Tuesday 14 June 2016

D-Day and The Gunners of Spring

Alan Butler – 82 today! – recalls D-Day, when soldiers camped in the front garden of 14 London Road, and the woods became a military zone… 

from the collection of A.H. Butler 

We had Italian Prisoners of War in the area where I was. Where they were billeted, I don’t know. They weren’t billeted in the village, but they used to turn up on a lorry, and then go off to the different farms where they were allocated. We never saw any German Prisoners of War. 

Tanks at Horndean

It could have been a month or six weeks before D-Day that the troops arrived. Several times they were moved on and then you found them at another part of the village. They got them to pack all their gear and depart and ride around and come back. 

Some soldiers were actually billeted with us. They had their tent in the front garden of 14 London Road (I suppose it was about 18 foot square). They’d put a big tarpaulin up, or several tarpaulins up, and would sleep under these tarpaulins in their sleeping bags in a big makeshift tent. 

There was only one time when they slept in the house, when a sudden shower came on, and the sides of the tarpaulin were rolled up for headroom, and all their bedding got wet, or some of them. So my mother said they could sleep in the house. 

My dad was a policeman and when he finished his shift, in the early hours of the morning, he couldn’t get into the house, because there were soldiers asleep on all the chairs and settees, on the staircase, and some were sleeping on the dining room table, and some under the dining room table. The house was full of soldiers. They didn’t go upstairs (they might have gone upstairs to use the toilet), and we boys and my mother – my grandmother was there at that time – had our own bedrooms. My dad came in, found out he couldn’t get upstairs to use the bathroom or go to bed, so he went back to the police station, which was only two doors away, and had a little kip there, until all the soldiers departed. 

My grandmother Mary Harcourt did her bit for the war effort, so my father said, by teaching the British army how to play Mahjongg. I’ve known my grandmother at the table with three soldiers, and, because only four can play at a time, other soldiers were sitting on chairs there waiting for their turn to have a game of Mahjongg.

The Home Guard 

14 London Road was a open house for soldiers, and Cowplain generally was very soldier-friendly. Some families adopted some of the soldiers. My second cousin, Joan, married one of the soldiers, Bill Starkey. He was in the woods, The Queen’s Inclosure, and because he was good at football, he had to be got out, so he could play football for the army football team. He had to be found a job. What his job was in the woods, I don’t know. They knew all the plans, more than likely, for when D-Day was going to happen in there. 

So Bill came out, and the only job they could think for him was as a military policeman, so they gave him the job of making some village roads one-way. My second cousin Joan was driving her father’s grocer’s van, and objected to being stopped by Bill and told she couldn’t go down this road. From these inauspicious beginnings they started a relationship, and during the war, when Bill was still in the army, he came home on leave and they got married. It was rather a rush wedding. My mother gave one jar of cherished preserve fruit in a kilner jar to help with the wedding breakfast. He survived the war and eventually lived next door to my parents. He finished up his playing years with the Cowplain football team. 

from the collection of A.H. Butler

My mother charged accumulators. Accumulators were the power behind batteries for wirelesses, and they had to be charged up nearly once a week. An officer would come along to my mother and have his solid pack accumulators charged up for his wireless. My mother was horrified one day when he turned up at the side door of 14 London Road (there were three doors to 14 London Road) escorted by two military policemen. My mother thought that he was in trouble. But he wasn’t. He simply had to come out of the woods, which was a secure area, to collect the battery. The policemen were to make sure he didn’t talk to anybody about what was happening in the woods. Normally he collected a battery and left one, but this time he didn’t leave any.

from the collection of A.H. Butler 

Just before D-Day the soldiers were all issued with French currency, and my mother was given two of these franc notes, which I have in my collection. And then, at Christmas, some soldiers sent my mother Christmas cards, which I’ve got in my collection too. One reads “To Reggie, Michael and Alan,” that is, the children in the household, “with best wishes, John”. And this from the 20th Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery: “To our good friends of Cowplain, with every good wish for Christmas and the New Year from the Gunners of Spring, 1944.” That phrase, “the Gunners of Spring”, suggests that soldiers were in Cowplain earlier than I thought: if D-Day was in June, they must have been in the village at the back end of spring.

from the collection of A.H. Butler

That’s how much they thought of us. A couple of things were always in short supply at our house: sugar (we went through an awful lot of sugar), and tea too was very scarce. The soldiers gave my mother either one or two big bags of tea. The tea they were issued with didn’t come in packets, they were in small bags, about nine inches square,  and it was full of tea, with a draw cord at the top, to keep it fresh. My mother was given two of these bags as a parting gift. Whether they gave her any other food out of their supply, I don’t know, but I’ll always remember the tea. 

My mother would let the soldiers use the bath. Because they had none or very basic washing facilities, a cold shower perhaps, she let them have use of the bath. And one day a lieutenant came to the door, a complete stranger, and said to my mother, “I understand that this is the house that I can have a bath at.” And my mother said yes. And so he left her sixpence to pay for his bath. The soldiers she didn’t charge at all, but she took the sixpence from the lieutenant.

from http://resources.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/homework/war/evacuation.htm

Cowplain took evacuees from London and Portsmouth. I can remember an endless stream of cars and wheelbarrows coming out of Portsmouth one evening, when I was a child. Halls and churches put them up. They would accommodate them until they found somewhere to live. 

