By Haydn Brown.
Walkers on Sheringham’s west end clifftop footpath, which leads up to the Coastguard Hut, may not know that this is an area of the cliffs which, during the Second World War was honeycombed with tunnels and heavily defended. What they may also not know is that this elevated position also overlooks the place where, in the early hours of 6 December, 1939, three enemy airmen lost their lives.
This War-time drama occurred during a night of hail and rain and brisk winds. Residents close to the seafront were awakened by the sound of an aircraft, flying very low and with engines spluttering, which went on to crash in the sea on the east side of the Lifeboat Shed. Despite an initial fear that ‘Jerries might be running around in the dark,’ people poured out of their houses in the pitch dark, and the lifeboat crew was ‘knocked up’ to launch the lifeboat into a heavy swell to search for survivors.
Ashore, flickering lights and torches picked out a parachute which was draped over the promenade, near the Whelk Copper. About 50 yards from high-water mark was the equally ominous sight of a swastika-adorned plane rolling in the sea. Despite the wind, hail, rain, topped with the stink of aviation fuel, some men bystanders waded into the sea with ropes and managed to secure the wreckage to the breakwater, to prevent from being driven away.
It was left for daylight to not only bring further detail, but also a flood of military guards, officials and aviation experts. They identified the aircraft as a Twin-Engine Heinkel HE 115 Float Plane, which may have been laying magnetic mines – who knows? Apparently, the story went round that the aircraft had been ‘downed’ by one of our ‘secret weapons’; subsequent opinion suggested that it had possibly clipped one of the Chain Home Radar Towers at West Beckham. The Press at the time sensationalised (what’s new!) the news with headlines such as “Nazi Plane Crashes into the Sea”. It was said that the Heinkel also boasted self-sealing fuel tanks, a system which would have been of interest to the on-the-spot officials who were poking around the wreck; but also of great interest to British boffins back at base who were working on their own version. Eventually, of course, the wreckage was cleared away, though one of the engines is said to be still there – lying in about 20 feet of water.
But what of the German crew of three? The body of the pilot was discovered immediately and subsequently buried, with military honours, at Bircham. The other two bodies were washed ashore several days later. They too were given military funerals, this time at Sheringham’s Weybourne Road cemetery. After the War, they were said to have been exhumed and re-buried in the German cemetery at Cannock Chase, Staffs.
It is an odd fact that if the Heinkel had come down at low water, it might well have been recorded as the first German plane of World War Two to have crashed on British soil.
RAF West Beckham, which had close links with the local fighter station RAF Matlask, was opened in 1938 and comprised a transmitter and receiver site, a generator site and underground reserves. It reported to the filter room at RAF Watnall which was the HQ to No. 12 Group RAF, and the station was originally parented to RAF Bircham Newton, followed later by RAF Wittering and finally RAF Coltishall.
The radar site was located at Bodham Hill and was known as A Site. During World War II the station was commanded by the famous dance band leader Marius B. Winter and because of his background the soldiers based at the camp were said to have been ‘very well entertained’. The Site closed in 1956.
There were also two other separate camps: B Site, near Baconsthorpe, provided accommodation for the WAAFs and airmen from 1939 to 1946. It was also known as “The Marlpit Camp”, due to its close proximity to a disused marl pit – which is now a fishing lake. The camp was closed down in 1958.
C Site was home to the Royal Norfolk Regiment in 1940 and in 1941 was used by the Military Police, followed by an RAF regiment from 1942 until 1945. After the war the site went into care and maintenance. Today the station is privately owned and many of the buildings are still in existence.