Nostalgia: Growing up on a wartime farm

DAVID GILLBARD, of Park Lane, Aldingbourne, writes of his memories growing up as a schoolboy on an Aldingbourne farm.

Aged eight, he was on holiday in Cornwall when war broke out in 1939 and he returned home.

“I still have a clear memory of coming over the Portsdown hills and viewing the harbour area, thickly dotted with barrage balloons to deter low-level attacks by German fighters.

“Plans were being made to evacuate children from the anticipated invasion area – London and the south coast – to Canada and America.

“I was all kitted out to go to a friend’s in Toronto. But, following the sinking of a ship with a large number of children on it by a German submarine, the idea of anyone else going was abandoned.”

His maternal grandparents farmed on what was to become part of the extended Tangmere airfield.

“Work began on extending the Tangmere airfield and not only was some of my grandparents’ farm taken, but most of the next farm owned by a Mr Whittle.

“He was left with a few acres and his farmhouse sitting on the end of the north-south runway.

“What was called the lower road to Chichester was used by regular bus services which took me to school. It now 
had to cross the airfield. Military personnel boarded the bus and drew the blinds in case we should see what was going on.”

A few months after war was declared, Mr Gillbard’s grandparents, who lived in a house overlooking the Tangmere airfield, were told their home was needed to house military staff and so they came to Mr Gillbard’s parents’ farm for around six months, before they were able to buy a house in Felpham.

Mr Gillbard wrote: “On Christmas Day, 1940, my mum and grandma made plans for all the family to spend Christmas Day together.

“The vegetables would be prepared at Felpham and we would bring the goose we had fattened on the farm.

“As there was no petrol allowed to be used for domestic purposes and no buses on Christmas Day, we all cycled to Felpham.

“Dad was in front with the hot goose wrapped up in an old overcoat in the basket on the handlebars, followed by me and my mother who had my two-year-old sister riding on the carrier behind her bicycle seat. My dad called it a wild goose chase.”

Mr Gillbard described the farm as being in ‘quite a lively spot’, because of frequent dogfights overhead.

“Once when we were unloading sheaves of corn into a barn on the edge of the airfield, planes started firing overhead.

“The horses that had brought the wagons in from the field were very frightened and had to be uncoupled from their wagons lest they bolted away or broke the wagon shafts.

“Father made an air raid shelter from an old steel ammunition store of 1914/1918 vintage which he had purchased years earlier to use as a field shelter for his breeding sows.

“The shelter was sunk in the ground about three feet and the earth taken out was thrown back over it.

“My mum, sister and I often slept there at night during the summer. But it had to be abandoned in the autumn as it filled with water.

“In late July, my father and his tractor driver went out to cut some corn for his neighbour. He was a cattle farmer and had no arable equipment. But the West Sussex Agricultural Committee, called the War Ag, had forced him to plough up some of his pasture to grow corn.”

Mr Gillbard had an evacuee friend called John, who with the rest of his school had been sent down from south London to share the village’s school premises.

“We had some of our lessons in the field adjoining the school as there was no room for us all in the classrooms. It was a good job it was a dry and sunny summer,” he wrote.

“John came with me that afternoon and we were asked to plane-spot, standing out in the cornfield to warn those cutting the corn of any danger of which they would be unaware of because of the noise of the machinery.

“Our fears were realised late in the afternoon when one of our own aircraft hoping to make it to Tangmere was on fire.

“It turned and looked like dropping in the middle of the cornfield, out of control.

“At the last minute it flattened out and dropped over the hedge into a grass field and burst into flames. The pilot of course stood no chance of surviving.

“On August 16, 1940, when our family was having lunch under the shade of some trees on the lawn, some German fighter bombers attacked Tangmere airfield and destroyed several sections on the runways.

“They had planned a raid on Portsmouth as a decoy for our own fighters and when they had left to defend Portsmouth, the German planes dived in out of the sun and our own anti-aircraft guns stood no chance of responding.

“They did considerable damage to the main runways.”

One night, a German pilot who baled out was caught in a walnut tree in the garden of one of Mr Gillbard’s friends in Walberton.

“He asked him down and talked to him in German until the police arrived. They asked him to go to Arundel to act as an interpreter.”

Mr Gillbard also recounted the time a bomb dropped on Chichester.

“One Wednesday in the autumn, a bomb fell on Reeves garage in North Street, about the position where Woolworths once was.

“It was used by many farmers to get their car serviced while they were out in the market.

“That particular day, my dad and two other members of my family put their cars in for service, removing them less than an hour before a bomb dropped – demolishing most of the garage.

“The mechanic, I think his name was Mr Fernyhough, who was in the inspection pit, was very badly burnt.

“The same plane taking advantage of the low cloud flew over Boxgrove Street and tried to pepper our school bus when it stopped to allow passengers to alight, but the bullets missed and only hit the road.

“The plane then came on to machine-gun our farmhouse. One came through the roof and another one though the brick wall of the bedroom – cutting through the carpet and bouncing up to take a piece out of a chair and then went through the door and slid along the landing.

“My sister, who was about three or four at the time, was standing on a chair looking out of the window and saw it pass over the house heading for the farm buildings.

“The plane then machine-gunned a hay barn where one of the farm workers had taken cover under the hay elevator. Only next spring was it discovered there was a bullet hole right beside where he had been sitting.”

As a farmer, Mr Gillbard’s father was in a reserved occupation and joined the Home Guard.

“Part of their job was to patrol Westergate Street at regular intervals during the night. On cold nights they would call into the bakery at about 4pm when the bread was being baked and have a warm-up.”

German and Italian POWs often did farm work all over the country.

“There was a depot at Midhurst,” wrote Mr Gillbard. “Gangs were often brought in army lorries to help with jobs like potato picking.

“A few of the more trusted ones were allowed to live on the farms to help with milking etc. One lodged in the farmhouse with my wife’s family in Cornwall.

“Dad offered a cottage to a Polish refugee and his wife, after all they had suffered he wasn’t strong enough for farm work.

“Towards the end of the war, one of our aircraft was returning from a raid over France and dislodged a bomb as it was landing.

“Obviously, the pilot had released it over the target, but somehow it must have got caught up in the bomb rack but dislodged as he was coming in to land.

“The field was on the 
edge of Hook Lane, Aldingbourne. The bomb sank about 15 feet into the ground without exploding. It needed the bomb disposal squad to come and dig it out and take it away.”