Huts were built in some spare ground in Hart Plain Avenue (where Hart Plain Avenue joined Silvester Road) for more evacuees, but the evacuees never came. They stayed empty for a long time, and then it was decided to turn these wooden huts into a junior school, because we had no junior school in the village, and when the war started, it was overwhelmed by children. 

I’d been moved to the senior school. In Cowplain you had a huge great senior school that had a catchment area of Waterlooville, Purbrook, Denmead, Widley and went as far as Rowland’s Castle but didn’t include Havant. It was a funny old radius actually: it went to the top of Portsdown Hill. And then the other way it went to Denmead, Hambledon, Horndean, Clanfield, Lovedean. At one time it was mixed, but then they divided it so you had girls in one half, and boys in the other half. Separate provision was made for the girls and boys. There was no contact with girls that I can remember. 

When there was an air-raid, we, the juniors, went up to the shelters. And it was a good old walk to get to the air-raid shelters from the school, about 200 hundred yards, and we were allocated the first one, because we couldn’t walk very fast. We were only little tots. And the senior boys went to the classrooms we had just vacated and trusted to the blast walls to protect them. Luckily, it only ever happened once as far as I can remember. We had dummy runs, but there was actually only once we had an air-raid and were evacuated to the shelters. 

from Google Images 

So there was one air-raid when we were all summoned there, and the other ones were dummy runs. And you had to put your gas mask on, and they were the most unpleasant things going, because they would steam up in no  time at all. I would hate to have to wear one in a gas attack. Any rate, it never happened, thank goodness. 

These wooden huts, as I say, had been built, and never used, and then, as I say, it was decided to turn them into a junior school. And so about 1942 (yeah, it would have been about 1942), we were moved from the senior school over into the huts. They were terrible. All you had was a big stove in the middle, and it was the job of somebody in the class (there was big buckets of coal there: I think it was coal, it might have been anthracite) to keep these stoves topped up in the winter. And the classrooms were still cold even with the stoves on. We had to wear our coats in class, they were that cold. Because the stoves radiated a little bit of heat, and beyond that, nothing.   

I think there are four or five junior schools in that village now. I wouldn’t like to say. 

This map shows our house – the red is 14 London Road (that’s the length of our garden) – and the territory the army took over. 

Have you got the photograph I took of the bombs? The drawing pins are the bombs we had. One landed on a poultry farm and killed hundreds of chickens, and the other was at the top of Park Lane. See that square building there? That was one of the old tram sheds. Fodens had it –  I didn’t know this until recently virtually – and they were storing torpedoes in there, for submarines. Perhaps I didn’t notice them come, or perhaps they all travelled at nighttime, I don’t know, but somebody knew about them, and the Luftwaffe tried to bomb it, and they were just that little bit out: they bombed the other side of the road (the corner of Park Lane), the bottom of our road and a field. We were lucky. They were the only bombs we had in Cowplain.  

As I say, the soldiers were often on the move, and the HQ, we found out afterwards, was Southwick House, which was five miles by road. It’s a museum now, with the layout for D-Day. 

Of course, D-Day was cancelled at the last minute, because the weather was that bad. The weather was blowing a storm and it was just impossible, so D-Day was put back a day to the 6th of June. The weather people were involved for a long time to predict a good day for the invasion, but they got it completely wrong. Meteorology then was not the advanced art it is today. 

So they all departed. The village was quite empty of tanks, vehicles and guns. We did have some tanks: there were a lot of Bren Gun Carriers (you had a trailer behind the Bren Gun Carrier, and then a small field gun towing behind the trailer). And they all departed. What made my parents’ property quite attractive, was the very wide piece of grass from the edge of the road to the fence of the house (at one time the Horndean Light Railway tram ran along there), and so they army was able to park their vehicles well off the road. Now it was empty. 

It was the evening of the 5th of June and suddenly there were aeroplanes in the sky. We looked up, and there were Airspeed Oxfords (they were mainly Oxfords) towing Horsa gliders. They went over the house and we had a good view from the back of the house because the ground dropped a bit. The woods were three quarters of a mile away, and visibility ceased after the woods. But you can imagine, the sky was full of planes. As far as we could see to our right, and as far as we could see to our left, the whole sky was full of aeroplanes and gliders, spaced quite apart but limitless. That’s when we realised that some action was going to take place. 

This was getting dusk, at ten o’clock or eleven o’clock at night, so it wouldn’t be long before it would be dark, and then they would fly across the Channel into France, and the planes would shed their gliders, and the gliders would land with the airborne troops inside them. 

Mind you, that happened again several weeks later. They wanted to secure a bridge in Holland. They didn’t succeed actually. They couldn’t secure it and the Germans took the bridge, but they did their best, and again the sky was full of Oxfords and Horsa gliders. 

Further reading: http://www.portsmouth.co.uk/news/defence/horndean-s-wartime-past-1-6573671 – source of Tanks in Horndean and Home Guard pictures. 

Coming soon: Bicycle Ride to Love 

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