Vanished Battalion.
For about 30 months during WW1, the names of Robert Leckie and South Denes at Yarmouth were intrinsically linked. He, a Scottish born Canadian pilot and South Denes being the site of the Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) from where Leckie and some 30 aircraft and air crew played an exceptional roll in keeping the enemy at bay. Whilst at South Denes, Robert Leckie set course to become a highly decorated officer and later, when the war had ended, was to carve out a distinguished career in military flying. As for Great Yarmouth’s RNAS station, she was destined to be all but forgotten and long wiped off the map. Here’s their story:
Long before his defiant speeches helped rally a country at risk from the Nazi menace in World War II, Winston Churchill played a key role in establishing an earlier barrier to German invaders – one in which Great Yarmouth had a vital role to play. Churchill was responsible for the setting up of Great Yarmouth’s Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) at South Denes as part of a national network of stations founded in 1912 to run alongside the new Royal Flying Corps. These stations were charged to counter the perceived growing German menace and their main “naval” role (ignoring the service’s direct field “support” of the Royal Flying Corp) was fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines and attacking enemy coastal territory. It would, during its time, systematically search thousands of square miles of the North Sea for enemy aircraft of any kind and U-boats.
At Yarmouth the site chosen for a regional RNAS station was on the South Denes, an area outside the town’s walls which had had a variety of uses over the centuries, from cattle grazing to public hangings, horse racing to a place for fishermen to dry their nets. It took a little while but the Admiralty eventually earmarked this area after having searched for over a year for suitable land where hydro-aeroplanes could be handled and launched. Gradually, the site witnessed the arrival of concrete hard-standings, service buildings, hangars and slipways.
Commissioned on April 13 1913, the Yarmouth Station grew rapidly, taking on civilians later that year who would be responsible for the care, maintenance and repair of machinery; they would also act as chauffeurs, storekeepers or telephone operators. Then in 1914 came seven officers, two warrant officers, 29 ratings and three pensioners to play their part on one of only eight airfields in Britain, ready-built to combat aerial threats. Interestedly, naval terms would apply; personnel not living on-site were called ‘The Ship’s Company’ and would be treated well, with free transport between their lodgings and the base. As for the public, they were forbidden to approach the site when aircraft movements were likely, but could visit the planes on Sunday afternoons if no ‘emergency’ was declared.
When fully operational, the Yarmouth Station’s 30 planes would go on to fill its potential for combating raids by airborne Zeppelins, spotting German surface raiders and playing a major part in submarine detection. Unlike some RNAS stations, Yarmouth was now equipped to act as both a land and a flying boat base with seaplanes initially launched by trolleys. Later, two slipways of heavy sleepers pinned to beach-driven piles were built, one at each end and intentionally placed opposite aircraft sheds, to aid arriving and departing aircraft. The base was also supported by additional landing ground facilities at satellite bases in Norfolk at Bacton, Burgh Castle, Holt (Bayfield) and Sedgeford, plus Aldeburgh and Covehithe in Suffolk. At the time, the Admiralty had also planned to take over Hickling Broad and use it as a reserve flying boat base and contractors duly built a concrete slipway, but this was never completed. In the event, Hickling was only used during the war for two emergency landings, but a separate arrangement allowed seaplanes destined for Yarmouth to land on the calmer waters of the broad if the sea were too rough. That arrangement is still in force!
A stark reminder of what Yarmouth was up against was when the town became the victim of the first-ever aerial attack on the UK by a Zeppelin airship; this was during the early evening of January 19 1915 when two townsfolk were killed. The South Denes planes, just a mile or two away, were unable to intercept because they could not match the airship’s cruising height. The Station would have to wait until November 27 1916 for its first success when a Zeppelin was shot down over the sea near Lowestoft, the date of which coming close to the moment when Robert Leckie arrived at the station and yet to make his mark and be known as one of “the Zeppelin killers from Canada”.
Robert Leckie was born in Glasgow on 16 April 1890 into a family of weavers who emigrated to Canada. When old enough, Leckie was initially commissioned into the 1st Central Ontario Regiment, and in late 1915 paid 600 Canadian Dollars to begin flying training at the Curtiss Flying School on Toronto Island. However, he had completed only three hours of training in the Curtiss Model F. flying boat at Hanlan’s Point, when the school was forced to close. At the urging of Sir Charles Kingsmill, the Chief of the Canadian Naval staff, the Royal Navy agreed to accept half of the class and Leckie was sent to England. On 6 December 1915, he was commissioned as a probationary temporary flight sub-lieutenant in the Royal
Naval Air Service, and posted to Royal Navy Air Station Chingford, for training. On 10 May 1916, having accumulated 33 hours and 3 minutes flying time, he was granted a Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate and was then sent to RNAS Felixstowe for further training in flying boats. He was confirmed in his rank of flight sub-lieutenant in June, and in August was posted to RNAS Great Yarmouth situated at South Denes.
