Memories of Dunkirk survivors

The road to Bepton village C081975-3
The road to Bepton village C081975-3

Philip Pratley contacted the Observer to share his wartime memories of growing up in the Observer area

He writes:

I was born in Bepton, close to the north slope of the South Downs, in 1936. In June of 1940, two army trucks stopped under the trees in the road outside our house, a frequent occurrence following the removal of signposts to ‘confuse the Germans’ should they invade.

Us kids would run outside to ask them if they wanted a cup of tea which mum would make in a huge white enamel jug and we would take it out to them. On this occasion we were shocked to see the state of the soldiers. Unwashed, unshaven. Dirty and torn uniforms. Bloodstained bandages and for the most part asleep on the floor. These were ‘our’ soldiers, with Royal Sussex shoulder flashes. The only one awake was a sergeant leaning against the tailboard of the leading truck, much older than the others and wearing first world war medal ribbons. (A four-year-old in those days would know that.)

He said they would love a cuppa,if he could wake them up, but could we supply cups as well as they had left all their belongings in France. These were survivors from Dunkirk, the news of which had only been released the previous day.

When we brought the big jug out, most of them were awake, sort of, and some still lay on the floor. To us, passing soldiers always sang so we asked to sing Sussex by the Sea.

“Sorry son,” the sergeant replied. “Got nothing to sing about. You’ve heard about Dunkirk? We were told to hold a river to keep the Gerries back so the army could get back to Blighty. We tried, we really tried. But rifles against tanks don’t work. We left Brighton barracks before Christmas with about 800 men. In these two trucks there are just 44. Some others may have made it back by a different route, but we left most of them by the river bank. Sussex will be a sad place when the news gets out.”

History tells us these were men of the 7th battalion the Royal Sussex.

Our house had a sloping front lawn and the garden ended with a stone wall drop into the lane. When the Battle of Britain started a few months later, all five of us would lay down on the east-facing slope and watch the battle develop. Mostly it consisted of white condensation trails on the sky, but we could work out which were ours and which ones were Hitler’s lot.

We could hear the rattle of automatic guns, watch smoking planes fall and see the occasional parachute.

One bright sunny day we were out there and one single aircraft flew over. The sun dazzled us and we couldn’t agree what it was. Twin-engined. Single tail. Could have been just about anything. Heinkel! No – Messerschmidt! The plane had just cleared the top of Bepton Down and continued north towards Midhurst. It then made a wide sweeping turn, first east and then south and was flying above the Chichester road.

When it got level with us and over Cocking, still arguing we saw five bombs fall out of it. Saw the explosions. Felt the ground 
vibrate. Eldest, unflappable brother: “Don’t know what it is, but it’s definitely a Gerry.”

We heard that the first two bombs fell in adjacent fields. The next two fell in two separate gardens and the last one landed in the children’s recreation ground.

We also heard two amazing stories. Two small girls were skipping down the road, heading to the playground. A lady working in her front garden had a feeling something bad was about to happen so she called the children in and they crammed into the cupboard under the stairs. Amazing!

When the bomb landed in the playground, the sole occupant 
was a boy sitting on the grass close to the road.

The bomb went off behind him. No injuries. No blast burns. No injuries from the bomb casing. However, the blast blew his trousers off and the embarrassed youngster had to run home trouserless. At that time, underpants were a bit of a luxury, which no doubt added to his discomfort.