Midhurst didn’t stay a sleepy village for very long
WHERE have all the wartime memories gone? Peter Sydenham writes from Adelaide, South Australia...
How nice it is to feel I am back there in spirit with my memories of a great time in my life spent in Midhurst and Easebourne.
When Hitler directed the blitz bombing of London, that being around October 1940, my mother brought me here to Midhurst.
I was three-and-a-half years old. There was no room for us to live together so she was billeted to Easebourne and I stayed with a lady in St Ann’s Hill buildings whose husband was away in the Royal Navy.
Those second world war times are long gone and almost forgotten today: but they were so significant to British history.
At that time the local population amounted to only some 4,000 people.
It was known as a sleepy village of great charm and quaint accents. Never before, or after, has there been such a social and economic upheaval in Midhurst.
Do you realise some 400 blitz kid evacuees, mainly from East London, in 1939 and 1940, came to the district to stay for the war years? I was one.
Then also, the Canadian Army had started to come to Britain, initially to defend the Isles, if needed, by making up for the British Army being on overseas service.
Some 350,000 Canucks, the slang for Canadians, progressively arrived through the Aldershot Army base, with most being stationed in the centre of the south of England.
They certainly invaded the lifestyle of the beautiful villages around Midhurst. I suppose there would have been 3,000 or more based around the village.
Many also came down from Aldershot, 24 miles away, when on leave.
That may have been a long way to travel for locals, but Canadians are used to large distances. They intermingled to a very large degree. Many liaisons took place with local and the London girls, leaving their mark – good and bad – on thousands of families.
Later the Canadians were joined with other Allied forces. From 1942, increasing to 2.5million soldiers in the south prepared for the D-Day invasion of Continental Europe. They began crossing the Channel on June 6, 1944. After that there were still large numbers of paratroopers training in the south for the, less than successful, September 1944 Operation Market Garden campaign that was intended to end the war by Christmas 1944.
The temporary soldier camps were often set up as ‘sausages’. These were camouflaged linear camps set up along roads to make air identification difficult.
The soldiers exercised, and exercised, and exercised, on the South Downs and the fields around Midhurst.
Some went, for a while, to Scotland for specialised training in the mountains and lakes. Others used the River Rother to learn how to use small boats. Tanks were driven over the North Mill bridge to test if it was sound to use for the D-Day troop and equipment movement. Bren gun carriers, little armoured personnel vehicles carrying a Bren gun, were used a lot, churning up the fields and roads.
Midhurst was sleepy no more! The evacuees and their accompanying teachers and mothers used up just about every available place to live. If it had a roof and was empty, it was pressed into service.
They often were living in worse conditions than they had been in poorest East End London. They doubled the class sizes, especially in the primary schools of Half Moon, St Catherine’s Convent and Easebourne. Classes were often held outside in the open air for lack of room.
When Midhurst was bombed in February 1943, I was mistaken by those around at the time as the little boy killed.
My traumatised, then highly-relieved mother took me back to live in Easebourne.
We eventually had to move when our host married a local soldier and had a baby. We then moved to Red Lion Street in what is now Dale White’s barbers shop. Living was rather limited in all of the places I lived for they had almost no modern conveniences.
HELP PETER COMPILE HIS WARTIME MEMORIES
For me, however, it was not a time of worry, misery and loss, but one of freedom with many eventful things to see and do. I am now writing up a serious memoirs account of my time in wartime Midhurst and Easebourne.
I can easily recall significant events to form the flow of the account but now need facts such as dates, pictures, the whereabouts of records to search, plus other people’s significant memories.
I have studied just about every book and online material available to find local information.
In this article I would like to concentrate on the army presence. Who were the soldiers?
It is clear many were Canucks, but what other nations had soldiers in the Midhurst area?
What were their unit or regiment names? For what army role were they being trained?
The fete is a British institution and these were often organised in Midhurst. I recall a large one being held in the Cowdray Ruins fields. Marquee tents ran displays of parachute packing on long benches. Soldiers gave demonstrations.
Weapons were on display. Yellow, blow-up dinghies were tethered on the river under the Causeway bridge into which people could throw coins.
Bob Etherington remembers one fete where fire engines put out a mock house fire in the Ruins area. Who organised them? When were they held? A picture or an advert for these would be a great find!
One day in the year around 1944 I was searching in the field along the Causeway for those elusive large Rhinoceros beetles.
From the town came an amazing sound. I rushed across to North Street to see a massive army parade marching up the street going south. It had group after group of marching soldiers with at least four army bands, including pipes.
Was this the leaving parade wherein most of the locally-based soldiers marched down to Bognor (17 miles) and on to Worthing or Eastbourne for D-Day?
Has anyone any memory of this event? What was the date and which army regiments were there?
An online BBC memory account talks of tanks hidden in the yard of the Midhurst Grammar School.
They had knocked down the wall to drive in. More information on these tanks would be of great interest.
One day around 1943 or 1944 I went to walk across the main road bridge at North Mill.
I was stopped by a very solid MP and told to wait. A large tank was about to cross to see if it would fit the narrow road and not collapse the centuries-old structure.
Does anyone recall this happening? What sort of tank was it and what were its markings? A BBC Internet report states it had ‘REX’ on it. What did that represent?
My mum worked as a waitress in the Angel Hotel. It would have been packed with Canadians and other nations’ servicemen and women. Does anyone have information on these times in the Angel?
Please send in materials. My memoirs will chronicle many incidents and be published for all to access.
After use in the project the materials sent in will be returned, or placed in a collection that will be given to the West Sussex Records Office.
They will not be lost. In anticipation, thank you for your help here and for putting up with little me in my memorable time there from 1940-1945.
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