Peace-time victims of mines laid on beaches

THE subject of death continues as a result of my reference to victims of mines sewn on Yarmouth beaches as part of anti-invasion measures.

The measures were taken at the outbreak of the war in 1939 and 1940. Two were youngsters killed in 1945, in the very same week that Germany had surrendered, a cruel fate to befall them and their families after surviving six long years of war in their heavily-raided home town, only to be killed in peace-time by a weapon designed to keep the enemy off our shores.

They might have been alive today had they not gone on a picnic...and lost their bus fare home.

Three victims were soldiers laying mines in the dunes on the North Denes in 1939-40.

I reported that Mrs Sylvia Beuzekamp (nee Harvey), of Caister, recalled that the two young lives that were lost were schoolgirls, one possibly called Thompson. It seemed that they had slipped away from a children’s party at the North Denes School and disobeyed warnings by venturing into a dunes minefield that had not yet been cleared and was still off-limits. Families dashed to the school on hearing the explosion.

However, a mutual friend has a different recollection. Mrs Stella Platten (nee Hamilton), of Beatty Road, wife of retired Yarmouth police inspector Geoffrey, writes: “I was about 15 at the time and lived on Chaucer Road, and we were one of the families who ran to the school after hearing the explosion because my 11-year-old brother was at the party.

“However, I am sure they were not girls who were killed – they were youths about 16 years old and their names were Charles (?) Willis and Ray (?) Kerridge. Arthur Sherwood was with them and lost fingers, I believe. These boys all lived near each other on Chaucer Road and probably still have living relatives.

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“We think the party was for the end of the war-time schooling.”

Nostalgia is an inexact science, I emphasise in this column regularly, and 65 years on from that terrible tragedy, memories can become blurred. In this case there is agreement about the mine detonating in the dunes and parents dashing to the school, but obviously a total conflict about the victims. So I scoured the 1945 Mercury file to try to resolve the issue.

That May there was a front-page headline: “Caister minefield tragedy: Yarmouth girls killed after picnic.” According to a report of the inquest, Marlene Elvira Valerie Folkes, aged nine, daughter of Able Seaman Daniel Folkes, and Pauline Jeannette Thompson, 10, daughter of Horace Thompson, all of Madden Avenue, went to Caister for a picnic, but lost their bus fares home.

So they walked back through the Yarmouth and Caister golf course before crossing the Midland and Great Northern Railway line from Yarmouth Beach Station... and somehow got through barbed wire barriers and innocently wandered into a minefield.

Evidence was heard from Solomon Dyble, of Ormesby, an auxiliary coastguard who had been watching them from a distance through binoculars.

He shouted and blew his whistle as a warning that they were about to go over the railway line into the minefield, but it was either not heard or disregarded.

A few minutes later, he heard a loud explosion and saw a column of dust rising into the air near where he had last seen the girls.

Another witness said there was a double apron of barbed wire fence to stop anyone roaming into the minefield, and it was still intact. Entry could be gained only by going over, under or through it. There were warning notices every 100 yards. One body had been blown 50 yards back on to the racecourse.

The coroner’s verdict included reference to multiple injuries caused by an exploding mine in “a mined area which had been entered without realising the danger involved.”

I continued to peruse 1945 Mercurys to see if there was another double fatality, that involving youths mentioned by Mrs Platten. There was, but this was two soldiers named Shrimpton and Griffiths killed in mine-clearing operations on Caister cliffs in September. As her memory is so clear, I must assume that she is referring to a third double fatality, but before or after 1945.

My feature also brought information from Ken Read, of Caister, about the memorial at Mundesley dedicated in 2004 to the 26 Royal Engineers bomb disposal personnel who lost their lives on duty between 1944 and 1953 while clearing land-mines from Norfolk beaches and cliffs. The roll of honour includes three killed at Yarmouth (1944), three at Waxham (1945), eight at Horsey in four separate explosions (1945-46), one at Winterton (1946) and the two at Caister in1945, mentioned above.

When the memorial was unveiled speakers said their work was “not glamorous or the stuff of films but quiet, patient and highly skilled” and that they gave their lives “so our cliffs and beaches are now safe for everyone to visit and enjoy.”

But Mr Read, whose research helped to gather the information that led to the provision of the Mundesley memorial, acknowledges that on Norfolk’s shore there were fatalities involving men from other regiments, some sewing the mines and others clearing them.

Gathering information from families of the deceased and seeking to research official records means that the quest for closure is protracted and on-going.

I also received a letter from Mrs Rita Grehan, of North Road, Ormesby, referring to the barricades hastily erected on our east Norfolk beaches when war broke out as a means of halting a seaborne invasion by the Germans or at least trapping their troops on the sands before they could advance.

She tells me: “Every morning my dog and I walk the beach between Scratby and California, which is lovely and a perfect way to start the day. No two days are the same, of course, so when it has been stormy, it regularly happens that a clip from the scaffolding defences on the beach is washed up.

“Some are more eroded than others, but perfectly recognisable.

“Whether they came from Yarmouth or somewhere else is hard to tell as I don’t suppose there were that kind of defences at the base of the steep cliffs at Scratby and California.”

So far Mrs Grehan has collected “quite a few” of the clips in various stages of corrosion.

My thanks are due to my correspondents for their contributions to this debate.