Norfolk's Military Heritage by Neil R. Storey
September 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War and after five years of special events, exhibitions and projects to commemorate the First World War this book looks at the long military history of the county of Norfolk from its early fortifications and conflicts between the Iceni and the Roman occupiers right up to the end of the Second World War, hopefully there will be many stories and images that will be new to the reader, even if they have enjoyed studying local military history for many years. That's the enduring grip such a subject has on a historian, there is always something new to discover, even if you think you know a subject well.
Norfolk is one of England's largest counties, it still has thousands of acres of rich, fertile agricultural land and has had human settlements since the earliest times, along with their resulting conflicts. Add to this a coastline stretching nearly 100 miles from The Wash to Hopton-on-Sea with a number of natural harbours and navigable waterways and dear old Norfolk has been a target for raids and invasions down the centuries too. Perhaps these are some of the reasons why Norfolk people have a natural propensity for standing up for themselves and what they believe is right. Famously, in ancient history the Iceni were led in battle by Queen Boudica in a campaign that almost drove the Roman occupiers out of the British Isles and that fighting spirit remains in the blood, mingled with that of the Saxons, Vikings and Normans.
I wanted to show a variety of perspectives of the earliest fortifications, not just those visible at ground level and John Stevens kindly allowed me to use some of his brilliant aerial photographs of Norfolk's remarkable early fortifications such as the Warham 'Ring,' Burgh Castle and Castle Acre, and even took a few more especially for the book. Notably, during our exceptionally dry summer of 2018 the marks of the ancient roads buildings and walls of Venta Icenorum the Roman administrative centre that was established over the old Iceni settlement at Caister St Edmunds, had not been quite so clearly seen for years and having seen many of the old images of the site in black and white from when it was first discovered it was great to see them in colour at last.
Norfolk people have risen in rebellion on numerous occasions against oppression and to defend their way of life, notably during the Peasant's Revolt in 1381 and Kett's Rebellion of 1549. Ultimately they faced forces that were larger and far better armed than them but rise they did and made their point.
During the English Civil War despite being predominantly in favour of the Parliamentary cause both Royalists and Parliamentarians made their stands in the county and many Norfolk men joined Regiments that fought in some of the notable actions of the war around the country. Captain Robert Swallow raised the 'Maiden Troop'of Cromwell's Ironside cavalry in Norwich and ultimately Norfolk formed part of the Eastern Association which proved to be the backbone of the Parliamentarian forces by late 1644.
Norfolk fighting men have demonstrated their steadfastness and courage in battle again and again, notably through two World Wars. Lieut-General Sir Brian Horrocks summed this up in his special introduction to the volume on The Royal Norfolk Regiment in the Famous Regiments series in which he said:
'The Royal Norfolk Regiment has always been renowned for its steadfastness and reliability in difficult situations. In fact it is the sort of Regiment which all commanders like to have available in order to plug a difficult gap. This staunchness has been developed over the years, for wherever the fighting was fiercest, climatic conditions most vile and the odds against victory most daunting, the 9th Foot was sure to be there.'
This spirit is also reflected through the service of Norfolk personnel in the Royal Navy, in the Royal Air Force and even among those on the home front through dark times, danger and disaster. The veterans many of us knew from the First World War are now all gone and sadly those who answered the call on both the home front and on active service during the Second World War are fading away too. I hope, in some small way, this book will encourage new generations to appreciate their experiences and sacrifices and will provide inspiration and a good starting point for future research.
Norfolk has been the scene of riots, rebellions, sieges and military actions over past centuries and the landscape is dotted with earthworks, defences, moats, fortified manor houses and latterly pillboxes and other fixed defences from the First and the Second World Wars. Some of these are now long gone, others are ruins and some remain remarkable bastions to this day. This book does not attempt to be encyclopaedic but I hope it will highlight some of the most interesting places and inspire a visit to those open to the public. Above all I hope it will introduce the story of our local regiments and our military past to anyone with a budding interest in the subject be they Norfolk born and bred, resident or visitor and deepen their appreciation of Norfolk's rich military heritage.
Neil R. Storey's new book Norfolk's Military Heritage is available for purchase now.