They came in the dark, 73 years ago, when I was 13. One evening, towards the end of May, 1944, a column of British Army trucks roared into the grounds of our boarding school in South East England.
Within hours a whole infantry battalion, its cheerful, foul-mouthed soldiery and their vehicles, weapons and supplies had taken over the grassy spaces around our school’s ancient stone buildings, classrooms, library and gymnasium. For several days, while the school tried hard to carry on as usual, the troops were hidden under trees and out in the open under camouflage netting.
More soldiers poured into the area on their way south to the coast in the rural counties of Kent and Sussex, bordering on the English Channel. There was no doubt about it -- the invasion of Europe was coming. We knew it, and the Germans knew it. But for us, in our early teens, it was all a schoolboy dream. Friendly fighter planes swooped and dove over our heads, while tanks, armored cars, anti-aircraft guns and heavy field artillery rolled through the village streets. The summer term at school had begun, but it was too hard to concentrate on dreary Latin and chemistry and algebra when there were such distractions on our very doorstep.
Then, in the first few days of June we woke to find the troops gone and shortly afterward, on June 6, BBC radio news announced the invasion of Normandy. Suddenly the war seemed far away, though we were well within range of German fighters and dive-bombers, based only 21 miles across the English Channel. But the Luftwaffe stayed away from us for the rest of that month, otherwise engaged by the D-Day beachheads. Instead, shortly afterwards, we encountered the first of Hitler’s most terrifying secret weapons, 8,500 of which rained down on London and its surrounding counties, killing about 9,000 civilians.
It was late at night when they came for the first time. They flew out of the southeast, low over the school buildings, with rowdy, rattling jet engines like huge, poorly-silenced motorbikes, and tongues of flame pouring from their tails. We hung out of our dormitory widows, craning to see them as they careered overhead. No grown-ups came up to reassure us, and we had no idea what these noisy, mysterious aircraft were. But of one thing we were sure, they were hostile.
On BBC radio next day we learned what they were. They were flying bombs, V1’s (“Vee Ones”), crudely built, pilotless, rocket-propelled aircraft launched from railroad lines only 21 miles across the English Channel in Nazi-occupied France. Each contained a ton of explosive, and when the fuel ran out, after fifteen or twenty seconds of unnerving silence, they crashed and exploded. In daylight, RAF fighter pilots quickly learned to deal with what were soon nicknamed buzz bombs, or doodle-bugs. Some pilots intercepted them by flipping them over with their Spitfires fighters’ wing-tips, causing them to veer off-course and crash, but the most effective way to stop their passage on their fixed courses was for fighters to shoot them down with cannon shells. Whatever the method, the result was the same – a massive explosion in a ball of fire in the fields and woods around our school.
Soon after the first buzz-bombs plunged into London, more than 2,500 anti-aircraft guns were moved into the counties southeast of the capital, mainly to Kent, our county, and Surrey and Sussex. A battery of these guns, 40 mm Bofors guns, that had already more than earned their keep during the Battle of Britain quickly dug-in on the edge of our school cricket field, a grassy plateau that looked down on the school in a river valley below. In their sandbagged emplacements the guns were right on the course the buzz bombs followed from their launch pads in the extreme north of France to London, their ultimate target.
Sixty-nine years on, it seems incredible that on one hot summer afternoon in 1944, following a shrill warning whistle signal from the umpire, we schoolboys lay flat on our faces under the wooden benches around that cricket pitch, while the guns blazed away at a passing flying bomb. Hot, jagged pieces of silver shrapnel pattered down in the fields and farmland around us.
Oddly, none of us sensed real terror at that strange time in our early lives. Even in the darkest days of the early 1940’s, though we sometimes stumbled on the grisly wreckage of German and friendly aircraft in the dense woods around the school, and looked up to see the sky black with high-flying formations of enemy bombers heading for London, we somehow felt detached from the reality of it all. It was a dreamscape, like an over-long Saturday morning movie show.
Unlike the Jews, The Poles, the Russians and millions of children in many occupied countries, we had enough to eat, and we stayed warm in the winter. No one took our parents or friends away, and we never actually met the enemy face-to-face.
We were the lucky ones. For us, oddly, it wasn’t an ordeal, butt sheer adventure.