The story of Norfolk’s ‘lost villages’ and the great War Office ‘land grab’ have long been a source of fascination. Several years ago, I interviewed a woman whose family was among those given their marching orders in July 1942. The bitterness that came from a sense of betrayal was still plainly evident more than half a century later.
There was no question that most, if not all, of the villagers turfed out of their homes to make way for the army’s new training ground were under the impression that they would be able to return to their old haunts and old existence at the end of the war.
Of course, what no one realised at the time was, what, if anything, would be left of their homes to return to. Nor could anyone foresee the greatly altered political situation that would exist with all the heightened tensions associated with the beginnings of what became known as the Cold War.
That promises were broken is clear, but circumstances had changed and peace in 1945 arrived with the threat of more and possibly more catastrophic conflict just around the corner.
But knowing all of that scarcely lessens the overwhelming feeling of pity for all those hundreds of Breckland families who sacrificed their way of life for a victory that brought with it no relief from the suffering endured.
Researching the saga afresh for an EDP article merely added to the poignancy of it all. What struck me most forcibly was the extraordinary loyalty displayed by people on the brink of eviction. Government officials and senior army officers were similarly awed by the selflessness and generosity of spirit shown in the face of appalling adversity.
Some of the correspondence I found in the National Archives made for heart-breaking reading. Take the letter written by Lt Gen Kenneth Anderson. Having addressed villagers at an open-air meeting, where he made clear that the army’s take-over would turn them into ‘refugees’ in their own country, he wrote to the Secretary of State at the War Office:
“I can assure you that I have done and will do everything I can to help those in trouble as a result of this action, which is a thoroughly unpleasant one – but just has to be done…
I was amazed at the loyalty and understanding with which they received the bitter news: it was quite splendid and made a thoroughly distasteful task much easier… My way was made very easy by the splendid lead given by Lord Walsingham. He will be nearly ruined: loses his own home and over 400 tenants and villagers go with him. Although he had fought to the utmost against the expulsion, by all legal means, yet in public he has given manly, sane and loyal counsel to his people – who still have a touching feudal faith in his powers!”
The army’s local land agent was no less impressed by the villagers’ response to the dreadful news. “Saddening though the occasion was,” it was reported, “the bearing of these Norfolk men and women was extraordinarily fine. There was no hostility and the speakers were even applauded…”
All of which merely adds to the sense of injustice. Of all the sacrifices made during the second world war, there were few greater than that made by the small communities of four Norfolk villages which fell victim not to an invasion by an enemy power but by soldiers fighting for a common cause, in their name.