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Cold War secrets leave their mark on Norfolk's Stiffkey marshes

A circle carved into the marshes at Stiffkey, Norfolk, is a reminder of the Cold War whirligig which launched dummy planes
The whirlygig circle on Stiffkey marshes where 'top secret' dummy planes were launched

North Norfolk’s saltmarshes are renowned for their peace and tranquillity - but they also hold secrets from the Cold War with Russia, and from Britain's fight against Germany in the Second World War.

It is on the Stiffkey marshes that the UK's only rotary launch pad was based for top secret state-of-the-art aeroplanes designed specifically for target practice.

The village was chosen by the War Office in 1937 as the base for an army anti-aircraft training ground. And for 17 years from 1938 to 1955 (when the camp was closed) many British troops and anti-aircraft gunners - and later American gunners - received intensive training in the art of precise shooting.

In the early days of the camp, a line of Bofors guns - anti-aircraft autocannon - fired at targets towed by aircraft flown from nearby Langham airfield.

Later - during the Cold War against Russia - the targets were top-secret radio-controlled dummy planes launched from 'the whirlygig' which can still be seen.

A post which helped launch dummy planes stands proud of the marshland at Stiffkey
The rotating post at the centre of the whirligig circle is a reminder of the area's Cold War past

Many other clues to the shoreline's military past remain. Military buildings have been converted to workshops, offices, and as agricultural storage for some of the land which has been returned to farming.

The former Officers’ Mess has been converted into the Maritime Heritage Centre called Rescue Wooden Boats. This small museum has a section devoted to the history of the military camp at Stiffkey.

The former Guardhouse is used now as offices for High Sand Creek holiday camp. The NAAFI building along with the barber, butcher and the chapel are now all part of the farm buildings.

And the main hall, with its projection room, and what was once 'the best dance floor for miles around', is used for farm storage. Behind giant bags of fertiliser, hand-painted murals covering the walls still remain. They show a variety of military scenes painted by a serviceman in 1946.

The row of Bofors guns facing seawards have gone but concrete blocks where the guns were fixed can still be found.

Head west when walking or parking at Stiffkey marsh National Trust car park (just 4miles from Blakeney towards Wells next the Sea) and a few hundreds yards along the coastal path towards Wells is the whirlygig's main tell-tale sign: the 300ft diameter (91.5m) circular tarmac pad with an iron stick in the middle.

This is the whirlygig, believed to be the only rotary launch pad in the UK for the highly secret radio-controlled planes made by the American Air Force during the Cold War of the 1950s. 

Unmanned radio controlled aircraft, known as RCATs (Radio Controlled Aircraft Targets) with a wingspan of more than 12ft (3.50m), were laid on a trailer tethered to the whirlygig. The aircraft was rotated to reach the speed of around 85mph before being released to lift into the air. This allowed it to fly under the direction of those with the remote control.

An aerial view of Stiffkey showing the whirlygig circle and the army camp buildings (on the right) which still remain
An aerial view of Stiffkey shows the whirlygig along the coastal path and the remaining army camp buildings (right)

The aircraft, controlled from the ground, were used as targets to train anti-aircraft gunners and gunners for the B-29 Superfortress bomber - the largest aircraft operational during the Second World War.

The RCATs could duck and dive like any enemy aircraft the gunners were likely to face.

These model Radioplane 19 were monoplanes built of metal or wood and weighed about 320lbs (145kg).

They were capable of flying at more than 200 miles per hour (322kph) and were fitted with a 4-cylinder 2-stroke engine of about 72 horsepower, a radio receiver and control system and basic flying controls.

After each flight, the aircraft either glided or were parachuted back to ground or occasionally crashed into the marshes. Some are thought to have struck houses in Stiffkey.

Villagers would search the marshes keen to recover the ‘bounty’ from the downed planes – the silk parachutes for making clothes and petrol from the aircraft engines for the fishing boats - at a time when fuel was still rationed.

Many ramblers today stumble across the tarmac circle and the whirlygig when walking the Norfolk coast path between Stiffkey and Warham. There are examples of these ‘whirlygigs’ in the United States but this is thought to be the only one still left in the UK. A video about the Stiffkey military camp: Norfolk Uncovered Stiffkey Camp and the Whirlygig is on YouTube.

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