Army joins fight to save flooded Fens

PUBLISHED: 10:07 15 February 2007 | UPDATED: 13:48 04 May 2010

ON the fateful night of March 16, 1947, when the River Ouse was breached at Over Fen, the main concern of the Fen Office at Ely was the River Lark. While communications in other areas in the Fens were down, a signals unit from the Cambridgeshire Universit

ON the fateful night of March 16, 1947, when the River Ouse was breached at Over Fen, the main concern of the Fen Office at Ely was the River Lark. While communications in other areas in the Fens were down, a signals unit from the Cambridgeshire University Officers' Training Corps had been brought in and set up a skeleton system of radio communication. The focus of their communication link was along the banks at Prickwillow.

As a result of this, a large force of men and sandbags was sent to try and prevent the breach. The gale was so severe here that the men were unable to stand on the top of the banks. Their attempts to get men and supplies into place were further hampered by the trees blocking the road from Ely to Prickwillow.

So worried were those in charge that a breach here was just a matter of time, that police were sent through the area warning people to leave at once. There were no street lights, there was a storm force gale blowing up to speeds of 98mph and the rain was lashing down in torrents. Furthermore, no one was quite sure where the bank would burst. It must have been terrifying.

With a few small possessions the evacuation took place in the dark. Some of those moved were old and infirm, many had young children. In total, seven hundred families were moved in one day. A few were housed in temporary billets in towns not threatened by flooding; the majority went to the aerodrome at Mildenhall. In spite of the fierceness of the gales those who could went out to help. One woman served tea all night to the workers and those who had been

evacuated from their homes.

Despite everyone's worst fears, a breach into Middle Fen at Prickwillow was prevented. The slipping in the bank continued and the pressure of the water from the swollen River Lark exerted so much pressure that willow trees on the fen side of the banks had their roots slowly torn out.

Every available person, from farmers, villagers, prisoners-of-war and engineers worked incessantly putting sandbags and tarpaulins in place. On the morning of Monday, March 17, wooden stakes arrived at the site and while the job of bagging continued, dozens of stakes were driven through the creeping mass of the bank. The slipping began to slow down until eventually, in the afternoon, it stopped.

The work was not over and the men carried on working into the early hours of March 18. They had saved thousands of acres of the precious fen from being flooded.

However, those endeavouring to protect another of the Ouse tributaries, the Little Ouse, were not so successful. The bank was breached in two different places. The worst, just downstream of Wilton Bridge, allowed water to pour northward into Lakenheath Fen and the second broke through the other bank into Feltwell Fen.

The position on March 18 was that there was extensive flooding along the River Ouse from Waterbeach to Stretham and Little Thetford, the breach at Earith had flooded Over Fen and Hill Row towards Haddenham and Sutton and the Little Ouse had flooded parts of Lakenheath and Feltwell fens. But the water levels were still rising; the height of the flood had not yet been reached.

In the early hours of that Tuesday morning, the Fen Office had reached a decision to call in troops and equipment. A few hours later Ely began to resemble war-time headquarters, with military vehicles everywhere, dispatch riders coming and going from the city, and radio aerials and searchlights being erected in trees. This was not merely a local issue; the Government was throwing resources into containing the damage as best they could, because the threat was to the nation's already scant food supplies.

DID you experience the 1947 floods in Ely? Would you like the chance to pass on your experience to our historian Lynne Turner?

Lynne will be at Ely Museum on February 22, from 1.30 to 3.30pm. She will have some photographs of the floods for people to look at and hopes to record some personal experiences for a record that can be kept at the museum for future generations. Refreshments will be provided.

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