This is an edited version of an article written by Maurice Allward from the book, ‘Battle of Britain,’ edited by Kenneth Munson and John W. R. Taylor. It was published in 1976 by New English Library (see footnote). During theBattle of Britain, the Allward family lived in Court Bushes Road, Whyteleafe.
I was at school when war against Germany was declared by Neville Chamberlain in September 1939. It followed that I was on holiday during that summer of 1940 when the destiny of Britain, and of the free world, was being decided in the blue sky over southern England.
At that time the family lived in a large house, into which we had only just moved, on a steep hillside at Whyteleafe, Surrey. This little village straddles the main A22 road from London to Eastbourne. The interest, however, is not the location of the house relarive to this road, but the fact that it was less than one mile from the RAF fighter airfield at Kenley, one of the vital sector stations in No.11 Group, on the other side of the valley. Also, our house was only four miles from Biggin Hill, two of the important airfields forming the inner defence ring around London.
The house thus provided a somewhat unique location from which to view, if not to understand, the aerial combats going on overhead. It was also a good spot at which to be frightened! During the course of the Battle, the house was straddled by sticks of bombs on several occasions, no fewer than three bombs landing in the garden of the house next door during two of the raids.
My baptism of fire had taken place some weeks earlier, during a visit to Hayling Island, off the south coast. From this vantage point I witnessed my first air raid, on the naval base and dock facilities at Portsmouth some six miles to the west. The date was 12 August 1940 – the day before ‘Adler Tag’, when the Germans consider the Battle of Britain actually started.
After the raid I returned to my parents’ home at Whyteleafe. There I watched much of the Battle from a deck chair in the front garden. My father was a great flag flyer, and one of the first things he always did when moving home was to put up a flag post from which he proudly flew a Union Jack. Although we had not had time to erect a flagpole on this occasion, one of my first duties each morning was to drape a rather worn, but huge, flag along the front of the house. Ot was not until a Bf 109 had flown low over the house that I realised that the flag was only too visible from the air. I put discretion before family tradition, and did not fly the flag again.
My next big raid was on 15 August 1940, which history now records as being one of the busiest days of the whole Battle.
The main attacks were in the south. During one of them, a formation of fifteen Bf 110s and eight Bf109s, carrying bombs, got through to Croydon. I recall seeing several aircraft shot down, but the Germans managed to hit targets on Croydon aerodrome.
The raid, clearly visible from my vantage point, was all over in a few minutes and was front page news the next day. I sensed the Battle was moving ‘my way’ – but do not pretend that, at the time, I appreciated the significance of the day’s events. In particular, I did not realise – nor did anyone else in Britain – that the attack on Croydon was an error.
The next attack recorded [in my diary] took place on 18 August, when 750 aircraft were dispatched against Britain. Soon after mid-day, part of a formation which crossed the coast at Beachy Head got through to Kenley and attacked the airfield with great determination and success.
The formation consisted of nine Do 17s from the 76th Bomber Group, a crack unit which specialised in low-level attacks. Unusually, each aircraft carried a 20mm cannon in the lower part of the nose, on a special mounting which could be locked so that the gun fired straight ahead, or unlocked so it could be moved. The formation reached Kenley and went straight in at about fifty feet.
A few minutes later – although according to the plan they should have arrived first – the burning airfield was crisscrossed with bombs from a high-altitude force of sixty He 111s of the First Bomber Group, and twenty-seven Do 17s and twelve Ju88s of the 76th Bomber Group, which also bombed Biggin Hill and Croydon.
At the start of the attack it seemed to me, at the time, as if a ring of smoke was put round the airfield, through which bombers dived to attack. The smoke screen drifted toward our house – and the bombs came closer (It is now known that this ring of smoke was, in fact, being trailed by a stricken Do 17, on fire and about to crash just outside the boundary of the airfield.)
High above all this intense activity was a reconnaissance Do 17 which took a remarkable photograph of the raid in progress.
