World War II
2000 troops were stationed on the island
during the threat of invasion.
The Headquarters of the
Royal Army Corps Motor Boat Company was stationed nearby.
The coastal defence of the area around Mersea Island was the responsibility of the Coastal Artillery who had 4.7 inch guns in location on the island.
The battery at Cudmore Grove Country Park had 2 guns and supporting searchlights. It was guarded by pillboxes.
West Mersea was defended by a second Coastal Artillery emplacement.
After the war one gun position became the Two Sugars Cafe and a searchlight position the Searchlight Café.
These are excerpts from letters sent by Noel Beadle to his family during his posting at Mersea with 373 Coastal Defence Battery between 1940 and 1942.
Noel attended Officer Cadet Training at Catterick in 1942.
He married a local girl from West Mersea
just after being commissioned and was posted to
North Africa the week after his wedding, which took place in Mersea on 4.2.1943
Last night - on duty - we had a string of bombs a few hundred yards away - in the river as usual - which shook the camp from the bottom up. As usual no damage.
[Noel does not give a location for the camp in his letters. 373 battery was stationed in the area around Willoughby Avenue and Victoria Esplanade. One of the gun emplacements and the searchlight building survive to this day. There is a sketch map dated October 1941 which shows the buildings occupied by 373 battery - see MAP_WW2_001 xxxx . There were also gun emplacements in East Mersea at Cudmore Grove. It is not yet known if these were manned by 373 battery.]
May 1940, a quiet time in Mersea.
Last Monday I shot for the Battery in a match with the local Home Guard. You'll be glad to hear that my prowess with the rifle still continues, though there's plenty of room for improvement. I scored 86/100, second best on our team, but miles behind the best of the H.G.'s, who knocked out a 96. However, we won easily by our consistency.
Cold Feet 9 January 1941
Well, we're straight again - for a time at any rate. Like you, I was hanging on to see if "todays mail" would bring another letter from Buxton; and apparently my will-power won.
The first thing you will want to know is that I am once again, like the weather, in an anticyclone. The last few days have in fact been very enjoyable. We have had a terribly cold time since Christmas, and for the last 10 days the ground has been snow-covered down to the edge of he sea. But the sun has been out since Wednesday, and the air dry and frosty. Each morning I have kept to my vow to keep my feet warm, and while this has been difficult it has, as I said, made life very pleasant. Cold feet are the greatest bugbear we face, for while we have a virtually unlimited supply of woollen vests, shirts, leather jerkins, and so on, to keep our torsos warm, out feet do not meet with such consideration.
Air War 27 January 1941
We had another air-battle at last on Tuesday of last week, when the clouds were unfortunately so low that we didn't see it. Nevertheless the racket was deafening, and the m.g. bullets were dropping like hail. The bomber which was being attached must have got into difficulties, because he unloaded all his bombs at once, luckily just on the mud between us and the village. Most were incendiaries which went deep in the mud and made a very peculiar volcanic effect. Each bomb-hole became a small crater, spouting up fire and smoke in great bursts, and with a loud roaring or fizzing noise. There were dozens of these miniature volcanoes erupting for close on a quarter of an hour.
One plane must have been badly hit, because lots of pieces came showering down, including some white hot pieces which floated down like verey lights. We were all waiting for the Jerry to come crashing through the clouds, but to everybody's great disappointment it seemed to get away over the sea - probably in the clouds.
Defence Exercise 27 January 1941
Another bit of excitement - for the village, occurred when we had a "Defence Exercise" one afternoon. During the morning we set up dozens of tin cans, old doors and beach hut shutters, out on the mud at about 3 - 400 yards. After dinner we had a general 'practice alarm' and the whole of our positions were manned. After a bit of gun-drill, during which an imaginary target ships came close inshore, we received the order "Prepare to defend all positions with rifle-fire." When we all cracked off 10 rounds apiece - at the tin can Jerries.
It was good fun, and with Lewis guns as well made a hell of a racket for a few minutes. Funnily enough, an air-raid warning sounded just before we started firing, and this combined with the distant boomph of bombs on the Thames Estuary, led quite a large number of villages to jump to conclusions. They even phoned up from the police station to know whether the invasion had started.
