- Contributed by
- People in story:
- John Stephen Martin
- Location of story:
- Sevenoaks, Kent.
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 28 January 2006
When the War started I was eight. It spanned,for me, some of the most impressionable years in any child's life.
As the Luftwaffe built up it's offensive we found ourselves in what became known as "bomb alley", because we were under the flight path of bomber formations heading for London and the North Kent industrial belt. On their way home any bomber that had not found it's target had the disconcerting habit of dropping it's bomb load on the way home. Most fell harmlessly, though some did not.
The local big girl's school was hit by a parachute mine, and their laboratories were destroyed. Our school, about 200 yds away suffered considerable blast damage, and had to be closed for three days. On one occasion one of the boys at school came in in the morning to tell us that a bomb had landed in the night in their front garden, blowing the front of the house in. His bedroom was at the front and the thing that woke him up was the cold!
Up until October 1940 the Luftwaffe concentrated their efforts in trying to eliminate the RAF. living as we did, about half way between the fighter airfields of Biggin Hill and West Malling we found ourselves under the thick of the air battle. When I could slip away I would cross the road into a farmer's field spread over a small sugar-loaf hill (It remains the same today, with a little brook winding around it's foot). From the top of this hill I could view the action. Strangely enough, although I was only nine, I have no recollections of my mother trying to make me stay in, let alone go down into our air raid shelter in the garden.
Whether it was because I was so young or whether I would have felt the same as an adult, I seemed to be totally detached from what was taking place above me as though it was an entertainment. It was, of course, extremely exciting, but all the time nothing came straight at me (and nothing ever did) there was no fear. The nearest I came to being hit by anything was falling .303 round, which I could hear sometimes landing in the grass as I lay on my back to watch.
The abiding impression is of total confusion. Vapour trails at high altitude and, as the bomber formations were broken up, things happened lower down, with aircraft wheeling around in all directions and machine gun fire over the engine noise. We soon learned to distinguish between the sound of the Merlins in our Hurricanes and Spitfires and the Daimler Benz engines of the ME109's and 110's. The sound of the Merlin engine will get me rushing from the house to this day. My young brother and I became experts in aircraft recognition, as did most schoolboys. After all, this was our war.
My brother and I collected trophies, bits of shrapnel, .303 rounds, fragments of crashed aircraft and we kept these in a small lean-to workshop that my father had built for us. We also collected unexploded ammunition until my father found it, called in the bomb squad and afterwards, placed our collection under strict surveillance!
One day I saw a Junkers 88 shot down behind trees about four miles away, but the one indelible picture that I carry in my memory is that of a Dornier 17 plummeting nose first to the earth with one wing missing, severed outboard of the engine nascelle. This is a well documented incident. The Dornier fell on, or immediately beside a local waterworks and it's crash was caused by an attack from a Spitfire flown by F/L Pat Hughes. The Spitfire appears to have collided with the Dornier as it crashed a short distance away and Pat Hughes fell to his death in the garden of a house. In that garden, on 7th.September 2005, 65 years to the day after the event, I attended a service when a plaque was placed on the wall of the house and dedicated to the pilot's memory.
By October, the daylight war in the air was won but London had to endure the night-time blitz. My parents insisted that we slept in the air raid shelter in the garden. This, perhaps, was the frightening bit because we were not allowed to see what was happening. Generally speaking the bombers would drone over us towards London and the serious Ack Ack barrage would start. It vwas o9n the return journey that they tended to drop things on us as they jettisoned unwanted bombs.
One night we had a thing called a Molotov Cocktail dropped almost over head. It consisted of a large cannister containing hundreds of little magnesium incendary bombs about fourteen inches long. They ignited on impact. My parents were rushing about all over the place dumping sandbags on the things and my brother and I crept up for a look. The whole district was a mass of little bonfires, which were easily extinguished or just left to burn out. There was little damage, but the following day we made a great collection of the steel tail fins from the surrounding fields.
My father was in the Home Guard and he was issued with the strangest of rifles. Not for him a World War 1 Lee Enfield (seen in Dad's Army)- no, it was called an Eddistone, (an American weapon of the same period). He kept it in the cupboard under the stairs and occasionally attended firing practice, but his sight meant that I don't think he would have hit many Germans had it become necessary.
On Sunday mornings the Home Guard practiced tactics in local park land which the war department had taken over. This area happened also to be one of our happy hunting grounds where we had "camps" and hideaways. I well remember four of us sitting high up in a favourite oak tree and watching our fathers crawling stealthily around it's base with grass on their tin hats and fondly imagining themselves to be unobserved!
As the intensity of the blitz died down and Hitler turned his attention towards the East, "our" war became a little more distant. The fear of invasion subsided but, even as as boy, one was aware of the increased military activity all around. We were surrounded by army camps; we had Polish soldiers just down the road and then the Yanks came, though I don't think we had any stationed locally.
We had a large tract of forest land to the west of us (and indeed still have) and the army in in force. Like all boys we were fascinated by the military activity and would mooch around the fringes of the woods until we were told to clear off. The build up to what we all referred to as "the invasion", now, of course, universally called "D" Day, became increasingly obvious. It was not even necessary to go into the woods to see. By the side of the public road appeared stacks of artillery shells and army vehicles everywhere.