Despite the interception by Nos 64 and 111 Squadrons, and despite the succes of the Parachute and Cable anti-aircraft weapon which brought down a Dornier Do 17, ten hangars were destroyed and six damaged. [nb. six hangars were destroyed]. Six Hurricanes on the ground were either destroyed or severely damaged [Alfred Price says 4 Hurricanes destroyed plus 6 other aircraft]. The runways were heavily cratered, although they could still be used. Signal communications were so badly affected that the Sector Operations Room had to be closed down and the organisation transferred to an emergency room in a disused butcher’s shop in the main shopping street in nearby Caterham…..Only one factor saved the station from complete destruction – many bombs were released so low that they landed horizontally and did not explode.
My diary entry for the day reads:
“We were just finishing our dinner when siren went. We were in the sun parlour (an extension on the front of the house, facing Kenley). As usual, we streamed outside and peered upwards. We could hear their drone, different from our Hurricanes and Spitfires. Suddenly we saw about twelve of them, appearing from the sun and diving towards Kenley. Black columns of smoke appeared and we watched fascinated, still in the open. The ammunition dump was hit, and we were treated to a free firework display. We were so engrossed that we failed to realise that several hundred (now known to be an exaggeration!) more planes were appearing from the sun. The first we knew of them was a burst of machine-gun fire from one of our fighters.
“As they seemed dead overhead, we got into our porch (a recess leading to the front door) and looked out from there.
“Suddenly we heard BANG BANG….As they seemed unpleasantly close we decided to get into our shelter (the recess under the stairs). Again we heard BANG BANG. Once inside we sat on the floor and gave Chum (our dog, a golden retriever) an extra dose of his sleeping draught.
“Then the row started – just one long series of BANG BANG BANG BANG…The house trembled and we all thought it would be hit by the next one. BANG BANG, suddenly BANG BANG followed by the tinkle of broken glass – our broken glass. Still the long succession of BANG BANG, broken only by bursts from our fighters.
“After what seemed like three hours (we learnt later that it had lasted three minutes) the bombs fell more and more erratically (I probably meant sporadically). We could now hear the German planes diving, the shriek of the bombs, the BANGS, and feel the house tremble. BANG BANG…Then weee….the ‘all clear’ Out we bundled. The sky was full of our fighters.”
“After the raid we made a tour of the local damage Several buildings nearby had received direct hits or near misses. The house next door to ours had two bomb craters in its front garden – one of them a big one. Now we knew why some of our windows had disintegrated. The railway line running along the back of our garden had received three direct hits – but was repaired in eight hours.”
At the time I estimated that over 150 bombs had been dropped within 500 yards of our house, two within fifty yards and one only ten yards away.
My diary records: ‘During the raid we were not panicky, only over-anxious to know what was happening..’ After our tour of inspection I noted that ‘we went back into the sun parlour to finish our pudding. It was now pudding and glass. We threw it away.’
My diary has a postscript: ‘Five days after the raid, we are alone, except for a neighbour, visited not even by the postman – waiting for a time-bomb to go off.’
The bomb was discovered in a crater at the end of the service road leading to our house, some 250 yards away. A bomb disposal team came and safely removed it.
During that raid I was especially worried in case I ever got buried under rubble – we had no Morrison shelter. The house was some thirty feet above and twenty feet from a tennis court , and I formed the idea of excavating a tunnel from the tennis court in to the bank,, until it reached a point beneath the house, and then digging a shaft up into the house, thus providing an escape route should the house collapse around me.
So, over the next few days I tarted digging the horizontal portion of my escape route, driving a tunnel some 3 feet high and 3 feet wide into the soft chalk. Every two feet or so I erected timber framing to support the roof. Often I continued digging during raids, feeling very safe having penetrated 12-15 feet. I was really pleased when , during one raid , aircraft dived over our garden, machine-guns firing – one bullet from which punched a neat hole in the metal wheelbarrow that I used to cart the rubble away.
