A project researching the military history of the Brecks area of Norfolk and Suffolk between 1900 and 1949 has uncovered the area’s forgotten role in the conflicts of the twentieth century.
Volunteer-led research by the Breckland Society has uncovered a landscape dotted with military camps, airfields and training areas; including the training ground for the world’s first tanks. This research gives an insight into the heritage of today’s military presence in the area, which includes important US airbases and the Stanford Training Area (STANTA).
The Brecks is one of the more unregarded parts of East Anglia, but its poor sandy soil made it ideal for army camps, military manoeuvres and airfields. The sandy ground was well drained and agriculturally poor, so sites could be easily established and would have been no real loss in terms of agricultural production. This was important as U-boats blockaded the seas in World War 1 and 2 so growing wheat and potatoes on home soil was critical to the war effort.
‘By looking through documents and visiting the sites, we have been able to pick out many military sites across the Brecks,’ said Breckland Society Project Manager Peter Goulding. ‘The Brecks would have been like an anthill throughout the World Wars, with people of all nationalities being posted, training, imprisoned or resettled here. Czechoslovakians, Poles, Indians, Aussies, Kiwis and Canadians, German and Italian POWs, and of course the Americans.’
The Brecks saw very early uses of tanks and aeroplanes. Newly built aeroplanes contributed greatly to the manoeuvres that ran across the region in 1912, and the world’s first tank-training took place at Elveden. The project was able to identify ghostly remains of the trench network by correlating aerial photographs and LIDAR with an existing map from Bovington tank museum. The remains of the trenches were incredibly shallow, less than a few inches deep, and probably would never have been identified by field-walking amongst the forest litter and trees.
After World War I, tanks and planes got a lot more sophisticated. In World War II, a huge number of airbases and decoy ‘K’ and ‘Q’ airfields were built across the region. These kept Britain in the war even after Dunkirk, and were essential for the final success of the invasion of Normandy and advance across the Rhine.
The project, part of the Breaking New Ground Landscape Partnership Scheme and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, also explored the camps that the 7th Armoured Division ‘Desert Rats’ were stationed at near Mundford. The camp was top secret and no maps were made for security reasons.
“We overlaid Forestry Commission LIDAR images on top of the aerial imagery publicly available in Google Earth,’ said project volunteer Alan Clarke. “With a few days' work on a computer we were able to accurately locate and identify the remains of almost two hundred WW2-vintage structures hidden deep within the trees in the High Ash camp area. To achieve such results using traditional 'boots on the ground' methods would have taken us many weeks, if not months”.
You can read the report here or download it.
Hard copies will be available from Ceres Bookshop in Swaffham and from Brandon Country Park Visitor Centre.