On a hostile shore

The story of Shingle Street has fascinated me for years. One man wrote three separate books about it, all proving to his satisfaction that nothing happened there. Or rather, that something didn’t happen there, the something being a German invasion repelled by fire in 1940.

Shingle Street strikes me as an unlikely place for a serious landing for a number of reasons, the biggest being that the nearest land across the Channel is 140 miles away. That’s a long way for any boat, even today, when it’s going to be shot at and harassed for the entire voyage by airplanes and any naval vessel going, At a respectable fifteen knots that’s still nine solid hours of sea crossing, a lot of it in daylight if the invasion was going to be in summer. And the logic continues; if the incoming invasion fleet couldn’t be harassed by the RAF or the Navy, then surely a shorter route would have been better anyway.

Apart from anything else, Shingle Street is exactly that. Shingle. Horrible stuff to walk on, let alone run and I would have thought almost useless as terrain for wheeled vehicles. Tanks might have an easier time of it, obviously.

The other issue is simply where it is: on a peninsula. Any glance at a map shows how easy it is to isolate the place. Once ashore the river Alde acts as a partial natural block to the north; both the Deben and the Orwell effectively block a breakout to the south. Not a half mile away a deep water course blocks egress to the nearest road. Crossed by a bridge, its guarded by a rare WW1 pill-box which though far from impregnable (like the even more rare 1940 two-man cast-iron pillbox in a hedge a few miles to the north) would have been an ideal place from which to blow the bridge.

And yet two things come to mind. A military friend told me about the importance of Caen to the Allies in 1944, as important as Antwerp, simply because if you need to get men and vehicles and munitions ashore in big numbers quickly then the thing you need is a dock. Ipswich may have turned into the same heap of rubble Caen was reduced to if there had been a real invasion at Shingle Street. The other is that since Napoleon’s time, the military has clearly thought something was going to kick off on this lonely, isolated strand. There are not one or three or four but five Martello towers in a two-mile sentry line down to Bawdsey.

And Bawdsey was where the crucial Home Chain radar was tested and centred on, the sheds full of boffins that the Graf Zeppelin came and parked itself over for a while, back before the war for reasons that were, as Hunter Thompson used to say, never made clear. But I think we can guess they knew something was going on and wanted to make a point: that they knew. And that the last time there were Zeppelins over Suffolk people got killed.

But  I still don’t know. I need to talk to someone in the army. If you know anyone who is and who wouldn’t mind being interviewed, get in touch.


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The end of the world

In an adult life that has been for the most part not boring, it should have come as small surprise that I’d be working at the end of the world this week. Or rather, where the end of the world would have started and very nearly did.

I’m teaching a ten year-old actress who turned out not at all to be the bratty monster the words “ten year-old actress” suggested before I met her. If you’re under 16 and out of school you have to have a minimum of three hours of tuition each day. Or you’re not allowed on set. And in this case, given she has a key role, no film.

It struck me that my usual panoply of George Formby-based vocabulary learning might possibly not be entirely appropriate, great for giving Italian nineteen year-olds a thorough grounding in 1930s smut but with entirely forseeable problems here. I bought some Key Stage Two books. I bought some maths puzzles that were so horrible I couldn’t do them. I mean, I designed a formula-based software application, so I’m not exactly dense when it comes to maths, but I can’t do hardly any of the problems in that book.

Even Al the trusty green fluffy alligator that hormone-pumped Continental youths fight over didn’t appear to be making his normal contribution. I did what I usually forget to do when I have a problem. I went for a walk.

This old airbase is haunted. The last base commander said so. On night shifts his guards at the main gate would intercept some hapless pilot who didn’t have his papers and seemed disconnected from things. They’d keep him there while someone who should be able to vouch for him came on down to pick him up. And when they got there the airman had gone, vanished, disappeared to wherever he’d come from, where no-one saw him go. This was where the Rendlesham Forest UFO sighting happened, whatever that was. This was where in WWII a German aircraft crew came in, made a perfect landing, taxi-ed neatly off the runway, switched off and only realised they actually weren’t five minutes from their end-of-flight debriefing when people pointed guns at them. Ooops.

