Heigham Holmes

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Text © Copyright Evelyn Simak, August 2015
Images are under a separate Creative Commons Licence.


Another building hailing from bygone days is a Grade II listed, privately owned and, sadly, derelict four-storey tower mill now known as Heigham Holmes drainage windpump. In the 1871 census it is being referred to as "Watson's marsh mill, on the Holmes", named after Robert Watson, the marshman who had once operated it. It is situated beside Eelfleet Wall on the south-eastern perimeter of the island. The structure dates from the mid-19th century and was one of the earliest windpumps using an internal turbine casing instead of the more common paddle wheel to raise water from the marshes, which lie below the height of the surrounding ditches and the river, into the River Thurne. Most of the running gear, including a complete set of track and centring wheels, wind shaft, crown and bevel wheels and the internal turbine casing, is believed to still be in place. In the 'Drainage Mill Action Plan and Strategy' report published by the Broads Authority in September 2013 the structure is described as leaning to one side, with its condition increasingly worsening due to severe brickwork erosion and rot in the main beams. The Broads Authority's report further asserts that "The mill sits on the site of an important WW2 airfield".


TG4520 : A glimpse of the River Thurne by Evelyn Simak TG4420 : Heigham Holmes drainage windpump by Evelyn Simak TG4420 : Heigham Holmes drainage pump by Adrian S Pye TG4420 : Heigham Holmes drainage windpump by Evelyn Simak TG4420 : Heigham Holmes drainage windpump by Evelyn Simak


The mythical airfield


Heigham Holmes is indeed rumoured to have served as a Second World War landing ground used by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) but no evidence has to date been found to substantiate this rumour. The SOE was formed on 22 July 1940 to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe, and one of the organisation's best kept secrets were the night time activities involving 138 and 161 (Special) Squadrons of Bomber Command, RAF, flying SOE agents into occupied Europe by moonlight in their Lockheed A28 Hudsons, Short Stirlings, Halifaxes, Whitleys or Lysanders, the latter without doubt being the most famous aircraft involved in this secret work.

In a publication titled 'Norfolk and Suffolk Airfields and Airstrips' (Part 6), authored by Huby Fairhead and published by the Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum in June 1989, the author states that "From about 1940 to 1944 an RAF landing ground was located on the marshes known as Heigham Holmes. It appears all black Lysanders were detached here during this period while based at Newmarket or Tempsford, possibly for operations into the Low Countries". This appears to be the original (and only) source of information on which all later researchers have based theirs. The text also mentions a complex of farm buildings "to the east of a grass landing strip", the length of which is given as 6,000 yards (5,486 metres). This must surely be a mistake, considering that wartime RAF main runways were on average about 2000 yards (1,830 metres) long and secondary runways considerably shorter, and that Lysanders did not require a landing strip at all but could land on virtually any reasonably level ground and under conditions which would have defeated any other aircraft. Group Captain Hugh Verity, the commander of 161 Squadron, claimed that he could land a Lysander within the space of 150 yards (less than 140 metres). The recollections of two (unnamed) local residents are also recorded: one reported a forced landing (apparently due to lack of fuel) he says he witnessed in a field near Martham and that he was asked by the pilot to walk to the airfield to inform the staff about the situation because he was not allowed to leave his aircraft. This, of course, raises the question as to why the pilot would not have used his R/T wireless communications system, which every aircraft and certainly every Lysander was equipped with. The second eye-witness recalls having seen "all black" aircraft flying to and from the site during the war, when in fact it has been documented that the special Lysanders were painted all black for a restricted time only.

The modified Lysander Mk IIISCW (or SD - Special Duties) like other aircraft used for clandestine operations were indeed initially painted a matt black colour, helping them to slip into occupied Europe undetected when carrying agents or VIPs to and from enemy territory on missions which almost always took place during the "moon nights" of each month - moonlight being essential because the pilots were flying without navigational equipment other than map and compass. The colour pattern was however modified, with the top of the wings and fuselage reverting to dark grey and pale grey and hence providing better camouflage against night fighters approaching from above in moonlight. Lysanders were designed to land in fields illuminated by nothing more than three hand-held torches, and fitted with an armoured floor, improved radio equipment and provisions for two passengers as well as a fixed ladder to the rear of the cockpit on the left side for quick access. A large auxiliary tank slung under the belly carried the additional fuel required for flying distances exceeding the standard range of 600 miles (966 kilometres).

An article published in the 'Airfield Review' magazine (Volume 8, No. 4) also reported Huby Fairhead's "unusual discovery in East Anglia of a secret airfield, the existence of which has never been published" and that "it possessed three hard runways and a control tower despite being situated amidst marshland and being virtually surrounded by a river and dykes". Although the information regarding the existence of three concrete runways had by 2009 been amended and Huby now said that there were no such runways after all, he once again stated that the use by SOE had been confirmed albeit without offering any evidence to substantiate this claim.

