PICTURE GALLERY: Tanks at Titchwell - rusting relics of wartime Norfolk

A pair of Covenanter tanks, half-buried in the beach at Titchwell. Picture: Ian Burt.

A pair of Covenanter tanks, half-buried in the beach at Titchwell. Picture: Ian Burt.

Archant © 2011

Nowadays, this remote beach is almost deserted apart from bird watchers training their scopes out to sea in the hope of spotting a rarity. But rusting remains show it once rang to more war-like sounds than the cry of the gulls.

Titchwell was once a firing range, where gunners sharpened their aim.

Shells rained down on the hulks of tanks, while instructors kept score from a watchtower.

Today, all that remain of the targets are their rusting chassis. The watchtower has long been reduced to rubble.

But the story behind the range sheds an interesting on Norfolk’s role behind the scenes in both world wars.

Dave Hawkins, from the modern-day RSPB reserve, has helped us piece it together by speaking to volunteers who help look after the site.

“From 1914-1918, Thornham Marsh, and part of Titchwell Marsh was used by the Royal Flying Corps (later the RAF) as a bombing range flying DH8 and DH9 aircraft out of Sedgeford,” he said.

“In 1918 a DH4 crashed on Thornham range. The pilot was killed and was buried at nearby Stanhoe.

“The small concrete blockhouse on the marsh was part of the range buildings. On Titchwell Marsh there was a military hospital which was probably tented, although some brick foundations still remain now largely sunken into the mud.

“It was reached by a track which runs by the side of the reserve. During the 1930s and 40s, high watermark came close to the top of the North bank, but it was not breached.”

Today, Titchwell’s sea defences are also threatened by rising sea levels and increasingly-frequent storm surges.

Wardens hope abandoning outlying areas to the sea will allow salt marsh to build up and form a natural barrier, protecting vital habitats further inland from the sea.

“During World War II the beach was covered with anti-tank invasion obstacles and was most likely mined and wired,” said Mr Hawkins.

“From 1942 to 1945 the marsh was used by the Royal Tank Regiment as a firing range. A concrete road, next to the current car park, was built by the military for this purpose.

“Its triangular layout enabled the tank transporter to off-load the tanks and then proceed without having to turn round.

“Pop-up targets on the Fresh Marsh were operated by cables from winches installed in a pumping house, the old foundations of which lie beneath the Island Hide.”

The rusting tank hulks - the chassis of a variant called the Covenantor - were used for firing practice, pulled along the range by ropes and pulleys.

Mr Hawkins said there were records of the Royal Tank Regiment using Titchwell ranges, along with the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards, 13/18th Hussars, 27th Lancers, and the 22nd Westminster Dragoons.

“Between 1950 and 1959, the RAF returned to Thornham Marsh using it as a firing range,” he said.

“Aircraft that used the range were DH Meteors, Vampires and American Sabres.

“The main control tower was erected at the end of the West Bank path and stood in the dunes and on the beach.

“It survived the 1953 floods but was demolished by the RAF on January 18, 1962 as children played in it and it was becoming unsafe. The remains lie opposite the end of the boardwalk.

“In the Sea Buckthorn bushes at Thornham Point to the west of the Reserve are the remains of another military control tower.”

Much of West Norfolk’s coastline was transformed by the 1953 floods, which claimed dozens of lives in nearby Hunstanton, Heacham and Snettisham.

The storm surge that swept down the North Sea also breached the sea wall and flooded the reclaimed Titchwell Marsh.

“There was no haste to arrange work to repair the breach, and the marsh was now covered by most tides, slowly reverting back to salt marsh,” said Mr Hawkins.

“At this time, the dunes and shingle spit began to form. It has been suggested that the original northern sea wall was weakened by the large number of shells (solid shot) that had hit it during its time as a firing range, and that helped the sea broke through.”

The remains of the concrete structures half way along the last section of the West bank path are part of the First World War observation post, which was let as holiday accommodation by a Mr Annis up until 1942.

It was furnished, and people would sunbathe on the flat roof. When the military moved in to use the marsh as the tank firing range, Mr Annis was very reluctant to give up the blockhouse. Apparently, he was persuaded to do so when the Army fired a few high explosive shells into the air.

“Two similar observation posts stood in the dunes on the Brancaster side of the main tidal creek and were operated as holiday homes by Mr Stratton, who was more easily persuaded to move out,” said Mr Hawkins. “The remains of these two buildings still stand.”

A local wildfowler wardened and shot over Titchwell Marsh once the military moved out. Mr Hawkins said he had a hut near the old freshwater marsh sluice - adjacent to the Island Hide on the reserve - and the doors and windows from the old observation posts and elsewhere went to him to help his hut building.

Locals say that at one point cattle on the marsh contracted foot and mouth disease. Instead of notifying the then Ministry of Agriculture, one of their number shot the infected cattle and buried them on the marsh – so saving the remainder of the herd.

Looking to the north east from the end of the boardwalk, a wreck marked with hazard signs can be seen, especially at low tides.

This is the remains of the SS Vina built in 1894, and which was moored offshore to the north of Scolt Head Island (now behind the wreck), and used as a target ship by the RAF.

At some time, the ship dragged her anchor in stormy conditions and finished up in Brancaster Harbour channel.

Conditions around the wreck’s final resting point are treacherous and people are still urged not to attempt to reach her, for fear of being cut off by the fast flowing tides.

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