Looking Back to 1940

Look out of your window and up at the sky. Imagine you have travelled back in time to 5 June 1940. The Dunkirk evacuation between the 24 May and 4 June was complete. Churchill later described the retreat as “A miracle of deliverance”

Last night, you and your family had gathered round the radio to hear Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s speech. The words were so clear and to the point you had been left with no doubts that Hitler intended to add Britain to his list of occupied countries. The Germans were coming, unless a way could be found to stop them. His words rang through your mind as you reflected on the powerful picture it drew

“I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,we shall fight on the seas and oceans,we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,we shall fight on the beaches,we shall fight on the landing grounds,we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,we shall fight in the hills;we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving,then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Imagine the cold chill that would have run through you when the realisation came that the German Army was just a handful of miles away on the French coast and their aircraft were only a few minutes flying distance from Hythe, New Romney, Rye and Hastings.

Italy Joins Hitler -France Surrenders

The next few days brought only more bad news. On 10 June Italy declared war on France and Great Britain. Twelve days later France surrendered to Germany.

You and your family would, along with the rest of the country, have waited with baited breath for the attack to come. Churchill was on the Radio again on the evening of 18 June.

“What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sun-lit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.”

On the thirtieth of June Hitler invaded and took control of the Channel Islands.

Battle of Britain

On July 10 German bombing raids on ships in the Dover Straights and attacks on Radar installations heralded the start of the Battle of Britain. At about 1 pm Flying Officer “Peter” Higgs became the first to be lost in action after his No 111 Squadron Hurricane collided with a Dornier Do 17 off Folkestone.

Two enemy aircraft approached Rye from the east. As they came to the houses, they lifted and banked away towards the sea. They were Messerchmidtt M.E.110’s. It was about 10 o’clock. During the afternoon distant explosions were heard. People standing on Hilder’s Cliff watched in horror as waves of Stuka bombers dived on the Home Chain Radar station (RAF RYE) situated close to Kent Ditch Corner. Smoke was rising from the Radar Station and aircraft weaving about the sky.

RAF men, based at the camp but billeted in Rye, returned to the town that evening with stories of the action. The black smoke was caused by bombs bursting in the vehicle park. The public were led to believe that there was no other serious damage – they commented that the height of the pylons and their mass of aerials had prevented the diving planes getting near their target. It has been said by various locals that the aircraft were Junkers 87 Stuka Dive Bombers, but Clifford Blomfield thought this was not so. He claimed that the two aircraft that appeared briefly in the morning were not reconnaissance aircraft and were the same type of aircraft he witnessed, from his garden in New Road, bombing the installations in the afternoon raid. This raid on the Brookland Radar Station was the only one made on the station during the War. The RAF personnel that lodged in Rye were transferred soon after to their newly constructed camp at Brookland – the present Philippine Village.

On 16 July Hitler issued his directive for a landing in England, stating that his aim was to “eliminate the English motherland as a base from which war against Germany can be continued”

In Hastings a night-time curfew was imposed.

Clifford Blomfield tells of the first time he saw massed flights of German bombers. The steady sound of aircraft could be heard. He and his family quickly went outside to watch.

“Very high in the sky, little silver aircraft, some making vapour trails were flying in over the coast. There were dozens of them, all in formation, flying inland. We were very curious about the “unknown” vapour trails – it was the first time we had seen the phenomenon.”

On July 26 the first bombs fell on Hastings, on the West Hill. The mayor set up the Air Raid Distress Fund.

“A Bloody German”

Mr Arthur Court was the General Foreman with the Rother and Jury’s Gut land drainage authority in 1940. He lived at Scots Float House, Military Road, adjacent to the depot and was affectionately referred to as “father” by the work-force. During the war period, he was a special constable and when in social company would tell this story:-

Me 109
Me 109

Driving back to his home from Wittersham on Sunday about 2pm, approaching the New Bridge over the Rother at Iden, he noticed a man standing beside the road. On approaching he seemed anxious for a lift. Stopping his car, Mr Court thought to himself that this was an airman. He asked for a lift in English, but Mr Court noticed a German accent and the realisation struck him. Out loud he exclaimed in surprise “A bloody German!” The man went on to say “I need treatment, having injured my hand and arm”. Mr Court helped him into the car and started off to Rye Hospital. The German became quite talkative, saying how he had lived in Hastings prior to the war. His name was Burschgens. His aircraft had, in fact, made a forced landing and had collided with one of the numerous steel and wire anti invasion measures previously described – the Messerschmidtt 109 finishing up on its nose. On this same Sunday lunchtime another ME 109 crashed very close to Strand Bridge, Winchelsea.

