The Royal Navy in Rye
1942 I am unable to separate the events that took place when the Admiralty decided to improve Rye Harbour and make it fit to contribute to the course of the war.
In my lowly job as a chain boy, I was aware that a great deal of work was then in hand. In the initial period, contractors were engaged to reconstruct the harbours western groyne, which had become very weak and in poor condition. Shingle that should have been collecting at the groyne was spilling into the harbour mouth. Other contractors were using two suction dredgers. “The Ballot” and “Barge 50”, to dredge the channel from the village to the sea.1943 A great deal of civil engineering work was also in hand constructing;- two concrete slipways, one at Strand Quay and one at Rye Harbour Village; a long timber jetty on the eastern side of the river, with facilities to refuel ships and landing craft – the fuel being supplied from a branch of the “Pluto” pipe line that crossed the Marsh to Dungeness; and there were large gasometer like fuel storage tanks on the river frontage at Rye Harbour Village.
At the Fishmarket, a large star shaped concrete construction was built, whereby landing craft could be hauled up a slipway on large steel cradles running on rails, to a turn-table, where the craft could then be run back onto one of the many arms. This was to facilitate repairs to damaged craft by the Rother Iron Works/Steelyard. I only ever saw one landing craft hauled up this slip – I think, just for a test run.
A Mr. Johns was now living with us, he was employed by the Admiralty as a Clerk of Works, so I would think he was quite a busy man.
The naval personnel arrived and took over the Senior School which had been unoccupied since evacuation. It was named H.M.S. Haig. A row of about twelve Nissen huts were erected to take more naval ratings and they stood parallel to the footpath to the west of the school.
From my bedroom window I witnessed life in the Royal Navy. The flag raising ceremony took place every morning – a flag party would march out to the flag staff, consisting of an officer, a boatswain, a rating carrying the folded flag ready to raise it. Two other ratings gave the general salute with rifles. This was repeated in reverse at sunset.
A ships bell, hung on a white metal frame by the flag standard, was rung through the day to change the watches. There was constant shrilling of boatswain’s whistles as they walked the open corridors. (the bell is still at Freda Gardham School).
The Camber Tram at this time had a new least of life, having been laid up for the duration of the war in 1939. It was now running again, manned by sailors, carrying men and materials to Rye Harbour daily.
On fine summer evenings, it was a common sight to watch two or three petty officers as they paced up and down the flat roof of our woodwork classroom, as though they were on the deck of a ship, chatting for quite lengthy periods.
1944 Tank landing craft were now becoming quite a common sight in the river
. A number of W.R.N.S (Wrens) were then using 31 New Road for sleeping quarters, as the old lady who lived there had left at the height of the Battle of Britain. One afternoon, some WRENS were cycling down our road to this house. They found themselves within a convoy of American army lorries and it was pretty obvious that some horse play was going on, for, when one lorry was overtaking them, it collided with two British army lorries coming in the opposite direction. It overturned, but in doing so, it fell onto one British lorry and the other spun into our front garden fence.
One morning at work, I, with a colleague, attended a small meeting with the Harbour Master, Mr. J. Douse at Strand Quay. Here we met a Royal Navy Officer, and the sight of a large tank landing craft with its bow on top of the Quays concrete coping and its stern sitting on the river bottom at about a 60 degree angle, with the tide out. The problem was that when the tide returned, it would fill the stern before floating the craft. It was decided to call in the R.E.M.E (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers), who approach for the repair of military vehicles, in the requisitioned Maidstone and District Bus Garage.
A large recovery vehicle was brought to the far side attached to the crafts bow, was then gently pulled. As the stern gained buoyancy, it fell with a mighty splash, the scored concrete coping remains of this day, about 15 yds. from the south east end of the quay, on the town side.
Aircraft Invasion Stripes June 4th 1944
On the 4th June I noticed suddenly that our aircraft were now showing very conspicuous black and white stripes. What could this mean? D Day June 6th 1944 In my records of the numbers of type of aircraft seen on this day – D Day- they show no change in the pattern – not even a Dakota transport passed over. The black and white stripes were painted on all Allied aircraft to give easy recognition to our forces, both on the ground and in the air.
The Crash of a Junkers 88
I had left the house in New Road to walk the dog at about 10pm. On reaching Monkbretton Bridge, my interest was suddenly aroused by the searchlights in the direction of Winchelsea. The beams formed a great apex of light and not as was generally the case, when the searchlights would just probe the night sky in twos and threes. I watched the point of the beams as they were moving in unison in my direction, until I could see an aircraft “trapped” in the light. Overhead now, I could see the shape of a Junkers 88 twin engine bomber. But within an instant, a mighty burst of machine gun and cannon fire cracked in the night sky. An unseen British night fighter had arrived to make its kill. The aircraft seemed to roll violently, the searchlights stayed with it, but as it continued eastwards, it was falling in a long descending flight. The light beams were now becoming flatter, but keeping it within their sights. Eventually the lights were gone and I assumed that it had crashed towards Brookland.
