Water invasion in battle of the flood

LAST week s account ended on March 14, 1947, with the Cam flooding parts of Cambridge and Waterbeach. That evening, the River Great Ouse broke through at Bedford, temporarily relieving land and settlements further upstream in the Fens, but inundating Bed

LAST week's account ended on March 14, 1947, with the Cam flooding parts of Cambridge and Waterbeach.

That evening, the River Great Ouse broke through at Bedford, temporarily relieving land and settlements further upstream in the Fens, but inundating Bedford, in places with up to six feet of water.

Realising the potential threat of flooding, local men, aided by troops and German prisoners-of -war, worked desperately to try and secure the banks using sandbags and gault clay along the top of the riverbanks where the water was at its height. In total, 3,000 men worked to try and save the acres of rich fenland, which was providing needed food for the war weary of the country.

By the morning of October 15, the water level had risen so much that it was literally spilling over the top of the banks. Fields next to the Great Ouse and the tributary of the Cam were flooded. By midday, the road from Cambridge to Ely (now the A10) was closed and at 2.15pm the railway from King's Lynn to Ely became impassable.


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Throughout Sunday, March 16, the situation was critical, water in the Wash, the Ouse and its tributaries was rising rapidly. Men were still endeavouring to sandbag and clay the banks, but the dilemma was where the supplies were needed most and how to get them there. The river levels had risen so much that the gault barges were unable to get under the bridges, so they had use smaller vessels or carry the bags along the banks. This reduction in supplies meant each load was being washed out of the gap as soon as the next arrived.

Then in the afternoon a depression from the Atlantic brought rain and severe gales to the region. Mildenhall recorded the strongest gust of wind in the country at 98mph. Buildings were damaged and fallen trees blocked every road into Ely. In East Anglia, the major rivers flow north-eastwards; the storm force south-westerly winds raging that day whipped up the floodwaters into waves with sufficient force to break through the banks. For a time those working in the appalling conditions amid mud, water and the bitter winds had to abandon their task.

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Dawn on Monday, March 17 broke quietly after the storms of the previous night. The morning light that day revealed the damage. The Ouse had broken a 12-foot breach in the bank at Over with thousands of acres of farmland lying under water. The floodwater had also reached the low-lying areas of Over, Willingham, Fen Drayton and Swavesey and the surrounding area. At Little Thetford, there was another breach and the landlord of the Fish and Duck had to be rescued by boat.

The rising waters continued remorselessly and on March 18, the water in Over Fen poured across the channel of the Old West River into Hillrow Fen at Haddenham. In places, the water was 12-feet deep. The following night of Wednesday, March 19, the River Wissey broke its banks and flooded Hilgay West Fen.

Eventually, the army was called in bringing tanks, Bailey bridges and extra manpower. The battle of the floods was turned into a large-scale military operation based in Ely.

At night, searchlights beamed across the fens so work could continue around the clock, but it was further hampered by the strong winds that lashed the flood waters against the outer side of the banks. This made the banks vulnerable from both sides and it was a desperate race to stop any further breaches.

With all the high winds and rain of the past week, driving through the Fens past river banks often higher than the roads and wash land already lying covered in water, serves to highlight the continuing need to manage the river and drainage systems here.

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