WARTIME Southend was a place of secrets. Some of these have had to wait until the present to become public knowledge.

The town was a sealed zone, out of bounds to all except the military and those residents who had not been compulsorily relocated for the duration of the conflict.

Because of these restrictions, few people knew about the 1943 visit of a man who by then had become a national hero and one of the best-known wartime leaders, Lord Mountbatten.

All was finally revealed this month when Joy Colbeck arrived in Westcliff bearing an historic photograph.

It shows Lord Mountbatten ringed by some of the leading top brass of the Admiralty.

They had arrived in Southend, for all the world like a party of day-trippers. The occasion was the official opening and inspection of HMS Westcliff.

Westcliff wan't a ship, but a huge, naval transit camp, home to more than 3,000 military personnel.

It stretched along the seafront and cliffs, from Peter Pan's Playground (now Adventure Island) to Chalkwell.

Mrs Colbeck, now a widow, came to Southend as a Wren.

She lived and worked in the town, providing administrative back-up to HMS Westcliff and the preparations for the 1944 Normandy landings.

She rose to be first a leading Wren, then a petty-officer.

On the day of Mountbatten's visit, petty-officer Colbeck stood and listened as the great man delivered a morale-boosting speech to her and her fellow WRNS servicewomen.

She recalls he stood on a box, "though I'm afraid I can't remember a word he said," she admits.

Mountbatten's visit was a sign of the importance attached to this area. At the time he was head of Combined Operations, the unit responsible for developing the skills of seaborne landings.

The entire Essex coast was a hotbed of training for the assault on the beaches.

While here, Mountbatten would have toured other bases, including Burnham-on-Crouch, a naval and military centre where Mrs Colbeck also served.

The people in the photograph represent a gathering of the big guns by any standards.

Behind Mountbatten's right shoulder stands Chief of WRNS Mocatta, the officer commanding all the Wrens in England, ashore and afloat.

To her left is Joy Colbeck's boss, Elizabeth Bowen-Jones, who before the war had worked as the script girl in films produced by the legendary producer Alexander Korda.

Joy was already an old Southend hand by the time Mountbatten arrived.

She had been seconded to Southend, in August 1942, and billeted in a room at the old Overcliff Hotel.

Initially, she served at HMS Leigh, the name given to another rather landlocked vessel, Southend's Royal Terrace.

One of her tasks, she recalls, was to deliver mail to the naval ships moored out in the estuary.

"We'd go to the end of Southend pier, then catch the duty boat and go from ship to ship, dropping the post off as we went," she says.

She recalls the Estuary packed with ships of every size and description for the lead-up to the Normandy invasion.

"Then, on the morning of June 6 (the date of the D-Day landing) we woke up, and there wasn't a ship to be seen."

She and her boss would often work late. Then Joy would return to her hotel.

"Dinner would be in the oven, but by then it often wasn't worth eating. So I'd go down to one of the cafes in the Palmeira Arches and have cheese on toast.

"The lady there had a great lump of cheese and she used to let you grate it for yourself."

HMS Westcliff was full of eligible young naval officers. One of them, Gerry Colbeck, was second-in-command of naval staff attached to HMS Westcliff.

The pair met at a dance at the Kursaal. They were married in March 1945 and celebrated with dinner at the Grosvenor Hotel.

Their courtship had been conducted against a background of dislocation.

Soon after meeting Gerry, Joy was moved to the naval commando base at Burnham-on-Crouch.

A crack unit of 700 assault specialists was being trained at the camp, in Creeksea Place. Among their challenges was to swim the width of the Crouch in full kit.

It sounds exciting, but Joy's memories of the place are scathing. "It was a dreary place," she says, "a real backwater."

Sundays, in particular, were a dismal experience. They were made worse by the absence of a Sunday train service.

As a means of escape, the naval authorities laid on a landing craft.

Joy's journey to visit her husband-to-be sounds extraordinary, especially to anybody who knows the River Crouch today.

"The landing-craft would take us up-river to Wickford," she recalls.

"Then we simply caught the train from Wickford to Southend."

In those days, before the double-whammy of embankment and siphoning for water supplies, the Crouch was a very different river.

Before the war, it had been something of a centre for boating. "It was a surprisingly quick journey along the Crouch, a very efficient service," Joy says.

Joy suffered a breakdown after her brother was killed in an accident involving his Wellington bomber.

She was also traumatised by the explosion of a V2 rocket over Burnham-on-Crouch.

Her memories of wartime Essex are not entirely positive. Yet one place, at least, has gone on shining in her memory.

After the war, Gerry and Joy settled in Hemel Hempstead.

Essex became just a memory. Then, 60 years later, and ten years after Gerry's death, Joy came across an advertisement for holidays at the Grosvenor Hotel. Remembering that long-ago dinner with Gerry, she decided to return. "I couldn't believe how little the hotel had changed," she says. "And it's the same with the town. After all those years, it's as I left it."