When I went for a walk the base was haunted by deer, a small herd that had managed to get its young one side of the perimeter fence and the rest of the herd the other, both groups running away from the gate long left open that had split them up.  I found machine-gun posts, looking new and clean and free from graffittee but surrounded by new growth pines planted since the airforce left in 1992, without a single footprint marking the sand that had crept in to cover their floors. Nobody has been here for years.

Parts of the base are empty. The decrepit sentinels of rusting watchtowers overlook workshops re-purposed as a hospital film set. A small reservoir oddly sports a dozen Georgian cannon, resting silently in a foot of clear water. And the planes are still here. An aviation restoration company shares the space with the deer, bringing in airframes that its hard to see could ever possibly fly anywhere or be any use to anyone except as film props.

Deception is something Suffolk has done before though. Patton’s fake decoy army was stationed all over this area too, the inflatable tanks and cardboard huts and plywood planes convincing the German High Command that the invasion of Europe would spring from here, via Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe and Ipswich, presumably. You could walk to Shingle Street, where if a German force wasn’t incinerated in local legend then a huge propaganda coup was carried-off, not even ten miles from here. Now rabbits hop around the empty huts where American voices ran through the drills that would launch the jets that would stop Soviet tanks rolling through the fields of Northern Europe. Which luckily for all of us, they both never did.

And today, my pupil has nearly, very nearly completed a 1,000 word story-writing task. The day isn’t over.

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Another secret



It was about the same time that I discovered Studland and the wartime bunker there. We’d had another job down in Plymouth and drove slowly back with time to kill in that most magical of times, very early summer in the West Country, when the mornings are still cold, when everything sparkles as if your eyes are new. When there really could be a sword in every pond, as Roy Harper put it, so long ago.

Plymouth – well, Plymouth was strange. It had the feel of a Navy town but at the same time, so much of it was nearly new. I sort-of knew it had been bombed heavily in what for my generation we will always just call the war, but I didn’t know how much, like Southampton, the Luftwaffe and after them, the far more destructive town planners had ripped the old heart out of the city.  If you like concrete pedestrian underpasses, don’t miss Plymouth. We marvelled at the huge age of the woman we’d book unseen to host the event we were putting on, at least ninety and thin and spry, if understandably a little slow. But mostly we marvelled at the English Riviera, the first time we’d really seen it as adults. We drove across country, found a little town with new giftshop on three floors and wondered what would happen to it. Nearly twenty-five years on I hope they did ok.

We followed a small road out of that town and ended up on a beach, running parralel to the sea. The weather had changed to cloudy by now, or maybe it was just a seafret. Or a breath of something darker, as we turned a corner and drove astonished past a black tank at the side of the road. It wasn’t hindsight or imagination – there was something brooding about that beach before we saw the tank.

It had been kept secret, in our open, transparent and fundamentally honest society, for fifty years. Along with all the other tanks and ships and men who had died in that bay at Slapton and been shovelled quickly and secretly into mass graves.

It was an invasion exercise. Thirty thousand Americans, practising for D Day. Except that by chance, by accident, by just one of those things, after the Americans had finished shelling their own men on the beach, German E-boats had somehow got mixed-up in the practice invasion too. When they opened fire it wasn’t until lots of people started dying that anyone American guessed that this wasn’t just a hyper-realistic drill.

It was judged, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, that British voters’ heads shouldn’t be unduly troubled by the facts. The dead, hundreds and hundreds of them, were bundled underground. German casualties were zero. So it wasn’t that saying what had happened would have given the game away to them; they were already home, unable to believe their luck. We weren’t told the truth because our betters decided we oughtn’t to be told the truth. Because the truth wasn’t good for us. Because We are Good. They are Bad. We win. They lose. We don’t make mistakes. Forever and ever, Amen. And like good little children after prayers should always do, we went to sleep and forgot all about it.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that a few people in Dorset started asking questions about why fishing nets kept catching on things that ought not to have been there that the truth belatedly came out. We were lied to by our government, for reasons that aren’t clear. The British government, not the American ones. If it was necessary during the war, it can’t possibly have been necessary a quarter of a century later. Let alone for that time again.

Another secret, like Shingle Street. Call it Exercise Tiger, call it the Battle of Slapton Sands. Call it one big lie, like so many. The information about it was de-classified eventually. Unlike the secrets of Shingle Street.

