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Wartime Folkestone - Childhood Memories

by donbmch

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People in story: 
Don McHutchison
Location of story: 
Folkestone Kent
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22 December 2005

In the garden at Kent Road with my 3 older brothers in 1940

I was born in January 1938 in Kent Road Cheriton. My father worked for the East Kent bus company and the family lived in one of the company houses next to the bus depot. Very much the baby of the family I had brothers aged 9,12 and 16 and a sister aged 14 when I was born.

Early memories of the war are inevitably small snippets, like sepia snapshots, of isolated incidents that it is difficult for me to date. I have a very worn copy of a booklet Front-line Folkestone, published by the local newspaper, the Folkestone Herald. From this I can get some idea of the dates of some of my memories, and talking to my one surviving brother and my sister have helped with recall. Thinking back I don't remember feeling frightened, perhaps because I grew up with it, and to small boys I suppose it even seemed exciting at times.

Perhaps the earliest memory is of the night time air raids; the noise of aircraft, the anti aircraft guns and the bright flashing lights. I slept in a cot in my parents bedroom at this stage, and can remember one very noisy night seeing my father peering round the blackout curtains and saying something about 'tracer bullets all down the road.' This was probably late 1940 or early 1941. During daytime air raid warnings I had to sit on a 7lb biscuit tin in the corner of the living room, behind the big armchair and furthest from the door and windows. We didn't have an air raid shelter. I learned later that my father wouldn't have a Morrison shelter in the house because of his experience in the trenches in WW1, believing there was the danger of being buried alive in it if the house was hit. Fortunately, our house was never damaged. Our small garden was used for growing vegetables which ruled out an Anderson shelter, which several other houses in the road had.

My eldest brother joined the RAF in 1940 at the age of 18. I can remember him in his uniform coming into the kitchen and picking me up. He trained as a wireless operator/air gunner and flew in Wellington bombers with 142 Squadron from Waltham Airfield Grimsby. He was killed in action over Germany on 29th March 1942, and although I did not really understand what had happened, I do have a very clear memory of the telegrams being received, and my mother bursting into tears when she read them. It was only relatively recently when going through papers my parents left me that I came to appreciate the trauma they must have gone through. The initial telegram on 29th March reporting him missing in action is followed by many letters, from his station commander, the Air Ministry, and the Red Cross, until final confirmation on 8th July that the whole crew had been killed and had been buried in Vorwerk Cemetery at Lubeck on 6th April.

Two middle brothers were evacuated to Wales with the Harvey Grammar School and my sister joined the WAAF in 1943. Before she was called up my sister worked for W H Smiths at the Central Station, in the main shop by the bridge and the platform kiosk. Several times German planes attempted to bomb the bridge; she was working in the platform kiosk on one attempt, when we heard the explosion from the house at Cheriton as my mother was getting me ready to go out to the shops. My father had been told at the bus depot that the station had been hit so there was much concern for my sisters safety until she arrived home after work, happily unhurt. On another occasion when taking the shop takings to the bank she and a friend had to dive for cover behind a hedge as a German plane strafed the street with machine gun fire. She was not hurt but was very cross that her dress and stockings were torn by the holly hedge.

I started school in 1943 at Harcourt Primary, just a short walk from Kent Road. The main thing I remember in the early days was running for the air raid shelters whenever the siren sounded. Once in the rush I dropped my school cap and had to scrabble back against the other children to retrieve it, convinced I would be in trouble if I lost it! That made me last to the shelter where the teacher was peering out wondering where I had got to. She told me very firmly no to be so silly in future! Once we had parcels from Canada for all the children, with lovely sweets and chocolates, and our teacher wrote a letter of thanks that everyone in the class signed.

Folkestone came under fire from the heavy German guns on the French coast so we had two different warning sirens, one for air raids and one for shelling. One shell landed behind the houses in Kent Road, but fortunately buried itself in the clay before exploding, so did little damage to the houses, apart from some broken windows. For some reason we had been sent home from school that morning and we all went to look at the huge crater. It had destroyed two gardens some chicken runs and a pigeon loft, and I can clearly remember all the house roofs covered in soil.

We often saw fighters in the sky, coming and going from Hawkinge airfield just north of Folkestone. I don't remember seeing our bombers, which I think often flew at night or were too high to see. The most dramatic incident was seeing a crippled American bomber coming back so very low over the town that we could see the crew. It struggled to clear the crest of the downs, and we heard the explosion and saw the smoke as it crashed just over the ridge. We watched people from Woodfield Close running across the fields and up the face of the downs towards the huge smoke plume, but I am not certain whether they were able to rescue any of the crew. We were told about the D-Day landings at school, and even as six year olds I think we all understood that it meant we were going to win the war.