It was convenient to be working in a job like mine, visiting the land drainage excavators working on Marsh.
On the following morning, we made enquiries in Brookland, and were directed to Kings Street Lane. Approaching the railway level crossing there, we saw a number of people were gathered. Stopping we got out of the car to look through the open gate. Between the high thorn hedges there was a very large crater, almost undermining the rail crossing keepers cottage. Amid the debris of the Junkers 88, were the mutilated bodies of the crew. I do not know why, but at the time, I just was not expecting to see this – the reality of war!
The Flying Bombs (Doodlebugs)
D Day was now behind us and all was much quieter. The troops had all but left the town, except for the anti aircraft gun and searchlight crews, who could be seen from time to time. The military convoys were no longer a feature of our roads, but there was still a very strong presence of the Royal Navy at H.M.S Haig.
June 13 1944 I remember very well being awakened at dawn by the sound of a very noisy aircraft. I nipped to look out of the front bedroom window and for a few moments I watched a small plane travelling northwards in the direction of Iden. Flames were coming from its tail. As it passed out of view, the sound of it gradually faded, and I recall thinking “well it hasn’t crashed yet”!
June 6th 1944 On Sunday night, all of us in the house were awakened by a number of noisy aircraft passing over. They were not the sound of normal aircraft as they had a steady, deep and loud pulsating rhythm. It was the same noise that I had heard three days before. We all left our beds and thought it best to get in the Morrison table shelter, my older sister included. She was home on a long weekend leave from the W.A.A.F and from her we learned that, in her work, information had been circulated that our country was to be attacked by a German secret weapon. Was this it?
The day started quietly enough, we had breakfast and then again that sound, another one was coming. Quickly I went to the back door and between the grey scudding clouds of a breezy morning, I caught just a glimpse of a small aircraft travelling very fast.
At work that morning it was all we could talk about and during that day I spotted six of them. The fact of attacks by these weapons was broadcast on the radio, but no details were given The “Flying Bombs” had arrived, nicknamed “Doodlebug” – an expression first coined by New Zealand fighter pilots.
Air Activity Over The Town
The air activity over Rye now took on a completely different role – squadrons of the new Hawker Tempest fighter plane had flown into Newchurch, Romney Marsh Airfield, stationed there to combat the flying bomb. My first sightings of this plane was on 18th April, and in that month I counted 11. In may the total was 33, then up to June 15th there were 6 and on June 16th alone I saw 40 of them.
The Tempests had arrived, and also an assortment of aircraft which were to fight the flying bomb. Always defending in pairs, Spitfires and Mustangs included, they patrolled the coastline, probably not flying more than 4 miles in any one direction, backwards and forwards, during the hours of daylight, every day, waiting to pounce upon an incoming flying bomb.
Only when an aircraft spotted a bomb approaching to cross its path, was it able to consider a chase, their speed being almost identical. If a bomb was spotted, and was likely to cross behind the patrol, they did not pursue, for it required the fighter to turn around, thereby losing time.
From our point of view in Rye, it was apparent that if the chasing aircraft was not successful in shooting down the bomb, it would give up the chase roughly over Iden/Peasmarsh. Then the planes quickly returned to the coast to resume their patrol. To see aircraft chasing a bomb, for me, was a very exciting experience. When in range, a burst of machine gun and cannon fire would blow up the bomb in the air, causing a huge ball of fire smoke and falling black debris.
One particular evening I watched a Tempest doing this, but the pilot was unable to avoid the exploding bomb. From where I stood in New Road, the bomb was somewhere over the Town Salts/Cricket Salts. The Tempest banked to the right having gone through the explosion – it passed in front of Point Hill, smoking as it went to crash at Boonshill Farm, on the Military Road. The Pilots pexiglass canopy fell in fishmarket Road and wreckage of this plane was recovered in the 1970s and taken to the Aviation Museum at Brenzett. The New Zealand pilot was killed.
So numerous were these chases that I will only recall a few of them here.
Aircraft chasing bombs could be very scary, especially if it was coming in your direction, for when hit, the aerobatics would be very unpredictable. I watched one lose a wing going towards Iden from East Guldeford. It continued horizontal flight, but spun end on, to crash on a house in Grove Lane, killing some of its occupants. On two occasions I saw a bomb turn on its tail and go vertically out of sight, which left me wondering where it had come down.
One lunchtime I watched a disabled bomb falling. It exploded on a house at the Mount, Military Road. I remember the Navy driving out of the school gate to go to the scene of the explosion and assist. Here again was a fatality and a house destroyed.
