How I came face-to-face with East Anglia’s ‘twin’
PUBLISHED: 14:12 08 May 2018
Don Black recalls how National Service brought him an unexpected encounter with islands with ancient East Anglian links.
When the Second World War ended it wasn’t the end of call-ups at 18. Our country had major defence commitments all over the world, and so I served 18 months in Germany.
My initial “square-bashing” in England was tough, the all-male setting uncomfortable. Having learned shorthand in a class of 25 strong-minded mid-Suffolk girls, however, I thought I could cope with any environment.
Those like me going into the RAF had first to travel to Padgate, Warrington, to be issued with uniform and assessed for trade training. Next came the hardest bit, posting to one of what the Americans call “boot camps.”
My destination was West Kirby, on the Wirral peninsula of Cheshire, which had the reputation of being, in rigour, the air force equivalent of the Royal Navy’s HMS Ganges on our Shotley peninsula.
Before long, I succumbed to exhaustion and woke up in hospital in the kindly care of nurses, young women of officer rank, a welcome break from the different kind of attention I had been getting from drill corporals and sergeants.
There followed a week of sick leave at home before returning to complete the basic ordeal.
Thankfully, I’ve never had to use my skill at charging noisily at sand bags, armed with rifle and fixed bayonet and the knowledge (as we’re reminded by Dad’s Army) that the enemy “didn’t like it up ’em.”
More useful, amid instruction in service bureaucracy, was learning to touch-type while reading documents. In peace, as in war, National Service gives people no choice as to where they will be sent. And so I was appointed clerk of 26 (Fighter) Squadron in the Air Force of Occupation alongside the British Army of the Rhine.
Our unit’s strike force comprised 15 operational Vampires and a Meteor two-seater employed for target-towing, both types having pioneered jet engines for the RAF, neck-and-neck with Hitler’s Luftwaffe.
We were twice detached from our base near Hanover to practise air-to-air shooting exercises around Sylt, northernmost of the German Frisian islands in the North Sea.
Our luck was to spend the summer of 1949 on Sylt, then as now a holiday resort blessed with perfect sandy beaches a short walk from the airfield perimeter.
Another good point was that people living there spoke a distinctive accent of Plat Deutsch - ‘Low German’ - that is halfway to English.
From the fifth century onwards the Frisians occupying the islands extended their domain into East Anglia.
They brought us words such as “fib”, which we’ve shortened from “fibelwinte,” and “flirt” from “flirtjen” (and, yes, we did some of that on Sylt). The words dream, dotty, sweet, boy and maid come from the same source.
In fact the ancient Frisians took over two places in Suffolk so completely that they left a permanent reminder in the names of Freston near Ipswich, and Friston near Aldeburgh, each the homestead or village of Frisians.
The amber that Nina Layard excavated from early Ipswich graves more than a century ago is mostly red, which is more common on Frisian and Baltic shores and rare in East Anglia (our own amber is usually clear or milky yellow).
In the eighth century it was our turn: St Willibald or Willebrod is reputed to have sailed from Suffolk on a mission to evangelise Friesland. He baptised converts on the island of Heligoland, which means “Holy Land.” A few days after war broke out in August 1914, light cruisers of the Harwich Force were the vanguard of a fleet that won the Battle of Heligoland Bight, now termed German Bight in BBC weather forecasts.
The RAF pounded the island in the Second World War and the Americans thought it could be an atomic bomb target. Germany surrendered before that could happen. We evacuated the islanders and used it as a conventional bombing range.
Surprisingly, 140-acre Heligoland is still there after Lancasters and American B-17s and B-29s flew from Mildenhall in 1946 to drop “earthquake” bombs on the island. They were taking part in detonation experiments at Orfordness and Martlesham Heath that led to Britain’s nuclear weaponry.
Not long after its bombardment ceased in 1952 and the civilian population was allowed to return, I visited Heligoland on a stormy day and saw ox-eye daisies thriving amid the rubble.
In his newly-rebuilt home young burgermeister Peter Rickmers told me about the islanders’ reconstruction plans and the Heligoland dialect of Frisian.
An old rhyme describing the island’s tricolour goes like this: ‘Gron is that land, rood is de kant, witt is de sand, dat is de flag vun’t Heligoland’. This isn’t hard to recognise as: ‘Green is that land, red is the cliff, white is the sand, that is the flag of Heligoland’.
Peter, now in his late 80s, still lives there with 1,600 other year-round islanders. Heligoland attracts thousands of holidaymakers for attractions such as an aquarium, beaches on neighbouring Dune and shops for duty-free purchases.
None of its islands is linked by road bridge to mainland countries, but Sylt does have a railway across a causeway, the Hindenburg Dam. I walked its length to the frontier with Denmark, a lonely spot where German and Danish border staff were delighted to share coffee and gossip with me. Language was no problem.
Numerous words that have the same meaning in English and Frisian include adder, apple, beam, bladder, boy, brink, brook, buoy, camp, clock (klok), deep, deer, dike, door, dream, east, flint, fell, glad, gnat, great, gulf, hale, harbour, hedge, maid, mare, palm, pipe, pot, puddle (pudeln), queen (kweene), quick (kwik), roof, sail, sheaf, spoon, tide, lee, rim, robin, sober, spit, stream, string, us, weak and weed.
Among dialect words common to East Anglia and Friesland is “ligger”, a plank across a ditch.
There are other links to this part of the world too. When it comes to church round towers Norfolk has 120, Suffolk 42 and Essex seven, in total the greatest number of round towers anywhere in the world. But the next biggest group, 15, stand in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s most northern province. Respective origins - ours mainly Saxon/Norman overlap, theirs 12th century - suggest that they followed East Anglian examples.
All this would not have come to mind if it hadn’t been for my National Service!
And sail east from Wells and, with patience, you’ll sight the lighthouse on the Dutch island of Texel, westernmost of the Frisian chain.
Although the UK and its western allies celebrated VE Day on May 8, the very last of the fighting did not end on Texel until May 20.
Its garrison comprised regular German troops and a brigade of Georgians from the Soviet Union, who had been recruited from prisoner-of-of-war camps to fight for the Nazis.
When the Georgians were ordered to move to the mainland and resist advancing Canadian troops they rebelled against their German masters.
Combat was savage and the rebels were forced back to their stronghold, the lighthouse. Fifty of them were captured and shot.
Neither side took prisoners nor recognised the surrender everywhere else in Europe, their battle continuing until a main force of Canadians arrived on the island.
The 226 Georgian survivors were handed over the Russians, who normally showed no mercy to such defectors. In this case, however, their final bravery was respected and eventually they reached their homes in Georgia.
Three years later, in Germany, I encountered people of many nationalities that we called “displaced persons.” In Berlin, where I spent a weekend, they lived among ruins.
Much later, after the Wall had gone up, I was taken to a rebuilt concert hall in East Berlin, what had been the Soviet sector. Among busts of eminent composers placed all around was one of Suffolk’s Benjamin Britten.
It’s still there but the infamous Wall has gone, along with the hatred that began with Adolf Hitler.