The secret war waged within Gorleston houses
PUBLISHED: 11:20 27 December 2013 | UPDATED: 11:21 27 December 2013
Archant Norfolk © 2013
MARINE Parade, Gorleston: probably the prime residential location in the borough of Great Yarmouth and one of the best in the county of Norfolk, an estate agent's dream. All the homes have uninterrupted sea views across the cliff-edge, the rising sun beams through their front windows... and an ice-cream van is often parked winter and summer at one end.
Fiction often produces a darker side to outwardly idyllic neighbourhoods, the “behind closed curtains” scenario.
Gorleston’s Marine Parade was no exception, other than it was fact and not fiction that two of its properties once harboured tightly-guarded secrets of national importance.
Strictly speaking, it was not behind closed curtains that round-the-clock activities vital to the war effort took place there between 1939 and 1945 but – as in homes across the nation - behind windows criss-crossed with sticky tape to prevent the glass panes shattering to smithereens and causing fearful injuries if a bomb exploded nearby.
Even close neighbours were supposedly unaware the two houses were other than simply billets for service personnel they saw coming and going at all hours of the day and night, the necessary conversion and installation work having been carried out with the utmost discretion.
Despite this essential need for total secrecy, one cannot but help wonder how those living close by did not speculate or twig that something of significant strategic importance was going on. Perhaps they did, but heeded that strict wartime admonition: “Careless talk costs lives!”
One of those two houses is currently in the early stages of a protracted task to upgrade it to expected 21st century... much of the work necessitated by its role as a wartime listening post, probably a so-called Y (wireless interception) station, incessantly monitoring German navy signals and radio traffic.
This property undergoing lengthy renovation is number 7 Marine Parade, between Park and Clarence Roads, at the right-hand end of a terrace of six distinctive homes designed and built over a century ago by the Cockrills in their signature terracotta fronted style familiar throughout the borough.
And while number 7 was eavesdropping in wartime on the enemy’s naval communications, along the road in number 69, Royal Air Force operatives were also on covert 24-hour duty, intercepting German Luftwaffe radio traffic.
The art-deco Struan House (number 69), with its regularly repainted exterior walls in vibrant colours postwar, made Mercury headlines in 2007 when residents joined ex-RAF personnel who once served there in a protest against its proposed demolition for site redevelopment.
However. although the hush-hush strategic role of Struan House became common knowledge in Gorleston soon after hostilities ceased in 1945, before last month I cannot recall ever hearing that a similar activity was conducted round-the-clock by the Royal Navy farther along Marine Parade in my home town.
This news was broken to me by the current owner of number 7, John Bedson, who is intrigued and excited by learning of the wartime function of his house.
“An amazing bit of local history,” he describes it.
He decided to contact me about it...because of the Titanic! Yes, the Titanic. That needs to be explained.
John – a 60-year-old retired offshore worker – remembered that 18 months ago I devoted this column to “Iceberg Charlie”, the nickname given to Captain Charles Alfred Bartlett, senior master in the famous White Star Line because of his supposed uncanny ability to sniff out icebergs.
There were suggestions that if he had been in command of the Titanic on her fateful maiden voyage in 1912, he might well have navigated well clear of iceberg-prone waters and the immense tragedy would have been avoided.
But because of boardroom politics, the Titanic was placed in the charge of Captain Edward Smith. And as we all know, she struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic while on passage to New York, resulting in the loss of the allegedly unsinkable luxury vessel and the death of 1513 of her 2224 passengers and crew.
My interest in Iceberg Charlie had stemmed from the fact that in 1898 he had married Edie Ellis, of Gorleston, a member of the family that included Norfolk naturalist and writer Ted Ellis.
However John Bedson informs me: “I now know that his local connection was stronger than you thought, as he lived at 7 Marine Parade, having bought the property in 1935.
However, his residency was curtailed by the outbreak of war.”
John, who lives next door at number 8, bought his neighbouring residence several years ago when it had a sitting tenant, Mrs Pat Wilson, who lived there for 53 years but died earlier this year in her nineties. She told him the Royal Navy occupied the premises during the war, and John assumed personnel were billeted there.
