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A Short Break in Transmission

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Jim Crofts, Sheila Barnard
Location of story: 
Niton, Isle of Wight
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
21 November 2005

From the beginning of 1941 a series of G.C.I. (Ground Control Interception) radar stations were set up along the south coast of England for the sole purpose of controlling day and night fighter aircrafts to intercept hostile aircrafts involved in carrying out raids on the U.K. The stations in question were Sopley in Dorset, Blackgang in the Isle of Wight, Durrington near Worthing, Wartling near Eastbourne, and Sandwich in Kent. These stations were on the air for 24 hours of each day, but on one day of the week they were required to 'switch off' in order to carry out routine maintenance on the radar equipment. In view of this it was arranged that only one station would be 'off the air' at any one time, and that each station would take it in turn to carry out the maintenance, which usually took one hour. This arrangement seemed to work satisfactorily, but at Blackgang we found to our cost that the enemy was however well aware of this routine.

The date was the 1st of June 1943, and at 10.30am as it was 'our turn', we switched off the transmitter to undertake our one hour's maintenance. For some months Blackgang had proved a 'thorn' in the side of the enemy. Our record of successful interceptions was excellent, and we had also been involved in anti-shipping operations at night with Albecore aircrafts based at R.A.F. Thorney Island, where enemy 'E' boats were intercepted as they returned from attacking our shipping in the channel. On the morning of 1st June 1943 when Blackgang had switched off for maintenance, what was not realised was that the enemy had been monitoring the radar transmissions from the stations along the channel coast and knew exactly which unit was 'off the air'. So on the morning of 1st June, he thought that this was an ideal opportunity to put R.A.F. Blackgang “out of business”. The radar mechanics were busy checking the vital parts of the equipment, the non-technical staff were engaged on a general tidying up process within the operations block, whilst others were involved in a number of other tasks on other parts of the site. We were about half way through our maintenance period when suddenly there was the roar of low flying aircraft and the noise of explosions in the village of Niton, just below our radar station, and where most of our R.A.F. personnel were billeted with local families. We soon realised that this was an enemy low-level attack and everyone on the site grabbed their tin hats and ran for cover. A few more explosions were heard, and in a very short time all was quiet. “Are they regrouping for another attack?” we thought. "It must be their plan to destroy the radar station next!" However nothing materialised, and we all emerged from our sheltering positions to see a pall of smoke rising from the area just south of the radar unit.

The first news of the attack on the village came from two of our airwomen. They had been on their way from the village to the site when they had to run for cover as the first of the enemy planes swooped in from the sea. They reported that several houses had been hit including the Undercliff Hotel, where it was known that a number of army personnel were billeted. Our maintenance over, we were all desperate to finish our watch at 1pm and to find out for ourselves the extent of the damage to the village. Coming off duty, it was not long before we saw evidence of the raid. A row of three houses had experienced a 'near miss' but all their windows were blown out, and many slates were missing from the roofs. It should be mentioned that the village of Niton has two distinct parts; the under cliff that is on the coast, and the main part where most of the shops were situated, that lay inland. My own billet in Downside Avenue was in the upper part of the village, and thankfully had sustained no damage. The Undercliff Hotel received a direct hit and was demolished, and it was understood that there had been a few casualties, some fatal. I talked with a lady who had been in one of the houses adjacent to the sea who actually saw the enemy aircraft approaching the coast, and had witnessed one of the raiders circling the lighthouse on St. Catherine's Point before releasing his bomb on the adjoining buildings. It was later learned that all three Trinity House men who manned the lighthouse had been killed in this attack.

Several other buildings sustained slight damage, but there was one particularly remarkable incident which occurred at the height of the raid. In the under cliff there is an old village inn known as ‘The Buddle’, which in days gone by was a favourite haunt of smugglers, but was now used by the R.A.F. and W.A.A.F. personnel who manned the radar station as their social headquarters. On the morning in question several of those off-duty had been enjoying a quiet drink or cup of coffee, and one of our W.A.A.F.s, L.A.C.W. Sheila Barnard had just finished her drink and was leaving the inn to return to her billet. On the left of the door to the inn there is a lane which leads to the main road, and to reach this lane it was necessary to mount some stone steps. Sheila had just reached these steps when the enemy fighter bombers swept in from the sea. She was half way up the steps when one of the raiders dropped a bomb in the drive leading up to the inn. This did not explode on impact, but instead skimmed the surface rather like a 'Dam Buster' bomb. It continued straight ahead to where Sheila was standing and in it's light, knocked her over. She fell against the stone wall and sustained a broken arm. As for the bomb, this continued on it's merry way, exploding some 200 yards further on in a field of a farm owned by a Mr. Prendergast, a well known local personality. No one was injured by this bomb except Sheila. Surely there are not many people around today who can say that they were knocked over by a bomb and 'lived to tell the tale'! Sheila was taken to the hospital in Ventnor by a few of her colleagues, where her injuries were attended to. Apart from the Undercliff Hotel where a few army personnel lost their lives, and the out-building of the lighthouse where the three keepers were killed, only a few of the houses in the village were damaged, and none too seriously.

On reflection, it was thought that the enemy was under the impression that R.A.F. Blackgang's operations were carried out from one of the buildings in the village such as the Undercliff Hotel, which was completely destroyed. It is however still a source of amazement why no attack was made on our G.C.I. unit on the down land just above St. Catherine's Point, the most southerly headland on the Island, from where our entire operations were carried out. In an effort to avoid any further similar attacks a spare transmitter was installed on the unit, and this was switched on when the main transmitter went 'off the air' for maintenance. This seemed to solve the problem as no further enemy 'hit and run' attacks were made on our area during the period leading up to D- Day.

This story was entered on The People's War Website by Stuart Ross on behalf of Jim Crofts, who fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

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