Facing up to the first raids

As Neville Chamberlain prepared the country for invasion, what was happening in East Anglia during those opening months of the war? Andrew Clarke finds out.

Andrew Clarke

As Neville Chamberlain prepared the country for invasion, what was happening in East Anglia during those opening months of the war? Andrew Clarke finds out.

Suffolk's entry into the Second World War was, like the rest of the country, rather low key. At first there was lots of activity - the building of Anderson shelters, the erection of pill boxes at road junctions, the removal of road signs to confuse the enemy and the arrival of evacuees from London - and then there was nothing.

This was The Phoney War. Britain was primed to repel an invasion which many expected at any minute but as we all now know no invasion came. People's nerves were not helped by the fact that just a few hours after war had been declared, the sirens wailed and people fled to their newly erected air-raid shelters.

This alert was probably prompted by the sight of an aircraft circling the radar research establishment at RAF Bawdsey, six Spitfires were scrambled but the aircraft which was intercepted over Felixstowe.

The irony was that as summer stretched into the autumn which then turned into the winter of 1940 many of the evacuees started drifting back to London. Many had returned home just in time to experience the full horror of The Blitz when the Luftwaffe turned its attention away from the airfields and towards Britain's capital.

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During September and October 1939, East Anglia's towns and villages were little troubled by the war. Even the dreaded German airforce, the Luftwaffe, seemed content to fly reconnaissance missions over the North Sea.

There were a number of scrambles which sent aircraft from RAF Martlesham Heath skyward but these were to see off enemy aircraft that strayed too close to Suffolk's coast. Heinkel He 111's, Junkers 88s and Dornier Do 17s were intercepted between Orfordness and Clacton on several occasions but none of the enemy aircraft made it over the coastline.

Guns were finally fired in anger when Hurricanes from RAF Martlesham Heath intercepted a Heinkel Flying Boat two miles off Southwold on November 13. The British aircraft led by Flight Lieutenant Soden let fly a fusillade of shots before the German amphibious aircraft escaped into thick cloud cover.

Bizarrely many of the alerts during this period were false alarms. Aircraft recognition was so poor that East Anglian squadrons were frequently scrambled to incept their own colleagues returning from previous missions.

By the end of November 1939, things are started tro heat up a bit. The Germans were becoming a little more bold in their reconnaissance sorties. On November 20 a German Heinkel He 111 bomber using cloud cover crossed the East Anglian coast at Southend and was flying north when it was intercepted by three Spitfires from 74 Squadron, based at Duxford.

As they attacked it went into such a steep dive that pilots reported that parts of the engine cowling were stripped away. The British fighters lost the bomber in cloud but it was picked up again crossing the Suffolk/Essex border and after flying over Ipswich was chased out to sea over Felixstowe.

Proof that the Spitfire's bullets had hit home came when the Heinkel ditched into the sea before reaching home. The destroyer HMS Gypsy, based at Felixstowe Dock, was sent to pick up the German airman from their life raft while aircraft from 56 squadron at Martlesham were detailed to see off the German flying boat that was endeavouring to effect a rescue of the stricken bomber crew.

The war was starting to warm up.

During late November and early December the Germans stepped up their mining of the coast and rivers around East Anglia. The had an immediate success when HMS Gypsy, the rescuer of the German aircrew was hit and sunk in the mouth of the Orwell estuary.

The number of fighters at RAF Martlesham Heath was boosted when in January 1940 it was clear that the Luftwaffe were stepping up their attacks on both the fishing fleets based at Lowestoft and Yarmouth as well as the merchant vessels carrying cargoes and food stuffs to London.

On January 13 three German aircraft attacked 17 merchant ships and three escort destroyers off Aldeburgh. Reports from the time report that the townspeople heard 11 explosions as the bombs rained down on the shipping.

As January became February and then continued into March, the attacks on Britain's shipping in the North Sea continued. Spitfires were scrambled to see off a pair of Heinkels who got too close to Southwold for comfort in the dying days of January but, as yet, there were no raids on airfields or towns in East Anglia.

The first explosives to cause damage in an East Anglian town was not only spectacular it was also entirely accidental.

On the evening of April 30 1940, a Heinkel He 111 bomber flew in over the North Sea off the Essex coast. Shortly after 11pm, with no air-raid siren sounded residents reported hearing the drone from the German bomber. It sounded low and very close. Exactly how low it was was discovered a few minutes later when it veered over the Marine Parade cliffs, it then clipped a chimney pot, reduced another house to rubble, damaged two others before crash landing on an area of open ground at the junctions of Victoria Street and Albert Road, Clacton.

Then, moments later, at 11.08pm, the mines contained in the belly of the aircraft exploded - blasting a crater 25 feet across and five feet deep. The crash and the subsequent explosion destroyed or damaged a total of 582 houses in that quiet area of Clacton. Of those 56 were seriously damaged and nine were flattened.

That was not the only incident of the night. Just over an hour later the anti-aircraft battery stationed at Landguard Fort opened up after another German raider was spotted flying up the River Orwell. Faced with a barrage of exploding shells the German pilot veered off and it is believed that a short time later it was the burning aircraft seen crashing into the sea off the coast at Walton-on-the-Naze.

Suddenly The Phoney War didn't seem phoney any longer.