Last man to live in one of Britain’s ‘ghost villages’ – where 1,000
2nd January 2019

Last man from one of Britain’s ‘ghost villages’ – where 1,000 residents were evicted by the army 76 years ago to make way for a military training area – dies aged 98

  • Donald Balls was the last living survivor of the Norfolk village of Tottington, whose residents underwent a forced and permanent evacuation in 1942
  • The Ministry of War grabbed the land for live-fire training for unready troops
  • A thousand residents were promised they could return after the war ended
  • But the MOD went back on its word and the area remains in Army hands  

The last survivor of one of Britain’s ‘ghost villages’ left empty after the residents were evicted by the British Army during the Second World War has died at the age of 98.

Donald Balls was serving as a signalman for the Royal Air Force in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) when his family and 1,000 residents were forced out of their homes.

The military moved in to Tottington, near Thetford in Norfolk, in 1942 and it was transformed into an infantry training ground to prepare troops for the Battle of Normandy.

The RAF singalman was never able to return to his home and only saw his village again on the odd coach trip – returning for the last time in 2000.

Most poignantly of all, Donald was also forced to leave behind his mother’s grave in the village church.

Donald Balls, pictured above, has died aged 98. He was was the last survivor of the ‘ghost village’ of Tottington which was left empty after the residents were evicted by the British Army

Donald Balls was serving as a signalman for the Royal Air Force in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) when his family and 1,000 residents were forced out of their homes

Donald’s mother Ethel passed away shortly after his family moved to Tottington in 1930, where his father, Joseph, worked as a blacksmith.

Ethel had a baby six months premature and died a few days later from sepsis. Mother and child were buried together at the church.

Donald’s step-son Ian Manser said his father never got over the fact he could not visit his mother’s grave whenever he wished.

Ian said: ‘He always wanted to get to his mum’s grave and I think that was always on his mind.

‘When he heard that his family were being evacuated, he wanted to come home and help them but he wasn’t allowed. He had to stay in Ceylon.

Donald Balls pictured with his beloved dog.  His step-son said he had always wanted to be able to visit the grave of his mother, who died in childbirth and was buried in Tottington

‘He just wanted to be able to visit her grave whenever he wanted.’

Tottington residents were originally given one week to relocate by the War Office but the deadline was extended to one month after a number of villagers refused to evacuate the area.

Some residents were said to be happy to give up their homes to help the war effort but the majority did not want to leave.

They were promised they could return to their homes after the war but the post-War Labour govenrment and the MOD reneged on their promise.

The area remained an army training ground in which troops prepared for live deployment to theatres including Aden, Bosnia and even Iraq.

The people of Tottington felt as though the British army had broken their promise and residents spent years fighting for justice – even pleading with the Prime Minister at the time, Clement Attlee.

Donald Balls who has died aged 98 pictured working in the RAF as a signalman in the 1940s

To this day, the entire village and its parish church remains within the Ministry of Defence’s 1,700 acre training area and visitors must be granted permission to enter.

A war veteran, whose family was also evicted 76 years ago, was the first person to be buried in the ghost town in 2009 after fighting to return to his village for over 50 years.

William Hancock’s son said his father would have seen being buried in Tottington as a small victory in his fight for justice.

Donald was also forced to relocate after the war and settled in Eccles, Norfolk, where he became a postman as well as a church warden at the parish church.

His step-son said he was a much-loved man within the community and often helped out where he could.

Ian added: ‘If he knew it was one of the children’s birthdays instead of just posting the letter through, Don would knock on the door and whistle happy birthday.

‘He really was a great man.’

Later Donald moved to Wilby, Suffolk, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Ian described his step-father as someone who was never worried about anything and who used to say ‘health is better than wealth’.

Donald is survived by his wife, Muriel Manser-Balls, 79, his step-son, Ian Manser, 50, and his two step-grandchildren Stephen and Michael Manser, 24 and 22.

Muriel, who was with Donald for over 20 years, said: ‘He was just such an interesting man. He had so many stories to tell.’

Donald was buried at Eccles Parish Church where he was given a special spot for all his hard work over the years as a church warden.

