The Battle of Britain

It was not until August 13th that the real aerial battle began which became known as ’The Battle of Britain’. In order to invade this country Hitler needed to wipe out the RAF and to do so he needed to destroy not only the aircraft but also the airfields and aircraft industries and so he sent massive squadrons of bombers and fighters over the channel in daylight to achieve this end.

The reason that I only went into the school shelter the once was that the ensuing daylight battles were during the schools summer holiday and by the time this was over the daylight raids on Southampton had ceased but during that holiday I witnessed a number of such raids. That summer was one of beautiful weather with clear blue skies nearly every day which made a spectacular background to these aerial battles taking place high above us, high enough for most of the planes to make vapour trials with tiny silver under bellies of the planes leading them, only when they dived below a certain height were the planes left without this tail. If the RAF was engaged in an aerial battle then there was no anti-aircraft fire but when they were absent, then the guns would open up, the nearest battery to home was less than a quarter of a mile away from our house and very noisy, making a sort of ‘bing bang’, you could hear a shell as it left the gun which made a diminishing whooshing sound and finally a distant ‘crump’ as the shell exploded leaving a little white puff along with many others as they burst around and about the attacking bombers and their vapour trails. It was not easy to shot down an aircraft with gunfire, after all the planes were flying at 10000ft of 12000 ft. at over 200mph plus the shell was subject to variable wind speed and direction as it went up and many shells burst well off target. I think actually hitting a plane was more to do with luck than judgement.

When the fighters were present the pattern was quite different with the vapour trails being all over the place the whole sky being full of new and old trails with tight and open loops, individual trails chasing individual trails, multi trials diving on multi trials with flashes of silver as the sun caught the underside of the planes as they rolled and twisted in the air, this was accompanied by a background roar of hundreds of engines, punctuated with the whine of engines of climbing and looping planes as they either tried to get on the tail of an opponent or tried to get one off their tail. There was also the ‘tat tat tat ‘of machine gun fire when a plane had successfully got another in its sights. I understand that 96% of all ammunition fired on either side, missed the target.

One day I was out with my mother on the weekly grocery trip which also included a weekly visit to Grandma , my mother seemed to know everyone we met and land up talking to them all, on this occasion we had just left ‘Cowley’s,’ the small grocery shop that Mum had dealt with for many years and almost immediately Mum was talking or should I say gossiping with another villager, leaving me kicking my heals but going on above was one of these spectacular aerial battles which had become so every day that very few people bothered to look up but this one to me was special as the whole thing was being played out with a rainbow background. A plane had been hit and had spilled oil which the wind had spread across the sky causing the sun to create this wonderful very wide rainbow. I think I was the only one to see it but it is a scene very much locked into my visual memory.

On another glorious sunny day another air battle was in progress immediately above us, on this occasion we were stood in the garden outside the shelter watching this battle and watched as a diving fighter locked on to an enemy bomber and opened fire leaving groups of dashes, like stitches, trailing its wings. This attack seems to have been successful although we could not see the plane it was attacking, a couple of minutes later coming from an unexpected direction a burning German plane came very close to hitting the house and mature oak trees across the road crashing in a field and at the edge of a copse in Flexford less than half a mile away ‘as the crow flies’. After the battle was over lots of locals went to view the wreck which was just visible from the road although not much seemed to be left, the local fire brigade was still dosing the remains when we got there but my main memory of that event was just how scary and how shocked we were at how close the plane was to hitting the house and secondly the smell of burnt and melted aluminium when we were near the wreck. I think that the crew managed to parachute to safety which funnily enough, although there was a massive hatred of any German, the only good one being a ‘dead one’. I think that most people were kind of pleased that none died on this occasion.

The daylight raids and the attacks on our airfields and aircraft industries which had seriously started on August 13th had ceased by the 18th September and as far as the local area was concerned, had stopped by the time the school holidays were over. The German assault had failed. That period become known as ‘The Battle of Britain’ with Winston Churchill saying ‘never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few’. This was the first set back for the Germans but alas by no means the end of bombing as the Germans moved increasingly from daylight raid attacks on airfields to massive aerial attacks on cities and in the end mainly night ones which was to become known as the ‘Blitz.

Although the daylight raids were a spectacle and either watched or ignored, night bombing was an altogether different experience and from my own view the most frightening one in my whole life. I can’t remember how many night raids were made on Southampton it seemed an awful lot. Chandler’s Ford was not a target but it was under the main flight path of the attackers for dropping their bombs which were released above us to hit mainly the dock area and the city centre, amidst the din of anti-aircraft fire and the light from the searchlights which bathed everything in the area in a white light like moon light, was the scream of the bombs as they headed for their target, one such bomb in every stick would do this, the scream would increase in intensity as it fell with each one seeming to be heading for you personally, one could feel ones head sinking deeper and deeper in to ones chest as the scream or whistle increased to the point that it would start to diminish and you knew it was not ’that one’ with your name on it. Night after night long periods of time were spent in the Anderson shelter from the time of siren alert to the all clear.

It was not only Southampton that was being bombed at this time but Portsmouth as well, but an attack on Portsmouth did not necessarily mean an attack on Southampton. Mum being a light sleeper and also of a nervous disposition and above all having no husband at home all week, was alert and up long before the local siren sounded, I would often wake up to see the silhouette of mum against our bedroom window which faced east towards Portsmouth where a raid might already be in progress, once awake you could feel the impact of bombs and the sash windows would rattle, sometimes the raid would be on Portsmouth only, so we lost sleep to no purpose but on other occasions Southampton would also cop it, Mum would say “you had better stay awake and get ready to go down the shelter, Botley siren has just gone off,” we knew then that we destined to spend another scary couple of hours at least stuck in our damp smelling shelter. Even then there were occasions when the raid was upon us, with the siren only going off as a bomber was making its ‘ run in ‘.

As we made our way to the shelter we could see a tiny silver twin engined plane caught in the beam of a couple of search lights with the bang of the ack- ack firing from just down the road, the whooshing sound of the shells going up being much more pronounced at night as was the fluttering sound of shrapnel coming down with clunks and boinks as it hit roofs and other solid objects, this was very dangerous stuff and Dad had a lucky escape during one raid when he was home. As I have already mentioned Dad would not come down in the shelter preferring to watch the raid outside but being profoundly deaf he was unaware of the shrapnel coming down, on one occasion he sheltered under the glass roofed porch over the front door, he was wearing a trilby hat, as most adult males wore hats back then, he felt something fall on the hat and putting his hand up discovered it was full of broken glass where a piece of shrapnel had shattered the pane above him, the shard of metal narrowly missing him and burying itself in the earth floor next to him
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As I have already said, Chandler’s Ford was not a target but nevertheless it was hit by stray bombs and incendiaries which made it necessary to take shelter during every raid. More about that later.