Just before "D" Day came the doodlebugs. We all knew that Hitler had a secret weapon- the V1, but how would it manifest itself? One night we found out. By this time we had long given up sleeping in the underground shelter in the garden and were back in our bedrooms again. This particular night I woke to the sound which my father described as like a low flying motorbike. The only sound from the air that we had previously heard was that of piston aero engines. These were pulse jets and they had a distinct hammering sound, a sound that I will never forget.
They were all heading for London, of course. I do not remember the frequency, but several went over before breakfast, but we couldn't see them as it was a dirty morning with rain and scudding low cloud. However, as I was walking to school, another came over almost overhead and passed briefly through a thinner patch and I saw, for the first time, that familiar sihouette and the long plume of flame from the tailpipe. It was, of course, extraordinary to me as it resembled nothing I had ever seen before.
Just to the north of us was the London defensive ring of barrage balloons and Ack Ack guns and there was firing going on continuously as a background to our existence as the V1's came twenty-four hous a day. We soon got used to them and, all the time that the engine continued to throb overhead we ignored them. Hard luck on the Londoners, but I think perhaps we were growing up with the "I'm alright Jack" feeling.
However, sometimes the engine sound would cut out and this was followed by an eerie silence of between 20 and 30 seconds and then a loud explosion. Relief! One could breath again and continue with what one was doing. If the thing had passed over you were pretty safe if the engine cut out. If it was heading towards you when it happened, you learned to dive for cover. We were sitting at lunch one day, my mother, my brother and my grandmother on just such an occasion. My mother said "Quick, under the table". We all responded pretty quickly but my grandmother collected the table cloth en route and brought the entire lunch down to join us! I don't remember where the doodlebug finished up or whether we actually finished the meal.
On another occasion a V1 landed in our local recreation ground without exploding. By coincidence it lay within yards of where, two years earlier, I had seen a Messerschmit 110 which had crash-landed after skimming the rooftops of the town. The doodlebug's warhead had been removed by the bomb disposal boys and it was some time before the airframe was taken away. It lay all broken open with it's innards exposed, including two pressure bottles used to house the propellant. These were wrapped in hundreds of yards of piano wire- a material totally unobtainable in wartime. As superkeen aeromodellers, my brother and I seized the opportunity to surreptitiously cut off enough wire to make the undercarriage legs for more rubber-powered model aircraft than we could ever be able to make! On another occasion we were playing cricket on the school playing field when a doodlebug approached from the sounth and, as we watched, from out of nowhere it was attacked by an aircraft which closed with it, gave a short burst of cannon fire, it exploded, the aircraft veered away and it was gone. I do not know what type of aircraft it was, possibly a Typhoon or even the newly introduced Tempest that was developed specially to intercept the very fast V1. It was over in seconds and quite spectacular.
Werner von Braun's V2 rockets were the next thing. The first ones to land on London could not be explained. Just a huge explosion which came from nowhere, but within days, we all knew what was happening. once again, it was Greater London that suffered. The V2 was far more accurate as a target finder, and could not be intercepted en route. This meant that locally we were largely spared this part of Hitler's vengeance. In any case, it did not have the "scare" factor that the V1's had. You didn't know they were coming, whereas, I think the abiding memory I have of sheer fright was when the sound of the approaching doodlebug cut out and you waited for the inevitable explosion.
Having said that you did not know the V2 was coming, my father came home one evening to tell us that he had seen one whilst sitting in his train on the embankment near Hither Green, I think, and apparently saw it over the rooftops falling vertically down to explode amongst houses a quarter of a mile away. It was certainly rare to actually see one coming!
My memory seems to tell me that all this was going on at about the time od "D" Day when, despite the secrecy, it was becoming obvious to everyone that time for the "Invasion" was approaching. The build up of military activity on the roads was very evident and there was a general air of expectancy that even got through to a twelve-year old. As soon as thr great day had passed and the beaches had been successfully secured there was a noticeable reduction in local activity. Most of the troops disappeared, as did the stacks of ammunition in the woods.
As the weeks and months went by "our" war changed totally. The doodlebugs became less frequent and eventually ceased completely, and the only aircraft to be seen were allied, all with their black and white stripes painted on their undersides. As children we even took "our" war on the offensive. My brother and I pinned large scale maps on the wall of our bedroom (finding space by removing aircraft recognition charts etc.). These maps of Europe showed the theatres of war and we started to take a serious interest in listening to the news and looking at the Daily Mail every day to follow the progress of the Allied assualt. We bought coloured pins and made little flags to move the fronts further on (or sometimes, disappointedly, back) and this we continued until the end of hostilities.
We had a great party on VE Day and another later on in the year on VJ Day. Our war was over. Our world had changed beyond recognition and, at the age of fourteen I had for the most part, grown up. Life did not suddenly become easy as we were still hungry. However, we were not as hungry as our parents who, I know, gave up large portions of their rationed food for two growing boys.
I will conclude with one deep and lasting memory. In late 1945 our local library, in common with all public libraries in the country, I believe, mounted an exhibition of photographs. These were all taken by the liberating troops in the concentration camps. These were all pictures of atrocities the like of which had never been seen before. We had no idea that this had been going on and the horror that we all felt, adults and children alike, has remained with many of us ever since.
Having said that, however, I consider myself privileged to have been growing up at a time when the free world was fighting for it's life against such a tyranny and finally winning the struggle.
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