Then, towards the end of the war, we had the flying bombs - the doodle-bugs. They were intended to attack further inland as far as London but lots passed over Folkestone and some came down on the town or were destroyed in the air. As soon as one came over the anti aircraft guns would start up and we would watch and listen for the engine to stop, knowing it would then come down. Once one was hit right overhead - a huge orange flash and the loudest explosion I think I have ever heard. We sometimes saw the fighters chasing them and trying to shoot them down. Going to our allotment in Cherry Garden Lane one day with my father and brother we saw one being chased. Whether the fighter hit it or its engine stopped I can't say but it started to come down and I remember father rushing us into the corner shop at the end of Ashley Avenue. A lady also rushed in shouting it was going to crash on us but my father calmed her down and told us all to get down behind the shop counter. It came down and exploded somewhere in the open fields, beyond Tile Kiln Lane.

The Home Guard played quite a big part in family life. "Dad's Army" is often treated as the butt of jokes now, but I know my father took it very seriously at the time. He had served in WW1 in the Machine Gun Corps but was too old for call up by 1939. On its formation in May 1940 he volunteered for the LDV, which in August became the Home Guard, and served throughout the war. He later told me of guarding the waterworks in the early days, with a small squad of men, some of whom had never fired a rifle before, and with only 5 rounds of ammunition between them. As one of those with previous regular army experience he was soon promoted to senior NCO, before being commissioned to serve as Lieutenant i/c No 1 Platoon, B Company, 8th (Cinque Ports) Battalion, Kent Home Guard (The Buffs), a post he held until the Kent Home Guard was stood down from active service in September 1944.

The commitment was considerable, everyone doing their normal job by day and reporting for duty every evening, and often for training all weekend, sometimes with the regular troops on Dibgate Camp. My second eldest brother was also in the platoon for a year before his call up for the navy in 1944. There was a family story of him queuing for his breakfast at the field kitchen on his first week end training camp. He only had one mess tin so the army cook put all his breakfast - porridge, bread, eggs and bacon, in the same tin!

The Home Guard kept their weapons at home, and because father was a platoon commander the house was something of an arsenal. Father's service revolver hung by the mantelpiece, his 303 rifle (and my brother's when he was a in the platoon) stood in the corner along with a Stengun, one of the platoon's Brenguns and a Browning Light Machine gun. All the ammunition for the guns was stored in the bottom larder cupboard, and a large grey wooden ammunition box full of Mills Bombs was under the kitchen table. My friends and I used to watch my brother practising stripping and reassembling the 303 rifle and Brengun in the back garden, and also practising loading and firing with dummy ammunition. My brother sometimes let me "fire" the rifle with dummy ammunition, and my father showed me how to hold a Mills Bomb and how to pull the pin. Most of the weapons and ammunition were taken back when the Home Guard stood down, but fathers service revolver hung beside the mantel piece until after the war was over. I went with him when eventually he took it to the police station to hand in; I remember he wrapped it up and kept it under his coat so no one could see he was carrying a gun.

In the early years before school we were fairly restricted, only allowed to play close to home in the street or in friend's houses and gardens. If the air raid siren sounded when we were out playing the children were all expected to run back home. This was because as soon as the anti aircraft guns started firing, shrapnel would fall on the town. We used to go out after the all clear sounded to look for shrapnel, and sometimes the pieces were still hot.

I would go with my mother to the shops in Cheriton High Street and sometimes on the bus into Folkestone to the big shops in Sandgate Road. The beach and sea front were all out of bounds but we could walk along The Leas and look out to sea. After I started school there was a bit more freedom to explore the old disused brick works and clay pits between Kent Road and the downs, though not the downs themselves at this stage, because the army and Home Guard used the area for live mortar practice. My father always gave us strict instructions not to touch any mortar cases we might find, but unfortunately there were a couple of instances of local children being injured when they picked them up.
We often stayed out quite late in the summer evenings because with double summer time it was light till very late. In the winter we were more restricted because all the street lights were turned off, but we could play around the buses at the bus depot. There were two electric street lights in Kent Road - some of the nearby roads still had gas lamps - and when they were put back into use at the end of the war we used to gather round them at dusk and cheer when the light switched on. I suppose it seemed to tell us that the war was over.

The final thing was of course the celebration street party. The one for our area was in Somerset Road, with trestle tables down the centre of the road, but I think we had to take our own chair. There were lots of cakes and jellies, but for us small boys the most memorable thing was the bonfire afterwards, actually built and lit in the road!.

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