Lympne Airfield Near Hythe Badly Hit

Lympne airfield was the home to several Army Co-operation and light bomber squadrons.

At 0930 hours on Monday 12 August 1940 a number of German Dornier 17, twin engine bombers carried out a raid on Lympne airfield, which cost Leading Aircraftman Sid Bell his life, and caused a considerable amount of structural damage.

A few days after the attack by the Dornier 17’s another raid took place, at 1130 hours on Thursday 15 August 1940, R.A.F. Lympne was heavily bombed by in excess of fifty Stuka Ju87 dive bombers, which were escorted by Messerschmitt Me109s. Although the raid was of only a short duration, it again severely damaged the airfield and buildings, the majority of which had been hit by the Dornier’s bombs just three days before, and in addition to other buildings, the damaged hangars were hit again. R.A.F. Lympne was evacuated, and only available as an Emergency Landing Ground until mid-September 1940,

Rye, Hythe and Hastings launched appeals to raise £5,000 to buy a Spitfire. In Hastings the money was donated within a month.

Rye is Bombed

It was on a Sunday lunchtime (18 August 1940) that bombs were dropped on Rye for the first time. German bombers were returning back from a raid, Clifford Bloomfield watched them from the entrance of the garden shelter, they flew low over the town. He did not see the bombs drop, but the line of the stick can easily be traced today – if one starts at Godfrey’s Row (now the Council’s lock up garages); then to the Mint – two bombs exploded front and back on the open site adjacent to No. 47 which had been a dwelling and also the Police Inspector’s office at one time. Francis Sinden and his family were bombed out there. The next hit was across the road to the rear and side of Faraday House; then No.2 Mermaid Street and finally the Garden Room of Lamb House which was demolished. Other bombs, dropped this day, landed in the area of the Old Brickyard and Udimore Road. People killed on this day were Mr G. Bumstead, Mrs F.Bumstead, Mr J.H.Bumstead and MR N.C.Firrell.

First Attack on Hastings

Just five days before the first enemy attack on Hastings, some 3,000 school children were evacuated to ‘safe’ reception areas in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. All Hastings schools were closed with immediate effect.

At 7.15am on Friday 26 July, a German bomber dropped 11 High Explosive bombs on the West Hill and Cricket Ground areas of Hastings, killing one and seriously injuring two. One of the bombs exploded in front of 10 and 11 Gladstone Terrace, bringing the fronts of the two houses down along with number 22 opposite. Beryl Latimer was asleep in number ten and recalls:

“My father had left for work at the Gas Works in Bulverhythe and my mother was in the kitchen cleaning the fire grate. My sister Hazel and I were still in bed, fortunately sharing a back bedroom. The bomb exploded at the front of the building, exposing the back rooms, so we were left with our bed sloping towards the front and had a problem getting out of it. Mother was buried under the bricks from the chimney breast. The Civil Defence arrived and took two hours to dig her out. Mother was badly shocked and covered in soot”.

Bombings continued in Hastings and St Leonards throughout 1940. In one raid a mother was killed by machine gun fire while holding her baby. The baby survived.

On 14 August there were Germans bombing raids on on Hastings and Southampton reported losses at the time were:- Germans 31, RAF 7. The RAF Fairlight radar station became operational at the beginning of September. It was located at today’s picnic site, on the north side of Fairlight Road, adjoining Martineau Lane.

A Day During the Battle of Britain

Back in Rye, on September 11th 1940, in the afternoon, Cliff Bloomfield was sheltering in the school surface shelter with his mother when rifle fire was heard outside, above the roar of aircraft. ”

Battle of Britain
Battle of Britain

“Some of the older men opened the door, and I, ignoring my Mother, just had to see for myself. There, coming very low over the school and the shelter, was a Heinkel III German bomber. It was gliding with spluttering engines, going in the direction of Camber. This was one of a number of such aircraft that the soldiers in the school playing field, had been and were firing at, that afternoon. These men of the Irish Fusiliers were extremely excited! This aircraft crash landed south east of Moneypenny House, in an area known as Sisley Land. I recall there was a pause as it went from view and then a great pall of black smoke rose from the site”.