“How wrong I was!” he continues. “With full access to the property, discoveries I have made have shed a different light on its previous life and it transpires that Commodore Bartlett – as a former member of the Royal Naval Reserve – handed the property over to the Navy for a far more important purpose.”
Intrigued, John decided to pursue his inquiries by contacting the Ministry of Defence in Portsmouth. Its response “flabbergasted” him.
The MoD replied: “Number 7 Marine Parade, Gorleston, was used as an operational base by Royal Navy Intelligence for the duration of World War Two, whereby messages/signals from German naval forces were intercepted on the ground floor of the building and passed to operators upstairs, whose task was to translate, decipher and interpret the information.
“If unable to do so, to pass the said information on to Bletchley Park” (the famous wartime code-breaking centre). The kitchen of the property was extended to support the number of staff employed in the building.”
According to John: “Sadly, the outcome for the Bartletts was they never lived in the house again. Charles Bartlett – Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) and Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) - died in 1945 in the Liverpool area, and although his widow Edith returned to Norfolk, she died nearby in Springfield Road in Gorleston on Christmas Eve 1945.
“I would imagine she was living in temporary accommodation whilst awaiting number 7 to be reinstated to some semblance of normality. It had been heavily altered. Even now, because it has been mainly lived in by tenants since the war, it is still waiting to be returned to its normal self.”
There are various give-aways to its wartime use, says John, whose restoration work keeps revealing more evidence of its past. One important clue, he says, was his discovery of a dozen heavy duty 415 volt three-phase electric cables dropped beneath the front lounge floorboards, and strengthening measures in places because of the weight of electrical equipment essential to the listening-post.
Also, he wonders if the multiplicity of aerials required by the radio receivers were concealed inside chimneys to avoid the secret use being given away by the roof of an ordinary house bristling with aerials; inserting them in chimneys would probably have ruled out solid fuel fires in grates.
Seven decades on, these assumptions may never be resolved but, harking back to Struan House, when the anti-demolition protest was taking place in 2007, the Mercury published a wartime photograph of three dozen or so Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) personnel lined up in front of it. At one side of the building there appeared to be the bottom of a pylon that might have been used for aerials, indicating there was no concealment in chimneys there.
Also, an internet website reports that the Y stations required aerials comprising four ten metre vertical poles to the north, east, south and west of the operators...That, perhaps, puts a question mark on the aerials-in-chimneys theory, but does not detract from the main thrust of the vital importance of 7 Marine Parade to the war effort.
When I contacted the Bartletts grandson, Alasdair Fairbairn, to inform him of John Bedson’s success in discovering the wartime role of 7 Marine Parade, he was delighted, and admitted: “It’s totally new to me.”
Mr Fairbairn, who helped me with information for my 2012 column about the Bartlett-Titanic connection, added his grandmother Edith’s 1945 death was the result of being struck by a car as she alighted from a bus.
I realised when the Mercury was reporting those 2007 protests against the demolition of Struan House that the young WAAF officer billeted at my boyhood home in West Avenue for several months during the war was probably among the its staff. Never once did Veronica (Vonnie) give any hint to my mother about where she went in uniform at all hours.
I am surmising both 7 and 69 Marine Parade were classed as Y (wireless intercept) stations for collecting intelligence. According to a website, which lists their UK locations (including Gorleston, Beeston “Bump” near Sheringham, and Cromer) there were two types - interception and direction finding.
In March a letter from Caister reader Tony Overill to the Mercury editor mentioned a wartime incident when an RAF Stirling bomber safely ditched in the sea off Hemsby beach. Its crew, who got ashore safely, were taken “to the Lacon Tavern which was being used as a Navy listening post manned by WRENS”.
Back on Gorleston cliffs, other military activity there during the war was the formation of the Links Battery where the Army manned two six-inch guns – later augmented by a pair of Bofors, a field gun and twin searchlights; there were pill-boxes, underground tunnels and facilities, too.
As for the Cockrills who designed the terrace of homes that includes number 7 – they lived next door at number 6, The Gables, on the corner of Clarence Road. After the war it was a hotel and later a residential nursing home.