Bid to uncover Norfolk’s secret Cold War history

Researchers want to find out more about Norfolk's Cold War history.

Researchers want to find out more about Norfolk's Cold War history. - Credit: Archant © 2007

It was a time when the world teetered on the brink of a major global conflict which, mercifully, never came.

For more than 40 years, the Cold War chilled the globe, with the conflict, tension and competition between the United States and Soviet Union and their respective allies.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Suez Crisis, the Vietnam and Korean wars, the Space Race were all products of a battle fought through proxy, propaganda and psychological warfare.

The likes of John F Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro, Leonid Brezhnev Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev played their parts in the Cold War at various points from the mid 1940s to the early 1990s.

But, so too did Norfolk and Suffolk, with communities at the front line of a 'secret war' fought in the fields and towns of the region.

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And the impact of the Cold War in East Anglia and the significance of the region's role in the conflict will be explored as part of a major new research project.

Led by the University of East Anglia, Cold War Anglia aims to improve people's understanding of the social and cultural impact of the period, and its legacy, by examining the history of some of the region's Cold War installations.

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East Anglia has been chosen for the research because it contains the full range of Cold War sites.

Locations involved in the project include the former RAF Coltishall airfield and the radar station at RAF Neatishead, in Norfolk, and Orford Ness in Suffolk, which was a nuclear weapons and radar research facility during the Cold War.

Also part of the study is Grove Industrial Estate near Thetford, formerly part of RAF Barnham, which was one of Britain's first nuclear bomb storage facilities and one of only two of its kind that were built.

The year-long project will also look at the history of civil defence preparations in Norwich and the involvement of volunteers in the Civil Defence Corps.

It will also look at the work of the network of Thor nuclear missile sites in Norfolk, such as the former RAF North Pickenham, where missiles were put on readiness to launch in the Cuban missile crisis and where CND demonstrations took place in the late 1950s.

The project is funded by a £52,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and will be led by UEA's Centre of East Anglian Studies.

The UEA team, including landscape and Cold War historians, is led by Dr Richard Maguire, a lecturer in public history.

He said much of the historical research to date has focussed on the high level policymaking and military strategy, or national movements for and against the conflict, but little attention has been paid to how it was fought closer to home.

Dr Maguire said: 'The scale, significance and, most importantly, the impact of the gradual, and rather secretive, militarisation of the region in the period remains largely uncharted.

'This is a consequence of the secrecy of the Cold War itself, but also because the focus of historians has been on the global Cold War, rather than the Cold War as fought at a local level.

'The front line of this 'secret' war lay in the heart of Britain's regional communities, both rural - where nuclear weapons sites, listening stations, airbases and laboratories sprang up next to small villages and at the end of leafy lanes - and urban, where the rapidly expanding armaments industry drove the development of new towns.

'The consequence of this involvement was that villages and small towns across the nation faced the prospect of devastation at the hands of Soviet nuclear and conventional weapons that was unprecedented, even during the Second World War.'

As part of the study, community and local history groups are being urged to take part. They will get training to conduct oral history projects to capture the memories of those who lived near or worked on the region's Cold War sites.

They will also help carry out documentary research and landscape surveys to record and map the current status of the region's Cold War environment, much of which is now falling into disrepair or being destroyed.

Dr Maguire said East Anglia found itself at the front line of the Cold War because of its geographical position and the number of different facilities it contained.

He said: 'East Anglia is unusual in the UK because it contains the full range of Cold War sites, from nuclear weapons stores, missile launch sites and military airbases, to radar and intelligence stations, nuclear and conventional research laboratories, as well as new towns built around high-technology defence industries.

'This makes it especially suitable for this work, but many of these locations are under threat and their preservation is a pressing issue that will be an integral part of the research programme.'

The UEA team will work with specialists from the other project partners, such as Norfolk County Council, which spent £4m to snap up the former RAF Coltishall site, the National Trust, which manages Orford Ness, and Keith Eldred, who owns Grove Industrial Estate and has preserved the buildings and layout of the site.

David Gurney, historic environment manager at Norfolk County Council, said: 'Norfolk was very much in the front line during the Cold War, but the story of how we were so very close to nuclear war has yet to be told using our local sites.

'We look forward very much to working with UEA and local communities to make the story of the Cold War in Norfolk more accessible.'

The university's East Anglian Film Archive, which has a collection of films from the Cold War period, is also involved, as is English Heritage, which has been working closely with Mr Eldred at the RAF Barnham site and on Cold War heritage more widely.

A website at has been created for the project. A book, community events and conference are also planned.

Any individuals or groups interested in taking part in the project should email or write to Dr Richard Maguire, School of History, University of East Anglia, Norwich Research Park, Norwich, NR4 7TJ.

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