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- Kent Libraries- Shepway District
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- 07 August 2003
This story is an extract from the memoirs of Eric Hart, added to the site with his permission by Belinda Nash of the Folkestone heritage team.
The HQ of the 8th (Cinque Ports) Battalion, Folkestone Home Guard was the Drill Hall in Shellon Street, home of the Territorial Army's 'D' Company - 'The Buffs'. A separate platoon was formed at Shorncliffe camp from the civilian employees.
Our sergeant was none other than the former garrison Sergeant Major Hedges, who, although retired, still retained a thunderous command that would send shivers up and down the spine of any recruit - although taking orders from an NCO with a lifetime's military service behind him was, I suppose, a privilege. However, it goes without saying that the officers of the platoon were selected from various Clerks of Works.
Our base of operations was to be Sandgate Castle, built during the reign of Henry VIII, together with the string of Martello Towers along the south coast, which were built at a time when Napoleon might have been the invader. Already modest in size, the castle's boundaries were to become even smaller - positioned so close to the sea its outer ramparts were to fall victim to the wrath of the waves from successive storms.
The prime evil at this time again threatened us from 25 miles across the Channel, in the form of the German Panzer divisions assembling there. The modest size of our platoon meant that each member was called upon to carry out a tour of duty at least two nights per week, on the basis of two hours on duty and an hour rest period.
Our small castle keep didn't exactly afford the height of luxury! We had to snooze on curved wooden slated seats which were set around the inner circumference of the castle wall. Rats would scurry around, so it was imperative that any food you brought along was secured in strong metal containers. We had heard stories about the resident ghost, but apart from a few weird noises coming from the dungeon at high tide, we never saw or heard sign of him. The noises might have been either sea water or rats, but I never went down there to investigate!
One strange phenomenon, which we all experienced, would occur when we stared out to sea through the darkness. A chemical reaction in the water known as phosphorescence produced glimmers of light on the surface of the water, best understood by looking the word up in the dictionary.
The tour of duty terminated at 6am, whereupon we stood down, cycled home for breakfast and ablutions, and started out for another day's work at 8am.
The platoon consisted mainly of older men and those who had failed a medical for the regular armed forces. In my case, however, I had to put my age UP in order to qualify for Home Guard enrolment, and was soon to discover that I had another young companion by the name of Donald Petts. We often used to team up for the cycle patrol, which extended eastward to meet up with the Folkestone Home Guard, who used the Cliff Lift lower terminal building adjacent to the pier as their guard room.
The cycle patrol took us along the restricted (no-go) under cliff road. Before the outbreak of war this had been a local beauty spot, with its mantle of a wide variety of trees, shrubs and flowered borders, but all this had to pay the price of being in 'the front line'. It was replaced with borders of barbed wire barricades and awesome skull-and-crossbones 'Danger Mines' signs.
On arrival, after signing in at the Folkestone end, my point of focus through the murk would be the ghost-like form of the ageing Royal Victoria pier which opened in 1888. This all-time 'Mecca' of entertainment now stood isolated out there above the waves, for the section adjoining it to the shore had been blown up by the Royal Engineers early in 1940 to deny the enemy a landing stage.
We then back-tracked along our route beyond the castle and along the open A259 coastal road as far as Seabrook, where we would labour up Hospital Hill to record our presence in their log book before returning to Sandgate Castle and our two-hour rest period.
The significance of these patrols by part-time soldiers might by some be held to ridicule, but in those dark days the volunteers of the Home Guard played a valuable role in defence, none more significant than those of us within such close range of the enemy. This sparked conversation among the veteran members at the Folkestone end one night, as they chatted over a mug of tea before going on patrol. One of them pointed out the possibility of an enemy incursion on the shore by Hitler's crack troops, saying a number of hostages could easily be whisked off to Germany! Shall we say then it wasn't the brightest of recruits that accompanied this 'old sweat' on patrol later - for when a tree branch caught in his webbing, pulling him back a pace or two, it prompted the frightened chap to yell 'No! No! I don't want to go to Germany!'
Sometimes the night patrols were quite rewarding - clear skies and quiet calm as we made our almost silent progress along the deserted coast road. Moonlight would filter down through the trees, and occasionally the silence would be interrupted by the soulful hoot of an owl. One nights like these, the moon's silvery wake across a calm sea made the hard reality of war seem far removed - although these conditions favoured attacks on enemy shipping in the French ports by the RAF. When this happened, a veritable fireworks display would ensure, with bright flashes as the bombs fell and the ground defences sent up a cascade of tracer bullets into the night sky.
On other occasions a cross-channel duel would commence between the heavy artillery on both sides. Conditions permitting, it would be possible to see the flash as the gun fired in the Calais area, and by the time one had counted to 60, the one-and-a-quarter ton shell would have exploded here with devastating effect. German records show what they recorded as an historic moment - on 12 August 1940 at 10:45 German summer time, the very first shell was fired from a rail-mounted gun, destroying a house in Millfield, Folkestone.
Moving on from the sombre side of events, I must conclude with a light-hearted stories, which it must be said happened every bit of 60 years ago! Our meagre weaponry at Sandgate castle extended to one well-worn Lewis machine-gun, which we would mount on a tripod during air raids. While standing by with the gun one summer evening, a German Dornier bomber with a wisp of smoke issuing from one of its engines came limping quite low over the hill in its desperation to reach the French coast. Although I considered it to be out of range for the Lewis gun, my excited compatriots wanted some action, so I opened fire! I should mention that my intervention was no hindrance to the progress of the aircraft - it was in fact too far away. But we did score a ricochet or two off the spire of the nearby Sandgate school. I would hazard a guess that the 'locals' would have been wondering just whose side we were on that evening!
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