14 May 1917: Leckie’s First Success.
On 26 April 1917 the Admiralty put a new tracking system in place to detect Zeppelins. As Zeppelins patrolled, their courses were methodically plotted by the British wireless interception stations and, if they approached within 150 miles of the English Coast, their position, course, and speed were communicated direct to one or more of the East Coast flying-boat bases. Local commanders then had discretion to send out aircraft – keeping them up to date with the Zeppelin’s position by wireless.
Soon after dawn on the 14 May 1917, in misty weather, news was received of a Zeppelin near the Terschelling Light Vessel. A Curtiss H12 ‘Large America’, manned by Flight Lieutenant Christopher John Galpin, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Robert Leckie, Chief Petty Officer Vernon Frank Whatling, and Air Mechanic J Laycock, was sent out from Yarmouth. As pilot, Galpin took off from South Denes at 03.30 a.m. in poor weather with heavy rain and low cloud. After eighty miles, the flying-boat shut down the wireless to lessen the chances of discovery. At 04.45am, the weather cleared as the aircraft approached the Dutch island of Texel, then further on, crew spotted the Terschelling Light Vessel and at 04.48 the Zeppelin L 22 came into view at a distance of about 10–15 miles. Immediately, the Curtiss increased speed and gained height, and Leckie took over the controls as Galpin manned the twin Lewis guns mounted in the bow.
Leckie managed to approach to within half a mile before his Curtiss was spotted and the Zeppelin attempted to take evasive action but as events turned out, it was too late. Leckie made a skilful approach and dived on the Zeppelin until he was twenty feet below and fifty feet to starboard of her gondolas. Galpin then opened fire from the two Lewis guns in the forward cock-pit, but after a burst of fire both guns jammed, one after the other. Leckie turned the aircraft away and an attempt was made to clear the guns, however, no second attack was necessary. As the flying-boat turned, the L22 Zeppelin began to glow and within seconds she was falling in flames. Her skeleton plunged upright into the sea, leaving no trace in the dawning light save a mound of black ash on the surface of the water. The Curtiss returned to South Denes base by 7:50 a.m and they found only two bullet holes, in the left upper wing and the hull amidships, where the Germans had returned fire. In his Report to the Commander of Yarmouth RNAS, Galpin stated “……..I would submit to your notice that the success of the attack was due to the good judgment and skill of Flt Sub Lt Leckie…….” On 22 June, Leckie was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his part in downing the L 22; on 30 June, Leckie was promoted to flight lieutenant.
Leckie’s Subsequent Successes.
The next success for Leckie was at 10.35 a.m. on 5 September 1917, again flying a Curtiss H-12 from South Denes, under Squadron Commander Vincent Nicholl. They were accompanied by a de Havillan DH.4 biplane, and were again heading for Terschelling. However, they were only part-way to their destination when they unexpectedly encountered the Zeppelins L 44 and L 46 accompanied by support ships. The British aircrafts were hit by enemy fire, but pressed their attack on the L 44. Nicholl noted several hits on the Zeppelin from his guns, but it did not catch fire. Leckie then turned the aircraft to attack the L 46, but it had turned rapidly away and was out of range, as was the L 44 by the time he turned back. Both British aircraft had been hit, and the DH.4’s engine soon failed. The Curtiss had also been hit in one engine and one wing was badly damaged.
The DH.4 was forced to ditch into the sea, and Nicholl ordered Leckie to put the aircraft down to rescue the two crew. However, now with six men aboard, damaged, and in heavy seas Leckie was unable to take off again. Some 75 miles from the English coast, the aircraft began to taxi towards home. Their radio was waterlogged, but they did have four homing pigeons. Nicholl attached messages to the birds giving their position and course and sent them off at intervals. After four hours the aircraft ran out of fuel, and began to drift, so they improvised a sea anchor from empty fuel cans to steady it. That night the damaged wing tip broke off, and each man then had to spend two hours at a time outside balanced on the opposite wing to keep the broken wing from filling with water and dragging the aircraft under.
After three days at sea, the six men were suffering badly with no food and only two gallons of drinking water, gained from draining the radiators of their water-cooled engines. Finally, at dawn on 8 September, as search operations were about to be called off, one of the pigeons was found dead, from exhaustion, by the coastguard station at Walcot, barely 20 miles north of the RNAS base at South Denes. Shortly after midday Leckie and crew were rescued by the torpedo gunboat HMS Halcyon. As for the pigeon, it would not be forgotten. The bird was preserved and kept in the officers’ mess at RNAS Yarmouth until the base closed after the war; later it would find a home at the RAF Museum Hendon where it is now on display. A brass plate on the display case bears the inscription “A very gallant gentleman”.On 31 December 1917 Leckie was appointed to flight commander.