The Winkler 27 January 1941
The funniest sight of all, however, was one which only I and one or two others saw. A winkle-catcher had come ashore on the mud during our preparations, and his boat - and himself to start with, were concealed by some of the larger of our targets. When we started firing, he leapt into life and scuttled through the mud to his boat at an amazing speed. Then he rowed furiously away, his oars flashing in and out of the water as though propelled by machinery. Luckily he was ashore on forbidden territory otherwise he might have made things hot for our O.C.
Sleep Perchance to Dream 21 April 1941
Air-raids have returned again after a long absence. It has been awe-inspiring to hear the planes going over on the last big London raids - a constant hour-after-hour roar that gets inside your head after a while and stops you thinking coherently. Or if you get to sleep, one dream follows the other, and all semi-nightmares.
However - I mustn't paint too gloomy a picture - for one very soon recovers one's spirits as soon as there's five minutes silence, or one shaft of daylight.
Target Decoy Fires
The worst night we've had was on the second big London raid, when they put a bomb barrage over the Eastern counties at the same time. Approaching the Island in the bus from Colchester, round 9.30, it seemed as though the whole sea was on fire, and great red flashes were leaping up behind this white glare of incendiaries. As we walked from the bus to the front, several of these peculiar flash-bombs went off overhead - a blinding flash of white fire followed by a terrific bang. (They say they're for photographic purposes).
This firework display went on for hours after we were in bed. It is difficult to see why they wasted so may thousands of bombs on such a wide rural area. The only concrete damage they seem to have done was to delay railway traffic for a day by unexploded bombs, and knock a few houses in Chelmsford.
Sandwiched between these raids, we had an "invasion" on the Island. An attacking force of 500 shock troops ( Kings Rifles ) landed by M.T.B.'s at dawn and attempted to capture Mersea as a bridgehead.
On the qui vive all night, we quickly caught the first of the speedboats in our lights. He circled around, laying a smokescreen which partially covered the advance of the other boats. However, we successfully got our guns laid, and were adjudged by the umpires to have sunk 4 of the 6 invaders, which doomed the invasion from the start.
From here, the manoeuvre was carried out on the assumption that none of the boats had been hit. They landed successfully round the back of the island, and the 500 troops had a battle with the local infantry. They lost half their men before they reached the village, but managed to capture the H.G. headquarters. All they could spare to storm our Battery was 50 men with Tommy and Bren guns - and though they shot up one of our outposts and captured the Sergeant's Mess, we caught them in an ambush before they reached the guns, and they surrendered. So, the invasion was rather easily squashed - which would probably not have happened had they been able to use their dive-bombers. These were immobilised by very low cloud and rain which swept in from the sea just before dawn.
Med Ex 2 June 1941
Yesterday we had a large scale 'medical exercise' designed to test the ARP and casualty depots of the island. I spent a lively morning driving load after load of casualties from our Battery (which had suffered severely from dive-bombers), to the ARP depot in the centre of the village. They were very efficient, and the manoeuvres were declared a great success. Most successful from the troops point of view was the treatment of our worthy 2/Lt. Charlton. By a vicious piece of humour on the part of Captain Mitchell, 'Charlie' was adjudged to have fractured his spine in the course of his duties in the B.O.P. (Battery Observation Post). This serious injury made it impossible to remove him except by strapping him to a wooden form and bearing him like a flagstaff down steps and over hedges to the lorry. Here he was balanced precariously on the sides of the truck, and driven like a trussed fowl through the village to the ambulance post.
But even here his indignities weren't over. He was considered too serious for the casualty ward where he was unloaded, and transferred to a long pram-like vehicle, in which he was propelled gaily down the main street (still strapped flat) to an improvised hospital ward in a village church.
Reading between the lines 2 June 1941
... more the other night. They missed our bridge by hairsbreadths, which was lucky for many reasons, not all of which are printable except in between the lines. Others blew yet more holes in fields of corn - and all made the most ferocious whistling I've ever heard. Everyone on the island must have dived for cover that night, thinking that their last moments had come; but in fact not a cow or a cottage was harmed.
