by Arthur Woodgate
The phrase “all but the kitchen sink” did not hold out when the Germans smashed Havelock Villas on the Strand for, large as life, there was the kitchen sink sitting on the top of one of the houses of “T square”. As it and the other contents of Havelock were blasted out, my dad working in his work shop, heard and saw a piece of rock drop through his roof and finish by his foot. The whole roof had to be replaced after the War.
Many years after the war, the film Dunkirk was being made at the Strand (1958). Motor cars were allowed to park on the Quay at that time. During the filming one of the cars was driven backwards into the river (reverse gear instead of first). It sank right away. The camera operator, on a stage over the river, dived in and got the man and his lady friend out and helped them to the surface. We (St. John Ambulance Brigade) took over to get the water out of them. Is that not a case of war and peace all in one place and in Rye?
Every body knows that Godfrey’s Row was completely destroyed and several people were killed but not many people seem to know of a young teenage boy bent over his younger sister to keep falling rubble from hurting her. He took many bumps and bruises from bricks and plaster that would have hit her. This story went round town at the time but only as a rumour. When both children were brought out alive the rumour died down and not much more was said, the war was moving so fast, there was little time to dwell on individual events. I have often thought about the incident and wonder if any reader can cast new light, and perhaps even put a name to the young lad.
When Rye was declared a front line, I did some duty with the RAMC in their advanced dressing station in Watchbell Street and recall two or three incidents first hand.
One evening, Dr Button was there when the sound of a Spitfire, out of control, sounded over Camber Castle fields, The doctor and I rushed down to the lookout at the end of Watchbell Street, just in time to see its last spin into the ground and bury itself out of sight. The ambulance was almost on the spot but was unable to help and neither man nor machine were seen until a few years ago when it was all uncovered and identified.
There several of us helping the RAMC Corporal in Watchbell Street and two of whom kept awake in shifts at night. On this night the Corporal and I were doing our two hour shift awake, when all of a sudden, we heard outside the back door, a swish and then another. My mate said “firebombs – grab a gas mask” and he (very gently) opened the back door and with a smile said “pears”; the fruit was dropping from a pear tree and making a swish as they slid through the leaves.
BOMB CASUALTIES TURN ON DOWNED PILOT
One of the pilots who bombed Rye, crashed and was brought to our dressing station. When other patients discovered who he was they were clambering out of bed with an idea of killing him – so he had to be moved to Rye Hospital where he died of his injuries.
Rye was now in the front line. All elderly and unneeded people were advised to leave. It had been a night of raids and as I stumbled amongst the debris on my way home, old Mrs Kirby was standing at her open door, surrounded by wreckage and said to me as I went by “No bloody Nazi is going to turn me out of my home” and they didn’t for she was still there to the last all clear; a very brave lady.
BUILDING FAULT IN CINEMA REVEALED AFTER BOMBING
When I first saw the wreckage of the Regent Cinema, I had a bigger shock than most because I saw the result of a fault I had seen whilst building. I was a quiet lad and had no say in policies but this one had worried me for years but I told myself it was a fault that might cause danger in future years. No one thought that the Germans one day would bring it to light. Two steel uprights sitting on concrete pads with holes in which to grout in bolts through the flanges; When it came time to fix the uprights the holes were not in the right places. We sent for the general foreman who came and considered it didn’t matter “stand the supports and fill the holes up and concrete over the flanges before the Architect next comes” so this we did. When, after the bombing, I saw these steel uprights leaning at about 60 degrees it frightened me because they would only be held by loose rubble.
After some thought I decided that as one person had died and two more had been uncovered from the wreckage on the public pavement, still alive, we must not let anyone else get injured so it was my duty to tell them. I told the demolition team to be careful, take the rubble away and if you see the uprights moving – RUN! Was that not a war and peace story and all in Rye?
Yes! but if I can add a bit more to the peace side then I will. As the cinema was the main entertainment of the town, we were given permission to build a new one soon after hostilities ended but no Rye building worker was allowed to build it because they were all working to repair all the great damage done to the poor old town. I think we got it back in its old good-looking nature. Meanwhile a firm from Uxbridge came in and built another cinema.
When a bomb dropped in the Mint it destroyed a row of houses and blew away part of Faraday House. It also blew away two houses the other side of the road. The Police Officer’s house was one but the reason I’m talking about this is because not many people would have noticed the blast had pulled a wireless aerial pole out of the ground in one garden, thrown it over to the next garden and planted it there upside down but as upright as it was before. Good job it wasn’t a person.
