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15 October 2014
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Contributed by 
Peoples War Team in the East Midlands
People in story: 
Jean Burgess
Location of story: 
Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 July 2005

"This story was submitted to the site by the BBC's Peoples War Team in the East Midlands with Jean Burgess'permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions"

We used to have to carry gas masks with us every time we went out of the house. Everyone was given a gas mask in a box with a cord to hang on your shoulder. Small children had “Mickey Mouse” gas masks with a red tongue at the front and for tiny babies there were large container like gas masks for them to lie in. We all had ration books; cream in colour, and children under five had green ones. We also had Identity Cards, which we carried in our gas masks boxes.

Air raid sirens used to sound to warn us of enemy air raids and we children accepted this as part of our everyday life. We also had air raid shelters that we would go to, if we were out in the streets when the siren sounded. All schools had these shelters which were dug underground and had benches each side to sit. We seemed to spend a lot of time in the air raid shelters. We still had lessons during air raids; usually these were learning our “Times Table”, or singing. One day we were walking to school, when a German aeroplane came down low firing machine guns, but luckily for us children there were lots of soldiers around and they shouted to us to get down on the pavement while they covered us with themselves, but the plane never came back. Luckily no one was hurt and we weren’t frightened at the time, just excited.

One night my mum woke up saying that the air raid siren had sounded, so we hurried down to the basement as was the normal practise. The land lady would make tea and we would sit on the stairs opposite the front door. All of a sudden the front door flew open with the force of an explosion. We all spent the next few minutes watching dog fights over the common. (That was the name given to aeroplanes fighting in the sky). One of the things we children used to collect was shrapnel — also pieces of aeroplane after these dog fights had taken place.

Around this time a room became vacant in the house we lived in, and was quickly taken by a strange couple who didn’t appear to speak very good English. Once or twice they would be waiting for me to come in from school, and ask if I would go to the shop for them for some groceries, but never for anything that required a ration book.

By now, mum was expecting another baby and one night after I had been in bed a few hours, mum woke me up and she was shaking. I thought at first she was going to have a baby, but it wasn’t that. She told me to be very quiet, and we tiptoed down the stairs, past the strange couple’s door and down the basement to wake the owners of the house. Then mum told them that she had been woken up by lights flashing and getting out of bed she opened the window and saw the couple from down stairs using Morse code. They were obviously signalling to the enemy. The landlord went out of the front door to fetch the police but by the time they arrived the couple had left and taken all their belongings. Needless to say I didn’t go to school that day and it turned out the couple were German spies.

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Message 1 - Re: Spies in the house

Posted on: 04 July 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Jean

I enjoyed your story very much until I got to the last paragraph.

Let me set your mind at rest. It is utterly impossible to signal Morse code with a flashlight, however powerful, to an aircraft travelling at 250 miles an hour, or more, across it. Who is to read the signal? Certainly not the pilot, and the navigator would be far too busy. The aircraft would be over the flashlight in a flash.

The Germans had a very advanced system to direct them to targets known as X-Beams and, later, Knickbein. The aircraft were ingeniously directed by two radio transmitters the beams of which intersected over the chosen target. Men gave up their lives, for example in the Brunevald Raid, to crack or deactivate these directional beams. No directional system depended on Morse code signals from the ground. I recommend you read "Most Secret War - British Intelligence 1939-1945" by R. V. Jones. It discusses German directional beams fully.

As for the mysterious couple, you say that "The landlord went out of the front door to fetch the police but by the time they arrived the couple had left and taken all their belongings". They packed within minutes? How and why? You conclude with "it turned out the couple were German spies."

I cannot find any trace of German spies operating in Tunbridge Wells. For this I rely on a work of high historical scholarship, "Hitler's Spies - German Military Intelligence in World War II" by David Khan. It is a captivating work listing all German spies operating in both the UK and the USA, data later checked against German security records. No spies such as you describe operated in the UK.

At the time you describe, early in WW2, many rumours were rife amongst schoolchildren, but they had little foundation in fact. Hope this sets your mind at rest after all these years.


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