Wartime memories of Farnborough Kent children


by John Riches. 2004.

Back in 1944 Sheila Vickers was one of my classmates at Farnborough School, then of course on Starts Hill. She lived at 23 Palmerston Road “down the building fields” as my Mum insisted on calling it, with her parents Percy and Grace, older brother Allan aged 18, younger brother Maurice aged 7 and little Carol aged 5. I remember Sheila well with her little round wide-eyed look. She sat in the double iron framed desk a row in front of me. David Pucknell was monitor at the time making sure there was enough ink in the desks’ wells, so that we could dip our steel nibbed pens in and write. John Cranleigh, Cecily Bourne, Clive Oates and Donald Curd are just some of the names I recall. Mr Lesley Moat was Head Master and Mrs Moat his wife was one of our teachers.
One day, it must have been in May 1944, we children discovered that a lot of old lorries and cars had been parked under the trees of the wood at the edge of the A21 close to Hilda Vale Road. Most of us had only ridden in a car two or three times in our lives at that time, so we had great fun playing on them using our vivid imagination. We now know that the wrecks were placed there as decoys to try to persuade the Germans that the Allies would attack mainland Europe across the shortest sea distance – the Straits of Dover.  

Gordon Johnson, who was staying with his grandparents at the time, remembers that his father’s brother Uncle Eddie, was preparing Canadian troops somewhere close to Farnborough, for post D-Day armoured warfare. One day Eddie happened to be passing along the A21 arterial road and decided to pop in to see his parents who lived in Orchard Road. Imagine everyone’s surprise when Eddie drove up in his armour-plated tank, parked it outside number ten and then proceeded to pop into his parents house for a cup of tea. Fortunately the Council had not adopted Orchard Road in those days. As it was not paved with tarmac but simply consisted of compressed flints and stones, no lasting damage was done to its surface.

One day during the early summer of 1944 we heard a commotion coming from the Farm Field – the large gently sloping pasture that stretches from Fishers Farm to the height of our beloved Firs – Mill Hill. We were intrigued to discover strange looking soldiers in an unfamiliar uniform. Most spoke English with a soft drawl. Some even spoke in another language that our mothers told us was French. They’d pitched their tents in the shadow of the trees of The Firs and dug slit trenches just inside the wood to provide cover for their armed guards. The remains of the trenches can still be seen today.

Their bren gun carriers, light tracked personnel vehicles, raced across the field and some children even cadged an exciting ride. They flew their flag with pride – a red flag with a union jack in the top staff side corner and an unknown coat of arms at its centre.

It was our first sight of Canadians! They were different and they were fun! They disappeared a few days later and I often wonder if the kindly soldiers we knew were some of the many Canadian infantrymen that were killed attacking Normandy’s Gold, Juno and Sword beaches.

On 6th June 1944 we awoke to find hundreds of large aeroplanes flying towards France. Some were towing gliders and all had the distinctive two white stripes painted across each wing.

We knew that D-Day had begun and a month later on 7th July we read in the one old penny newspapers of the time bought from Fred Wiffen’s paper shop in the village, that Caen had been captured and Allied forces were advancing towards the Pas de Calais where the V1’s launching ramps were located.  
              Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Musem.

We were all well used to the sights and sounds of Spitfires and Hurricanes performing victory rolls over the village just before landing at RAF Biggin Hill two miles or so across the fields. And at night after the air raid warning on top of the telephone exchange had sounded and we were lying huddled in shelters dug into our gardens, we reckoned we could tell the difference between the distinctive pulsating throbbing of the German bombers sent over by Old Nasty to bomb us, compared with the continuous roar of the Spitfire’s Rolls Royce Merlin engines.

But one afternoon, probably 12th June 1944, we heard a huge roaring putt-putt-putt noise, as a tiny aircraft raced across the sky over the village in the direction of London. Half a minute or so later its engine cut. Then after a pause there came a muffled explosion in the distance. My Mum, who worked at the Admiralty in London at the time, told everybody that she had heard rumours of pilot less German aircraft. Three days later the news on the BBC’s Home Service wireless broadcast confirmed what we already guessed, that Hitler had launched his new secret V1 flying bomb weapon from France. It was unguided and could fly at 350mph – fast in those days. At first we called them “Buzz Bombs,” but soon the name “Doodlebug” was coined by some cartoonist – and the name stuck.

Amazingly we soon got used to the doodlebugs racing across our Farnborough skies en-route to London. We quickly learned that as long as the engine was running there was no danger. If it cut out you got down on the ground pretty quickly.

Vera Brewer recalls that in those days when computers hadn’t even been dreamed of by ordinary people, she was top of the class at Sidcup Technical School having achieved a shorthand speed of 140 words per minute and a  speed of 50 words per minute on an old fashioned mechanical typewriter.  By 1944 she had left school and travelled to work in London each day on the noisy electric trains of the privately owned Southern Railway. Vera explained that it was impossible to hear Doodlebugs unless they were very close to the train and impossible to get off even if you did hear one of those monstrous machines. People were pretty fatalistic and accepted that there was a chance of getting killed. But life and the war effort had to go on.

Our parents became very anxious about the dangerous situation and many decided that the wives and children should be evacuated yet again to safer parts of the country.  On Wednesday 12th July a doodlebug landed quite close to the school and caused some structural damage. The following day, whilst their father was engaged on important war work, my classmate Sheila, together with brothers Alan and Maurice, as well as little sister Carol, set off with their mother in a taxi to travel to one of the London mainline stations so that they could be evacuated to a safer part of the country. They travelled no further that the Park Hotel in Bromley Road, Lewisham when a V1 crashed, exploded and killed them all. Their names are recorded in the Civilian War Dead Register of the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham. Their remains were taken back to Farnborough and buried in the beautiful, secluded churchyard of Farnborough’s parish church - St Giles. The next time you walk down through the churchyard, take the second path to the right and at their grave say a little prayer to remember my classmate Shelia Vickers and her family.    

Next Chapter  Back to Introduction

contact sitemap directions home home