- Contributed by
- Pamela Lee (née Heath)
- People in story:
- Jack and Nielia Heath and children, Cyril, Pam and David. Margery Pinch and children, Valerie and Geoffrey. Marjory Grout and children, John and Betty, Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of El Alamein ("Monty").
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 January 2005
This must be my most vivid memory of the whole war.
The beaches at Bournemouth were all blocked off with concrete pillar boxes, barbed wire, and railings in the sea, and I think, mines, so we couldn’t swim there. Instead we went to Swanage, beyond Poole Harbour and Studland Bay and over the headland to the west. Mummy spent hours kneeling in front of a huge brown trunk, filling it with our clothes and everything we needed for six weeks, and then it went “Luggage in Advance” on the railway and we followed on the train a few days later. My father came at the weekends. I think the trunk was then delivered by Carter Paterson to our holiday home.
We stayed a little outside Swanage towards Ballard Down in what had been an Army Camp. But now the wooden spider huts were all privately owned and had spacious gardens. Ours was called Sweetlands, and we rented it. It was a lovely place to be, and in the fateful August of 1942 that all Swanage people remember we shared part of this holiday with my mother’s great friend Margery and her 2 children, Valerie and Geoffrey, who were about the same ages as Cyril and David.
In the daytime we went to the beach and in the evenings played on the penny slot machines on the waterfront by a great big concrete building that stuck out into the sea which had PLAYLAND painted on its flat top in huge letters. Sometimes we lay down on the promenade to peer into the sea and watch, amazed, as beautiful anemones opened up and showed us their pink insides waving with the movement of the water. There was, of course, no TV for us to watch the wonders of nature. Often at the end of the day we children ran up what we called the cowboy trail that led to the top of the cliffs above Old Harry Rocks. There were rabbits up there, and short springy turf and little blue butterflies — this was Enid Blyton’s Famous Five country.
On Mondays Mummy used to go to the Westminster Bank in Swanage at about 11 am to draw her housekeeping for the week. On Monday 17th August 1942 it was such a beautiful day that she either went earlier than usual or came straight to the beach with us instead of going to the Bank.
THE GERMAN PLANES ATTACK
Cyril was a great plane spotter — we all used to make models from balsa wood kits — and he knew everything there was to know about their size and shape and fire power. Just before 11 am he looked up and saw two or possibly three planes flying very low about 50 feet above the water, and almost immediately they disappeared behind the headland above Old Harry Rocks. He couldn’t think why they were so low, but as he watched they came over the top of the headland and roared down across the beach, machine gunning as they went.
I heard them coming and fell flat on my face with my hands over the back of my neck as I had been taught. So did Cyril and David. But I felt extraordinarily vulnerable, wearing nothing but a bathing costume, and cross, because I had squashed the sandcastle I had taken ages making. As soon as they had passed over us, Cyril looked up to identify the planes, and he thought that they were Messerschmitt 109Fs with rounded wingtips which were very rarely seen, rather than the more usual 109Es with square wingtips. Although the local newspaper ("The Evening Echo") reported that they were Messerschmitt 109Es, a lot of evidence later indicated that they were most probably Focke-Wulf 190s.
Then Cyril saw one of them release a bomb and he sensibly buried his head in the sand again. I must have looked up a fraction later as I saw an enormous splash in the sea like a bomb quite close to us, and we heard more explosions further away. One of these we heard later, was a direct hit on the Bank and the Manager and his wife had been killed.
Valerie and Geoffrey were not so well trained as we were and Geoffrey ran screaming up on to the promenade and his mother Margery ran after him. Up on the promenade people were being hit and killed. I suppose he was about 6 years old, and his mother managed to catch him and bring him back to us, but she hurt herself badly on the railings. We were all very shocked and we decided to go back to Sweetlands, but on the way, as we passed a little Post Office and Stores my mother told me that the owner ran out to say that Daddy was on the telephone. Daddy, of course, had heard immediately that the Swanage Branch of the Bank had been hit and he knew my mother should have been there at that time. He must have been desperate — we had no phone at Sweetlands, but he knew we were well known in this little shop.
