The Bomber Will Always Get Through
By Peter Smith
The bomber will always get through.
So said Stanley Baldwin, British Prime Minister, 1935 to 1937, and many leading experts at the time.
At the age of five I saw my first warplane, it was an RAF seaplane with a dummy orange bomb attached to its undercarriage, on show near Hastings pier, part of the British government's propaganda campaign to bolster morale just before the war started. A short while later, I saw my first anti-aircraft gun – it looked brand new with its shiny dark green coating. It was first situated in Warrior Square Gardens, Hastings, for display purposes, but then later moved to the beach opposite to perform a more active role. Due to my young age and lack of knowledge, I assumed it would shoot down any enemy aircraft which dared to trespass over our skies...how time would prove me wrong.
For a few months after that, life went on as normal. I attended St Paul's primary school in St Leonards and enjoyed the life most children had at that time. Then shortly after, I was conscious of a change, for in the area I lived, Hollington, there were billeted many Londoners and their children, part of the first wave of evacuees from cities and towns during 1939.
In June 1940 came the reality of war as my eldest stepbrother was rescued from Dunkirk, along with some 300,000 other soldiers. He described in visual detail his rescue and related how he saw a Junkers Ju 87 dive bomber (Stuka) release its bomb, only for it to travel down a Royal Navy destroyer’s funnel with dire results. With the British forces in retreat, the country now awaited the German invasion which was named Operation Sea Lion.
Not long after, my parents and I were walking down King's Road, St Leonards (an area of Hastings), when we saw a government notice in the local post office. One word stood out, a new word, and one I had not seen before...evacuation! Unknown to me, this was a term I was soon to become familiar with.
On the 20th of July 1940, along with my fellow classmates from St Paul's, we travelled by bus to Hastings railway station. Packed with everything I would need, and saying goodbye to my parents, I, along with 3000 other children, made the exodus to Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, just in time before the first bombs fell on Hastings during the 26th of July.
Now separated from my parents and the life I once knew, I found myself in a strange world...one any six-year-old would find intimidating. My place of residence for the next three years was an old farm cottage in rural Houghton Conquest, about five miles from the town of Bedford. My foster carers were a kind old lady, her disabled brother, and her fifteen-year-old niece.
Compared to many other evacuees I was treated rather well, and despite the lack of any plumbing, electricity or basic bathroom facilities (the toilet was situated in a garden hut), life was not too bad.
Three miles to the northeast of Houghton Conquest, there lies the vast green hangars at Cardington. These were originally used for the development of blimps and airships, with the most famous being the ill-fated R101. During the war, Cardington was an RAF barrage balloon depot and became a training unit. Also, not far away in the nearby small village of Elstow where John Bunyan lived, there was a large ordnance factory making heavy guns and other military supplies.
In 1940 my parents moved to a small farm cottage in Wrington, North Somerset, a place they thought offered relative safety. However, not soon after, they discovered that their safe haven was actually on the boundaries of three decoy sites for Bristol. The decoys, known as Starfish, were large areas of countryside situated near large cities and towns to entice enemy aircraft into thinking they were over their target area. If hostile aircraft flew over the entrapment sector, they were met with anti-aircraft batteries controlled by radar firing rockets, the intensity of which was akin to a shotgun going off. The site proved its worth by being hit with a number of bombs, one of which landed in my parents kitchen. Fortunately, it did not explode, and my mother, father and my youngest stepbrother Tony survived. Suffice to say, I remained at Houghton Conquest.
One night in early 1942 whilst lying in bed, I remember hearing the drone of a low flying aircraft (one I had not heard before) and wondered what it might have been. Unknown to me at the time, this was actually 161 Squadron of the RAF, a highly secretive base located at Tempsford, around 10 miles away. Initially the base used Lysanders for ferrying supplies and agents to support the French resistance movement. One of the unsung heroes of the squadron was the CO of the base, Group Captain Hugh Verity, who during the course of the war, flew 36 solo missions to France. Later, as the conflict progressed, the small force was supplemented with larger aircraft such as the Wellington, Halifax and Sterling bombers.
My first sighting of a mass bomber formation was in May 1942, when it was silhouetted against the sky. What I had witnessed was the first part of the raging force which would rendezvous with other heavy bomber squadron for the thousand aircraft attack on Cologne. Some 90% of the city centre was destroyed, at the cost of 4% of the bombing force.
During late May 1943, my mother came to see me on an unexpected visit. It was such a surprise, even greater so when she told me we were going to Hastings on a short holiday (or so I thought). We travelled via London and stayed the night at my Aunt Min’s flat. The next day, all three of us travelled down to Hastings by train. It was a good job we went when we did, as a day later the flat was destroyed in a bombing raid.
The holiday, it worked out, was to attend the funeral of my Aunt Ethel, killed during a Luftwaffe attack only a few days previously. I found out later, whilst researching Hastings wartime history, that the enemy raiders had consisted of Me 109s and FW 190s. Their targets were the large art-deco building of Marine Court (built to resemble the Queen Mary), and the important road junction at Silverhill. During the raid, heavy damage and casualties were incurred, my aunt unfortunately being one of them.
During the raid, an army lorry stopped, and the driver rushed out. He pulled up the tarpaulin at the back and armed the heavy machine gun. Firing continuously at the marauding invaders, his actions undoubtedly helped prevent any further loss of life. Soon after, with ambulances and fire engines at the scene, all attention was focused on helping those injured. The identity of the driver who had saved so many lives though, was unfortunately never discovered, and remains unknown to this day.
In September 1943, I left my temporary residence in Houghton Conquest, and returned home to be with my parents. As the war progressed and the tide slowly turned in favour of the allies, I knew from listening to the radio that it was only a matter of time before something big would happen to change the direction of the war for good. This was reinforced even more when, only a short time later, I saw strange black and white markings situated on the wings of some of our aircraft. At the time I did not know what they were, but of course, we now know them as invasion stripes. Used to identify friendly aircraft, they helped reduce the risk of friendly fire, something which had happened a few months earlier with a group of Dakotas. The following year, D-Day occurred, and the invasion stripes I had seen were put to good use.
As you can see from the brief description above, aviation, especially for a young boy living through some of the darkest years of history, invokes quite a few memories. Now, as a historian, and someone reaching their eighty-seventh year, the memories are just as vivid as they were as a young boy.
Yes, the bomber did get through to sow the wind, but Germany to its cost reaped the whirlwind.
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