Local author tells the human stories of the bombed port during the wartime years
- Credit: COLIN TOOKE COLLECTION
Nowadays we call them tracksuits or onesies. In my wartime childhood, we knew them as siren suits, a hooded warm and cosy zip-up garment to provide us with that extra comfort we needed when anxiously hiding in our Anderson air-raid shelters out in the garden or back yard, listening to the drone of German raiders overhead and waiting for the sounds of bombs exploding.
When the “all clear” siren sounded and families emerged from their outdoor Anderson or indoor Morrison shelters, we feared we might see rubble, devastation and fires testing the emergency services to their limits. Were there any deaths or casualties? Had Jerry hit or missed his targets?
That scenario was seven decades and more ago when Great Yarmouth was acknowledged as a “Front Line Town” targeted by the enemy because of its geographic location and importance as a North Sea port and naval base. But it has just been rekindled in my memory by the latest book by prolific local author and historian Colin Tooke.
The title, Put That Light OUT!, might sound whimsical but it was a familiar order shouted by police and air-raid wardens when a chink of light inadvertently escaped through our black-out shutters and might be glimpsed from an enemy aircraft, enabling it to pinpoint its position in the darkness. Places like pubs and shops had to have a double-door system where you shut one before opening the other.
Mind you, German planes seeking a light in the blackout were sometimes fooled by decoys, according to Colin’s research. Three civilian-manned so-called Starfish sites were established in Winterton, Burgh St Peter and Lound, all equipped with lights designed to simulate a busy port with poor blackout and thus draw the bombers away from Yarmouth.
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“The system had a degree of success as the sites were bombed several times,” reports the author.
Colin has written other books about wartime Yarmouth, and only in March the Mercury reprinted the entire Front Line Town, the official log compiled by the chief constable, Charles Box, listing all air-raids and the resulting damage, casualties and fatalities.
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But this latest is probably the first that tells the human stories behind the bare facts and statistics, some small - light-hearted, even - incidents counterpointing the townsfolk’s chins-up reaction to potential death from the skies. The author sub-titles it “a blow-by-blow account of Great Yarmouth’s WW2 blitz” when we “suffered the heaviest bombing of any coastal town in Great Britain.”
As the onslaught intensified in 1941and invasion prospects rose, the Government decreed that seaside dwellers must slaughter all their domestic poultry and rabbits, and pack ready for evacuation. Fortunately, these extreme measures never required implementation but, soon afterwards, a dozen high-explosive bombs dropped on Boundary Road allotments...killing five rabbits!
Then bombs fell on Jellicoe Road, the only casualties being a dozen chickens!
But lighter moments are few, for the book details in newsy matter-of-fact manner more destructive raids and people’s reactions, making the author’s researches very readable.
He notes that after the intensive 1941-42 blitz when the town centre was razed and St Nicholas’ Parish Church reduced to an empty shell, 1943 saw a new tactic - the introduction of speedy Focke-Wulfe fighter-bombers capable of flying beneath radar and attacking specific targets, like gasholders and naval establishments.
It was in one of these raids that 26 ATS girls were killed at their billet off North Drive, the worst atrocity of the war.
This is Colin Tooke’s 31st book, and is illustrated by 70-plus pictures, mainly photographs but including original watercolour paintings in 1942 by artist Kenneth Hobland, given special consent by the authorities to record local aspects of the war but forbidden to reveal them until hostilities ceased.
The £8.99 book can be obtained from in Yarmouth from W H Smith, Cobholm Miniatures in Broad Row, the Time and Tide Museum (where those paintings are) and, in Norwich, Jarrolds.