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An eventful visit to Roman Wood in 1940

by Surrey History Centre

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Surrey History Centre
People in story: 
Luke Toft
Location of story: 
Slinfold, Sussex
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
07 December 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site at Surrey History Centre on behalf of Mr Luke Toft. It has been added to the site with the author's permission, and he fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

It was the long hot summer of 1940 when I went to stay for a few days at Clemsfold, near Horsham, Sussex, where my uncle had a timber merchant business. The 'phoney' war had ended with the withdrawal of our soldiers from Dunkirk and an invasion of these islands was feared. Since Dunkirk, the working hours had increased and the working week was now seven days with the eighth day off, even for a sixteen-year-old like me. Living and working on the southern side of London there was no alternative but to continue life as normal, despite the aerial combat taking place overhead, as more or less every day the fighting continued for the whole day.

Uncle had a contract to supply charcoal for gas masks, so we were told, and he had obtained the services of a charcoal burning family to make the charcoal for him in Roman Wood. The wood stood beside the line of Stane Street, the Roman road linking Chichester with London, hence its name. Even in the apparently tranquil countryside, there was an element of danger around us as one of my uncle's haulage contractor friends had been shot up by the enemy while driving his lorry along a road.

While I was staying at Clemsfold, Uncle's lorry was calling at Roman Wood, so I went along with my baby Brownie camera to see the charcoal burners at work. The charcoal burning site was in the middle of a clearing and all the operations took place there so I photographed them all, except the crude 'wigwam'-like shelter in which the 'family' lived while the burning was in progress. I remember being told that it was not unusual for children to be born in such shelters, presumably in earlier times, as there were no women present during my visit. When it was time to leave, we looked up and saw a man on a parachute coming down out of the sky near to us so we set off to be present when he landed.

On arrival, we found that the parachutist was a German airman riddled with bullet wounds. To my astonishment, he did not have a flying suit on, only his uniform. We had to leave after this and on the way home we noticed a building beside the Slinfold Road which was on fire (an orphanage?) with a crashed aircraft on it. The aircraft on the burning building was probably the one the German airman had flown during combat. Excitedly I photographed the burning house only to have my camera seized. Eventually my photographs were returned minus those of the burning house.

This was just one of the many unforgettable memories generated during the ten months or so bombardment of London during 1940/41, the 'Blitz'.

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