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- About 5 miles southeast of Cant
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- 23 November 2003
My first really close-up experience of war, which even now, sixty three years later, threatens to make me cry whenever I remember it, happened in 1940 when I was fourteen and working to help with the harvest, near Canterbury in Kent. The Battle of Britain was at its height, and on most days we watched "dog-fights", and sometimes cheered as a Dornier or Messerschmitt fell out of the sky, but groaned if it was one of ours. But it still seemed remote, the distance and the fact that we were not involved, reducing the awfulness somehow.
On this day, as I took a breather from clearing heaps of chaff around the threshing machine, I saw a Spitfire very low down, only a couple of fields away. It was gliding, engine dead, making what appeared to be an excellent forced landing. It disappeared behind a high hedge. Then I saw smoke rising. A number of us set off running to give what help we could, but as we reached the place we saw a terrible sight. The plane was burning fiercely and there was no sign that the pilot had been able to get out. I got as close as I could, about twenty feet, but the heat was intense and ammunition exploding like firecrackers. The pilot was still sitting, roasting, in the cockpit. He wasn't moving.
Half a cow lay on the ground not far away.
Another cow, with a leg missing, was being attacked by several others. The plane must have ploughed into the herd, and the shock and smell of blood and burning driven the rest mad.
We watched for a few minutes with feelings of horror and desperation - impossible to describe - until a Home Guard man arrived and ordered us away for our own safety. The we went back to work. There were no teams of counsellors in those days. We dealt with this ourselves, each in his own way, and the following day cheered or groaned as before.
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