I remember it was a very emotional phone call and he was very relieved to hear us, and asked to speak to each of us, to hear our voices for himself. But when the phone was passed to me, delayed shock finally took its toll and my nose bled mightily all over the heavy black receiver. Confusion and muffled gurgles were all he heard. My brothers were disgusted at the mess, and my poor mother had to clean up the phone, apologise to the shopkeeper and reassure my father that, yes, we were all quite all right really. Later we heard that 8 people had been killed and 39 wounded that day — many of those were on the promenade. We also heard that people thought the Germans were trying to hit the concrete building called PLAYLAND because they suspected it of being a submarine base.
THE LATER YEARS OF THE WAR
Shortly after this we bought a large house on the west side of Bournemouth and rented out the 2 top floors as self contained flats. We all changed schools and if we left our gas masks behind we were sent home for them, which for me was a trip of about 5 miles on 2 different buses to Southbourne. I only remember forgetting it once and luckily I hadn’t gone too far. After a year I went to the Bournemouth School for Girls which was much closer to home. But we had lots of daytime air raids and the youngest girls were on the top floor of the school, so every time we heard the siren we had to run down 15 flights of stairs — 3 flights for each floor which went round a large central square stairwell. Then, of course, we had to climb up again.
I don’t know how we had time for lessons. I remember one girl was allowed to bring a banana to school to eat in the playground. I couldn’t remember what bananas tasted like and longed to know, so when she threw the skin in the rubbish basket I waited until no-one was about and took it out and sniffed and licked it. It tasted horrible.
In this new house we had no air raid shelter, but we did have two cupboards under the stairs — one indoors, and one outdoors under the stairs to the first floor flat. This latter had been a coal house but we cleaned it out and used it because the steps above were concrete and therefore very strong. Unfortunately, the quickest way to reach it was through the long sash window in our downstairs bathroom. But the loo was right in front of this window and my poor father used to take refuge in there for some peace and quiet with his pipe and his newspaper. The minute the siren went he would be knocked off his perch and left grabbing at his trousers by a stampede of children, and he couldn’t really complain because we were only obeying our training!
Then the doodlebugs started in London. We had cousins in London, so they came to stay — Daddy’s sister, Marjory, and her two children John and Betty. Mummy didn’t find it easy to share her kitchen, and with only two large bedrooms and a converted larder which was my bedroom, I don’t know where we all slept. One by one we went down with chickenpox. My room was used as a sort of isolation area but it didn’t stem the spread of infection. It must have been a nightmare time for the two sisters-in-law, but I suppose it was better than suffering the doodlebugs.
Two young women lived in the first floor flat and I used to sit on the steps above our air raid cupboard in the sunshine and listen to their tales of the American GI’s and they showed me the glass stockings they gave them, and later, nylon stockings. These seemed like miracles as my clothing coupons only stretched to school uniform and white ankle socks. We used to swap our tea coupons with them for sugar coupons and they taught me to sing along with them ‘Mareseatoats andoeseatoats anlittlelambseativy, kidslleativytoo wouldntyou?’
THE END OF THE WAR
What rejoicing when we reached VE Day! There was a piece of spare ground opposite our house where we used to play. It seemed to have foundations dug in it for a house that was never built. We gathered anything that would burn and made a huge bonfire and stuffed some old clothes to make a guy to look like Hitler and set fire to it. My father had hidden some Home Guard thunder flashes away for just this occasion, and, true to his character, organised us all with regard to safety rules. He made us crouch in one of the dug out foundations well away from the bonfire and then set off his arsenal. They were DEAFENING, much louder than any fireworks I have heard since. He enjoyed himself hugely — and he deserved that — but I think a few neighbours were heard to complain and say that they were frightened by them.
One of the last things I remember is the amazing excitement caused by a visit from Monty whom we had seen many times on the newsreels at the cinema, conferring with the great Churchill, cigar in one hand, V sign with the other hand etc, etc. Monty's entourage was due to drive down OUR road and we waited and waited for him to come. He was our hero, and when his car drove past he looked exactly as we expected — beret, battledress, big smile. He was real, he was alive, he had won the war, and we had been near enough to touch him!
NOTE: For my WWII experiences prior to the Swanage attack, please see "Bournemouth, Bombs, and My Two Brothers."
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