We’ve been lucky enough to catch some of Bill Rennells time, a long established broadcaster with BBC Radio Oxford, BBC Radio 2 and others. He shares his experiences of World War 2 with us.
The first cloud on the horizon of my 6 and 7-year-old childhood in Canterbury came when I saw the word’ crisis’ on newspaper billboards and sometimes, in years like 1937 and 1938, headlines like “My territorial ambitions are complete – Hitler” and, more ominously later “Hitler – my patience is exhausted”. Perhaps these might have swum over my infant head had it not been for my father, badly wounded in the Somme battle in World War 1, being so visibly worried. In the summer of 1939, we moved from being next to a pub at Canterbury, to be IN a pub in the village of Bekesbourne nearby. My sister Joyce and I went to the village school – and on Sundays, Joyce, who was nearly 14, used to go to the village church for morning service, leaving me at the vicarage for Sunday School. On that fateful day that the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain announced that we were at war with Germany, his broadcast coincided with the start of the morning service and Sunday School. For some minutes we children waited in the vicarage drawing room for the vicar’s wife, Mrs Lamplugh, to appear. She’d clearly been listening to the broadcast. When she came in it was to tell us all to go home. Church and Sunday School were cancelled. Almost immediately Joyce appeared to take me home and as left, the air raid siren sounded. Everyone expected the sky to be black with enemy planes. Unnerved by the site of a 13-year-old girl and an 8 year-old boy so obviously exposed to this danger, people called from their gardens things like: ” Hurry home children, the Germans are coming “. As it happened, the “all clear” sounded very soon.
It was many months ,as the phoney war dragged on before anything happened at all to us, though we had good news that winter, when three of our ships, the Achilles, Ajax and Exeter badly damaged the German battleship Graf Spee, which took shelter in the neutral port of Montivideo . Eventually, the Graf Spee had to come out but before she could be pounced upon by the British ships, her skipper scuttled her and committed suicide. There was even a victory parade in London and on Movietone News in the cinema, we saw, in the parade, my lovely Uncle Dick, who served on the Ajax. He was a stoker and later he told us that he saw nothing of the battle but heard plenty!
Then, in the late Spring, everything changed. The Germans attacked, swept through Holland and Belgium into France and our army was trapped, seemingly, with just the sea at their backs. At Dunkirk, the Royal Navy, helped by little ships from all over England, took 300,000 British and allied troops off the beaches and in East Kent we saw our exhausted soldiers on trains and buses, being taken to new quarters. One convoy stopped outside our pub and I can recall my father taking food out to the nearest bus. Because our school was near what was then an operational air base, something had to be done to ensure our safety. I can remember us all being shepherded to a nearby railway tunnel to test its use as a shelter. This was abandoned apparently because it was pointed out that the blast from a bomb either end of the tunnel would account for most of us!
In the end, our parents had the option of sending us to Littlebourne School on one side of the village, or Bridge School, the other side. They opted for Littlebourne probably because my aunt Lizzie lived opposite and my cousins from nearby Wickhambreux went to school there. There was a huge yellow brick surface shelter one end of the playground and at about 1.30 on my ninth birthday, July 25.1940, the air raid siren went and the entire school went into the shelter. Nothing whatsoever happened until about 8 when the all clear went. My mother and Joyce walked two miles there and back to pick me up and I was presented with a lovely birthday spread when we got home. Sadly the stress had clearly got to me and I had the first of lifetime habit of developing migraines. I was violently sick and went straight to bed. Long after the war we discovered that the emergency was the Germans bombing a British convoy in the straits of Dover . For about a fortnight all we saw of the developing Battle of Britain was obvious signs of activity like puffs of anti-aircraft fire in the direction of Dover about 12 miles away. Then, one Monday, as the family were gathered on the lawn enjoying the sun in the minutes before the pub opened at 6, an armada of planes came over. Well, it looked like an armada to me, but, in fact,it numbered 27. Crucially though, they were German Dorniers. Little lights appeared on the planes. “How pretty”, mum said. We soon learned that the lights were associated with bomb aiming equipment. There was the inevitable whistling sound, and bombs started falling, deafeningly loudly. We rushed indoors. Mum hurled me under the kitchen table and laid on top of me. Joyce joined us and completed the scrum. I can recall later people caught in similar raids saying that they clawed at the ground as if holes would miraculously appear in the lino through which they could escape. I did that. When the appalling racket ended, we crawled out and my dad appeared. He’d been lying in the bar, blissfully forgetting that it was full of glass. His first decision was that henceforth Joyce and I should sleep downstairs for the duration of the war.
