Operation Fenlands

PUBLISHED: 14:12 29 March 2007 | UPDATED: 13:54 04 May 2010

Floods took over

Floods took over

OVER the weekend of Saturday, March 22 and Sunday, 23, 1947, engineers from the Ministry of Agriculture made a reconnaissance flight over the flooded areas, marking the places where pumps would be needed most. By Monday, pumps on loan from the Admiralty,

OVER the weekend of Saturday, March 22 and Sunday, 23, 1947, engineers from the Ministry of Agriculture made a reconnaissance flight over the flooded areas, marking the places where pumps would be needed most. By Monday, pumps on loan from the Admiralty, National Fire Service, Army and Portsmouth City Council, were on their way to the Fens. The first one was running the following day.

Local engineers were helped by the Navy and NFS to erect and run the pumps. There were many cases where the pumps had to be adapted and makeshift parts were brought in from every part of the country. In one case, the electrically-driven pump was so far away from the nearest electricity supply point that a three-and-a-half mile cable had to be run across the fen.

Running the pumps took huge amounts of petrol. All formalities for supplying the petrol to the Fenland Drainage Authorities were waived; one authority used 10,000 gallons in the first week alone. The RAF helped to get the petrol where it was needed most and rigged up lights so that the pumps could run all night.

Seventeen large bore pumps also came to the area from Holland. This is a lovely story of mutual help; the pumps had originally been provided for the Dutch by the Allies during the war to help them clear flooded land. Altogether, the Ministry of Agriculture assembled 260 large pumps in the Fens, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire.

On March 31, the general flood situation was under control and there appeared to be no more threat to banks breaching across the Fen area. The spring tides had receded and river levels had fallen back to more manageable levels. Attention was now turned to Operation Fenlands, clearing the flooded land of water.

The sheer hard work of getting the pumps to where they were needed most is difficult to imagine. The land was sodden and the motors had to be placed in inaccessible places that lacked road access. In one instance, it took 24 fireman five hours to drag a single pump trailer less than one mile through mud and water. The petrol then had to be carried over the same route in four-gallon cans.

Once the pumps started work, the floodwater was removed at an amazing rate. This operation was further improved when the permanent pumps, which had been submerged under the floodwaters, re-emerged and could be used again. Areas where the flooding had been relatively shallow were quickly cleared. Places where the water had flooded to a depth of 15ft or more took much longer to drain and were not clear until the end of May and, in some areas, well into June.

The Battle of The Banks, published by the Rotary Club of Ely at the time, states that the total acreage deeply flooded when pumping operations commenced were: At Over and Willingham Fen 2,500; Haddenham Fen 10,000; Chear Fen 1,500; Lakenheath 3,000; Hilgay 600; Feltwell 6,000; Northwold 1,200.

One reader, John G Stevens, was a schoolboy at Culford School at the time and has sent me his Fenland Flood project from July 1948, when he was 14 years old. John gives the stark reality of what people in the Fens were facing.

"By now the water is going down and people are getting an idea of their losses. Many houses are falling down owing to weak foundations. Hardly any windows remain and doors hang loosely on their hinges.

"Most people stored their furniture in the upstairs rooms, but the rats got at the clothes and blankets and made them unusable. Most farm buildings are ruined and also some machinery which could not be got away."

Despite this, the Fen farmers were still able to produce a harvest in 1947.

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