One day, however, I was outside when a bomb dropped fairly close and made the ground tremble. Without a sound my ‘safety’ tunnel collapsed along its entire length, filling my escape route with tons of solid chalk. My father spent hours, afterwards, searching for his new pickaxe, spade, fork and mason’s hammer! They are still buried!
The next raid described at length in my diary occurred on 6 September a a day of massive raids over southern England, although the attack was not, apparently, of sufficient importance to be highlighted in official accounts of assaults on Kenley:
“The warning went at ten minutes to nine, and we went outside. Seeing nothing, went inside and finished our breakfast.
While mother washed up, James (my younger brother) and I ‘spotted’ from the porch. I saw four planes at about 15,000ft – they were Heinkel He 111s, twin-engined bombers. Six aircraft took off from Kenley, to re-inforce the nine already up.
At nine o’clock we were all in the porch looking upwards. At 9.06 we heard machine-gun fire. Then three anti-aircraft guns fired. We rushed inside, under the stairs.
I lay there on the floor and attempted to cover my fear by trying to calm our dog, who was trembling even more than I was.
I really thought that the next bomb was going to hit us. The diary records that I heard it coming down – and that it had ‘got my name on it’.
There was an almighty bang, followed by the sound of broken glass and falling masonry.
The ‘all clear’ sounded at 10.05. Emerging into the open we discovered that the very loud bang had been caused by a bomb scoring a direct hit on the house next door – its third direct hit. The house opposite ours was completely demolished, and direct hits had been scored on the railway line. A coating of chalk covered everything. Several other houses in our short road were severely damaged.
For the second time within three weeks an unexploded bomb had dropped unpleasantly close, and only the occupants of the houses were allowed into the road. The bomb lay in its crater for two days and , at 7.00pm the second evening, I was reading quietly in our lounge. Suddenly the quiet was broken by a shattering detonation and I was thrown out of my chair into the floor. My younger brother, who was having a bath, rushed downstairs, completely naked. At first I thought it was an air raid, but as I could not hear aircraft I guessed it was ‘our time bomb’.
Going outside, I saw a ‘horrible pillar of black smoke’ rising into the sky. Apparently the bomb had gone off just as it was being raised to the surface by two men of the Royal Engineers. As I watched the smoke, tiny pieces of uniform – and worse – floated down around our home like flakes of snow. Everybody was deeply touched by the tragedy, as the deaths were the first in our road. [More here]
The day before the bomb went off, on 7 September, the Luftwaffe had, as I have mentioned, abandoned its offensive against RAF fighter stations and begun the assault on London. This was known to those that experienced it as ‘The Blitz’. From that day, my diary consists primarily of a list of times at which raids started and ended. Of interest is the fact that although the Battle of Britain officially reached its climax on 15 September, my diary lists no fewer than eight separate air raids on the 16th – a record.
With the attention of the Luftwaffe now directed primarily at London, the attacks on ‘my’ three airfields – Croydon, Kenley and Biggin Hill- ceased. As my diary indicates, we were still subjected to several air raids a day, the longest being the night raids of the Blitz, as we were on one of the Luftwaffe’s direct routes to London.
These raids usually started between 7 and 8 o’clock in the evening and continued unbroken until the next morning. The distinctive rising and falling note of the unsynchronised engines of the twin-engined bombers became a symphony to which I fell asleep regularly.
During the night raids, the family- my mother and father, younger brother and our dog – slept under the stairs. This was reckoned to be the safest part of the house in the event of a near miss. My ‘portion’ was just 23 inches wide by 60 inches long. While I was asleep, my feet were wedged under the gas meter!
In addition to recording the times of the raids in my diary. I duplicated the data on the walls and ceiling of this tiny area. This record included a system of indicating bombs and similar noises heard. Although the house has changed hands several times since the war, and has been extensively redecorated, this unique record – much faded with the passage of nearly forty years – survives.
