Wartime memories of Farnborough Kent children

by John Riches. 2004.  

This all happened in 1942 or 1943 when I was seven or eight years old. But when someone tries to kill you the memory vividly stays with you for the rest of your life.

One night my Mum, Florence – Floss to her friends – had put me to bed in our cottage number 3 Prospect Place; now 12 Pleasant View Place. Around midnight “Moaning Minnie,” the air raid siren on the roof of the telephone exchange by the square started wailing. Mum threw a warm blanket over my pyjamas, led me downstairs and through the gate into the garden of number 36 High Street - my Grandmother’s ivy covered clapboard cottage at the bottom of Pleasant View. Through the pitch darkness of the blackout and not daring to shine a torch to light our way, we dodged through the vegetables growing in the garden and climbed down into the Anderson air raid shelter that had been sunk into the ground. Going through a by now familiar routine we pushed aside the sacking hanging over its entrance, placed one foot on the wooden box that acted as a step and contained bottled water and peppermint cordial and stepped onto the concrete floor between the two double bunk beds. The musty, dank atmosphere that smelled of candles, oil lamps and sweaty bodies will be familiar to anyone who lived through those dark days in Farnborough. I was put on a bottom bunk and told to go to sleep.

"The musty dank atmosphere that smelled of candles, oil lamps and sweaty bodies will be familiar to anyone who lived through those dark days in Farnborough.  Children entering an Andeson Shelter.  Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

In the shelter were my Mum, my Grandmother Mrs Mary Still and I believe my cousins Sylvia and Barbara Hodson from St Mary Cray who were at that time staying with Gran. My Grandfather James Charles Still had died on 2nd March 1942 after a beer lorry going up the Alley to the Club slipped on snow and knocked over the cottage’s rickety fence. Grandad, then 68, was ill, but got out of bed to prop up the fence and in his hurry forgot to put on warm clothing and caught pneumonia. He refused to summon Dr McLoski from down the village, probably because he couldn’t afford the five shillings consultancy fee that general practitioners demanded from patients in those days before the National Health Service.   
  Those Germans didn’t frighten my Uncle Charlie who was also christened James Charles Still like granddad. He refused to go into the shelter but sat with his shoulders and bottom inside a metal wheelbarrow that was propped up against the garden’s lilac bush with a tin hat on his head staring up into the night sky. At that time in his mid-forties and employed making essential concrete products for the war effort down St Mary Cray way, he had served as a stoker in the Royal Navy shovelling coal into the furnaces of a battleship that fought in the Battle of Jutland in May 1916 during the Great War. 

We all heard the now familiar throbbing drone of German bombers right above us. From out in the High Street came a shout of “Fire!” and suddenly an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back of a lorry close to us noisily fired off a salvo. Then came the most terrifying noise I have ever heard – a piercing, deafening scream from a siren on the fins of a big bomb designed to strike terror into civilians. As my Mum acted as a human shield by throwing herself across me, Uncle Charlie decided that he’d better go into the shelter after all. He rushed forwards through the darkness, pushed aside the sacking and put his foot on the box acting as a step. At that moment a huge explosion shook the whole village – the box collapsed and Uncle Charlie fell full length into the shelter followed by all the bottles of cordial from inside the box. What did we all do? We laughed and laughed – glad that we were all still alive. It seemed only minutes later that another voice was heard outside. “Are you all alright in there?” It was Old Fieldy – the Rector – the Reverend Ernest Peter Field carrying out his pastoral duties and making sure we were all still alive.

The following morning, after the all-clear had sounded and before Charlie Brown and the other air raid wardens plus the Police had time to investigate, my Mum, her friends and neighbours Amy Williams and Emily Pucknell plus all the children, went into the fields to find out what had happened during the night. Apparently a German bomber, perhaps trying to engage R.A.F. Biggin Hill fighter station across the fields, had been hit by ack-ack and dropped all its bombs. Most were only small and caused a line of craters right across Church Fields, Mill Hill Field and the field closest to Pleasant View behind the farm. But one was huge and landed in Mill Hill Field right in a crop of cauliflowers. Our Mum’s didn’t miss an opportunity to get a free dinner courtesy of Old Nasty – Adolph Hitler. We all gathered up the shattered cauliflowers around the huge crater and took them home for a free dinner.

Following ploughing, the place where the large bomb landed can still be seen where the whitish chalk subsoil was thrown to the surface by the explosion. Stand in the Square where the 47 and 51 buses turn round with your back to the George and Dragon pub and walk up Tye Lane between ye Olde Orange Tea Rooms and Mr Goodchild’s greengrocer’s shop. Sorry, it’s all changed. Stand by the sign in the Square with your back to The George and pass up Tye Lane between the Chinese takeaway and the violin shop. Walk on until the lane becomes a sunken track where generations of Farnborough people have walked from the village centre up into the fields. At the wood where the lane ends, go through the barrier and turn ninety degrees to the left. Two-thirds of the way down the slope towards the Church Fields you’ll find the spot where that terrifying bomb landed.       

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