Friday, 21 July 2017

Wartime in Norfolk - Across the Centuries

In May, I blogged about my beloved Norfolk, or poppy country as I call it. I mentioned Great Massingham, which was the first stopping point on my trip collecting photographs for a blog post about Norfolk at the time of the Domesday survey.

In the centre of the village I got chatting to a resident who knew the area well, and pointed out to me a building which used to be a pub, and which had served as a billet for airmen during WWII.

He told me a little about the history of the area and then said how he liked, in the summer evenings, to walk up to the old airfield, and how atmospheric it is there. To stand and listen in the quiet, with only birdsong to break the silence, he said, one can easily imagine the planes taking off and coming in to land. I'd never heard of this airfield, and when he said it was just a short walk away, I set off to find it.

I imagined some old field, where there might be some traces of a long-abandoned site. I wasn't prepared for what I found.

Unmistakeably part of the old runway, the surface has worn away to reveal the tarmac underneath. On this quiet, baking hot July afternoon, with hardly another soul around, I knew what he meant about imagining the planes coming home. And I thought about the ones that didn't.

Some farm buildings to the side of one of the runways showed the distinctive curved roof of what could be a Nissen hut, or similar. 
I wondered if this was indeed a relic from the war. The silence was broken by noise overhead,

and I found a sign, and saw something else which made me realise that this is still used as an airfield.

I removed myself from the runway, and retreated to the safety of the history books. I discovered that RAF Great Massingham was a satellite airfield of RAF West Raynham, a much bigger and now, also disused airfield which closed in 1994. Massingham airfield was closed in 1945 and the control tower was demolished.
Wikipedia has a list of the units which were posted there:
The following units were posted here at some point:

No. 18 Squadron RAF 1940 - 41
No. 90 Squadron RAF 1941
No. 107 Squadron RAF 1941
No. 342 Squadron RAF 1943
No. 169 Squadron RAF 1944 - 45
No. 16 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section
No. 1482 (Bombing) Gunnery Flight

No. 1692 (Bomber Support) Training Unit RAF

The centre of Great Massingham seems barely to have changed for centuries. It was so quiet on the day that I visited that I really could imagine those wartime airmen taking the short walk back to the village on summer evenings. 

The pub in the above photo is the Dabbling Duck, and the only trading pub in the village now. I've not been able to establish how old the building is, so I wonder if it would have been there (in its former guise as The Rose and Crown) when another conflict took place in the area.

I refer to the English Civil War, when the nearby town of King's Lynn was held under siege for over two weeks. Dr Paul Richards was quoted in the Lynn News (Sep 9th 2016) as saying that the screams of women and children could be heard in Wisbech and beyond. That seems unlikely to me, given that Wisbech is 13 miles from Lynn. However, what is not in doubt was that the town was attacked by the Parliamentary army, and a cannonball crashed through the stained glass windows of St Margaret's Church (also known at King's Lynn Minster.)

Photograph by Richard Humphrey

According to Gareth Calway, a writer and entertainer, King's Lynn was the only town to see action in the Civil War. He said that the earl of Manchester and a 'firebrand named Oliver Cromwell' were incensed that a port in the Parliamentarian stronghold of Norfolk had declared itself Royalist.

The town surrendered on September 16th. At dawn the next day the Parliamentarian army entered the town. The governance of Lynn was passed to Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law, Colonel Valentine Walton. 

I lived very near Lynn when I was a teenager, and my parents moved close by to Massingham in 1986. Despite this, and my deep love for and study of history over the intervening years, I knew nothing about the airfield, or the siege.

On a calm summer's day, it's hard to imagine either. Although there was little here in the way of fighting, a siege and and an airfield are part of the ingredients that make violent warfare. 

[all photographs unless otherwise attributed taken by, and copyright of, the author]


  1. A moving article that brings history very close indeed. Looking forward to more like it.

    1. Thanks Antoine - glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Nice blog. I enjoyed reading a couple of posts.

    1. Thanks Raj,
      I aim to post on this blog about once a month; it's a 'sister' site to my main blog. Thanks for dropping by! :-)