DOWN MEMORY LANE Bombs fell all around us – but as a child, I never felt really afraid

There’s a real wartime theme to the Down Memory Lane page this week.

John Davis, who now lives in Australia, got in touch to pass on a few his memories.

He writes:

I can clearly remember Sunday, September 3, 1939, when Mr Chamberlain made his speech on the radio stating that as the government had not received a reply to the ultimatum to Germany to withdraw from their invasion of Poland by 11am, we were now at war with Germany.

As a seven-year-old I did not appreciate what this meant, but clearly my father and mother were alarmed, both having lived through the previous war.

At this time my family were living in Brandy Hole Lane and we were listening to the radio, as was our gardener, Chalky, whose stepson would be killed at Monte Cassino, Italy, later in the war.

Very soon the Local Defence Force, later named The Home Guard, was formed, as were the ARP, Air Raid Precaution and the NFS, National Fire Service. Apart from the NFS, these were largely manned by retired people.

Many road junctions soon became dumping places for old vehicles which were intended to be moved across them to block them if invasion occurred.

Deep V-shaped trenches were dug across fields to try to block tanks, thus they were called tank traps.

Wooden poles and tripods of scaffolding poles were erected in fields to deter gliders from landing and at the coast anti-invasion defences were erected in the sea. Some of these remained at West Wittering forming paddling pools when we could again go to the beach after the war’s end.

Barbed wire appeared everywhere as did air-raid shelters, blast walls and sandbag defences to protect doors and windows. Many windows were criss-crossed with sticky paper with the idea they might not shatter so readily.

Ration books were issued and identity cards, as were gas masks which we carried as shoulder bags.

Many posters went up at first, giving instruction not to move in case of invasion as population movement blocked the roads from troop movement. Other posters exhorted Dig for Victory, Save to buy fighters, Careless talk costs lives, Is you journey really necessary?

Black-out was enforced with limited vehicle lights covered with slitted masks.

During the Battle of Britain the skies were covered in converging vapour trails as Spitfires and Hurricanes patrolled the skies and fought aerial battles with enemy aircraft. About this time a German fighter landed at Lagness between Chichester and Bognor which was a chance to see the enemy close up.

Two bombs fell close to the railway bridge in Brandy Hole Lane at this time, causing some damage to Applecot, the nearest house.

As it happens, this single rail track to Midhurst was used to convey ammunition trains which sheltered in Cocking Tunnel which was protected by steel doors at each end.

During the blitz on Portsmouth, we used a Morrison shelter, named after the home secretary, which was formed by vertical steel angle irons of about six-inch dimension supporting cross-members and covered by a steel sheet as a roof. Steel mesh protected the sides.

I think it could have supported a collapsed house, but I would not have liked to be trapped in it.

This was the indoor shelter. There was another named the Anderson which was built in gardens.

German planes came over us and used the cathedral spire to turn west to Portsmouth. The German engines were out of sync and were easily identified.

Around us were several anti-aircraft guns, one near Hunter’s Race, another at Fords Water, close to Westhampnett outlier airfield for Tangmere. These guns often made more noise than the bombs. On frosty mornings we used to hear the fighter planes’ engines being warmed up. This was very reassuring – now it would be a nuisance.

Close to the edge of Westhampnett airfield were hutments used by German prisoners. Whether these were purposely sited I do not know, but it seems an odd place to keep enemy prisoners. They were employed as farm workers under guard.

Italian prisoners were given more freedom in that they were allowed to travel on their own, wearing uniform with a big orange-yellow circle on the back.

During the war we had double summertime which meant that in summer it was still light at ten at night.

One evening I was home alone when an Italian prisoner walked up the drive holding a chain in both hands, which was quite frightening. However, all he wanted were tools to repair his broken cycle chain.

I was playing in the garden one day when a fuselage sliding cover crashed within two yards of me. The RAF came to collect it.

About 1942-43 I was with my mother on the top deck of a Southdown bus in Bognor. There was low cloud cover and suddenly an aircraft was overhead with its bomb doors open. I told my mother and a man said: “Don’t worry sonny, it’s one of ours.” Almost immediately we heard loud explosions, and were only protected by being alongside a cinema (Rex?) rather than in front. Had we been seconds earlier we would have been where the bombs fell.

The bus conductor burnt his fingers picking up some shrapnel. I believe there were some people killed.

Prior to D-Day and for days thereafter, the sky was full of Dakotas towing gliders across the Channel and Flying Fortresses and Liberators on daylight raids. One evening as these were returning, I saw the north one of these explode and disintegrate.

I remember seeing the Liberator which crashed into the laundry in Chichester. I was just leaving the Boys’ High School and it appeared to me it was flying below the height of the school library, which was the only two-storey building at the school.

About this time Doodlebugs appeared as slow-moving, unmanned aircraft with jet engines designed to travel a certain distance before the engine cut out. This was quite an indiscriminate weapon, not aimed, but I believe intended principally to reach London.

Several overflew Chichester, one crashing in the Lavant Valley leaving a crater clearly marked in the chalk on the east side of the valley.

As Anthony Eden lived at Binderton House, close by, there were reports it had been intended for him.

On D-Day and for days after, the sound of gunfire could be heard across the Channel.

My memory of VE Day in 1945 was a celebration at the Cross, with a searchlight focused up the cathedral spire, lots of cheering and flag-waving. A soldier climbed a ladder fixed to the nave of the cathedral chased by a policeman until they were out of sight.

In the whole of the war, I never remember being afraid. Perhaps I had no imagination.

One evening in 1942-43, I was in the garden with my father when an unknown aircraft flew over with its tail apparently on fire. This did not seem to be a problem to the plane and I have often wondered if this was a prototype and whether it was ours or a German, as then the public had no idea of jet engines.

A German bomber, flying west to east, dropped a stick of bombs just north of the Cross, one into a disused garage, now WH Smith, which bounced across North Street through Gerrings shops and exploded in St Martin’s Square, killing some people and demolishing the little church which became a memorial garden.

A flight of Typhoons flying west over the barracks, being three planes, touched wings and one crashed into a field on the edge of West Broyle just north of the railway bridge.

A friend and I rushed over but turned away when ammunition started exploding as the aircraft burnt.