Rupert's tale 2 June 1941
Last night however, I enjoyed myself at the expense of the officers, who like the proverbial flea, discovered other fleas upon their backs to bite 'em'. I was on duty down here in the BOP - and round about 8.30 Durrell and Charlton came in to explain in a circuitous fashion that they were going out to the village for a quick one, thus leaving no officer in camp. There was, they said, only one chance in a hundred that they'd be wanted....
But it was the hundred to one chance that came off. The powers that be decided that the night was propitious for a spot of knavery - so they sent a fleet of MTB's over from Brightlingsea without lights. The first I heard of this was when the Adjutant rang up from Clacton in a state of great excitement and demanded an officer. Regretfully I had to tell him that I could get one in a quarter of an hour - a hopeful estimate. Thereupon he blew up in the best adjutant style and asked for the Sergeant Major. Inquiries showed that this gentleman was also missing, and after a few purple passages and injunctions to get an officer "instantly", Clacton rang off.
After that I worked fast. I dragged a protesting Dispatch Rider from his bed and sent him off for his motor bike; rang up all the pubs in the village until I ran the miscreants to earth in the billiard room of the Sailing Club; sent the D.R. off post haste; and sighed a sigh of relief.
But my troubles were only just beginning. Before I'd finished sighing, the Major rang up and wanted to know what the 'ell. I stuck to my story that the officers would be back within ten minutes, but the Major had a suspicious mind and said well if the battery was being run by a bombardier he supposed he'd have to talk to a bombardier. Whereupon he revealed that even as he spoke, there were numerous MTB's skulking up the opposite side of the river, and we'd better not let them get by, or else....
After that I did more telephoning around, got the searchlight engines running and the lights manned, and exposed just in time to catch the MTB's. Luckily, at the point the BSM arrived, and shortly afterwards the officers slunk in sheepishly and took charge with rather a shaken air. We had a merry hour chasing the speedboats up and down the river with our lights, and when finally they saw we'd woken up after a very doubtful start, they made off back to their base.
This morning the Major phoned to say that he is coming over this afternoon and is staying the night; so our two subalterns have been wearing a somewhat preoccupied air. Unfortunately the whole battery knows that they are about to receive "a rocket" - so they are finding it rather difficult to uphold their proper dignity.
Regimental 8 August 1941
Once again we have changed our routine, which has been pepped up one stage further in our transition to a "regimental" battery. We now have regimental guards, and twice as many parades as before. It costs a hell of a lot in blacking during this muddy weather. Sometimes we have to clean our boots five times in one day - once for breakfast parade, once for 9 o'clock parade, once for dinner parade, again for 2 o'clock fatigue parade, and finally for tea parade. Inspection at each one. It can't last long - that's one consolation. We've had these fevers of spit and polish before now. Nevertheless each time as the spit recedes we are left slightly more "regimental". This progress being fostered by our reputation of "show battery" in our group. They send all the staff officers to us for demonstrations on 'how the thing's done' - and I often think - well, if the others are worse organised than we are then God Help England (and me if the censor sees that!)
Parachutists 31 August 1941
Nothing happened till well after dawn - when smoke signals indicated that parachutists were landing in our rear, and Lysanders dived - bombed us with bags of soot, and cut us off completely from the world by destroying all phones and our wireless.
Only a few parachutists escaped the local infantry, and these we captured quite easily. A second attack in the afternoon cost us a few casualties, but the enemy was caught in the rear by an armoured car from the infantry.
That night we weathered two more attacks, more by good luck than good judgement. For by this time our outer wire was in a sad state and enemy patrols were coming in without trouble. Only the fact that our blackberry bushes are so confusing, saved us.
On Saturday we met the full weight of an enemy infantry column who had crossed from the mainland and pinned up the local infantry in a fortified area beyond the village. More divebombers. Real gas (tear & choking gas). Smoke bombs which blacked out the whole camp for quarter of an hour at a time. Tanks & Bren carriers.
