- Contributed by
- Isle of Wight Libraries
- People in story:
- Bert Hookey, Don Whiteman, Jack Chandler, Len Ward, Tanny Barham, Jeff Mansell, Nurse Lazenbeath, Lieutenant Edgar
- Location of story:
- Hayling Island, Hampshire; Chichester, Sussex; Romney Marsh, Kent; Newport, Isle of Wight
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 December 2005
A 3.7 inch gun after a premature explosion
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bernie Hawkins and has been added to the website on behalf of Bert Hookey with his permission and he fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
Before the War I was in the Isle of Wight Territorials, so I was called up early, on the 19th of August 1939, and joined the 219 Battery of the 57th Wessex heavy anti-aircraft unit. After a couple of days at Sheringham, Norfolk, we were sent down to Cosham. We got two 3 inch guns from the drill hall and took them by rail from Havant to Hayling Island. There, we had to build the north battery with civvy contractors. After that it was Moorlands, just outside Portsmouth, where we saw our first action. I remember we brought down a Heinkel bomber — the shell went straight through it! Up the road at Hayling there was an officers’ training school and at times the young officers would come down to the gun emplacement and watch us go into action. After a while it would be their turn and we would put them straight.
Early in 1941, we moved to Sinah battery, on the south of Hayling Island. The concrete gun emplacement was already built and armed with 4.5 inch naval guns which had been taken off ships. We were protecting two airfields: Tangmere in Sussex, which had Spitfires and Hurricanes, and Tanners Farm, near Reading, where Flying Fortresses were based.
On the gun site we were only allowed to fire in a certain arc. Targets out of that arc were left to our fighters who dived down with machine guns going full bore. When they succeeded they would swoop over us and do the victory roll. Dogfights were a common thing to watch.
On the 17th of April, at 8:00 in the evening, we had a visit from the Jerries and went into action. That night the Germans sent over 150 planes, dropping over 100 tons of parachute mines, and high explosive, incendiaries and flares. I was on No. 2 gun, and I remember Don Whiteman coming off No. 3 gun to me to say goodbye — he thought it was the end.
The order came to lay down in the guns. I threw myself to the ground. I saw Jack Chandler still standing. He was literally scared stiff. We were all scared, but Jack looked as if he couldn’t move. I grabbed him and pulled him to the floor.
A parachute mine dropped just outside the emplacement. The next thing I knew was Tanny Barham and Jeff Mansell coming with tabletops for stretchers. They told me to lie still, but I tried to get up and felt blood running over me like water from a hot kettle. They took me to the other end of the gun position, but had to tip me into a trench on the way because they heard another bomb coming down. Two nurses came to pick me up to put me in an ambulance, but they had to send for another one when the first was hit by an incendiary. They were VAD nurses from the Royal West Sussex Hospital. One was called Nurse Lazenbeath and the other was Admiral Whitworth’s daughter. I was only half conscious, but I remember seeing dead bodies laid out as they took me to the ambulance, and seeing a parachute mine hanging in a tree and one of the nurses saying, “Thank God we got past that!”
That night we fired over 2,000 shells and brought down 5 bombers. We lost 6 men; one of them was Len Ward (from Gunville), who was on the firing handle on the other side of the gun from me. (I had been on the loading side operating the breech and electric hammer.)
So I was in the hospital, black and blue and bashed about. There were screens around the next bed and, when I could speak, I asked one of the nurses who was in it. She told me it was Jack Chandler. She also told me that he wouldn’t see again. He died after about two days. They took the screens away and the bed was empty. He had been barber in civvy street and he used to cut our hair for us, charging us two pence or four pence each.
I was in a state, grit buried in my face so I couldn’t shave and full of shrapnel. My own mother and father didn’t recognise me when they came to visit me from the Isle of Wight. After a few days, a nurse asked me is there anything I would like. I said a cigarette and she said she hadn’t got any. I told her there was some in the pocket of my clothes. “What clothes?” she said, “They’ve all been blown to shreds!” But they found a pile of battered clothes and pulled from my pocket a packet of cigarettes, covered in blood. I had bought them the night of the bombing.
