There are few more contentious aspects of the Norwich Blitz than the issue of ‘trekking’. Even now, 70 years on, the very mention of it is sufficient to provoke heated debate in some quarters, as I discovered at a recent event staged at Norwich Arts Centre.
The focus of my talk was morale and how well the city’s population stood up to the test of heavy and indiscriminate bombing. Based on my research conducted at the National Archives and interviews with people who lived through the blitz, I spoke of the authorities’ concern about the large numbers of people who were classified as ‘self-evacuees’ or ‘trekkers’. Figures varied, but it was reckoned that somewhere between 11,000-40,000 people abandoned the city, at least on a temporary basis, to sleep outside of Norwich following the first April raid.
What might appear an entirely natural response to a potentially lethal threat was frowned upon by some who detected in the withdrawal a lack of ‘moral fibre’. Most disturbing of all was the large number of ‘desertions’ from among the city’s Civil Defence workers, particularly fire-watchers. The result was a number of investigations and a small number of prosecutions.
This clearly proved too much for one woman in the audience. A girl at the time of the Baedeker raids, she was indignant at what she evidently considered a slur on the city’s good name. She said that she had never seen anybody leaving the city and had heard of nobody doing so. Her conclusion, therefore, was that the figures were either grossly exaggerated or a downright lie. Fortunately, however, there were others among those attending who were able to give a contrary view based on the personal experience of having been ‘trekkers’!
I was reminded of this discussion the other day while talking with Ralph Gayton, whose aunt Hilda and cousins, Beryl, Jack and Margaret Lockwood were among the victims of the first raid. He told me how, as a result of the heavy casualties and damage wrought during two nights of bombing, he and his mother had joined others in Knowsley Road in the long walk out of the city. With a pram stuffed full of blankets, clothes and food, they had ‘trekked’ out to Harford Bridges and a field where they slept with many others beneath the stars.
It got me thinking. Where, I wonder, were the most popular ‘camping’ grounds for Norwich’s blitz refugees? During the course of my research I had heard tell of people tramping out along Plumstead Road East into open country. I had also heard of a procession of people retreating through Lakenham towards the villages of Caistor and Stoke Holy Cross. Then, there were the cases of people catching buses and trains out of the city to spend the nights with relatives. But were there favourite fields or woods that became gathering points for families fleeing the bombing?
I’d be interested to hear from anyone who can recall particular places that were used by the city’s army of ‘trekkers’ and would be fascinated to discover more about the whole ‘trekking’ experience. So, if you have a story to share please get in touch by pressing the ‘email me’ button on my website or by emailing me at: email@example.com Your story could help fill an important gap in our understanding of civilian reaction to the frightful ordeal suffered by Norwich’s population during its worst spell of bombing of the Second World War.