On 30th August 1940 absolutely nothing happened at Shingle Bay. The government files that prove nothing happened were classified for a hundred years.
I don’t know whether I’m curious because I’m a writer, or a writer because I’m curious. But whatever the case, as we approached the seventieth anniversary of, well, nothing at all, I found myself thinking there must be an article in Shingle Bay. After all, a hundred years seems an awfully long time to have to wait to find out what didn’t happen.
I’d read all the stories in small-press books and on the internet, all the theories and rumours and guesses about the so-called ‘Shingle Bay Invasion’. It was all second hand. Someone knew some other person who had heard what really happened. Someone else’s father was there, of at least, he might have been because he never spoke about that night… I wondered how many other nights on which nothing happened the man never spoke about.
There were reports of burned bodies in German uniform washing up on nearby beaches a few days later. But ‘report’, when I dug deeper, all too often meant that someone had heard about it happening, not that there was any official record. The only actual bodies recorded anywhere nearby were four crewmen from a Heinkel bomber that ditched in the North Sea. That really did happen – the men are buried in Ipswich.
The most widely-told story of Shingle Bay had it that the Germans tried to invade Britain, but were thrown back into the sea. Dock workers in French and Belgian ports apparently noted the build-up of troops as the Germans prepared to invade. They chose this six-mile stretch of Suffolk as it was relatively undefended and a beachhead could be established that would include a nearby airfield to bring in the main invasion forces.
But the British got wind of the attack. The area was evacuated, and the invasion was beaten off. The British army – demoralised and defeated at Dunkirk a few months earlier – managed to drive the might of the German military, which had already conquered the rest of Europe without so much as blinking, back into the sea. They inflicted a defeat so devastating that Hitler had it hushed up.
And then they didn’t tell anyone, in case the British people got demoralised.
A more plausible theory – and again one with no factual basis at all – was that the whole thing was a propaganda ploy. This theory suggests that the Political Warfare Executive put out a rumour about an invasion attempt that never happened in order to boost morale. A variation of the theory suggests that maybe it was also to explain burned British bodies washed up after some accident or attack they didn’t want made public.
To be honest, I’d have dismissed it all as yet another wartime myth with no basis in fact – if it weren’t for the fact the files were classified. And not just classified under the Thirty Year Rule, but for a century. To my mind, the biggest secret of the war was the existence of Bletchley Park, codenamed Station X, where Britain cracked the unbreakable German codes and secretly invented the computer. All of which was made public decades ago. How could something that so evidently never happened be more sensitive than that?
So it was that on a chill afternoon in early May, I found myself walking across the shifting pebble beach of Shingle Bay.
The evacuation did happen, such as it was. Single Bay boasted, if that’s the word, a single street of six houses.
There is also a small and rather unnecessary church built by a rich medieval landowner who hoped to move further up the queue for the Pearly Gates. Like the houses, the church has been abandoned since June 1940 and it shows.
The land is still owned by the Ministry of Defence, but leased to the National Trust who open it on certain days. If that means they have to go to the trouble of unlocking a gate somewhere on an overgrown single-track road, I’d be surprised.
I was pretty sure that I was the only person within five miles. The ground shifted under my feet with every step. The shingle rattled and scraped as the waves first pushed it forward then dragged it back. Sea gulls circled above me, their cries like laughter as they watched me wasting my time and getting cold.
When it started to rain, I knew I was achieving nothing apart from putting off the process of actually writing. So I turned and headed back towards where I’d left the car on the cliffs overlooking the bay.
The rain became a downpour as I scrambled up the path. It was much steeper going back up than I remembered coming down. By the time I reached the top, I was exhausted and drenched. The cries of the gulls had been superseded by the rumble of thunder that echoed down from an iron grey sky.
I’d started out with a vague notion of digging into the shingle to uncover the petrol tanks that one rumour insisted were buried there. Looking down at the expanse of shingle below, I realised what a crazy idea that was. If seven maids with seven shovels dug for half a year, as the Walrus might have said, they’d probably not have found the most enormous tank or pipeline…
The wind clawed at my coat. I put my head down and battled along the path. The rain was so heavy now that I could barely see. But gradually, a dark shape emerged.
