DOWN MEMORY LANE Growing up with horrors of war raging over our heads

Among the most popular memories among readers are those of the second world war.

Maurice Ayling, of Rose Green, has sent us a series of his childhood memories, as well as those of the war years.

He says his grandchildren – now in their 30s and 40s – are intrigued by his recollections of that time, although he adds they have advised him not to go near the Weald and Downland museum in case they retain him as an exhibit!

Here are some of Maurice’s memories of the war:

In 1938, the country was on the brink of war, and preparations for it were being made by national and local authorities.

I recall, as a pupil at Midhurst Grammar School, instead of the normal sports afternoon, filling sandbags on the banks of the Rother under Easebourne water mill.

In spite of Mr Chamberlain’s assertion on his return from Munich that he had ensured peace in our time, my father was not convinced and, using his first world war infantry experience, constructed a dugout air-raid shelter in our garden in a remote corner of West Chiltington parish.

After listening to Mr Chamberlain eating his words by informing us by wireless that we were at war with Germany, the air-raid warnings soon sounded all over the district.

At that time there were sirens which made the familiar wailing sounds, and whistles which gave a series of short blasts, many privately-owned.

We all decamped to the shelter, granny carrying her half-eaten lunch which she finished sitting on the shelter bench.

However, it was a false alarm, but it led to the government prohibiting the use of the privately-owned sirens, which could cause panic.

A few weeks later, I spent a couple of days in Southsea to sit the entrance examination for artificer apprentice in the RN, which I was informed I had passed in the following spring, together with instructions to report to Portsmouth barracks for a medical examination.

To my dismay, I developed measles just before that date. Humiliation!

I feared I would not be able to join up. However, I was given a new date to report to the recruiting office in, I believe, Edinburgh Street, to which father took me.

I was sent to the barracks, on my own, for a medical and, while walking through the barracks, a big hand appeared from nowhere, grabbed me by the collar, and a huge CPO told me to hide round the corner as the king was coming by in a moment and would not want to see me.

I was a bit miffed as I thought HM might have been glad to welcome me to his navy!

Having waited while a long succession of sailors with slings, splints and crutches preceded me, I was the last to see the MO who passed me out, and I went back to the recruiting office where I signed on, and home to await joining instructions.

In May, we were surrounded by survivors of the Dunkirk evacuation and I well remember my father soundly berating a corporal for defeatist talk.

“Call yourself a leader – you should be ashamed of yourself.”

That was the first time I had seen him berate a stranger.

During my final term at Midhurst, the Battle of Britain commenced. At first there was sporadic air activity and we heard distant firing.

Then, one cloudless day, there was a formation of German aircraft flying high, leaving white trails which many took to be poison gas, giving rise to considerable concern, as such had not previously been seen.

However, the BBC broadcast that the trails were merely harmless vapour.

I made my farewells at Midhurst at the end of the summer term and, while awaiting joining instructions, was helping with the harvest on the farm where my father was the head gardener of the estate, while the battle was fought overhead.

There was aerial activity most days, but some events are outstanding in my memory.

One day I was stacking wheat sheaves on a horse-drawn wagon when a formation of German aircraft, about 40-strong, was flying a course roughly Brighton to Guildford, when several Hurricanes dived down through them and back up again, as a result of which several German aircraft came down in all directions.

One was in a vertical dive, apparently coming straight for us, making a terrible screaming noise.

However, it went down about half a mile away with a terrific explosion.

During the evening, we visited the crash site. Although this was the first of many I was to see over the next 30 years or so, it was the worst I ever saw.

Above ground, there was nothing larger than a dinner plate around a crater, the only sign of the aeroplane being a machine gun sticking out of the earth.

A few days later, a Hurricane flew low over us with its wheels down, and landed in a stubble field a mile or so away, which might have been a successful landing had it not been for a rabbit warren into which one wheel dropped, turning the machine on to its back.

The sergeant pilot was rescued, the site guard showing us the hole in the cockpit side made by the bullet which had wounded the pilot.

A few years ago, I read the obituary of a group captain in which his landing in a field near Pulborough was mentioned.

My father and his gardeners took it in turn to tend the fires and greenhouses of the estate at weekends, and I sometimes accompanied him.

At the end of August 1940 we had just finished this task when we heard approaching aircraft. A twin-engined German bomber was in a shallow dive, being attacked by three Hurricanes.

This was the first time we had witnessed a low-level attack, and I was astonished, and a little frightened, by the roar of eight machine guns firing at once from a Hurricane.

There was a gunner in the bomber, and the pop, pop, of his single gun sounded puny in comparison as he fired at each Hurricane until his aircraft disappeared into the ground in the vicinity of Chanctonbury hill.

I was jumping up and down, hollering with delight until my father rapped ‘Stop that, you are watching men die’.

When I said ‘But they are Jerries’, he replied: “Never mind who they are, they are only doing their duty as I had to do, and you will shortly have to do.”

As we walked home, for the first time, he told me of some of his experiences and of the attitudes of soldiers on either side to each other, including the humanity of the CO of the German unit which had taken him prisoner in September 1918. It was a lesson I never forgot.

A week or so later, I reported to HMS Medina, erstwhile Puckpool Park holiday camp near Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, a satellite of Portsmouth barracks.