Battle of the banks

PUBLISHED: 15:13 01 February 2007 | UPDATED: 13:45 04 May 2010

MY last two articles have given an overview of the events of the Black Winter of 1947, but of course there are human elements to this story. Statistics state that the Great Ouse above Earith was discharging 50 per cent more water than ever recorded. Thi

MY last two articles have given an overview of the events of the 'Black Winter' of 1947, but of course there are human elements to this story.

Statistics state that the Great Ouse above Earith was discharging 50 per cent more water than ever recorded. This was measured at 19,000 cubic feet of water flowing per second. This was 3,700 cubic feet per second more than a leading engineer, asked to draw up plans for a Fen flood protection scheme before the war, had estimated as the maximum amount of water possible in the river system without flooding.

I have no concept of the effect this amount of water would have.

However, when I read that from March 10-14 the river water rose in this eastern area of the Fens by eight feet in four days, the picture starts to form. As the waters from the thawing snow discharged into the local river system, people watched the rising water in disbelief, unable to do anything to stop the disaster about to follow. For them the questions were when, where and who?

The control room for the battle was the Fen Office at Bedford House in Ely. On March 14, the order went across the Fens to stand by the banks, the 'Battle of the Banks' had begun. In every area, patrolmen (local men) wrapped in their warmest clothes against the cold and armed with torches walked the banks, looking for slips of earth, weak points and possible breaches.

Reports of possible threats were reported to the Fen Office which sent out teams of men to shore up the banks. Flooding did occur in places. There are photos of Annesdale in Ely, with the water just under the highest step into the Cutter Inn and the underpass at the station was three feet deep in water.

It was March 16 and the following morning that proved fateful. In the morning, the winds meant those patrolling the banks could hardly stand, let alone work with any speed. Men recalled how they had to hold on to fences, stiles, anything just to give them a hand-hold. The wind whipped up the water and swept sand bags from position, doing far more damage than the floodwaters themselves. Icy water was blown up soaking through their clothes. Food supplies from the NAAFI at the Princess of Wales Hospital were sent out, but access to the men out in the Fens proved difficult.

In the afternoon the wind turned south-westerly and turned to gale force, averaging 67 miles per hour. The clay-filled bags protecting the bank tops were now being swept away and in places the men had to be withdrawn from work because the conditions were so ferocious. Over that terrible night working in the darkness with winds of hurricane strength, groups of men tried to protect over 250 miles of banks.

The rivers were full, the wash plains were full and the wind was blowing huge waves up the rivers. Flood water was prevented from escaping by the tide moving up the river. Men trying to get tugs and barges (weighted down below the recommended level to get under the bridges), had to move against water that had turned back on itself.

As the night wore on these groups worked in increasing isolation, communications with Bedford House broke down, meaning that they were working blind. Compelled to carry on, battling to contain their own part of the bank, the men were unaware of what was happening around them.

In houses throughout the Fens, families sat listening to the maelstrom, only too aware of the water levels and bombarded by the howling winds.

Many remote homesteads had no electricity. Those who had men out working the banks had no idea if their loved ones were safe, all they could do was wait.

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