Another Heinkell III crashed and burned near Chittenden Cottage, an isolated farm dwelling NE of Camber. 13 miles away to the NE at Burwash a third Heinkell crashed and burned. Two Hawker Hurricane fighters also came down, one burned at New Romney and a second at Scotney House, midway between Jury’s Gap and Lydd.

An Army Intelligence Corps Officer was billeted with the Bloomfield family. He used a military motor cycle, which was not only useful for daily personal transport, but it proved its worth when crossing fields to crashed German aircraft. His duties included interrogating German prisoners of war. During the evening of September 15 he rode out across the fields to the bomber seen crashing in the afternoon. In fact it had pan-caked intact, but as he approached, he saw the crew setting it on fire.

RAF casualties included Pilot Officer Arthur Clarke of No 504 Squadron, whose Hurricane fell not far from Rookelands farmhouse on Romney Marsh. Two years previously Arthur Clarke had been school captain at Cheadle Hulme School in Cheshire. His remains were found many years later and left where they were at the request of his family. Now a small memorial stands at the roadside, often marked by flowers.

The aerial battle reached a crescendo on 15 Sept., a day designated as “Battle of Britain Day” as this is generally accepted to be the day the German High Command realised they were not able to defeat the RAF

On that day No 609 Squadron were very active and achieved success, as evidenced by the spectacular results in the camera gun of Flight Lieutenant Frank Howell as a Bf 110 was destroyed over Hastings.

At about 4.30pm, wreckage from a a Bf 109 fell in the sea off Littlestone Golf course on the edge of Romney Marsh. The aircraft had been shot down over the Channel by Flying Officer the Hon David Coke of No 257 Squadron.

An aircraft and pilot from the squadron were lost when Pilot Officer “Aubrey” Heywood’s machine was hit by AA fire while in combat over Folkestone and crashed not far from Lydd church.

Evacuation Of Women and Children

On September 11 Voluntary evacuation began in the towns and villages in the invasion area. Over 20,000 people went. from Hastings and within days, the population of Hastings had fallen to 22,000 (prewar it had been 65,000).

Clifford Blomfield recalled that

“On the 11th September, after the days events, his Father returned home from work and told us that the danger was becoming too much to bear so by 9 o’clock the next morning, my Mother, three sisters and I were on the train to Bedford. Passing through Ham Street Halt, the train hardly moving, we saw a crashed Heinkel III bomber beside the railway line. Arriving in the London suburbs, the train was constantly crawling along and stopping; finally, after being diverted, we arrived at High Holborn Station whereas we should have been in London Bridge-Charing Cross – no doubt due to bombing. The sky, I recall, was filled with barrage balloons. After crossing London by taxi, we eventually arrived in Bedford, and went to Kempstone, a suburb of Bedford by another taxi. We stayed with my Aunt and Uncle (he being my Father’s brother from Cumberland). My Mother and youngest Sister stayed with them, my two elder Sisters were accommodated across the road and I, next door.

Many Hythe children moved with St. Leonards School to Cilgerran in Wales. Some were taken to the Railway Station by their parents with a parcel label attached to a button hole with name and number on it, and put on a train to a destination they did not know. There were lots of tears. They were on the train for a twelve hour journey. When the train arrived they were lined up on the platform for the people waiting to choose a child to take home. The children found it very strange being away from their parents but still had most of their school friends and in or around the same village.

The system worked well for many, and they made new Welsh friendships, some of which last to this day.

Rye youngster, Clifford Bloomfield, made the most of his time in Bedfordshire

“I attended school in Kempstone and, although I did not know the district, I took on a paper round before school. I remember very clearly delivering papers on 30 November 1940, to discover that Winston Churchill’s birthday was the same as mine.

I recall being awakened during the night by aircraft continually passing over the house and actually thinking they were German bombers. This worried me very much and I spent the night downstairs. The family of that house were not bothered in the least, not having at that time experienced the activity of war. In the newspapers next day we read of the blitz on Coventry”.

