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A Hextable Schoolboy’s War 39/45

To us youngsters this was a period of fascination, fun and excitement.

My first memories are of hundreds of massed Germain bombers throbbing away in a clear blue sky with our fighters from Biggin Hill, Gravesend and Hornchurch racing over at low level. The vapour trails, the sound of machine guns, parachutes coming down, ours were white and theirs fawn.

By this time all the boys in our group could name most wartime aircraft just by their sound (70yrs on I still can!) Rex the black Labrador was also an official member and we usually met him at the butchers around 11 o‘clock were he collected his daily bone. Another unusual one was a wild, talking Jackdaw we used to meet by martins bank at the bottom of Malyons Rd; it would sit on any shoulder but was inclined to peck sometimes, we used to find him worms and called him Pecky.

Uncle Charlie arriving home after his escape from France, very smart in his new R.A.F. uniform but minus Hurricanes. He was a flight sergeant ic. servicing and repair and was left behind at his base near the front line to destroy all equipment, unserviceable aircraft and one unarmed but serviceable one. He set fire to everything and sent his lads off in a truck, whilst together with his mate they used the spare hurricane to fly to the coast. On landing an army colonel threatened to put him on a charge for stealing a Hurricane and refused him any fuel to get it to England, telling him he had no authority to fly the aircraft as he was not a qualified pilot and then set fire to the plane. What a waste!

During the first war in the RFC he had probably done over 200 hrs flying when after tuning and re–rigging a biplane the gentlemen pilots used to say “give it a flip flight, if it’s ok I’ll take it.” He had often taxied Hurricanes around the airfield but this was his first flight. They then set off west to Brest where he saw the amazing sight of an ocean liner he was about to board in the harbour sinking in front of him with 5000 men on board after a bomb went down the funnel. I have recently established this was the Cunard Liner Lancastria a story recorded elsewhere.

The same throbbing at night with the glow of major fires in London 15mls away, constant gunfire and searchlights. Sitting on top of our Anderson shelter with my dad and Fluff the cat watching the giant firework display, Dad and I only went inside the damp smelly old thing when the red marker flares were dropped over us (the aircrews used to mistake the reflection of hundreds of acres of greenhouses for the docks). Fluff wouldn’t budge as she loved watching the flares.

Bomb bits and shell shrapnel falling all round, one night Dad looking out just when the manor house was bombed in College road, he said ’the house has gone’! Next morning collecting shell caps and bomb bits from our garden and the road outside as trophies we discovered it had survived less part of its roof and most of the window glass yet again, and gathered a few more cracks and drains blocked by debris. The only casualties were a few cows who always gathered near the manor house at night by their water trough.

This was a beautiful looking manor house and could have been repaired but sadly not so. The really ornate high gates and railings are it appears are still there in parts but minus the grape vine. I understand its now the location of the heritage centre. The avenue of lime trees is a shadow of its former self but the college pond we fell in regularly in search of tadpoles and newts still seems to be there by the house at the bottom of the avenue. Playing with and being taught how to shoot with Dad’s American Browning automatic rifle, it had dodgy damp ammunition that also made rotten fireworks with their charge of black powder. Dad said the gun was useless due to the ammo, he was a sergeant in the home guard and had a platoon.

Inspecting a belly landed Hurricane at the top of the rec just where the children’s play area is now, it’s guns firing over the village at night when the guard sheltering in the cockpit from the cold allegedly fell asleep on the button.

Being in a class of 50+ kids ages from 6 to 14 with one lady teacher all in one room at the church school in college road. The arrival of a searchlight, barrage balloon, Lewis guns in our rec and the mobile AA gun that set up at the top bend of Rollo Rd. At night often firing for several hours but was gone before we went to school. The little army base was about 40 feet wide and went up the hill about where Emersons avenue is now.

Going to Crockenhill Way and seeing a belly landed ME109 and being amazed as to how small it was after the Hurricane. I could easily see into the cockpit, watching Dad and others trying to remove the prop as a trophy, can’t recall if they managed it!

Watching and hearing the awful banshee wail of Stuka bombers attacking ships in the Thames at Tilbury docks from beside the little tug boat pier at Gravesend. Also getting soaked when Sunderland flying boats took off from the river Medway right over us on Rochester bridge, where the castle is.