We wondered why the Germans should suddenly attack a verdant little village. Many many years later, I got talking to a man on a flight from Australia to the UK and it turned out that he was in the crew of one of the Dorniers. He said: “Ah yes that was the raid on Adisham”. I said: “Well you might have thought you were bombing Adisham but you were bombing Bekesbourne” He said :”Well I can remember Bekesbourne was the next place on the map and the Dover-London railway line passed through both – and we hit that” I said as gently as I could : “I’m afraid you didn’t “. The poor man, who reckoned the raid frightened him as much as me ,was visibly disappointed after all these years. Apparently three weeks after the raid, his plane was shot down and he parachuted to captivity on the Isle of Sheppey. After the war, from his prison camp in Scotland, he met his wife who was with him on the plane with us. His name was Heinrich. Well it had to be.
From then on on, for a couple of months the Battle raged over our heads. We saw British and German planes shot down and mushrooming parachutes. Once a German forage cap fluttered down onto the lawn and it was given to me as a souvenir. My sense of injustice was born the following day when the village special constable came by and impounded it. Later his son was seen round the village wearing it . I can recall the day in September when the battle reached its climax. I can even recall that we had rhubarb and custard during Sunday lunch. That night the well honed BBC tones informed us that 165 German planes had been shot down, After the war this was amended to 68 but it was a decisive battle Hitler called off his attempt to shoot the RAF out of the sky and also his invasion plans.
We still had to contend with the noise of German planes passing over at night on their way to London and other targets but we were hearing news of our own raids including the first 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne. One of our customers, the marvelously named Fiddler Wilson, once said to me : “I bet you’d like to have been on a plane in that raid on Nuremberg”. I replied:”No I wouldn’t”. My dad was so ashamed of me.
Apparently Hitler was so incensed about the raid on historic Cologne, that he ordered raids on all the cities named in the pre-war Baedeker guide for people touring Britain. They included Bath, Exeter and – Canterbury. Our turn came in the early hours of June the 1st 1942. Joyce woke me up and said: “Bill we have to get up”. I said: “Why?” She said: “There’s a thunderstorm”. I said: “We don’t usually get up for thunderstorms”. She said: “We’re getting up for this one!”. We lay under the massive Morrison shelter in the front room that had been doubling as a dining table. The German pathfinders lit up the city like day with flares before the bombing. We heard the crump of the bombs peppering Canterbury three miles away. Its always been my kindly suspicion that the flares were to avoid hitting the cathedral. Apparently a few incendiary bombs landed there and were dealt with and certainly the centre of the city was laid waste with the Cathedral left standing proudly. Then,on a Saturday afternoon that October, they came again. Mum Joyce and I were having tea when we heard planes very very low over our heads. We rushed out and I spotted one of the pilots. I waved. He didn’t wave back. Then I noticed, black cross markings and bombs slung under the wings. They were Focke Wolfe fighter bombers. They bombed and machine gunned Canterbury. My father was in the High Street but again he escaped though lying down in a glass-rich area.
In late 1943 and early 1944 we saw the build-up of troops in anticipation of the invasion of Europe in June 1944. What we didn’t know was that most of the activity in our area was a successful attempt to fool the Germans into thinking that our attack would be in the Calais area rather than the eventual target, Normandy. By then. I was at Bridge School and on D Day our headmaster Tom Godden came out at playtime to tell us that our troops and their allies had landed in France. We had the sight of Dakota aircraft carrying paratroops and aircraft towing gliders filling the skies above us for the ill-fated Arnhem battle which should have shortened the war.
In May came the announcement that the war was about to end. My father had me cycle round the village wearing a daft pill box hat, with invitations to the celebrations. I did it but stuffed the hat in my pocket round the first corner. Its always amazed me since how the village managed to conjure up a great fete and sports day in a day when these days it takes months of planning. One of my fears was that there would be a lot of drunkenness which I had leaned to fear as a pub child. In fact I saw no drunkenness at all though I’d seen plenty in the stressful build-up to the invasion. One of the war-time songs which has always struck me is The White Cliffs of Dover ,especially the line “And Jimmy will go to sleep in his own little room again” I went back to my own little room and Joyce went back to her own little room ,five years older.
Do you have a war experience you’d like to share with us? We’d be happy to include on the Silver Robin website, with a credit to the author.