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Tragedy on home front

PUBLISHED: 12:14 06 August 2010 | UPDATED: 11:55 16 September 2010

SIXTY-FIVE years after the second world war ended, it continues to occupy the minds and long memories of many of the older generation who lived through those ghastly times.

SIXTY-FIVE years after the second world war ended, it continues to occupy the minds and long memories of many of the older generation who lived through those ghastly times. And readers who perused my recent column about the prompt reopening of Great Yarmouth's central beach after VE-Day in time for the summer season of 1945 have been in touch about my reference to the urgent programme to clear away anti-invasion measures to enable public access to the seashore after the long war years.

I wrote: “Despite thousands of mines being removed, none of those clearing them was hurt, nor was there any injury caused by the odd one that must have slipped through the figurative net. That contrasted with some other resorts, where the mine-hunters had suffered death or serious injury.

“At Yarmouth, the public had been advised to stay away and not to watch the clearance operation and, therefore, possibly distract the men engaged in the hazardous, potentially lethal, task.”

Those words were based on contemporary reports and were accurate; but my friend, Sylvia Beuzekamp (nee Harvey), of Caister, has recalled that, when she and other children at the Newtown end of town were being entertained to a celebration tea party at North Denes School, two girls ignored warnings and slipped away unnoticed for an exciting excursion into the sand-dunes alongside the racecourse - and paid for it with their lives.

“The first we knew about it was when parents came running from all over the place, grabbing their children,” she says. “We were asking what was the matter and then we were told what had happened; we had been inside the school, in the hall or classrooms and we hadn't heard anything and didn't realise what it was about.”

Mrs Beuzekamp, who believes one of the victims lived in Milton Road, adds that in that early post-war period parents were still wary of the hidden menace of beach mines and forbade their children to dig holes in the sand.

But the deaths of the two schoolgirls were caused not by a rogue mine missed during a clearance operation but by one sown in an area still awaiting the attention of the busy disposal teams.

That was at the end of the war, but 92-year-old Sydney Gibbs, of West Road, Caister, was one of the soldiers who had laid mines at the outbreak of hostilities. The former Territorial Army volunteer, who switched to the Royal Norfolk Regiment, was stationed in his home town when his duties involved mining the beaches.

“We laid the first mines on Yarmouth beach in the morning, and in the afternoon we heard explosions and looked towards the racecourse and saw sand and dust...and three of our boys were killed,” he tells me.

“One of the three who died was a Sgt Charlie Gunnell, a man with wavy, ginger hair who had served with the Norfolks out in India for several years. He was buried in Caister churchyard. I think the other two victims were local lads named White.

“Yes, we laid the first mines and suffered the first casualties, but we didn't talk about it a lot.”

Sydney, born in the old Ship Hotel in Middlegate Street, Yarmouth, was one of the lucky ones, for he never saw active service on the front

line.

He reckons his athletic prowess resulted in home postings along with prominent footballers, cricketers and other sportsmen so they could represent their service and units in competitions in Britain.

“I had no action at all,” he says, “but a lot of boys I went to school with didn't return.”

After demobilisation, Mr Gibbs, a lifelong member of another uniformed force, the Salvation Army, was a maintenance man at the Carlton Hotel, specialising in carpentry. Some of his work there was during the ownership of Kerry de Courcy, a prominent figure in the holiday and hospitality industry around the Seventies.

One of Mr Gibbs's tasks was upgrading two adjoining hotels and making them part of the Carlton, which is now owned by Shearings, the coach holiday specialist.

Sydney, who has two sons, was widowed last year.

That summer of 1939 saw the holiday season sharply curtailed as the frenzy of preparations for war resulted in areas hitherto thronging with visitors being transformed

into defensive zones ready to try to repel any attempted German invasion.

Mining the beaches and marrams and the long rows of barbed wire were but two of the measures put into place with great urgency. Tank-traps were constructed and barricades were thrown up in roads from the seafront.

All this was augmented by new pillboxes, plus those from the 1914-18 war being pressed into service, and by trenches and barricades.

On North Drive, Gorleston Pier and the clifftop, three gun batteries were established ready to try to combat invading troops and protect the borough from air attack, and these were augmented by anti-aircraft guns elsewhere.

Searchlight posts were set up; the rivers and Broads behind the town were patrolled by high-speed motor-boats.

One can but admire the speed and efficiency of those implementing that anti-invasion strategy, perhaps wondering all the time if the Germans would strike quickly even before the defences were ready.

Long after Nazi Germany surrendered 65 years ago, the risk of undiscovered unexploded mines still lurking beneath our golden sands remained a high one.

It still does intermittently, as the recent alert down the coast at Southwold shows.

Back in 1960, a diver working on

the installation of new piling

under Britannia Pier found an old beach mine, a relic of those thousands sown on our sands in 1939 and 1940.

It was safely detonated by a Royal Navy specialist team, but the force of the explosion cracked one of the 98 new concrete piles supporting the structure.

Other improvement work was done on the pier to an overall total of £35,000.

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