What were Britain’s ‘ghost villages’: How more than 1,000 men, women and children were forced to evacuate their Norfolk homes for good to make way for army training area

In 1942 the tide of the war was starting to turn but with Europe still occupied by the Wehrmacht, the British Army needed a place to train its troops for the battles to come.

German Blitzkrieg had redefined the art of war, and most serving troops had no experience of the ‘fire and move’ tumult which would meet them on the beaches of Normandy and across Occupied Europe.

They needed to be trained: to learn how to keep their cool and follow orders under fire as bullets zipped overhead and the earth and buildings erupted all around them, under bombardment from tank shells and mortar fire. 

A swathe of Norfolk countryside – 17,500 acres, close to 28 square miles – was selected by the Ministry of War.

The land encompassed three entire villages – Stanford, Tottington and West Tofts – and the parish of Sturston and parts of half a dozen other hamlets.

Under Part IV of the Defence Regulations 1939, those settlements, some of them dating back to pre-Norman times, along with parts of nearby villages Lynford, Ickburgh, Hillborough, Little Cressingham, Merton, Thompson, Wretham, Stow Bedon and Croxton became army training area where troops could manoeuvre using live ammunition.

In all, a thousand people lived in the zone now dedicated to live-fire training exercises with bullets, grenades, shells and mortars. 

Initially an uneasy compromise was reached, with locals allowed to stay in their homes despite the obvious risks.

But when the inevitable happened in May of 1942, and local farmer Chester Riches, 53, was accidentally shot dead, the War Cabinet realised realistic battlefield training could only continue if the civilian population was totally cleared. The villages’ fates were sealed.

The evacuation was fast, and created deep ill-feeling. The reaction of locals, some of whom had never left these tiny hamlets in their lives, was recorded at the time as being ‘deeply hositile.

Vera Czeres, headmistress of West Tofts School, wrote poirgnantly: ‘We were all called to a meeting which was addressed by General Anderson under those lovely Beeches in the playground.

‘He gave us the fatal news.He didn’t have to ask for silence -we all stood there stunned-even the babies and the children were hushed.I don’t think we even discussed it with one another.

‘We just went home too unhappy to speak.

‘The war had taken our husbands and now our homes and way of life was to go.

‘Perhaps that wasn’t so much amongst all the carnage and loss,but it was too much for us to ignore.’

Some of the more elderly inhabitants of Tottington – many of whom were tenant farmers of the local landlord, George de Grey ,eighth Baron Walsingham – had lived their whole lives in the village.

The postmistress, it was recorded at the time, had ‘never been as far as Watton’ – a village four miles to the north.

But after the briefing meetings, where General Anderson told locals that ‘their land was need ‘to train the men to get their nerves steady’ the evacuation went quickly, despite a petition from the villagers to the King, who replied that ‘with heavy heart’ he approved of the decision.

The villagers were relocated and paid a sum of £12. They did not own the land from which they bwere being moved, but hundreds were heartbroken to leave it.

They were unequivocally promised they would be able to return after the war, but the promise was broken. The land proved too useful.

The Stanford Battle Area, known now as the Stanford Training Area (STANTA) remains in MOD hands today, having been used in advance of every conflict from Suez to Iraq.

During the war in Afghanistan, the MOD created an entire Afghan village on the site – people with Ghurkas and Afghan nationals acting as locals and amputee servicemen posing as wounded soldiers.

Many locals refused to give up their fight, fruitless though their efforts were to prove against the British army and government.

Ten years ago in extraordinary scenes William Hancock, who had campaigned all his long life to be allowed to return to the village of his youth, became the first person to be buried in Tottington since the evacuation.

Mr Hancock battled for years for people to be given the chance to return. In 2009 live fire exercises were halted temporarily so Billy, as he was known to his friends, could be buried next to his grandparents in the hamlet’s churchyard.

Mr Hancock’s son, Andrew, said his father would have seen being buried in Tottington churchyard as a small victory in his fight for justice.

‘Over the years he tried to keep the issue in the headlines,’ he said. ‘If he had ever won the lottery he would have taken the Ministry of Defence to court over it.

‘He believed the military had broken their promise.

‘Some villagers went on to find jobs elsewhere in the Breckland area while others were forced to move away from their beloved corner of Norfolk to find work.’

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