The Blitz of Coventry was on 14 November 1940 and by this time the RAF had won the daylight air battle and the Germans had been forced to abandon ideas of invasion. They now sought retribution by bombing cities by night in the belief that the British public would capitulate under the attacks and demand the government seek an armistice with Hitler. There was no chance of that, the bombing actually increased the resolve of the British public to see that the Nazis got their comeuppance.

‘Tip & Run Raids on Coastal Targets’

The first anti-aircraft guns were set up in Hastings on 14 October 1940. Daylight raids were still being carried out. By this time the targets were mainly coastal, ‘tip and run’ attacks carried out by fighters and fighter-bombers became commonplace. On 28 Oct. a Messerschmitt 109 was shot down by RAF fighters and crashed near Hythe, Kent. In 1973 the site was excavated and the remains recovered of Lieutenant Werner Knittel, who had been a Gruppe Adjutant, aged 39. He was laid to rest at the Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery in Stafford

Back to Rye

When the invasion threat receded many came home. Clifford Blomfield returned to Rye with his mother and youngest sister the first week in December, having been away 2 and a half months. His two elder Sisters remained in Bedford, working in a factory producing electric light bulbs.

The guards were taken off Monkbretton Bridge. During Clifford’s absence,  on 3 October, a stick of bombs had fallen across the eastern side of the town. The first demolished the rear of 31 Kings Avenue, craters from the bombs continued across the river, the Cricket Salts and Bedford Place, (hitting houses then empty as the people had been rehoused in Kings Avenue – the site is now a car park). The last bomb exploded at the rear of the Newsagents at 21 Landgate – “Miss Horner’s” – this was said to have been an “oil bomb” – whatever that was!

Obviously the German airmen did not stay to see the results of their bombs. Having missed their target, the iron railway bridge and line running into Rye station. The exploding bombs fell 150m (160yds) in a precise line parallel to the railway. But this did not deter the German news media and radio reporting this event as a success.

Every evening of the week the British people were able to tune into Lord Haw Haw, as he was known, to listen to his propaganda broadcasts from Germany. So many of his statements were wild to the extreme.

Within a few nights of our return, we were awakened by a very loud explosion that shook the house – followed by an eerie silence with no aircraft noise whatsoever. In this morning, with time on my hands – no school! – with other children, we soon discovered that a large bomb had exploded in the field at the rear of No 50 Kings Avenue, in fact opposite to No 31. Looking round the crater for shrapnel, we children quickly began to collect lengths of green cord and parachute material. It was then realised that a parachute mine had drifted down quietly during the night. This crater is still traceable today.

Crash of The Wellington 17 December 1940

During this night, a British Wellington twin engine bomber crash landed in the field north of the iron railway bridge over the Rother, about 100 yards outside the Borough boundary. It was completely intact but for its bent propellers. The aircraft’s landing gear was in its retracted position and this had caused it to slide across the field. Evidence exists to show that this aircraft was returning from a raid at Mannheim, and, being low on fuel, the crew decided to make a crash landing in the dark at 1 o’clock in the morning. It came to rest some 400m from the nearest house in Kings Avenue.

It was eventually dismantled in large pieces and taken away by an RAF maintenance unit. Some of these men stayed with the Bloomfield family overnight. The Wellington, on its “Queen Mary Trailer” stopped outside their house, whilst the RAF men collected kit before leaving.

RAF purpose built trailers for carrying aircraft were affectionately known a “Queen Marys”. They were 60 feet (18m) in length and the name was derived from the Cunard Liner, the world’s largest ship at that time.

As 1940 came to a close the people of the coastal towns were not to know that Hitler would turn his attention to Russia in 1941 and the invasion of these Islands, other than by aerial bombardment, would not materialise. They could not have visualised either, more than four more years would pass before peace returned to the Cinque Ports.

A great deal of information for this article came from the Cliff Bloomfield memoirs previously published in Jo Kirkham’s Rye Memories series. Other information and dates from Wikipedia. We would be pleased to hear from readers who have memories from the Battle of Britain.



From “Rye’s Own” April 2014 issue.


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