Fritton’s role in the D-day landings

HIDDEN from view in the countryside, Fritton Lake became a military facility during the second world war.

And a new exhibition is documenting the incredible story of how the beauty spot helped make the D-Day landings possible.

The roots of its involvement in the Allied war effort go back to two years before the amphibious landings on the French coast.

Back in 1942, British and Canadian troops had suffered disastrous losses when landing craft came under attack at the fortified beaches of Dieppe.

There was not enough time to develop new vehicles but without them, it was impossible to overcome German defences.

Hundreds of miles away, the picturesque and tranquil Fritton Lake was to become a base for one of the most important operations of the second world war.

It was here, nestled in a quiet corner of Somerleyton, where allied troops were trained to use specially-modified tanks that could float, swim and drive once on dry land. They would go on to victory on the beaches of Normandy.

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Now, the role of Fritton Lake during the second world war is the subject of a display at the centre.

Stuart Burgess, who manages Fritton Lake on behalf of the Somerleyton estate, spent months piecing together information to tell the story of the development, training and use of the tanks in the D-Day landings.

“The tanks were developed to come to shore with the first wave of infantry and provide heavy artillery support, then take out all the defences,” said Stuart.

“It gives them massive support from a morale point of view, that they’re fighting with tanks. It was an extremely secret operation, one of the best kept secrets of world war two.”

The tanks were called DD tanks, abbreviated from Duplex Drive, but were often referred to as Donald Ducks and collectively known as the “funnies”.

The tanks had two propellers, powered by the tank’s engine, to navigate through the water. The propellers rotated in opposite directions to keep the tank on course.

But how exactly does a 30-tonne tank float?

Stuart said it was a case of engineers “thinking on their feet” to find a solution as quickly as possible in 1942.

“Hitler was in France and the English troops, with the Americans and the allies, had to attack France. They had to find a way of taking foreign land and bringing all the troops over.”

First, they experimented with floats either side of the tank, but this proved cumbersome; the floats had to be so big that the tanks could not be launched.

In the end, the theory of displacement provided the answer.

Hungarian-born engineer Nicholas Straussler devised a collapsible screen that could go up around the tank when it needed to float, and then fold back down once the combat gear was required.

It was a basic concept, but it worked.

The screen had to be watertight and strong enough to deflect enemy fire, and a rubberised waterproof canvas was manufactured.

In Britain, Valentine tanks were developed, while in America, they worked on the heavier Sherman tanks.

Once the engineers had developed the unique floating tanks, locations were sought to train the troops.

Several instructional wings were set up by the 79th Armoured Unit of the British Army across the country and in East Anglia, Narford in west Norfolk was identified as a possible site.

But it was decided the lake was too small and in the end, Fritton Lake was chosen for its still and concealed waters and plans were made to transform the area into a military hub.

The use of Fritton Lake during the war had always been known, but it was only this year that Stuart began piecing together all the snippets of information.

He said that although it was a big operation, they moved swiftly.

A concrete road, tank park, Nissen huts and sheds were constructed.

The first units arrived at Fritton Lake by train in April, 1943, to begin the secret technical trials.

The training activities carried out at Fritton included maintenance of the amphibious tanks, waterproofing of the tank tracks and undercarriages, handling the tanks and landing them.

Practicing landing was crucial. Troops were trained to keep the time between touching down on land and opening fire to a minimum.

A training building for using tank escape apparatus was built on sloping ground around the lake.

In what would be a nightmare scenario for many, a chamber containing a tank’s hull was flooded, fed with water from a water tower, so troops could practice their escape and get used to the breathing apparatus. The troops initially trained with a Valentine tank, but this was eventually replaced with a Sherman, which was to be used on D-Day.

For general training on the lake, a Mark V Valentine was used.

Additionally, troops had swimming lessons. “Everyone had 10 hours training,” said Stuart.

Of course, there were not any sign posts in the area and the lush surroundings of the lake were perfect for the secret facility.

“It lends itself extremely well, it’s surrounded pretty much by trees and it’s away from main roads,” said Stuart.

“There were armed guards and electric fences all over the place. Tenants in cottages had to go through gated areas with a man stationed there to let them in and out. They signed the Official Secrets Act.”

They stayed at Fritton Lake for two weeks at a time, and that time was precious to make sure the men could go into war as equipped as possible.

But the early mornings did not go down well.

“The camp bugle player said on his last day they ran over his bugle with the tank, because he woke all the troops up at 5.30am,” said Stuart.

About 150 troops were stationed at Fritton Lake permanently. There came in a squadron or unit at a time and in total, about 1,000 people were trained there. Troops from regiments across the country were sent, as well as soldiers from Canada and America.

A 21-year-old man called Leslie Lloyd was reported to have died at Fritton Lake on June 23, 1943, while serving with the East Riding Yeomanry.

Out of a total of 128 DD tanks that left landing craft in the early hours of D Day, 78 made it to shore and some 50 were lost.

The highest number was at Omaha Beach, where America lost 28 out of 32 of their tanks due to high waves and being sent to sea four miles off the French coast.

As well as being manager at Fritton Lake, Stuart has a masters degree in landscape archaeology and said he is “fascinated” by history. He has collated as much information as possible, but is keen to get more first-hand accounts of life at Fritton during the war.

He has a photograph that shows 104 men who were stationed there and Stuart hopes to get in touch with veterans or their relatives as part of his ongoing research.

“In the next few years, as I get more information, I will be able to add to it. There’s so much history,” he said.

Fritton Lake, on the A143, is open from today to Sunday, October 31, from 10am to 5pm. The exhibition is in the visitor barn, and During half term from Monday to Friday, there will be guided walks explaining the role of the tanks at Fritton lake during the second world war. Other family activities available include children’s play areas and jumping pillow, rowing boat hire, guided boat trips, golf and pony rides. For further details call 01493 488288.