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There’s this place

If you remember awful films from the 1970s you’ll recall The Eagle Has Landed, when Michael Caine was fatuously cast as an aristocratic Cherman Orfizzer. Torn by the demands of duty and the Prussian Code he refuses to surrender holed up in an East Anglian church. Somehow he faced the destruction of the vestry by an equally improbably-cast JR Ewing without saying that he’d been only supposed to blow the bleedin’ doors off. The acting from everybody, not just Michael Caine, was atrocious. Americans with their patented Bullet-Proof Film Arm™ clutch at gaping bullet wounds as if they’d got splashed doing the washing-up. Storming the church the GIs stand usefully just inside the door heroically spraying bullets instead of getting shredded by the hail of outgoing fire directed at the one place they’d be guaranteed to have to be. Everyone who’s supposed to be German has to suck their cheeks in and dye their hair blond as if they were on their way to see David Bowie in Berlin, although as it was made in 1976 maybe they were.


It was different in the book. In particular right at the very beginning, where author Jack Higgins fictionally or otherwise claimed to have found German tombstones in a Suffolk churchyard. Apparently there are some, but I’m not sure where. Just down the road from me a big house was broken into while Churchill’s double was there, right on the coast. Details of the local defences were stolen, along with the petty cash. Several sergeants found they weren’t sergeants any more. Those are checkable facts but more easily now than then.

In the 1980s someone who lived there told me “something” had happened in a little village down a lane on the coast. Nobody knew what. But something did.

In the early 1990s the rumours resurfaced. Shingle Street got famous. Questions were asked in Parliament. Why was whatever did or didn’t happen an Official Secret for 75 years?

The rumours themselves were confusing. Peter Fleming (yes, Ian Fleming’s brother. The one who married her out of Brief Encounter) was involved in British propaganda in the war. One of their jobs was to make the Germans think that Britain had secret weapons of mass destruction to repel an invasion instead of the laughable 50 tanks and 200 field guns that were all that was left after Dunkirk.  The one the propagandists chose was fire. Somehow, the story went, the British had discovered how to set the sea on fire.


As apocalyptic visions go, it’s not bad. When I was about six my mother said a sunset looked as if the whole sky was on fire. This was a time when thanks to nuclear weapons that could have been a distinct possibility for anyone who wasn’t a politician. I still remember that nightmare. It makes me shudder still.

But the rumours didn’t just grow. They were corroborated, with evidence. People in Germany saw train-loads of burned soldiers coming from the West when all the fighting was happening in the East, long years before D-Day. On both sides of the Channel, people reported secret mass graves being dug. Less refutably, some people in Suffolk recalled an invasion alert and actually seeing burned bodies, at least one boat with German markings wrecked on the shore and an emergency request for coffins to be sent from Ipswich to Shingle Street. All checkable, not rumour. But who were they? One theory is that they were Germans dressed in British uniforms. Another, that they were wearing British uniforms because they were British and got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, a training exercise that went wrong.

The Top Secret classification in itself isn’t that mysterious. Everything relating to state confiscation of private property is classified, and all of Shingle Street was summarily snapped up by the Government and everyone told to leave. There used to be a pub there. On VE Day the Army blew what was left of it up. They wanted a bonfire to celebrate and there wasn’t any other wood nearby.

There’s no evidence of mass graves that I know of, but there was no evidence of anything happening at Slapton Sands where the Americans were massacred on the golden beaches of Dorset. That was kept tucked up out of sight for fifty years. Shingle Street is just down the road from me, a cycle ride away. I don’t know what happened there and I probably never will. Something did though. Something happened everywhere.

The pub was never rebuilt. One of the Martello towers is derelict. One has a million-pound penthouse on top. One has a Home Guard post improbably still cemented into it. A rare, unusual circular pillbox guards the bridge over the ditch that would have been filled with petrol. Another, much rarer one-man iron pillbox rusts away in a lane a mile or two up the road. Anywhere else it would be in a museum but it’s Suffolk. There’s so much history here, so little now.

And no. I didn’t know Lalo Schifrin did the music, either. Damned bank managers. They never change, do they?




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Clouded hills


I cycled nine miles to a friend’s farm the other evening to be there for a meeting at seven. We were going to discuss the business plan I’m writing for her, changing her experimental pastoral herd to one that can sustain a modest living for more than just the cows.