While on patrol on 20 February 1918, Leckie, now a flight commander, spotted an enemy submarine on the surface and attacked it with bombs, seeing one strike the vessel as it dived, leaving a large oil slick. Leckie was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Order on 17 May 1918, only to learn much later that he had not actually sunk it.
On 1 April 1918, the Royal Naval Air Service was merged with the Army’s Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force, and Leckie transferred to the new service with the rank of lieutenant (temporary captain) whilst remaining at South Denes. By the 8th of April he was promoted to the temporary rank of major.
On 4 June 1918 Leckie led an offensive patrol of four Felixstowe F.2 A flying boats and a Curtiss H.12 towards the Haaks Light Vessel off the Dutch coast. They saw no enemy aircraft until one of the F.2A’s was forced down with a broken fuel feed-pipe. At that moment, five enemy seaplanes appeared, but seemed more interested in attacking the crippled F2 as it taxied towards to the Dutch coast where the crew eventually burned their aircraft before being interned. Then more German seaplanes then appeared and Leckie promptly led his small force into a head on attack; a dogfight ensued which lasted for 40 minutes. Despite further mechanical difficulties with two other F2A’s, necessitating further makeshift repairs while in the middle of the action, two German aircraft were shot down. In addition, four were badly damaged causing the Germans to break off the action, for the loss of one F.2A and the Curtiss – its crew to survive but interned by the Dutch; one man was killed. Leckie’s force returned to South Denes where, in his report, Leckie was to bitterly remark “…..these operations were robbed of complete success entirely through faulty petrol pipes…… It is obvious that our greatest foes are not the enemy……”
Two months later Leckie was involved in arguably his most famous sortie. It took place on the afternoon of 5 August 1918 after a squadron of five Zeppelins had taken off from Friedrichshafen for the east coast of England and a night raid against Norwich, Boston and the Humber Estuary. The leading airship, L 70, commanded by Johann von Lossnitzer, had on board Peter Strasser, chief commander of the German Imperial Navy Zeppelins, the main force operating bombing campaigns from 1915 to 1917. He, together with everyone else on board, were unaware of what was in store for them and their aircraft; they were probably also unaware that the airship squadron had been spotted while out at sea by the Lenman Tail lightship which signalled its course and position to the Admiralty who then passed the details on to South Denes for action.
The first to respond to this notification was Major Egbert “Bertie” Cadbury, (member of the Cadbury family) who raced to the only aircraft available, a DH.4, and jumped into the pilot’s seat while Leckie, who was close behind, occupied the observer/gunner’s position. After about an hour they spotted the L 70 and attacked, with Leckie firing eighty rounds of incendiary bullets into her. Fire rapidly consumed the airship as it plummeted into the sea just north of Wells-next-the-Sea on the Norfolk coast. None of the 23 men aboard survived. Cadbury and Leckie and another pilot, Lieutenant Ralph Edmund Keys, then attacked and damaged another Zeppelin, which promptly turned tail and headed for home. This was to be the last airship raid over Great Britain. As for the three combatants, they each received the Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions.
A few days later, on 11 August 1918 Leckie took part in another operation over the North Sea. Zeppelins often shadowed British naval ships, while carefully operating at higher altitudes than anti-aircraft guns or flying boats could achieve, and out of range of land based aircraft, so the Harwich Light Cruiser Force set out with a Sopwith Camel lashed to a decked lighter towed by the destroyer HMS Redoubt. When Leckie’s reconnaissance flight reported an approaching Zeppelin, the Redoubt steamed at full speed into the wind, allowing the Camel’s pilot Lieutenant Culley to take off with only a five-yard run. Culley climbed to 18,800 feet, approached the L 53 out of the sun, and attacked with his twin Lewis guns, setting the airship on fire.
As the war entered its final months, the RNAS was absorbed into the newly formed RAF and on 20 August 1918 Leckie was appointed commander of the newly formed No. 228 Squadron, flying the Curtis H-12 and Felixstowe F.2A out of Great Yarmouth. Within three months the Armistice brought the fighting to an end and on 31 March 1919 Robert Leckie said his farewells to South Denes when he retired from the RAF to pursue a career in a variety of military flying roles. He died in 1975.
As for the Yarmouth Station, it lasted until late in 1920 whilst most RNAS sites – including Burgh Castle, Sedgeford, Holt, Aldeburgh and Covehithe closed by September 1919. South Denes was then used for commercial flights until the 1930s when the area became the South Denes Camping and Caravan site. New buildings were constructed and one former station building was to remain even beyond closure of the camp site in 1990. Then a new era began and any trace of what had gone before was finally buried by thousands of tons of sand, stone and concrete to form Yarmouth’s new Outer Harbour complex.
In June 2009, Yarmouth’s Royal Naval Air Station was recognised with the unveiling of a plaque in honour of the men who protected the nation from the Kaiser’s air force and navy. This is outside 25 Regent Street, the RNAS regional headquarters from 1913 to 1920.