While I was lying in the hospital bed the nurses would always tune the radio to Vera Lynn, the Forces’ Sweetheart, and at night we could hear the fighter machine guns overhead.
One day a nurse came and sat on the bed and told me I was going to the theatre. (I thought I was going to the pictures or something!) They took shrapnel out of my back and lower abdomen. Some had gone through my pelvis into the bladder. (I had to go into hospital for another operation over forty years later, in 1985, and they took some more out then — and I’ve still got some in my leg!) When I came back from the theatre they told me they could have operated without anaesthetic, I was so tired. It had been night and day back at the battery, and we were called out when we were off duty if they had tracked enemy aircraft in the Channel. We also had to come out on rest period — once to Henerton House in Henley.
I was confined to the hospital for 10 days. After that we were issued with a set of clothes — red, white and blue they were — and allowed to go into Chichester. Everything in Chichester was free for us. We didn’t have to pay in the cafes, or on the buses, or the cinema. We offered, but they wouldn’t take any money.
After about three weeks, I went back to Sinah to pick up some pay and clothes. Then I had two weeks sick leave back home in Newport. I had to go to St Mary’s Hospital there every day. My eyes were still bulging from the blast and I had a discharge from my ears.
I went back to Sinah for a while; then I served with a mobile battery. The guns were towed in convoy all along the south and east coast from Exeter to Ipswich. We stayed for a month to six weeks at each position. There are a few other things I want to mention from that time.
Once we were sent up to Clacton to relieve another crew who had been told by a medical officer to take a rest. I met a chap — an under limber gunner — who suggested we go to the pictures. I was married by then and was going to write a letter to my wife, but I wrote just a quick few lines and went with him. At the break in the films, he tapped me on the shoulder and said he’d be back in a minute. Next thing I know, he’s up on the stage playing the cinema organ! He played all the marches and a few popular tunes of the time. When he came back to the seat he said, “What did you think of that then?” “You b****r!” I said.
During one rest period, five or six of us went up to Leiston, where we had to polish the floor of a dance hall. One night we had a show on with different actresses, one of whom was “Two Ton” Tess O’Shea. At the end of the show she did the splits, but could not get up again. We were already primed to pick her up when the curtains had fallen.
The pay was 7 shillings a week if you were single, 14 shillings if you were married. Before I was married, at a few places, particularly Foulness, I used to make a bit of extra money on a night off when I couldn’t see my pen-friend (my future wife) by catching rabbits, using snares which I made from telephone wire. I would sell them for a shilling each to mates who were going on leave the next day.
We went all around the coast — Peacehaven, Newhaven, Rodmel, Bognor, Nutbourne, Gilkicker, Paignton, and after D-Day we ended up in “Doodlebug Alley”, at Romney Marsh. We were using American shells which had a photographic nose cap and a perspex tip. The idea was that when they got in the shadow of a Doodlebug, they exploded automatically. They were great. We shot down God knows how many Doodlebugs with them. If we’d had them at the beginning of the War it wouldn’t have lasted long. The only trouble was that if there had been a lot of firing and there was lots of smoke around, they sometimes exploded prematurely. I have a picture of a 3.7 inch gun with its barrel blown apart by one.
On our last day of action, there were so many Doodlebugs coming over! Lieutenant Edgar told us that this would be the Germans’ last push as our bombers had found the launch site. We shot down between 20 and 30. If the people of London knew how many we’d stopped they’d be thankful!
As an Isle of Wight man, I want to finish with a couple of things that happened there. I was back on the Island. At Whippingham, East Cowes, during the Cowes Blitz, I remember having to pour water over the barrels of the guns to cool them down, we used them so much. And one time, when I was home on leave, I stood by the monument in Newport High Street with six or seven other men, firing down the High Street at German planes — with .303 rifles!
Bert Hookey's story of how he met his wife Eva can be read at A7567185.
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