Members of the Womens Land Army picking potatoes near Ashby Puerorum. Centre is Mrs Leesing who lived at Horncastle, she came from Grimsby and was called-up aged 21.
We tend to think of the English countryside as unchanging over the centuries but the Second World War brought great changes to the way agriculture was carried out, introduced new military activity and altered the landscape itself.
Agriculture had been in a depressed state before the war. Imports were cheap and plentiful; less than 40% of the food consumed was produced in this country. All this was to change with the coming of the war and the depredations of the U boat wolf packs in the Atlantic. The German High Command thought that this country could be starved into submission. It is estimated that 1,000 allied ships were sunk in 1940, 1,300 in 1941 and at the peak over 1,600 in 1942. The necessity to increase home production was obvious.
To this end War Agricultural Executive Committees (referred to as ‘War Ags) were set up throughout the country. All farms were surveyed and graded. The War Ags had the power to requisition land that was not being farmed efficiently. We have a memoir from the secretary of the Horncastle District War Ag who recalls the survey of farms and that some 400 were requisitioned because of poor farming practices. In accordance with government policy the War Ags could direct what crops should be grown and ensure that pasture was cultivated for growing arable crops instead. Hereabouts, this meant land in the Wolds which had been pasture since mediaeval times was ploughed up and brought back into crop production.
Prior to the war horses had continued to be the main source of traction. With the advent of war mechanisation increased. The War Ags allocated tractors, Fordsons from Dagenham but also some imported from the U.S.A such as Allis-Chalmers. They encouraged the use of artificial fertiliser.
There were labour shortages. Farming was a ‘reserved occupation’ so that farm workers could not be conscripted into the forces, but many had volunteered at the outbreak of war. The War Ags assisted with labour by allocating workers, including members of the Women’s Land Army (popularly known as ‘Land Girls’). On the farms around Horncastle, most of these young women came from Grimsby, although some also came from the bigger cities. Later in the war German and Italian prisoners of war, such as those from the camp at Moorby were used. Many came from a rural background and were used to farming, and no doubt preferred being active on a farm to internment on the camp.
In place of the pre-war free market all food was purchased by the Ministry of Food at fixed prices and then distributed and sold to the public, again at fixed prices, subject of course to rationing. There were a few exceptions such as keeping chickens or a pig for domestic consumption. With eggs rationed to one per adult a week, this led many people in towns like Horncastle, and even in the cities, to start keeping chickens in their back yard.
But there was much new activity apart from agriculture. Lincolnshire is well known as ‘Bomber County’. At the height of the war airfields covered approximately 30,000 acres of the county and there were 80,000 R.A.F. personnel. Of the 46 operational sites some such as Cranwell dated back to the days of the Royal Flying Corps in the 1910s, whilst others like Manby and Hemswell were purpose built to counter German rearmament during the 1930s. Many however only came into being after the war began. In the Horncastle area notable were Bardney, Coningsby, and Woodhall Spa. These airfields were built from scratch in very little time.
At East Kirkby (which had originally served as a dummy airfield with wooden planes, to deceive the Luftwaffe) 800 acres of farmland were requisitioned in 1942. Spilsby was built on 630 acres of farmland and opened in 1943. Gunby Hall was almost lost to a proposed runway extension scheme there, and was only saved by a personal plea to the King by Field Marshall Massingberd.
High on the Wolds at Stenigot, a pioneering radar station was built as part of the Chain Home system, helping to provide an early warning system for industrial towns of the Midlands. Its 1930s transmitter tower still stands and is now protected as listed building. With so many bases to supply the R.A.F. was in constant need of munitions; an arms depot was established at Market Stainton north of Horncastle, and bombs were even piled along the wide verges in sections of the Caistor High Street.
There was other military activity in our area. Lesley Dixon who lived at Holbeck Lodge, Ashby Puerorum (and who was also secretary of the Horncastle District War Ag) described in 2004 how after the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940 troops were billeted with her family.
“On June 21st the Army arrived and seemed everywhere around Horncastle; masses of people had army personnel billeted on them. Mr. Dowse rang up from Halstead and said that about 50 had arrived and on the 22nd we heard that we all had to have our photos taken for identity purposes. On June 23rd the French-German Armistice was signed.
On June 26th two army vans stopped at the Lodge and a Major Dolman called and said that we would have to billet 300 men and perhaps eight officers including a Medical Officer and a Padre. Next day when I returned from the office a Lieut. Bryden called and then a Major arrived with plans that the men would be under canvas in the woods round Holbeck, the officers to take over part of the house and cottages.
I returned for lunch on the 28th to find the Dining Room full of officers of the 1st Battalion- the Loyal Regiment, a Lancastrian. I was introduced to Lt. Col. John G. Sandie, Major Guy Gibson, Capt, R.S. Doll, Lieut. W. Anderson, 2nd Lieut. Makay and Rev. H.T. Towey. They were all very friendly and were to be in the main part of Holbeck which had a chapel, medical room, laundry and the dairies.
Mother sat at the kitchen table and gave out blankets etc. since they were unable to bring much with them from Dunkirk. They signed for everything and it was all returned. I looked out for books for the men who eventually wrote home to their wives. When they were telling us stories some of them wept when they had to burn their vehicles. The regiment stayed with us until October 21st when they moved into their winter quarters.”
She described graphically the atmosphere when a balloon was sighted indicating that the Germans had landed on the coast, only to find the next morning that it had been a false alarm.
There were also a number of search-light and observer units stationed in the fields. Edward Goodacre was the leader of a group of the Royal Observer Corps observation post at Winceby. This was located behind a hedge off a byway in an exposed position not far from Snipe Dales, with a clear view of the sky in all directions. This post and another at Baumber were manned by civilian volunteers from Horncastle and the surrounding villages. Their job was to identify and report on enemy aircraft for the R.A.F. They witnessed two low flying Junkers 88s come down near their post and another shot down by a Beaufighter. Edward Goodacre went on to be selected to become a seaborne observer for the Royal Navy during the D-Day landings, using his skills to quickly identify enemy and friendly aircraft for the ship’s gunners.
All this activity did not go unnoticed by local children as Derrick Littleworth recalled in 2005:
“It was in the Autumn, when aged about thirteen years, I was standing in the farm yard at East Farm Belchford with three or four lads when we heard aeroplane engines, we saw a spitfire climb up and swoop down firing machine guns at a German bomber then we saw part of the tail of the German plane fall to the ground in the corner of a field from where we stood it would have been about a mile and a half.
The German Bomber was hedge hopping to avoid the anti-aircraft guns. We then got on our cycles to locate the tail part on The Fuletby Road, we then cycled in the direction of where the plane came down at Aswardby. The airmen were taken prisoner by a local searchlight company.
He recalled in 1942 a Beaufighter crashing into the hillside at East Farm Belchford. The two Polish crew were killed. Also near East Farm he witnessed a Hampden Bomber land on a hillside. It had run out of fuel. When conditions were right and it had been refuelled hedges were cut down to allow it to take off from the field.
The face of the countryside around Horncastle was changed permanently by the war. The fields of pasture which had been ploughed remained as arable land. Agricultural practice did not return to pre-war ways. Although the sites of some of the airfields (such as Bardney and Spilsby) were in time returned to agriculture, many remained either as operational stations or to be converted to other use, such as East Kirkby now the home of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.