If I’d only reached the church, that meant I still had a way to go. At least I’d left the car on what passed as the roadway, despite being tempted to drive across the fields to get as close as I could to the bay. If this rain kept up, I’d have been bogged down and stranded. I stumbled into the porch and out of the worst of it. Surely it couldn’t keep up for long. If I hadn’t already known what stair rods looked like, I could have got substantial clues from standing there watching the rain fall.
The church’s main door was surprisingly robust, and obviously it would be locked. But I tried the heavy iron ring that served as a handle anyway. To my surprise, the catch lifted and the door swung open. Inside the church was almost dark. Several of the windows were boarded up, others almost intact. The rain rattled angrily against what was left of the stained glass. There were no pews, and the bare flagstones were pitted and cracked. Plaster had fallen from the walls and whitewash was peeling like paper.
I walked slowly along the nave, towards the altar. A stone font leaned drunkenly where the base had crumbled away on one side. The choir stalls were still there, and standing incongruously on the shelf where choirboys must have laid their hymn books and Psalters was a thermos flask. The top was off, and steam was rising from inside.
I just stood and stared at it. How did that get there? The answer was obvious, of course. But I still jumped when a voice said:
‘You look like you could do with a coffee.’
The man was sitting in the choir stall, shadowed by the wall. He leaned forward as he spoke. ‘Help yourself.’ He held out the lid of the flask which doubled as a plastic mug.
He leaned back again as I poured. The strong smell of the coffee mingled with the unmistakeable odour of tobacco.
‘Just don’t tell me it’s no smoking in here.’ His laughter became a rasping cough and he thumped himself on the chest. ‘If it’s going to kill me, then I’m in the right place,’ he said when he’d got his breath back.
He asked me who I was and why I was there. So I told him. He nodded as if that was what he’d assumed anyway.
‘James Stoner,’ he introduced himself. ‘Used to be Jimmy Stoner, but Jimmy’s a name for someone younger than me, I reckon.’
He was probably in his sixties. As my eyes grew used to the gloom, I could see that he was completely bald. Even his eyebrows had gone. But his skin was pale and fairly smooth. His eyes were sunk deep into his face, and black as pitch. But they were alert and constantly flicking back and forth as if he was used to keeping track of everything that happened around him.
‘It’s a listed building, you see,’ he explained. ‘Can’t let it fall down. One day maybe the Trust will come in and renovate it properly. Till then I keep it tidy. Mow the grass in the graveyard.’ He paused to let the wind and rain noisily rattle the east window. ‘Shan’t be cutting the grass today.’
‘Why you?’ I wondered.
‘I guess because I used to work for the MOD, though that seems a lifetime ago now. Ministry of War, not Defence, it was back then.’ He stared off into the gloom, and I guessed into his memories.
I thanked him for the coffee. Since I wasn’t going anywhere until the rain died down a bit, I asked if I could help him with anything. I didn’t know what – sweeping up plaster maybe, or checking the boards on the windows were properly fixed.
‘That’s all right. I’m done for today. Once the rain stops I’m heading home.’
We finished the coffee and he smoked another cigarette, offering me one which I declined.
‘So,’ he said at last, ‘you want to know what really happened here back in the war?’
‘Did anything happen?’ I wondered. ‘Does anyone actually know?’
‘Oh they know all right,’ he said quietly. Something in his tone made me shiver. ‘Of course,’ he went on after a few moments, ‘you won’t believe a word of it. Nor should you.’
‘It can’t be any stranger than some of the stories about this place,’ I told him.
He looked at me with something close to pity. ‘There was a whole other war,’ he said. ‘A war that no one else ever knew about. A war that officially never happened. It’s been going on for centuries. Longer than that. But for some people, this place – Shingle Bay – this is where it started…’