Was Norfolk at centre of Hitler’s pre-war invasion plans?

PUBLISHED: 14:25 27 January 2015 | UPDATED: 14:25 27 January 2015

Applegate Barn, Sporle. Photo: English Heritage

Applegate Barn, Sporle. Photo: English Heritage


It is one of the most tantalising of historical mysteries.

Is it all nonesense?

Whether or not the unusually shaped, red-roofed barns and surrounding cut-back hedgerows were to be used as Nazi landing grounds continues to divide opinion.

Writer Steve Snelling said: “As far as I know a number of personnel from the East Anglia Real Property Company were indeed arrested. However, it is my understanding that these men were all subsequently released and that the ‘spy scare’ reports had no foundation whatsoever.

There was a good deal of hysteria and paranoia, some of it understandable given the country’s parlous state at the time and the threat of invasion, but the Dutch men involved were not building airfields for the Nazis and nor were they acting as secret agents.”

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In the years before the Second World War, a collection of unusually-shaped barns sprung up across Norfolk - leading to claims they had been built by a fifth column of Nazi agents on the site of makeshift “secret” airfields which could be used by German aircraft to land troops in the event of an invasion.

Now, a leading expert from English Heritage is appealing to find out more behind this bizarre episode in the region’s history.

Military investigation

An investigation was prompted by reports from 2 Group aircrew, specifically two Blenheim crews from 82 Squadron flying out of RAF Watton in the spring of 1940.

The first report, dated May 22, refers to five sites across Norfolk, which were said to look suspicious from the air, as though they had been laid out as possible future landing grounds. It was made in the same month that the Germans had staged an aerial assault on the Low Countries.

The report notes: “Large area with hedges removed suitable land and take off heavy aircraft all directions. Two barns painted red alongside. Owners in occupation understood to be aliens.”

It then cites four more instances of sites where “hedges (had been) removed and new barns built alongside”. It concludes: “OC (Officer Commanding) Watton states all have aspect of being specially prepared landing grounds with easily recognisable features in barns. In view of number found consider immediate investigation of site and neighbouring population essential.”

A second, supplementary report from 2 Group to the Air Ministry was sent later the same day. It said: “Sites consist of farms operated by East Anglia Real Property Company... Usually crops sown earliest in district this year latest and still almost bare and rolled hard. Suspected all have similar barns. All are aliens, registered as Dutch. Immediate instructions to Home Office to make order essential.

“Sites should be taken over simultaneously by military with view to obstruction camouflage of barns and thorough search.”

The buildings, each with a steep sloping red roof, were built in 1936 or 1937 by the Dutch-owned East Anglian Real Property Company on land owned or occupied by Dutch farmers.

They were spotted in 1940 by RAF officials, scouting for airfields of their own, who thought they were hangars disguised as Dutch barns. Nearby hedges and ditches had been removed - something the British thought might have been to create landing areas.

Arrests were made and those sites - in Sporle, Buckenham, Beighton, Cantley, Halvergate, Paston, Reedham, Guestwick and Southrepps - were dug up and obstructed. The arrested farmers were all found to be Dutch nationals and subsequently released.

A record of the discoveries is kept at the National Archive - but mystery still the surrounds the use of the buildings which remain part of Norfolk’s landscape today.

Roger Thomas, English Heritage’s military specialist, said: “I would like to know more about it. It’s one of those things which warrants an awful lot more research and there should be documents that could explain it - in the county record office in Norwich, MI5 papers should be available now, the land registry should tell as a bit more about the land, tracing the deeds for the farmers.

“If we can get to the information it will confirm or disprove what it is. The problem with that document at the National Archive is whether or not it is black propaganda - but the German’s did use the same trick when they invaded Holland. It’s still in the balance.”

If the sites were to be used as Nazi landing areas, it is believed Norfolk’s proximity to Germany would have attracted them to the area. Mr Thomas said Norfolk was also not as heavily defended as counties such as Kent. “It makes absolute sense militarily,” he added.

Ken Hamilton, senior historic environment officer for Norfolk County Council, said: “It’s a genuine mystery. I would loved to get to the bottom of it but I don’t think the information is there.”

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