- Contributed by
- People in story:
- John Still
- Location of story:
- Bournemouth, Hants. and Fishersgate, Sussex
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 19 August 2004
As May turned to June 1940, I was, together with my mother, staying with friends in Bournemouth. One fine day we took a trolleybus to Southbourne and then walked on to Hengistbury Head for a picnic and some games. We returned along the ses-front as far as Boscombe - not a bad walk for a nine-year-old - and came up from the lower promenade by a zig-zag path. On one of its corners we came upon a senior Fench Army officer, standing rigidly, staring straight out to sea, and very smart in his uniform - but wearing carpet slippers!. Strange, we thought, and went on to catch a bus into the town centre. From the bus we saw the extraordinary sight of French (or perhaps Belgian?) soldiers everywhere, many simply squatting on the pevements snd lacking complete uniforms. A school, closed for the Whit holidays, had its blackboard outside with a chalked appeal for spare clothing, especially underwear. Next day, we children mingled with these soldiers in the town centre, asking for autographs. It was of course, the close of the Dunkirk evacuation, of which we knew nothing because of the news blackout, though we had known that our armies were in deep trouble over there. We overheard a group of British soldiers passing by: "Look at them - when the German dropped planeloads on us in Norway, we finished them before they even reached the ground, and nobody noticed!" So we took their autographs, too, to cheer them up.
Our holiday ended abruptly. My mother was called back to her job because of the emergency. Home was just one street back from the sea-front at Fishersgate. west of Brighton. Soon our London evacuees were removed to safer ares, and then our parents began to ask "What about our children?" No plans had been made for our evacuatuion pre-war: it had not been expected that France, with the largest army in Europe, would collapse and bring us within range of the German forces. So the local education authorities made piecemeal arrangements, and everyone who could go to live elsewhere was encouraged to do so. We lived with my grandparents, though, and my grandfather remembered the hopeless streams of refugees he had seen in the First World War, and knew how the German war machine was using them now to impede the defending armies. He was quite firm: "Why run away - they would catch up with us in the end wherever we had got to. We'll stick it out here".
The military authorities were now in charge. We were to hold ourselves in readiness for removal at five minutes' notice. We were to have a suitcase packed ready, one per household, contents as per list supplied. If no means of transport arrived when the invasion occurred we were to stay put at all costs. So some people even buried boxes of tinned food in their backyards - we were never asble to see the logic of that. We were in fact expendable. Yet I don't think that many people really believed in their hearts that the Germans would come: we didn't, and even now that we know that they had a plan to land a Panzer division almost on our doorstep, it still seems more of an exercise by the Wehrmacht designed to convince the Fuhrer that they meant business.
In practice, that suitcase, just inside the front door, continued to be nuisance for the rest of the year. On the outside of the door, standing on two bricks there was the mandatory sandbag ready for use against incendiary bombs. The great drama of the Battle of Britain was being played out in the skies above us, and the enemy at that time was not really interested in aiming any bombs at us. They were quite likely, though, to jettison their load around us, as the last bit of England they saw, if they were being forced to return in a hurry.
On Friday, August 31st. my mother managed to take a day off work in lieu of the holiday curtailed earlier in the year. We went for a picnic to Hangleton, north-west of Hove, and settled after the long walk there, outside the little Saxon Church of St. Helen's, then so remote and now in the centre of a housing estate.Air-raid warnings were in progress, but that was normal then, and we took little notice until an aerial dog-fight came down overhead from the north. We thought it best to eat our sandwiches by the hedge at the side of the lane - it is replaced now by the front garden walls of the houses there. As we sat, one of our Hurricanes, pursued by a Bf.109, came crashing down into Woodhouse Road, taking its pilot, Sgt. Noble with it twenty feet into the ground. His remains were only finally recovered in the 1990's
By the next year, the roads and lanes leading up to the Downs had been fortified with sandbagged Bren-gun emplacements, usually off to one side. A little odd, perhaps, when there would have been need for therm on the beaches? All became clear in 1975, when clearance of documents under the 30-year secrecy rule told us that their purpose was to drive back civilians who might have made a panic escape from their homes in an invasion. Those guns had been pointing at us!
Now life became very restricted, but we children grew up accepting it, not knowing any other world. Curfew hours for the under-14s were, I think, 9 p.m. in winter and 10 p.m. in summer: for adults they were an hour later in each season. It was enforced by the civilian police, and I have heard of a highly respectable lady who was found cycling home at 11.20 p.m. She was fined on guinea by the magistrates next day. Adults needed identity cards at all times. Eventually I went to secondary school by train, but being under 15 years old, I was able to pass the Military Police by the ticket-gate without being stopped. Occasionally, though, someone would arrive without their identity card and would be prevented from catching a train, Travelling by bus, too, meant passing through a series of check-points. In Spring 1942 my mother planned to visit the bluebell woods at Clapham, west of Worthing, our nearest wooded countryside, as we had years before: she longed for a brief change of scenery. First, though, we had to take a bus in the opposite direction into Hove, so as to have any hope of finding room on the bus we wanted.After queuing for the once-hourly bus, and being lucky, we went on our way happily. But disaster struck at the Old Shoreham Toll Bridge check-point. Mother had left her indentity card at home, and the Redcaps turned us off the bus. With half the day gone, that was the end of the excursion, and luckily we weren't stopped on the way home.
As a memento of those days, I have a copy of the permit which our local Police Superintendent was required to issue to allow a couple, bombed-out from Thornton Heath, to come and live near us in Portslade.
In the months before D-day, landing craft were being marshalled in Shoreham Harbour and the Canal which ran past our part of the world. No civilians were allowed to enter the main coast road, and where our street joined it, a Special Constable was stationed to make sure the rule was observed. The few people who had managed to stay on in their houses on the front were not allowed to use their front doors: they had to use the back entrances, sometimes having to climb over garden fences on the way, while they were required to have the blinds drawn on their front windows throughout the day!
These impositions were hard on our parents and grandparents, but with many other , often petty restrictions, they became a part of the way of things. So much so, that when hostilities ended every aspect of life seemed to be controlled by Authority. The reason, always given and now forgotten, was that nothing should be bought or spent that might eventually have to be paid for somewhere in American dollars - of which our country seemed to be desperately short. Soldiers returning from overseas sometimes made comparisons with the apparent wealth elsewhere, and eventually things changed. In the meantime, though, we who had grown up with such a limited world were happy enough to have survived.
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