I spent a lot of time with my Dad in those days, at work and home guard business traveling around by bike, bus and sometimes train, with dad in uniform. I don’t recall us ever buying any tickets; something I also experienced whilst in the RAF in the 50s. I later understood it was because my mother was always ill and in and out of hospital all the time, they didn’t tell you those things then probably because kids were not allowed in to visit anyway.

The delivery of coal, bread, milk by horse and cart, the horses knew the round and would move on to the next stop on their own whilst the delivery man was collecting the money, there were no cars in the village or on the road, but I occasionally got to sit in Arthur Mees (the famous writer of encyclopedia) car, dad did his garden sometimes being head grower on a v.large local nursery.

Playing with stripping and working Dad’s new Bren gun that I could hardly lift, the spaghetti like cordite made wonderful rockets using a plastic Bluemells bike pump and cane. Dad firing his 3.7 AA gun at Dartford Heath battery (just south of where the new A2 is now) all night then coming home for breakfast and going to work. He did that from 41 to 45 about 3/4 nights a week and towards the end used to bring home huge lumps of cheese and 5lbs tins of ham that the Canadian day gunners gave the home guard night shift from their plentiful supply of food. Living in a farming area we were never hungry, the barter system was in full swing and also almost every one had loads of chickens and several rabbits.

Our local village bobby and my dad were I/C small unexploded bombs. Dad and our tame PC had been on an anti–invasion homemade bomb course at fort Halstead near Orpington which made them marvelous firework makers, another skill they happily taught us. Thinking back on all this I suppose they had in mind that if invaded we could help just as boys and girls did in Germany and Russia.

We helped pick up hundreds of dud unexploded incendiary bombs to be stored in our chicken runs. We used to throw them at walls and steel washing line posts to see if any were live, to our disgust none ever went off. When we unscrewed the bottom cap the vice and plier marks could be clearly seen where the slave labour had bent the cast in 2 inch nail so it missed the detonator. The magnesium powder made great rockets to the detriment of many a greenhouse and the actual case didn’t half get a bonfire going! Sadly one day an army lorry arrived and took away our toys, there were about 1500 by then. The bombs were about 70mm dia x 300 long and were made of highly flammable magnesium and had a simple fin about 125mm long on the top. In the aircraft they were in a long container that opened like a clamshell after it was dropped scattering the small bombs. It was probably about 600dia x 1500mm long, the central aluminium tie rod did sterling service in many a household as a broom handle, indeed mum still had one in the 70s.

Watching American B17 Flying Fortresses going over and coming back later with bits missing sometimes; an outboard wing or half a tail plane etc. At night being kept awake by our RAF mass squadrons going out and returning early morning. One morning taking my breakfast into our front room to see a JU88 going by just over the bungalows opposite with a bomb dropping off, his white tracer bullets returning fire to our recs Lewis guns red tracers going into him, the bomb took off a schoolmates parents bungalow chimney in College Rd bounced by the opposite kerb went up through the back of an ARP lorry, bounced again at the junction of Malyons Rd and Claremont Rd, just missing the only house there on the left by about 2’ to go on to explode in an orchard harmlessly about a mile away. The plane we heard at the time crash landed on the Thames marshes. All bombs in those days were fitted with a delay device usually via a small propeller that prevented detonation until well clear of the aircraft, these sometimes got stuck hence the unexploded bombs! His target was the ARP HQ in the horticulture college called Southbank opposite the church school. During this quieter period we had a lot of so called hit and run low level raids looking for targets of opportunity (RAF fighter command did the same over there and called them rhubarbs). It was said they fired on people and kids, we waved to them all as you only had a split second to react, we had no trouble although my cousins from Bromley did on the common whilst playing cricket with their dad and his mates from Biggin hill, perhaps it was their RAF uniforms, no one was hit.

Going to look at a belly landed DO17 at Leaves Green near Biggin Hill Kent, getting right inside as Dad was in uniform and knew the guards. Later during raid warnings like most families we ignored the damp smelly Anderson shelter all piling into the tiny under stairs cupboard, Mum, Dad, our land girl lodger and me plus two candles in safety, together with dads 300 rounds of ammunition, his Bren, a couple of live hand grenades plus our collection of three incendiary bomb door stops and of course the shilling in the slot gas meter.

