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Military Thetford

Thetford becomes a vital military centre, later recalled during the filming of Dad’s Army

Thetford had significant connections to both World Wars including the first field trials for the tank during WW1, the Desert Rats training nearby and the presence of 17 (mainly USAAF) airfields. Admiral Sir John (Jacky) Fisher lived on the outskirts of the town at Kilverstone Hall. During both WW1 and WW2 Military camps were set up in the town. In 1912 Snare Hill was laid out before opening in 1915 as part of No.7 Wing of the Royal Flying Corps. During WW2 the site was converted into a bombing decoy to deflect enemy bombing from nearby RAF Honington airfield. Burrell’s played a key part in the WW1 war effort by employing women to make munitions. Prince Frederick Duleep Singh rejoined the Norfolk Yeomanry in 1914 at the outbreak of war and saw active service in France. Construction of a bomb store on Thetford Health known as RAF Barnham began in 1953. In the 1970s the TV series Dad’s Army was filmed in and around Thetford. Today visitors can enjoy a trip to Dad’s Army museum in Thetford as well as seeing the statue of the infamous Captain Mainwaring.

The 4th Norfolk Rifle Volunteers

‘G’ Company of the 4th Norfolk Rifle Volunteers was formed entirely of young men from Thetford, who not only trained for battle at the base at Snarehill but participated in civic ceremonies. In 1908, the old volunteer services were scrapped in favour of a new Territorial Army.

Admiral Sir Jacky Fisher

John Arbuthnot Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher was an Admiral of the Fleet best known for his naval reform. Admiral Fisher is often considered the second most important figure in British Naval history after another Norfolk hero, Lord Nelson. As First Sea Lord he was responsible for the construction of HMS Dreadnought. Originally retiring from the Admiralty in 1910 on his 69th birthday, he became Fist Sea Lord again in November 1917. Fisher entered the navy penniless and unknown, rising through the ranks and becoming a close friend of the Prince of Wales in the early 1880s before being appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1882. In 1883 he was invited to stay at Osborne House by Queen Victoria to help with his recovery from illness picked up in the Anglo-Egyptian War. Fisher was knighted in the 1894 Queen’s Birthday Honours. He retired to Kilverstone Hall in 1911 at the invitation of his son Cecil who had inherited the estate. The estate gateposts feature the mailed fist and trident of Lord Fisher’s baronial crest. Lord Fisher is buried in Kilverstone churchyard.

Prince Frederick Duleep Singh

Prince Frederick originally served with the Suffolk Imperial Yeomanry from 1893 to 1901 where he rose from 2nd Lieutenant to Captain in 1898. In July 1901 he transferred to the Norfolk Yeomanry and was promoted to the rank of Major. He later resigned his commission in 1909 only to rejoin at the outbreak of WW1 in 1914.  He served in France with training units from 1917 to 1919.

Rifleman Leonard Newton

In 1911 Leonard Newton and his family appears in the census as living in 21 White Hart Street Thetford, now Ancient House Museum. Leonard worked nearby at W Boughton & Sons Printers in Station Road. Leonard joined the Kings royal Rifle Corps and was killed in June 1915 aged 20 years. He is buried in Hooge Crater Cemetery Belgium. There is a display featuring Leonard in the nearby Hooge Crater Museum.

Florrie Clarke

In 1916, aged 15, Florrie replaced her father John as the Town crier, a role previously only held by men. Wearing a white coat, Florrie could be seen all over town either bill posting or with her bell proclaiming the latest news. Florrie was still the Town Crier at the end of the war and had the job of proclaiming the war is over! On John’s return from war he took back his role form his daughter. The Imperial War Museum hold a collection of images of Florrie in action, such was the impact of her role at the time.

Thetford during the First World War

The war memorial erected in 1921 bears the names of more than 100 men from Thetford who lost their lives in the Great War, while a total of almost 700 men left their town to fight for King and Country. Many women took jobs previously held exclusively by men – such as Florrie Clarke, who replaced her father as Thetford Town Crier. Meanwhile, the workforce at establishments such as Burrell’s was transformed by the hiring of female labour as munitionettes. A picture taken in spring 1918, at a time when the German Army was making its last great offensive, shows a man touring Thetford encouraging people to buy up National War Bonds, as the country’s exchequer was drained by the continuing cost of the war. A ‘boom’ week in May 1918 saw the Thetford townspeople give more than £57,000. In the Shambles a fundraising incentive to raise money to build tanks was held with prominent Aldermen supporting the cause.

