Wartime memories of Walberswick, 1939-40

Michael Stannard, London

All of the following is to the best of my knowledge and belief. I was born at 1 Lorne Cottage Walberswick in April of 1936 and lived there until 1951 when we moved to Mafeking Cottage. Both properties are on the village green. I was educated at Walberswick Primary School between 1940 and 1946 then at the Sir John Leman Grammar School in Beccles. I left the village in September 1954.

My father who was born in Blythburgh came to work in Walberswick for Block Builders in 1919; he became a bricklayer by trade. He left to go into special services, initially building runways, hangers and RAF accommodation at various places in the UK the very same day I started school in September 1940.

During the earlier part of 1940 he with some colleagues built the Anti Tank Traps along the beach. Concrete having been mixed by a small petrol driven mixer was hand shovelled into a square area previously constructed with wooden shuttering. Many were built and they were equally spaced out along the back of the sand/shingle beach from the pier on the north side down as far as the south edge of the cliff field where they curved round to a line to the north of ‘The Went' Bridge.

Along the shoreline but in the water even at low tide a perpendicular defence barricade was built, seemingly of scaffold poles. My guess is that they would have been some 12 to15 feet high. They were supported by other shorter poles on the land side set at an angle of 45 degrees. On the sea side of this barricade were huge conical lumps of concrete with large iron spikes coming out of them facing "the enemy." They were always covered by the sea at high tide and frequently when the tide was low, depending on the time of year and the neap and spring tides.

I was taught to swim by the daughter of my Walberswick School teacher. Joan Piper was a Sports Mistress at Reydon School at the time. She started me off by teaching me the arm movements and leg kicks for the breast stroke, by getting me to lie on a towel, stomach down on top of the Anti Tank Traps. I could swim at the age of 6 so this would have been the summer of 1942.

In this scaffolding barrier was a small entrance/exit, probably no more than 3 feet wide, through which I used to go regularly in order to swim, out of my depth of course, on the sea side and around these spikes. No boat could in my view have gone through it as it was far too narrow for that. This is a very clear memory and would not have been possible if the beach had been mined.

To the south of this barrier the beach was/is mainly shingle as far as Dunwich and behind the beach are the marshes. There is a dyke from the river Blyth which runs from a gap in the pier wall, where the children now go crabbing almost every weekend. It passes under the Kissing Bridge and what is known as the Sluice Bridge to the north of the cliff field. The sluice gates under that bridge controlled the flow of water on to the marshes. These were opened at the appropriate time in order to flood the marshes, then closed to keep them flooded. There are numerous dykes running off the main one and areas of flat marsh on every side. The enemy would then be fooled by the varying depths of water if they attempted to invade in that area. I did a lot of babbing* fishing there, catching eels by the score off the banks of the main dyke and also catching Flounders by walking barefoot on the flat parts, feeling the fish lying in the mud under my feet and spearing them with a ‘trident' type weapon.

*Babbing is threading big fat juicy worms on to a length of wool worsted and suspending it off a pole into the water waiting for the eels to bite and then jerking them out on to the bank. There are no hooks so you have to scrabble about in the grass and grab their slimy bodies before they wriggle back into the water again.

Interestingly perhaps one of my main companions for eel fishing trips was Sir Clement Freud's father, he would have been the son of Sigmund Freud, and lived in Hidden House at the back of what was Reynolds Shop. He loved to smoke his eels, I used to have them fried. My mother was happy to let me go fishing at a very young age with an older man to keep an eye on me, but I can't put a date on when this started, probably nearer the end of the war rather than the beginning.

At the start of the war the chain driven ferry was beached and the chains destroyed. It crossed the river at the end of the road down to the river, the concrete slipway is still there. The old railway bridge was also destroyed, since replaced with a foot bridge. All part of the overall defence system introduced.

Pill Boxes were built at strategic points in and around the village, my father probably had a hand in building these as well but I'm not absolutely sure. Block builders were the only builders in the village. I remember clearly one [pillbox] at the fork of the road, opposite the Towers where the soldiers were billeted, the one still existing down the lane opposite Leveretts lane, and either one or two on the fields to the right of Stocks lane as you look to the sea.

As well as the Towers the army used the 2 cottages, [since knocked into 1] on the green between ‘Dunwich View' and the ‘White House' and I recall clearly one day they were marching up and down the green, [no swing or see saw in the way] when the siren went and a German fighter bomber came over flying low. They all ran into the gap between the two cottages as the green was strafed, I don't think any one was hurt. I have photos of them marching on the green in 1941.

The band of the 10th Cameronians on Walberswick Green, 1941 (©Michael Stannard). We are very grateful to Mr Stannard for allowing us to use this photograph, which offers a rare glimpse of Walberswick during the Second World War.