Later listening to the BBC news followed by “Dee-Dee-Dee-Dah music” twice then silly sentences like “The bird has flown into the tree”, “John says hello to Debbie” “The cat has had 6 kittens” etc. All coded messages to the resistance in France (The music was played ironically by the Berlin Philomonic who were actually paid due royalties after the war!!!). Sometimes the best event of the evening was:- “Germany calling” “Germany calling”, it was lord “Haw Haw” trying to get England to give up, in fact I remember people laughing, some said he was better than Tommy Handly in the classic wartime comedy nightly series (can I do you now sir?) called ITMA. So much for radio propaganda! We used to listen on large wooden battery powered radios like Cossor, Bush, in whoever’s house had good batteries (we had no electricity) taking the heavy accumulators down to main road in the morning for a recharge.

One fine day we watched this strange sounding plane with flames coming out of its tail go over, later that night watching and listening to dozens of the things; the V1 or as we knew it Doodlebug had arrived. Dad firing his 3.7AA gun all night over open sights instead of the normal predicator control automatic aiming system, hitting nothing unless you count the house roof they blew off just south of the gun site, the battery’s close protection Bofus got one at dawn. The noise, the way the engines used to pop and bang was to us exciting, then either gliding on to go bang miles away or heading straight down like the one we watched that hit Sidcup station. I will never forget the smell or complete silence when we got there by bike later were Dad helped the rescue services. Later dad had to go away to man guns near Dover to try and stop the doodles.

Being in the school shelters during a doodle raid singing:- “First you hear it coming”, “Then you hear it stop” “, Then you hear it gliding&ldquo, “ Then you hear it pop!!”. All to the cowboy tune “Lay that pistol down maid” that was popular around then. The shelters were built above ground just to the Main road side of the church where the new extension is now and were about 10feet high x 20 feet wide by the depth of the church, very cold damp and I don’t recall any permanent lighting.

We adored the American Lightning twin boom fighters that tore all over our sky firing their cannons at doodles without any success, scattering wonderful hot 1/2 inch dia shell cases everywhere for our collection. If you got lucky and picked up a live unfired one it was worth 5 cases in a swap!! The doodles could out pace all but the fastest fighters, they were also small and flying so low they bounced around a lot so were very hard to hit! A close call when with Dad cadging a cupper and wad from a balloon crew when a doodle caught its wing tip on the cable and went tearing round in a huge circle taking the balloon with it! I ended up in a ditch full of stinging nettles under my Dad and most of the all girl crew, it broke away to explode about a mile away.

In Bromley visiting my cousins we decided to put all their incendiary bomb collection in a hole we dug in the bank of a stream at the rear of their garden near Bromley south station. Using the powder from one as a fuse and rolling it into an old rope, the fuse was lit, the bang was enormous and blew out the whole bank flooding the allotments, we ran like hell home! It was later reported in the local paper that it was an unexploded bomb that caused the damage! My cousin read this little effort last year just before he passed away, it brought back many memories, he said it closely matched his experience of the period as he and his brothers got up to much the same things. He was the fuse man with our stream episode as he was the fastest runner.

On Saturday afternoon sharing the top deck of a 477 bus to Dartford with a dozen or so Italian prisoners from the Wilmington camp just where Edwin Rd is now, going for a look around Woolworths, accompanied by a single guard armed with a 303 rifle, they were always very happy and loved to chat and practice their English, this was before VE Day!

Watching hundreds of our aircraft going over many towing gliders this was all part of the D Day invasion of which up to then we had heard an seen nothing.

By now at ages 7 to 9 we had become expert observers, so the introduction of the V2 rockets (now called suds as used by Sadam Hussain in the gulf war) was very exciting to us. We used to sit on the top of our hill facing east from the Copse to the top right of the new recreation ground, watching and counting the launch vapour trails from the French coast in fine weather then listening for the twin Boom when they started down over us (breaking the sound barrier although we didn’t know this at the time), you could see the puffs but never spot a rocket until the final explosion. Even when one went boom boom then bang over us we were not frightened, just excited with the shower of red hot aluminum trophies that rained down all around us amazingly hitting no one!!