A SHOUT FROM THE STRAND
One very dark night, I was going off duty from Watchbell Street and as I went into the Strand I heard someone shouting for help from the river. I shouted back that I was coming and with that he left off shouting; I had to ask him to continue making some sort of noise because it was so dark I wouldn’t find him; I kept following the noise and found the man on the deck of a small boat. The water was fairly low but slowly rising. He was lying face down and groaning. There was no easy way of getting him up but the tide kept bringing him nearer. As soon as our fingers met we were able to just grip each other and with lots of stretching and grunting he managed to pull on the top of the quay side. He said he had spent the evening drinking in the Ship Hotel. He explained that when he came out he felt along gingerly with his feet and when they touched the coping of the quayside he thought he had to got a pavement and strode off but his foot stepped over the edge and down towards the river. The small boat moored there saved him going in the river. Now he was getting worried about being late back to camp so I told him I would go back with him and explain to the officers. He said they were in the Territorial Drill Hall so as I could find myself about Rye, however dark, we were soon in Mill Lane; of course the blackout curtains were up but we could hear voices in the Drill Hall and because of the blackout we were let in very quickly. I explained our story and my rescued soldier was sent to his quarters and no action was taken. Now this is another war and peace story with no one being hurt and all taken place in Rye.
A LOT OF WAR AND SOME PEACE
One day my old mate Arthur Luck and I were biking along the Winchelsea Road on our way to Crutches Farm where we were building a bridge to connect two fields together. Out of a peaceful day came four anti-aircraft gun bursts from a team of anti aircraft gunners that had set up their gun during the night. I think the fighter aircraft were better for dealing with enemy bombers than these ground guns. A piece of war.
Now we reach a main bridge over the same waterway over which we are putting another bridge. This was over-grown with brambles, then in a flash, down came a dart like dazzle of colour, with a closer look we saw it was a Kingfisher. We don’t very often see this but a family of such were about here for several years and maybe still are. Nice peaceful scene. Now we went through the gate to our job and what do we see, a definite sign of war. A shell hole just inside the gate. Our first thoughts were (unexploded bomb) so we got trestles poles and planks, calculated the slope and barricaded where we thought the bomb would be lying and asked for a bomb disposal team. We had calculated wrong and this gave the team a good laugh. Nevertheless, they recovered the danger went off leaving it safe. Another part of war now at last, to carry on with our peace job.
One afternoon, as we walked up to the farm yard suddenly Tha! Tha! Tha! of a machine gun with the bullets coming towards us. They were from a German hedge hopper. There was a little plantation of cricket bat willow with a dung heap close by. We dived behind it and my mate complained about the mess and smell. “A little of that is better than a lot of blood” I said, he agreed and most of the bullets went into the trees so making them no more use for cricket bats (unless someone made the game different) so the bats could have holes in them. A good mixture of war and peace.
A company of Italian prisoners of war had dug trenches that were not wide enough so when a man fell sideways and broke his leg I grabbed a wattle and some straw and hop sacks of all kinds and made a splint, stretcher and mattress and set to work to muster other things to get him to hospital and have him treated property. The ambulance was not long coming and I went to St Helens with him. The nurses laughed at my untidy bandaging but the doctor had praise for the way he was got ready to move and there was a message of thanks from the Italian Officer who was in charge of his fellow prisoners of war. He invited me to go with him and share their hot meal in their field kitchen. This was nice and rather better than sandwiches.
NEW TOILETS ON ROMNEY MARSH
I was in charge of the building of new toilets on Romney Marshes and for this I was allowed to use my little car an Austin “T”. Some of the sites were in isolated positions with little or no protection and the Luftwaffe were using small planes to come across the channel unnoticed because of their ability to fly under the radar signals. Now one was flying toward me and the blur of bullets went about a couple of inches over my head. This little battle between Ryer and a German was all over and no one hurt. When I got there my team were all alright so a little war at a Ryer and the construction of a new building being carried on in peaceful conditions – War and Peace.
I was given a new Rye mate, Fred Edwards, and a lorry load of building materials, Fred was driving so I directed him to an empty house. I thought it was just right to keep our material and plant. He stopped by it but before my hand reached the door I had a mighty push which knocked me over. As I scrambled up I felt ready for a little local war I came face to face with a soldier from the Somerset Light Infantry. He told me that house was set with a booby trap and had I touched the door handle we would all have been blown to pieces. I thanked him told him who we were, he fetched an officer, more hand shaking the right to use their air raid shelter and fixing us with a base, we became quite good friends they were all young tall and very agile. We did share their shelter once or twice. Now time for us to start repairing the damaged buildings which was as far as Ivychurch and we found plenty to do.
GERMAN PILOT SURRENDERED
One lovely Autumn Day, we were busy and the Somerset lads were helping a farmer to pull his swedes when a small German aircraft came out of the sky and landed in the field next to the army camp and the pilot got out, threw down a couple of guns and waited, the two lads pulling swedes looked at him, then one said to the other “better go and bring him in” so with no guns they strolled off to him, he put his arms down and came walking back with them. He watched as they pulled some more swedes before taking him to HQ.
Nearly 2 years to go before peace, but I was given the order to go back to my job to finish building a house, I got some of my old team back. Also a group of German prisoners were brought to the farm to help and at dinner times I managed to have a chat with one who was Austrian and also spoke good English. Amongst other things which I haven’t forgotten was that he asked me to explain how democracy worked because that’s what we will be fighting for when the world is again at peace. Again, this I did and I hope it helped him and in turn many other Austrians and Germans.