We had some glorious scraps that day. Luckily I wasn't...
Alarm and excursions
Every time we caught an enemy patrol we managed to get behind them and wipe most of them out - usually with captured Tommy guns. Then we had hand to hand battles with the survivors, with rifle butts and fists and anything else that was handy. This went on for the best part of four hours, half the time in pouring rain. The tanks and Bren carriers got all tied up on our pseudo minefields, except one, which was caught by an infantry armoured car, again at a critical moment. Then a target came sailing up the river and we cracked off at that with the guns - the only time we fired seawards during the whole exercise.
Saturday night was again full of alarms and excursions, and everyone was just about passing out. We'd been up since Wednesday with scarcely any sleep, and nothing to eat except bully beef and biscuits. Every time we had ten minutes respite and we weren't on patrol or lookout, we just lay down and went bang off to sleep.
The final attack came at 4.30 on Sunday morning, and was for me the most exciting of all. Once again I was out with a patrol, and we caught the enemy just as they got through the outer wire (we'd been up half the night repairing it). There were dozens of them - so we fell back and stalked them through the bushes. I'd sent a man back with a message and he brought another party out, who tackled them from the front, while we wiped them out from the rear with grenades, which you strike like a match and which go off with a terrific flash - bang. The umpires allowed me to be the only survivor; and I escaped into a bush after a wrestling match with a sergeant in the wet grass. After that I worked around and sniped another dozen before I was finally shot myself. Funnily enough, exactly at the moment I was bumped-off I put my hand on a broken bottle, and sliced two of my fingers badly. So I retired to the ambulance dept in a very bloody condition.
By this time it was dawn, and we just had time to mend the wire again and eat a few biscuits before we heard the blessed words "All over. Resume normal routine." By nine we had cleaned up the shambles in the war-shelters, washed off the accumulations of sweat and grime - and then just flopped onto our beds. I have just woken up and had something to eat. It's nine o'clock, and I'm still ready for bed - so I'll close this narrative now for another ten hours' sleep.
It's been good fun, though highly exhausting.
In September 1941 Noel attended a final interview board for a commission.
He then went to Catterick for his Officer Cadet Training .
In 1943 as a 2nd Lieutenant he was posted to 266/67 Field Regiment Royal Artillery in Fakenham.
The week after his wedding he went to Scotland with his Regiment and thence to Algiers in North Africa.
Evading capture by German Paratroops during heavy hand to hand fighting at Banana Ridge, he stayed in Tunisia until his next posting.
The Anzio Landings.
He was wounded in the stalemate of the Anzio battles,
but went on to much enjoy his visits to Rome and Florence.
On 2nd September 1944, a few days after writing his last letter home, Noel Beadle was driving a jeep leaving Florence towards the Gothic Line. Some way behind him his Commanding Officer was driving in a second vehicle.
Approaching a junction in the road, Noel turned to signal to him. As he did so, his vehicle hit a landmine and totally disintegrated.
Lt Hedley Noel Beadle 67 Field Regiment Royal Artillery is buried in Florence War Cemetery.
From The Journal of Buxton College.
Notes to the forces.
It is with great regret that we record the loss in action of one of our earliest honourary members in the person of Lieut; H.N. Beadle. The loss of "Doc" (as he was affectionately known to his friends) will be most keenly felt by all who were privileged to know him. He was keen of brain and fit of body, and was one of the most brilliant scholars and best athletes who ever passed through Buxton College. He had the characteristic modesty of genius and as large a circle of real friends as any young man ever possessed. His wife and his father and mother have the sympathy of us all.
Tennyson has written his epitaph:
'Oh selfless man and stainless gentleman'.
Ruth Martin who married Noel Beadle in October 1941, was the daughter of Alfred and Gertrude Martin of Les Hirondelles (now No. 14), East Road, West Mersea. Gertrude had been Headmistress at East Mersea School for many years, and Alfred was a local builder. After Noel had been killed, Ruth returned to her parents home in West Mersea and later reverted to her maiden name.