I don’t ever recall any of us ever being frightened during the war apart from the very real fear of evacuation! One night waking suddenly to find our two large front sash windows gone, the blinds and curtains standing straight out into a blinding white light, then the ceiling fell on me and I’ve been a bit deaf ever since. A V2 had hit the butcher’s shop in main road destroying 3/4 houses plus the large detached house next door to the butcherr’s, killing about 11 and injuring many more including one of our group. The large house was just a pile of rubble and the ARP found a baby still in it’s cot, uninjured on top when they got there a few minutes later! That horrible smell was back again like Sidcup (I think it’s the result of house demolition as I smelt it recently where a house was being demolished) and again the total silence when we went round a later, I don’t recall any fire. Somehow after that it all became serious and the fun went out of it.

We used to have long chats over the railing fence at the bottom of the avenue with the Germain prisoners that looked after the cattle, popping down to Miss Harrisons little shop at the bottom of Rollo Rd for packets 5 woodbine cigarettes for them and their guards, they usually treated us to a sherbet dab or liquorice shoe lace for going, this was probably late 44 early 45. Our long term lodger arriving home unexpectedly from the 8th army to find his room occupied by a Germain ME109 pilot billeted on us under parole. I think they later became friends, Helmut was very anti Nazi and taught me basic draftsmanship and gave me a slide rule and drawing instruments that I still have. I went on to chief draftsman and later chief engineer, all in part due to the friendship of a WW2 ME109 pilot!

Mums piano on a lorry bed at the top of Rollo rd. for the two street parties for VE and later VJ Day. At the village celebration dances at Southbank ARP HQ I was given charge of the wind up gramophone, I had never seen such a marvelous machine before.

Clearing my parents house out in 1975 I took the large quantity of 303 ammunition plus a couple of incendiary bombs with their detonators still intact, an empty real hand grenade to the new police house in College Rd. I left it all in the unlocked cell with a note through the door, not identifying myself as they were very sensitive about such things then because of the IRA and I wanted to return to Dorset that evening. Bet the young new village bobby had a surprise when he got home!

We lived Norton Rollo Rdd Hextable Kent, it’s still there much refurbished with a curved Georgian bay replacing the original square one. It was a small hamlet of approx 600 people located right under under bomb alley and right in the middle of the defence AA guns at Dartford Heath and Sidcup about a mile north of Swanley. It had thousands of acres of glass houses that apparently looked just like the docks from the air at night, and it’s probably the reason after the war we were told we had more bombs per acre than any other parish in England. We were surrounded by craters that appeared as chalk patches when filled in, I’m sure I can still detect some on Google earth! I suppose we observed the air war in relative safety as we weren’t really a target. All my friends dads and uncles survived the war OK, several were wounded and some were prisoners.

The story my uncle told me on his death bed in 48 when I was 12 was confirmed by my father in the mid 60’s as the same one Charlie had told him in 1940, so I reckon it’s OK.

We regularly handled weapons (but didn’t actually fire them, we certainly knew how), often found small bombs which we usually took home and occasionally found a bigger one we told my Dad about. This is something most of today’s generation who have read this find difficult to accept but just look at Africa or any war zone, it’s not just an adults thing!! The V2 caused the only casualties we knew about.

So that’s it, I haven’t mentioned names as I might get them wrong and I’m sure some wouldn’t like it. We were a loose group of about 10 kids who wandered far and wide, we had a den in the chestnut woods at the top of Rowhill about 1/2 ml from the top bend in an abandoned building built on sand in the wood on the left, is it still there? Our other den was an old lean to shed in the copse to the top right of the new playing fields. Again is it still there? We also spent a lot of time in the avenue (great for playing soldiers with our pretend stick guns). Christian names I recall quite well; Stan(me) Joan, Ann, Roy, Malcolm, Cedric, Ken, Rex the black lab, Collin, Sylvia, Arlene, Peter plus one or two occasional others, plus of course Pecky the Jackdaw.

Post war the two major events were the deep snow winter of 47 when we were cut off for a very long time and later the massive flood that saw water rushing down College road over a foot deep, it went down to Lower Rd and flooded the then new council estate on the left about 1/2 mile Down, were as usual planners had ignored the regular flooding of this valley!

 

Reproduced by kind permission of Stan Robinson (Christchurch) and the RAF museum.

 

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