It will be evident from the extracts from my diary that the nightly Blitz did not stop the Germans making daylight raids, some of them involving large numbers of aircraft. My references to actual numbers of aircraft, such as ‘150 Boche planes overhead’ in the entry for 9 September, are, however, certainly exaggerated. Not only the Royal Air Force found it difficult to estimate accurately the numbers of aircraft involved in large-scale raids.
My diary did not record anything which I considered to be of value to the enemy. Thus, it does not record the exciting and considerable movements of troops which took place in the locality. Nor does it record the knocking of ‘gun holes’ in the walls of the bomb-damaged house next door , and the hiding of several hundred rounds of .303 ammunition (ex-Lancaster type) under the floorboards, thus turning the place into a useful strong point.
Nor does the diary record the times the author’s private anti-aircraft gun – a single-shot US cavalry carbine, made in 1897 and firing .303 ammunition – went into action! That is another story!
The diary ends on 17 November, not because the raids ceased, but because the diary ran out of pages. I am reminded that there were three air raid warnings during the day, and that I slept under the stairs at night. It is of interest to note that up to this point of the Blitz, official records indicate that the Germans had flown more than 12,000 sorties over Britain!
Battle of Britain Diary
- 2.00-2.45 Three aircraft brought down. AA fire, machine-gun and cannon fire heard. Many bombs dropped on Biggin Hill. Bombs too close for comfort. One pilot baled out – ours.
- 10.30-7.30 Slept under stairs. Usual sounds and view.
- 11.30-11.50 Slept under stairs. Usual sounds and view.
- 9.00-11.30 S
- Slept under stairs. Saw two flares dropped over Kenley aerodrome!
- 5.30-6.05 Slept under stairs.
- 8.05-10.05 Heavy raid. Bomb hits house next door. The third hit.
- 11.45 Slept under stairs. Many thuds and flashes.
- 8.30-8.30 Slept under stairs. Many thud and flashes. A large fire.
- Big bang at 7.00. Unexploded bomb goes off while being dug out.
- 8.15-8.30 (next morning) Slept under stairs. Many thuds and flashes.
- 5.15-6.30 150 Boche planes overhead.
- 8.30-7.30 Slept under stairs. Many thuds and flashes. Raids on London still in progress!
- 8.10-8.30 Slept under stairs.
- 3.15-4.45 Hundreds of planes, dog fight, 1 down.
- 8.30-6.00 Slept under stairs. AA barrage terrific.
- 9.00-6.00 Slept under stairs.
- 9.50-2.00 Longest day raid.
- 9.00-8.15 Slept under stairs.
- 9.40-9.55 No raid? We don’t like it!
- 1.00-3.30 Slept under stairs. News too good to be true! or is it?
- 7.15-7.40 Terrific Battle 185 down.
- 8.15-8.15 Slept under stairs. Bombs jettisoned 300 yards away.
- 8.00-7.30 Slept under stairs. AA barrage and bombs.
- 8.00-8.00 Slept under stairs.
- 7.50-7.50 Slept under stairs.
- 8.00-8.00 Slept under stairs.
- 7.45-8.00 Slept under stairs.
- 6.00-7.15 Dog fight. 56 of ours.
- 8.15-8.15 Slept under stairs.
- 7.00-8.30 Slept under stairs.
- 7.00-7.00 Slept under stairs.
- 8.15-8.15 Slept under stairs.
- 8.30-8.15 Slept under stairs.
- 8.30-8.30 Slept under stairs.
- 9.00-10.00 Biggest dog fight yet. Cannon, machine-gun, AA, Bofors etc. AA overhead. Many planes.
- 3.15-4.00 Dog fight.
- 8.30-8.00 Slept under stairs.
- 8.15-8.15 Slept under stairs.
- 8.00-8.30 Slept under stairs.
- 8.00-8.00 Slept under stairs.
Number of raids: 117
Total hours: 400 approximately.
Number of times sleeping under stairs: 30