On the 11th day of the 11th month 1918, an armistice was signed between Germany and the Allies, halting hostilities. In Thetford, as in many other places around the country, church bells rang, and people took to the streets in celebration, as Florrie Clarke announced the end of four years of bloodshed.

Thetford became one of the first places in Britain to install a war memorial early in 1921. Prince Frederick Duleep Singh also commissioned and unveiled a war memorial that year at Thetford Grammar School in memory of their ‘lost boys’ including their Somme 11. Memorials were also created for St Mary’s The Less, St Cuthbert’s and St Peter’s Churches in the town.

Thetford during the Second World War

This time there was little heavy industry in Thetford to contribute to the war effort. In 1939, 2,000 evacuees arrived in Thetford and were housed throughout the town, safely sheltered from the Blitz. The military base near Thetford was inundated with American servicemen as well as British troops, preparing for the re-capture of mainland Europe. Close to Barnham (just outside of Thetford) the Little Heath Mustard Gas storage site was situated. The Burrell works had closed and some of the buildings were used for the war effort, uniforms were cleaned and repaired before reissue. War secrets were brought from London to Thetford by rail and escorted by armed guard to Thetford Pulp Mill where they were used as a raw material and to create items such as miner’s helmets. Spigot points and pillboxes popped up around the town at key points such as the top of White Hart Street, adjacent to the town bridge by the Grammar School boundary, near to the railway station and at Nuns Bridges. The local community made the best of the situation including holding dances on the Gray family’s dodgem ride down at the bottom of Melford Common. A bomb shelter was created under the Guildhall. In 1942 on the outskirts of the town Stanford Battle Area was created, 6 villages were cleared of inhabitants and exercises began including in the run up to D-day. Polish, Czech and Slovak Airmen who had escaped their occupied countries to fight for the allies were based at East Wretham and RAF Honington. The comedy series Dad’s Army was filmed in the town, but Thetford’s real Second World War experience was very much that of many small English towns: passed over by the bombers of the Blitz, the townspeople prepared to fight off any German Invasion.

Following the war, Thetford was earmarked as one of the towns that could provide an overspill for the population of London. Tens of thousands of homes were constructed to house new residents, and the population ballooned. The Thetford that was to emerge after the Second World War would be utterly different – almost unrecognisably so – from that which left the First.

The military bases

Driving around Thetford today you will notice the signs around the Breckland Scrub attesting to the military training sites. During the First World War, tanks and aeroplanes were tested on these sites – tanks in secret at a base near Elveden, planes at the Snarehill aerodrome. The remains of the former Officers Squash court can be seen from the roadside as you head towards Euston. Some of the major innovations in 20th-century warfare took place on the army base in Breckland. In 1912, two years before the First World War erupted across Europe, a series of military manoeuvres were held outside of Thetford on the heath land with 30,000 troops taking part.

After war between Britain and Germany was declared on 4 August 1914, large numbers of soldiers from across the country passed through and grouped at Thetford on their way to the front line.

In the early 1950s Thetford entered the cold war era when RAF Barnham was built as an atomic weapons store for Blue Danube (otherwise known as Special Weapon Mark 1). The site was designed to store and maintain atomic weapons. Now known as Barnham Gorse Industrial Estate, the site was purchased by the Eldred family in 1966 as a mushroom farm. Eventually the units were leased to various businesses and the site became an industrial estate. However, because there had been little or no work done to the site it remained intact including the observation towers and the former mess, guard room and control centre. The site is now recognised as a site of national importance; and is the more complete of the 2 sites that remain in the country.

Today Stanford Battle Area (STANTA) remains one of the Army’s key training sites in the UK. A replica Afghanistan village was built in 2009 to prepare troops before deployment.

Significant sites

Thetford War Memorial
Thetford Grammar School – Old School
Thetford Forest (Desert Rats and Cromwell IV)
Charles Burrell Museum
RAF Snarehill
Gorse Industrial Estate (RAF Barnham)
Ancient House Museum
Thetford Pulp Mill