Often wartime memories can conjure up a sense of jollity in the face of tragedy as people pulled together to keep life going. Barbara Haden was less concerned about bombs and bullets than about the threat of invasion. As a young woman in Carisbrooke she was privy to insider knowledge that made the prospect of enemy victory almost too much to bear.
I must emphasise that these notes represent my own personal recollection of living on the Isle of Wight during World War II. If, therefore, there are any inaccuracies in the recording of major events, I apologise. Please forgive me and accept that, having been stored in the darkest corners of my mind for close on seventy years, these memories may have become just a little dusty.
My principal memory of 1940 is one of fear: not that mixture of fear and excitement which produces a rush of adrenalin, but sickening, gut-wrenching dread. Dread of what we would be facing in the event of invasion, which at that time seemed imminent. This was because my father had volunteered for the Home Guard Auxiliary Unit, and was aware of the plans the enemy had for the civilian population. The picture was not a pretty one.
This Unit was not part of what became known as Dad’s Army – which itself did a wonderful job. The regular Home Guard did not even know the Auxilliary Unit existed. This was an underground movement, set up to carry out guerrilla warfare after invasion, and they were supplied, amongst other things, with poison to take if captured, so they could commit suicide if tortured. The regular Home Guard didn’t even know they existed, which meant my father and his colleagues had to be ready with plausible excuses if challenged by a uniformed man.
My mother and I were told very little, but we did learn that what was planned for us was quite as bad as, if not worse than, the treatment meted out to the Jews by the Nazis. My poor father must have been at his wits ’end, having experienced life in the trenches during the First World War, and having seen the kind of treatment women had received at the hands of Germans. We seriously considered a suicide pact should the expected invasion take place, but I refused. I didn’t know then that life expectancy for men in the Unit, in the event of invasion, was just a fortnight.
At this time I was working in the office of Whitecroft Psychiatric Hospital, dealing with the medical correspondence and so in daily contact with the Medical Superintendent. One morning, he called me into his office and told me that he had received disturbing information about the treatment we could expect in the event of invasion; for example, he himself would be required either to exterminate his patients or to carry out medical experiments on them. His words to me were: “Under no circumstances will I live under Nazi domination. As soon as I hear that there has been a landing on the Island I shall go into my laboratory for the last time, and, if you like, you can come with me. Talk it over with your parents.”
I told him that we had already discussed the possibility of suicide but I had discarded the idea, for if everyone did that, the enemy would have a walkover. Alas for the arrogance of youth! Here was I, at nineteen, having already made it impossible for my parents to commit suicide (which they would not do without me) and now virtually accusing my boss of cowardice. Who was I to judge a man faced with such a dreadful dilemma? A man who, incidentally, over the next twenty years or so, proved to be a very loyal and staunch friend.
The atmosphere on the Island during the early part of the war was a very uneasy one. There were a number of residents with Nazi sympathies, which, because of my father’s role, I was possibly more aware of than most Islanders. Some, though not all, were of German origin who for some reason (perhaps married to local people) were not interned. These sympathizers represented the “fifth column”, a body of potential spies and traitors. Consequently the slogan “Careless talk costs lives” was taken very seriously and we learnt to trust no one, even people we thought we knew well.
This, of course, tended to emphasise our isolation – for we were very isolated, special permission having to be obtained before one could cross the Solent in either direction. Letters and telephone calls were censored, too. If an unwise comment was made during a telephone conversation a warning buzz would sound: a second slip-up would cause the call to be disconnected. After a heavy raid on Cowes one lady, whom I knew well, told her sister on the mainland ‘Poor old Cowes caught it last night’. That call was immediately cut!
But life went on, and there is one picture in my mind which still makes me smile; my mother and one of her sisters, out blackberrying along the Calbourne Road, diving into a hedge to avoid being spotted by the pilots of a couple of planes coming in their direction. When the planes had passed, my mother and aunt found that only their heads had been hidden, the rest of their bodies being well out into the road. We later discovered that the two planes had been one of ours chasing one of theirs, and that the enemy plane had crashed on Bowcombe Down. So our two ostriches had been in no danger at all!
Odds and Ends
PLUTO (the Pipe Line Under the Ocean) was one way in which the Island played an important part in the eventual invasion of France in 1944. This pipe line, which carried essential fuel oil to our troops on the continent, went out from Shanklin and Sandown seafronts. At Shanklin, in order to mask the preparatory work from any enemy reconnaissance planes, clever advantage was taken of the severely bomb-damaged seafront hotels in the hope that any activity would be presumed to be an attempt at rebuilding those hotels. It seems the ruse worked.
The air raid on Cowes was devastating, hundreds being made homeless and many killed. In such a confined area it probably compared in intensity with raids on Portsmouth or Southampton. That night was one of the few occasions my mother and I took advantage of the large air raid shelter which my father had constructed in our back garden. “Cowes night”, as we came to call it, gave protection to fourteen neighbours and a dog.
That night, one of my mother’s brothers was on duty at Saunders Roe in Cowes. During the raid he peeped out of the shelter occupied by himself and his colleagues, only to discover an unexploded incendiary bomb in the entrance. He picked it up and threw it over a wall and then decided to go home, as there would be no more work done before the following day. As he was dodging bombs in Cowes, he suddenly found himself thrown to the ground with a very large soldier on top of him; that soldier doubtless saved his life, even if he almost crushed him in the process.
Subsequently a rumour circulated that a factory worker in Cowes had been almost lynched by his colleagues, having been seen signalling to the approaching planes with a torch, and that he had been arrested and presumably imprisoned for the duration of the war. If this was true, it was an example of the damage done by fifth column activity.
I cannot leave the Cowes raid without mentioning the Polish vessel ORP Blyskavia, which was moored there for repairs, and which played a major role in the defence of the town, guns blazing all night long. This is something many older Islanders will doubtless remember to this day.
Cowes had suffered other less intensive raids, as did other towns. Many of these raids were of a hit-and-run nature. We were also plagued with low-flying planes ‘hedge-hopping’ and firing indiscriminately at any living thing. In addition, the crews of enemy planes being driven back from the mainland seemed to find the Island a convenient dumping ground over which to jettison their bombs.
There was no real defence against this kind of thing. The futility of moving to the country from the town was illustrated by a family whose small daughter I knew and who, for fear of more bombing in Cowes, moved to an old manor house near Shorwell. One day, as the little girl was playing in the garden, a plane flew over. For shelter she ran into the manor’s very substantial stone porch, which then received a direct hit, killing both the child and her mother.
Another random bomb killed my doctor. Old Dr Straton had been on a night call, and he looked into his surgery to write up his notes when it, too, received a direct hit. Mrs Straton escaped with her life as she came down through the ceiling on her bed, which absorbed some of the shock. The house was subsequently demolished, and the sight of house and garden, which the adjacent Church Litten cemetery, now forms a very pleasant part in the centre of Newport.
Even bombing occasionally had its lighter side, as was evidenced, Parkhurst forest was heavily attacked in mistake for Portsmouth dockyard. Someone definitely got their wires crossed there, and it was not until the infamous Lord Haw-Haw’s announcement on radio the next day that we realised why such a rural area should have received such a pounding. At least it got rid of some of their bombs!