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?