Planes now trains and a verandah in the mix

COINCIDENCE, that inexplicable phenomenon, is no stranger to this column. Today the common denominator of the remarkable concurrence of two major events in the Great Yarmouth area is prosaic: a verandah!

One was a well-publicised fatal plane crash, the other a hushed-up wartime drama involving an ammunition train.

Recently I recalled the 50th anniversary of an Auster plunging into the garden of a Gorleston bungalow in Elmhurst Close during a routine pleasure flight from the Caister Road airstrip, killing the pilot and his three passengers. Now former Mercury colleague Tony Mallion has passed to me further memories of the tragedy...and added the munitions train to the mix.

“It was thought the pilot may have been trying a forced landing on the railway sidings after the engine failed,” says Tony, whose grandfather, Ernest Mallion, was the Gorleston station signalman who built his own bungalow in Victoria Road on a triangle of land above his signal box.

“The bungalow is still there and my Aunt Joyce lives there. On that Sunday afternoon in 1962 my grandparents were away, or out, but their teenage grand-daughter Ann was sunbathing on the verandah,” Tony tells me.

Ann and her husband Simon - son of our late General Hospital surgeon Hugh MacDonald - live in Dubai where they run a successful entertainments and events business. Recently, when they visited Gorleston, Tony mentioned my Mercury feature about the tragedy.

Ann still has vivid memories of the way the plane suddenly came in low over the roof of the Victoria Road bungalow and says she instinctively knew from the sound, or lack of it, that something was very wrong and she watched with horror as the aircraft came down on the property in Elmhurst Close on the other side of the rail sidings.

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It was on that same verandah six years later that Tony - preparing for his A-levels and using his grandparents’ back bedroom as a study - stood with them overlooking the same railway line which was still operating, although his grandfather had long retired. His grandparents described in great detail what it had been like working there during the war.

They told how they used to take the dog for an evening walk on cliff-tops lined with massive gun emplacements where they chatted to the servicemen. “They painted a picture which was almost quite relaxed, despite the potential threat of enemy action or invasion,” reports Tony.

According to his grandparents, the large shunting yard and sidings at the station in front of their bungalow were regularly filled each night with wagons carrying ammunition and explosives.

“If there had been a direct hit on Gorleston Station, the extent of the damage doesn’t bear thinking about, but they were quite casual when describing it,” he continues. “I’d forgotten about this until six years ago when doing an interview for Radio Norfolk with Andrew Fakes, of Yarmouth Archaeological Society, about one of their blue plaques.

“After the broadcast he told me he’d recently had a detailed account of an ammunition train being derailed on the old M&GN railway line near Potter Heigham in 1943, but there were no official records at all of this type of extremely dangerous freight being moved around the coast and through Yarmouth and Gorleston. He wondered, having consulted railway historians, whether through my late grandparents, I could throw any light on this.

“I was able to confirm what clearly had been a completely secret operation, totally unknown to the Germans and their bombers. Indeed, I recently asked my aunt if she knew anything about it, even though she was living at home at the bungalow at that time and working in the ATS. She didn’t, and concluded that her parents had kept the information to themselves because it was so hush-hush and they also didn’t want to alarm her!

“I never cease to be amazed that I seemed to be one of the few people who now knows about this wartime secret – and I wouldn’t have done so if I hadn’t taken a break from revising for my history A-level and soaked up a bit of very real local history by accident that evening instead.”

As a footnote to the Auster aircraft story, Tony Mallion adds that the Caister-based pleasure flights continued for many years after the tragedy. Later, the pilots who flew the planes in the holiday seasons came from the Christian organisation Missionary Aviation Fellowship.

“It was felt that the experience of flying these light aircraft and landing on a grass strip in varying weathers would be good experience for them when they took up appointments in various remote places abroad,” Tony explains.

Other news in the Mercury 50 years ago included a report that support from throughout the region was gathering for a maritime museum for East Anglia to be established in the disused St George’s Church, so an appeal for funds was launched. It never materialised, as we know, for the museum was launched on our Golden Mile in the building that had been a shipwrecked sailors’ home and is now Yarmouth’s publicity office.

The East Anglian concept narrowed its territory and developed into the excellent Time and Tide Museum of Great Yarmouth Life in a converted herring curing works in Blackfriars Road. St George’s ? It has recently undergone an expensive restoration.

Because redevelopment was resulting in the elimination of the old Yarmouth Rows area, in 1962 it was realised that quick action was needed to keep examples for posterity. The borough council set up a committee to inspect the remaining Rows to earmark “if not a whole Row, perhaps half a Row” worth preserving as typical of the unique district.

The first winner of the newly launched Where’s the Ball? contest in the Mercury and our sister newspapers was shop assistant Mr George Powley, aged 49, of Admiralty Road, who won �150.