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The Guardian Angel of RAF Mildenhall

For centuries, the ‘dust devils’ of East Anglia have been summoning storms which can wreak havoc in seconds – or, in the case of RAF Mildenhall, prevent it.


The Brecks is a wild land created by the retreat of glaciation, pocked with pingo holes left behind by the Ice Age and covered in loose soil: ‘Breck’ means ‘broken ground’ and reminds us that early man has always struggled to grow crops here. A honeycomb of rabbit warrens, conifer plantations, dark meres and grassland form Breckland which has long been a stronghold of the military by virtue of its many airfields, training camps and infrastructure.

 

It is here that RAF Mildenhall opened for business in 1934 shortly before the outbreak of World War Two, immediately making this area of the region incredibly vulnerable to enemy air attack.

On a clear night in 1940, RAF Mildenhall’s control tower received a message: the Luftwaffe was on its way with the air base in its sights. Within minutes, the whole base was awake and ready to respond as the low drone of approaching aircraft began to be audible: preparing for a dogfight, the first planes began to request permission for take-off.


And then, they saw him.


There, standing in the middle of the runway was a man dressed in a long coat, preventing planes from taking-off – and just as plans were made to remove him, he lifted his hands into the air, holding what looked like a flute. Those close to the ground then heard what sounded like a tune…and as the notes began to flow, the sand began to lift from the ground in huge clouds, like a brown tidal wave.


The sky turned black as the base was cloaked in gritty fog which grounded the planes on the runway but, more importantly, sent the German planes scrambling back over the North Sea to avoid catastrophic mechanical failures.


When the story of what the airmen had seen reached the villagers, they shared with them the story of Old Roger, the name given to these brief but deadly storms that arrived without warning.


In 1942, a lone German plane evaded detection and began to make its way towards Mildenhall: on another clear night, the sound of the plane was audible…but so was the breathy sound of a flute. Old Roger was back, whipping up the wind and chasing the German plane away.


Did Old Roger raise a dust Devil like this one in Arizona?

Whistling up the wind is one of the most common forms of weather magic which has been practiced for hundreds of years and can be used to summon either a gentle breeze or a storm: it was often said to be the preserve of witches. Some people were said to be able to literally whistle for the wind while others would make a ‘wind whistle’ from alder or willow wood, or use a glass bottle to blow a hollow note. The storms said to have been whipped up by Old Roger – a folklore name for the Devil – were said to have been made with a wooden flute of this kind.


In Ernest Suffling’s 1892-published The Land of the Broads, he wrote: “I would caution amateur yachtsmen against one unseen danger which appears to be peculiar to Norfolk, and that is, beware of ‘Roger’! 


“Who, or what is ‘Roger’? Well, ‘Roger’ is a whirlwind which occasionally strikes yachts before the crew are aware of its approach. 


“I was once nearly overturned and sunk by a ‘roger’ whilst a tent on shore was taken up in the air and carried a distance of 80 yards.


“These whirlwinds do not last more than a minute at most, generally less, but are, during that period, perfect little tornadoes.”


“When the freshwaterman sees the waving of the reeds and sedges, he knows a ‘Roger’s Blast’ may hurl himself and his craft to the bottom,” said Robert Forby in his Vocabulary of East Anglia in 1825, while Sir Walter Rye spoke of strange whirlwinds called ‘Roger’s Blast’ in 1877. These were, he said, fairly common in Wroxham, Woodbastwick, Horning and South Walsham – today they are more commonly known as dust devils and are whirlwinds that spiral up from warm ground or over water.


In the American Philological Association’s publication of 1895, an article about Roger’s Blast said: “The superstition of a blast of wind caused by the Devil and used to work harm to mortals comes out in the old stories of witchcraft and witches themselves were thought to have influence over the air and sold winds, as they told stories, to the marines.”


Witches calling up a storm. CREDIT: Wellcome Collection

More recently, in 2001, the BBC reported a mini tornado said to be a ‘Roger’ by those accustomed to the name which lasted only 15 seconds but created a column of debris half a mile high as it swept across the Broads. Wooden holiday houses and roofs were lifted, telephone and electricity poles and trees fell and sheds were lifted and deposited a quarter of a mile away.


Witness Graeme Coles said that he and his grandmother Kath Taylor were preparing the family’s riverside holiday home for visitors when the winds hit on October 6.

"We were having a cup of tea and just looking at the trees and saw this blast of wind coming up, he recalled, “it got stronger and stronger. The windows rattled and the floor was shaking, it was like an earthquake.


"Out of the corner of my eye I saw something flying past the window and thought it was either my boat or next door's roof. Our shed crashed and some of it was carried quarter of a mile across the fields.


"Our sailing dingy, which was in the garden, got lifted up over a fence, which is about five-feet high, and over to the other side. My grandmother said it was like being in the Blitz.”


On www.the-norfolk-broads.co.uk, an even stranger tale is told of Tornado Day in 2001 by message board poster expilot: “We had just returned from a shopping trip and had parked on Potter Staithe to load up our boat that was moored there. 


“A torrential downpour appeared from nowhere.  Three little lads were fishing on the staithe. They took shelter under a tree.  As suddenly as the rain came, it went - as if someone had turned off a tap.  We loaded the car.  


“One of the lads suddenly shouted out, ‘Tornado!’ In my best teacherly guise, I was about to remonstrate with him that we didn't get such things in Norfolk.  I followed the direction of his gaze.  Over towards Repps all hell had broken loose.  A menacingly dark coloured spout of branches, roof tiles, straw, tarpaulins - and that was just the recognisable debris.  


“There must have been tonnes of the stuff up there defying gravity.  It wasn't a breath of wind on the staithe, but what sounded like a freight train was approaching fast.  


“With a mind of its own, it crossed the A149 and followed the Thurne for a few hundred yards before crossing over and heading out towards our riverside bungalow and then the North Sea. 

“We took our shopping home with some trepidation as to what we would find.  Absolutely nothing.  Nothing looked amiss throughout our journey.  The bungalow had survived this onslaught. The kettle went on.  


A calm looking River Thurne at Potter Staithe. CREDIT: Alan Hawkes/Geograph

“Before the kettle boiled, the phone rang. It was Riverside Holidays Limited. I do all the emergency maintenance for them throughout the holiday season. Could I pop up to ‘Silver Ley’ - a letting bungalow about four hundred yards beyond ours. Hirers had reported some ‘Wind damage’.


“The sight which met me defied belief. Silver Ley had no roof, the bungalow next door had lost some roof tiles and the next bungalow upriver, Freshfields had also lost its roof.  


“Bungalows either side of these three had not been touched, to the point where one still had its plastic furniture on the lawn with the chairs tipped up toward the table to keep the seats dry. 


“Silver Ley's hirers had just arrived from Yorkshire. The tea had been made and the ginger nuts put on a plate ready for the start of the unique holiday of a lifetime. The tea was dribbling down the walls, the biscuit plate was embedded in the wall.  


“The contents of the kitchen were in the lounge. The hirers were shocked, distraught and ready to make the return trip to Yorkshire. 


“A herd of Friesans chewing the cud in the marshes and now surrounded by splintered timber, felt, roof tiles, electricity cable and unrecognisable debris, had been lifted off their feet, but now continued their meal as if nothing had happened.  A dinghy sat propped up on its transom supported by a shattered telegraph pole. 


“And the roofs of the two bungalows?  We found half of one.  Despite a walk of more than a mile across the marshes towards the sea, we never found the other three halves!”

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