Whilst working at Rye Harbour, near the river mouth, I watched a disabled bomb coming from Camber. It passed over to make a perfect landing in the Nook Beach, now the Bird Reserve, but on touching down, it set off a long string of buried land mines which had been lying there since 1940. What a spectacular sight that was!
I will give just one more experience. Cycling with three other teenage friends on a Saturday afternoon to see the aircraft at Newchurch Airfield, we rounded the Kent Ditch Corner beyond East Guldeford. Looking towards the coast, we spotted a number of flying bombs coming in from the sea. This was a frequent ploy by the Germans to saturate the fighter defences. We stood in the road watching – one bomb was coming towards us and a Mustang fighter was chasing it, giving it a long burst of machine gun fire and then it banked away. It left the bomb, now descending, coming towards us. Its ram jet engine had now stopped. We ran for cover in the road side ditch. As we crouched there it passed low over our heads to crash and explode a few hundred yards away in the field. What a fright! We quickly ran across to the smoking shallow crater, lying to one side was the still glowing red hot steel ram jet engine. All around us were dead birds killed by the blast. We never went to look at the airfield but turned and cycled home.
People locally began to realise that the incoming bombs tended to be flying along a fixed line. In fact, it could be said there were five separate tracks across the Rye area. These bombs were being launched from ramps in northern France, their course being consistent with the ramp’s fixed direction, they would cross over Rye at an altitude of roughly 2000 feet, really not very high, and occasionally too low.
On 4th July 1944, in the late evening at about 11pm, the weather was, as I remember, quite appalling, blowing and raining hard. We were sitting in our Morrison Shelter listening to bombs passing over. Then there was another throbbing, away in the distance, it suddenly exploded, then silence. This to us was different, we had never heard a bomb do that before. The majority of the towns people were to find out the following morning that this bomb had literally flown directly into either Cadborough Farm House, or the ground in front of it with one fatality, Major Hacking, (in fact a soldier manning a gun emplacement by the house, was also killed) the low altitude of the bombs flight may have been due to weather conditions or a failure of its flight mechanism. There were, to my knowledge, two other examples where this occurred, one exploding into the high bank between Boonshill and Iden Lock and the other into the high headland of the Isle of Oxney, near Knock Bridge between Iden Lock and Appledore.
To recap “Bombing of Northern France, Summer 1943” the flying bomb launching ramps were often the unknown targets of the medium bombers of the American 9th Army Airforce, passing over Rye. A Flying Bomb could weigh up to 2 tons, had a wing span of 16′, length 25′ and had a speed of 350 mph.
A change was taking place, fighter aircraft were still chasing bombs, but it was realised that a large percentage of flying bombs were escaping inland through the defences. The small local anti aircraft guns of Rye were joining in the action against the bombs even when a bomb was being chased. It appeared that co-ordination was lacking between the air and military forces.
Between July 13th and 16th, extraordinary activities were happening on the roads into, and through Rye. Heavy military and private contractors vehicles were seen towing anti aircraft guns and trailers of equipment to back them up. Eight of these guns were set up in the first field to the right hand side of New Road, beyond the houses there, and just beyond the Borough boundary. It had a conspicuously large radar van and its accompanying aerials, and also a large tented area for the gun crews.
This was repeated in the second field on the right in Rye Harbour Road, just beyond Brede Sluice. Here the 40mm Bofors gun of Rye’s permanent defence on the left. Another eight were sited at Moneypenny Farm, East Guldeford, and another group at Blue House, a site some 1/5 miles beyond the Woolpack Inn, Brookland, on the road to Lydd. Yet another set was in what was recently Maddison’s Holiday Camp, Camber. Here the eight guns were crewed by A.T.S girls. They were also under canvas (tents), but they did have the use of the camps community hall and other remaining amenities.
How did I know all this? In the course of my work, I often found myself in or around them. In an area 4 miles square there were 40 of these particular guns, which will give some idea of their concentration. But I’m not finished listing the new defences – at Rye Harbour, by the Martello Tower, was a Z battery of racked launchers and from Pett Level to Jurys Gap on the coast were countless 40mm Bofors and the RAF Regiments small armoured vehicles carrying pairs of heavy machine guns.
This concentration of armament, history now tells us, stretched from Hastings to Folkestone – in all some 1500 anti aircraft guns of all types, all within a three mile belt of land, parallel to the sea. Its official name was “Operation Diver”, due to the diving attitude of the bomb once its engine had stopped on reaching its target. (That was London).
The patrolling aircraft were now withdrawn and set to patrol inland of Rye. The guns had to take on the sole defence against the bombs at the coast, and the aircraft were to pick up those that escaped the gun barrage.
To be concluded in next month’s issue.
“Rye’s Own” September 2003
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