It was a sunny, late June evening and the back-from work rush-hour was starting in Butley. There must have been four cars altogether, two behind me and two coming towards me, one of them waiting to turn into the side-road on my left.

It was a little red car, about 15 years old by the P-plate. The woman driving it was a bit tanned, wearing shades with her hair in a top-knot. All the car windows were down and there was music blasting out. I didn’t recognise it at first. You don’t normally hear anything in Butley. When the Butley Oyster was open there used to be old photos on the wall, memories of a time when things ever happened in this tiny, usually silent village. The pub used to be confused with the Butley Oysterage at Orford, four miles away, famous for its food and when people from London phoned to try to book a table, the landlady, who never, ever served food, thought it was terribly clever and amusing to pretend she’d never heard of the Oysterage and that she had no idea what anyone was talking about. We simply roared. Odd that the pub is shut now. But like most of Suffolk, despite what the more moronic inhabitants like to pretend, it hasn’t always been like this at all.

The photos on the wall of the pub proved it. All of them in black and white, faded with time. One of them showed a crashed Heinkel in a field, a wrecked German bomber surrounded by British policemen, civilians and a man in un buttoned RAF tunic, holding a machine-gun from the aircraft at waist-level, pretending to be Jimmy Cagney over 70 years ago. The other photo I always noticed was from the same period, when Suffolk expected to be the front line and over-run. Especially this part of Suffolk. This whole area was off-limits to civilians for most of the war. Whole villages were simply confiscated and everyone told to leave for the duration. Iken was one, where thousands of Allied troops charged up the beaches of the Alde in practice for Normandy. Shingle Street, just a few miles away, was another and to this day, no-one really knows what happened there, nor whether or not there really was a German landing that resulted in hundreds of burned bodies being washed up along the shoreline. The photo showed the local Home Guard unit, the men too old or too young or too infirm for active service, kitted out in their uncomfortable-looking serge uniforms and re-cycled WW1 Lee-Enfield rifles, leftovers from the War to end all Wars.

There are lots of sad things about old photos, not least the fact that in any photo seventy years old, its likely that even the youngest people are actuarially likely to be dead. But there was always another sadness about this photo of the halt and the lame. The Home Guard were by definition the men who couldn’t join the regular Army. The sad thing was the number of them in the photo, more old and young, more men unfit for active service than live in the whole village today.

Suffolk more than many rural places has changed. The communities are fragmented. If you’re young you have to move away because there are no jobs. If you’re old you almost certainly didn’t make your money in the area and want to preserve the picture postcard fantasy that ‘it’s always been like this,’ without inconvenient children playing or teenagers snogging each others faces off in the bus shelter, thank-you very much. Without any motorways and a farcical, un-commutable railway service that means the 97 mile journey to London takes around two and a half hours, once the farms mechanised there simply wasn’t anything for anyone to do. The farms weren’t the bulwark of society people like to pretend. They got rid of the horses and got rid of the men who worked on farms. That got rid of the whole point of most of these villages. The people drifted away, apart from the ones too old to do anything except hang on in the twilight of rural zombie world until the end.

We will not sleep

The music was still hammering out of the little red car when I recognised what it was the girl with the top-knot and the shades was listening to somewhat unbelievably: Jerusalem. William Blake wrote the lyrics, one of the weirdest artists and poets who ever lived in the middle of London. I used to walk past where his house had been most days, just round the corner from where Karl Marx lived in a two-room flat writing so passionately about the exploitation of the proletariat that he got his maid pregnant. The song became the anthem of the Labour Party long before Blair re-branded it Tory-Lite (‘I’m Bombin ’ It’™). But it used to mean something, Blake’s Albion, the Labour-landslide 1945 generation’s self-reward for its blood sacrifice twice in what was so obviously not then an average lifetime.


Blake must always have sat uncomfortably with the buttoned-up church folk. Like Dickens, he only once saw a ghost and then one no-one else saw or had ever heard of.  He and his wife once sunbathed naked at a time when most decent people didn’t even take their clothes off to wash once a week. And the paintings, the poems about tigers, the rays of sun, the tablets of stone, the amazement and the wonder that radiates from everything this strange man painted and wrote, the power of the imagery and the dark undertow beneath dull little rhymes about diseased roses and flying worms. All of this, belting out of an old Nissan in a country lane one Friday teatime.





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