Great Yarmouth Racecourse plaque commemorates servicemen

THEY did not die in the heat of battle on foreign soil, but the sacrifices of a group of men killed defending the country from invasion are to be honoured next month.

A memorial plaque is due to be unveiled at Great Yarmouth Racecourse to five servicemen who died in two separate explosions in the town in 1940.

The ceremony on Wednesday, April 13, will honour the memory of the men who died during mine-laying operations as the threat of German invasion loomed during the darkest days of the second world war.

Both explosions were on the North Beach just a short distance from the racetrack. The first blast, on July 13, killed lance sergeant Charles Gunnell, 26, and private Frederick Wright 20.

The later explosion, on October 17, claimed the lives of sappers Bernard Cambers, 19, Dennis Cooke, 22 and John Pratt 22, of Field Company, Royal Engineers.

The commemoration has been organised by Ken Read, a former member of the Norfolk Landmine Clearance Committee.

A memorial was previously unveiled in Mundesley to Royal Engineer bomb disposal personnel who lost their lives between 1944 and 1953.

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Next month’s event will bring back poignant memories for Sidney Gibbs, who witnessed the explosion that killed his two comrades. At the time, Sidney was serving as corporal in A Company Royal Norfolk Regiment and was stationed at the racecourse.

Now aged 92, his recollection of the devastating blast that summer morning is still vivid and disturbing more than 70 years later.

“I had been laying mines on the beach that morning before swapping over duties, otherwise I could have been killed,” said Sidney.

“I was working on Caister Road at the time near the greyhound track digging trenches and saw a plume of smoke go up.

“The explosion is still vivid in my mind, although I did not know what was going on at the time. We found out what happened after getting back to camp. I can still picture Charles in my mind, he had lovely ginger hair and I remember being told that his head had not been damaged in the blast.

He added: “I still don’t know what caused the explosion, it may be they stepped on the mines that had already been activated. It was the first time I had known anyone to be killed. Although it was a long ago time ago, you don’t forget those sort of things.

“I am all for putting up the plaque. These boys gave their lives for the country, it was a very hazardous undertaking.”

Born and bred in Yarmouth, Sidney started his working life at a mill in Cobholm and joined the Royal Norfolk’s at the start of the war.

A retired carpenter, he later served as a firing point instructor with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. The grandfather of three married late wife Joy in 1950 and still lives in the Caister home the couple shared.

Lance sergeant Gunnell, from West London, was laid to rest at Caister Cemetery.

Ken Read was contacted by the brother of Sapper Cambers, who lives near Bedford, after the Mundesley memorial was unveiled in 2004. He then heard from Sidney after writing a letter to the Mercury last year asking if anyone had memories or knowledge of the explosions.

The 74-year-old worked on government explosive projects before retiring to Caister 18 years ago. He carried out extensive research with the War Graves Commission and checked the identity of everybody killed from the Royal Norfolk Regiment on the date of the July explosion. Mr Read said: “The people killed defending home soil were just as important as those who died fighting overseas. The invasion did not happen, but they were not to know that.”

It is hoped that the unveiling will be a joint effort by the Mayor Michael Jeal and Mr Gibbs. The ceremony will include a parade of standards, including the Royal Norfolk Regiment Association, the Royal Engineers Association and the Royal British Legion. The dedication service will be conducted by the Rev Arthur Bowles.