In a personal communication (27 July 2015) Huby Fairhead provided the additional information that "Post war the watch office on the side of the farm building was reduced and roofed over". Although Mr Fairhead's description fits perfectly with one of the extant buildings on the site, the problem is that the structure in question had not existed during the war and can hence never have served the purpose of a watch office (control tower). The National Trust refer to it as their look-out post and it can be found on the first floor of the former purpose-built dairy, a once three-storeys high building dating from the early 1950s which has since been reduced in height due to structural problems.


TG4420 : Farm buildings on Heigham Holmes by Evelyn Simak TG4420 : Steps to the lookout by Evelyn Simak TG4420 : Inside the look-out by Evelyn Simak TG4420 : Farm building on Higham Holmes (detail) by Evelyn Simak TG4420 : Farm building on Higham Holmes by Evelyn Simak


Norfolk Heritage (NHER) experts, quoting the above mentioned publication as their only source of reference, visited the site several times (in October 1989, in August 2003 and in March 2005) and concluded that "no convincing evidence for the existence of an airstrip, military buildings or associated defences could be identified". Contradicting their own information the Potter Heigham parish summary, also published online, however informs that "perhaps most intriguingly there is evidence that the SOE used a field in [sic] Heigham Holmes as a secret airfield from which agents were flown into occupied countries during World War Two", and a large pasture to the north-west of the farm buildings is, inexplicably, identified as the landing ground on the complementary map also published on the Norfolk Heritage Explorer (described as) the definitive database of the county's archaeological sites and historic buildings. About 20 head of cattle can clearly be seen grazing on this "landing ground" in an aerial photograph taken by the RAF in September 1944 (when said landing ground would have been active), which the NHER's experts claim to have consulted. (The picture has the reference number A203 and bears the handwritten annotation 106G/UK/832:23 Sept 44:F20//541 SQDN)

In 2010, the BBC included Heigham Holmes as one of the locations featured in their 'Secret Britain' programme. In his interview with the BBC presenter the National Trust's senior warden on Heigham Holmes, Stephen Prowse, also refers to the information contained in Huby Fairhead's publication, adding that local residents, when questioned, confirmed that they saw aircraft flying in and out of the area, and that the site would have been perfect not only because of its remoteness but also because the elevated banks along the river and drainage channels shielded it from prying eyes. This however is not quite true as in fact the island can be overlooked from the southern bank of the River Thurne (now a public footpath) all the way from Martham Ferry to Martham Broad even during high summer when the vegetation is most abundant. The bank was apparently lower in the 1940s but the banks and dykes would of course not have prevented anyone from seeing aircraft flying above, as indeed witnesses have said they did. The National Trust's most up-to-date information leaflet, published on the occasion of the 2014 Heigham Holmes Open Day, states that "During WWII there was a grass landing strip here used by Lysander aircraft of 161 Squadron on SOE operations". In a short film produced in 2014 by students of Flegg High School in conjunction with a local history project and made available online, no new information came to light.

Peter Thompson MA in his archaeological desk-based assessment of land off Hembsby Road, Martham (commissioned by Mr Alan Presslee of Cornerstone Planning Ltd on behalf of Norfolk Land Ltd, executed by 'Archaeological Solutions Ltd' and published in July 2014) states that "A military airfield for Lysanders used in 1940, was located 1.7km to the east (of the assessment site)". All the organisations, institutions and experts involved have however so far not produced a single shred of real evidence to actually substantiate the information they are disseminating. Only the Museum of The Broads (in Stalham), laudably, exercises some restraint by saying that "the small airfield at Heigham Holmes is believed to have been used by Lysander aeroplanes to drop SOE agents into occupied Holland".


TG4420 : View across a marsh pasture on Heigham Holmes by Evelyn Simak TG4420 : Marsh pasture on Heigham Holmes by Evelyn Simak TG4420 : Gate into a marsh pasture on Heigham Holmes by Evelyn Simak TG4420 : View towards Heigham Sound by Evelyn Simak


The first prize for misinformation must go to the "Secret WWII Stations" web page, which appears to be maintained by members of the Barton-Le-Clay Local History Society and offers the information that "The Lysander(s) was stored under cover in the barn during daylight hours and only brought out as and when required for night flying". The anonymous author does not reveal the source upon which this information is supposedly based, but it is obvious that s/he has never seen the barn in question, as in fact it is not nearly large enough to accommodate a Lysander with a length of 30ft 6in (9.30m), a wing span of 50ft (15.24m) and a height of 14tf 6in (4.42m) - let alone more than one.

KML

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