Plugging the breach

PUBLISHED: 13:20 01 March 2007 | UPDATED: 13:51 04 May 2010

THE collapse of the culvert at Southery on March 22 allowed water to rip through a 30-yard wide chasm into Feltwell Fen. Those who had spent the entire week fighting to prevent such a catastrophe were heartbroken and could only watch as the water inundate

THE collapse of the culvert at Southery on March 22 allowed water to rip through a 30-yard wide chasm into Feltwell Fen. Those who had spent the entire week fighting to prevent such a catastrophe were heartbroken and could only watch as the water inundated thousands of acres of precious farmland.

After the 22nd, conditions began to slowly improve, the pressure on the banks reduced because of the huge breaches at Over and Southery. On the 23rd, the A10 between Cambridge and Ely was reopened. The problem now was that where the breaches had been torn in the floodbanks these had to be filled to once again to contain the rivers. The flood waters then had to be pumped from the fens back into the river system.

On March 24, the Minister of Agriculture, Tom Williams, reported the position of the farming community to the House of Commons. The winter had claimed the lives of four million sheep and lambs, three million of them in the hill farming regions, plus 50,000 head of cattle. Frost, snow gale and blizzard followed by flood had all wreaked their havoc.

In the Fens, the main concern for the Government was the damage to the winter wheat, potato crop and spring sowing.

Williams guaranteed grants to the catchment boards and the clearing of internal drains and farm ditches. He also announced the setting up of an Emergency Advisory Committee to restore food production and finally gave tribute to those farmers and workers who had toiled through the winter of 1947.

"Their work has been heroic," he said.

Back in the Fens, 1,000 people had been made homeless by the floods at Southery alone. The water had ripped through houses and the debris and lumps of ice whipped up by the continuing winds did further damage. Plagues of rats, fleeing from the flood, had sought refuge in the drier parts of houses, causing further destruction. Some reports suggest the rats had attacked and eaten cats.

On March 24, Operation Neptune began. This was the closing of the breach at Over, where the flow had sufficiently reduced and proved successful by the 25th. Work on the Wissey gap was delayed until the 29th, to allow the waters to subside, and took four days to achieve. The speed and volume of the initial breach had scoured deep holes in the banks. To staunch these, a barrier was needed that would not be immediately swept away by the still fast flowing torrent.

The plan at Over was to use 16 Army amphibian load carriers with sandbags and tarpaulin. At the signal they moved into place across the breach to form a box. Sommerfeld steel-mesh track was then lowered over the side of each "duck" and simultaneously tarpaulins were dropped and loaded down by sandbags. From the moment the tarpaulins were in place the flow of water reduced and overnight more sandbags were put in place, until, by dawn, the breach was watertight.

This account makes the operation sound much easier than it was, but it only worked by the sheer determination and hard work of all those involved. The same can be said of the breach at Wissey. Here they utilised "ducks", barges, Anderson air raid shelters, layers of clay and a mattress made from clay and willow.

As a small child I was led to believe that a finger was enough to plug a breach in the wall of a dyke. I realise I must have been mistaken.

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