Transcript of letter to Douglas Anstruther from a soldier in the 2/5th Btn. 1940
2/5th Btn. The Vicarage, Kent
Sunday, Sept. 29th 1940
My dear Douglas -
Meeting a man today who lives in Hemel Hempstead and was at school at Berkhampstead caused a serrement de coeur and so I must try and make up for a very long silence by telling you of my doings. But firstly, how are you all? Not too much bombed to blazes I trust. I often think of Redbourn and wonder if you have the house still crowded with evacuees. Jean's A.R.P. training must have stood her in good stead. I see that bombs have been dropped several times in "Herts" but, indeed, there's hardly a place one knows of that has not had a visitation of some sort. Chobham has had plenty of excitements, bombs large and small, a/a fire all round, the church bells ringing at night and a bomber down near the Gordon Boys Home and so on.
Well, quite a lot has happened to me in the past few months. We left Guildford in April and went by way of Southampton and Havre to Forges-les-Eaux, not very far from Dieppe on the main line to Paris and there we spent a very pleasant month and, frankly, I enjoyed every moment of it. The people were delightful and there were no raids; only an occasional warning and some leaflets. Butter and cheese, coffee and chocolate abounded and life was very pleasant. Then the invasion began and ominous rumours began to circulate.
We stayed put for two or three days and then, about May 14th, we moved up about 50 miles to Rombures, a tiny village with a really magnificent Norman castle. We were quartered in its vast and ghostly stables; they were 16th century, absolutely untouched, with Dracula-like festoons of cobwebs everywhere. We arrived at night in a thunderstorm and the sight of it all lit up by the flashes of lightning was just the weirdest thing ever.
The stables were built round a huge derelict grass square; the old rings were in the walls for tying up the nags; a big wooden cider press in one corner; dungeons and iron bars at every pore, so to speak. I've never before felt as though I had stepped back two or three hundred years, but I did there.
While we were stationed there, the refugees began to arrive. At first it was all the limousines and big cars; some spick and span, other riddled with bullets and bomb splinters, packed to suffocation with people and clothes and with bedding strapped on the roofs. I even saw men, women and children strapped to the mudguards and running boards as there was no room for them inside. Later came the cyclists, mostly men and boys escaping from Belgium (civilians) with orders to rendezvous at Rouen and places of that sort - and girls too, with nothing but a blanket strapped on the carrier. Behind them again came the huge two-horse farm carts with whole families aboard and a few sticks of furniture tied on underneath. Lastly, came the pedestrians and the sight and thought of them haunts me still. The old men and women, in shoes worn to ribbons with what I heard aptly described as 'les pieds en confiture', perhaps an attaché case or a couple of string bags in their hands and sometimes wheeling a pram or pushcart with a sack of belongings. Of course, you must have seen all this in the last war but it did bring things home to me.
After some days at Rombures we marched to Pont Rémy on the Somme and bivouacked in a little wood of yellow and white Laburnums in full bloom for one night and then went on to Épagne, about two miles from Abbéville. Here we were quartered in the Château d'Épagne which belonged to an Englishman who had gone only the same morning leaving everything behind, including his servants, gardeners, animals, birds and so on.
We were there for one night and next day the Bosches laid Abbéville in ruins; the most terrible aerial bombardment you can conceive; beginning at daybreak and lasting until late at night. It was just one vast bonfire. About midday they came over and bombed us; we only had two casualties but the glass everywhere was shattered and we lay pretty flat on the ground, I can assure you, on more than one occasion.
We had no idea what was going on; there were so many conflicting reports about Jerry; finally, at 6pm we were told "They're 300 yards away coming along the road"! We had nothing but a few bren guns and A.T. rifles and our own rifles which weren't adequate for dealing with tanks and armoured cars.
We stuck it until about 9pm and then withdrew, just as the château went skywards. Most of the lads had to swim the Somme; our small detachment found a bridge up near Abbéville. It was a moonlight night and they bombed us again but in the marshes, the bombs were more or less harmless. 170 came out of the show and over 400 remained behind. We've heard since that the majority were taken prisoner but, of course, there were many casualties and some were drowned trying to cross the river which was very swift and deep and dark.
We had several days of marching after that, by night, and hiding by day; sleeping in barns and woods and ditches and then got a lorry hop to Rouen. There we had a rest at the I.B.D. and went on to Blain near St. Nazaire. In the end, we came across from Cherbourg by day, unescorted, about four or five days after the Dunkirk evacuation. The country between Blain and Cherbourg was simply lovely; everything apparently peaceful and normal. I'd never been in that part of Brittany before.
From Southampton we went to Newcastle and thence to Gilsland, between it and Carlisle. This suited me very well as Rosamond lives at the latter place and I was able to go over several times. At the beginning of July we came down to Whitstable and a week later moved on here where we've been ever since. I have now achieved the exalted rank of Orderly Room Sergeant, the chief penalty is that I never have time to get out or go anywhere. For the first time since we arrived, about July 5th, I got into Ashford last Thursday. As I left here in the bus I may say I narrowly avoided death in the hands of an aerial machine-gunner!
In Ashford I went to the barber as my first port of call and was in the process of having my back hair singed when we heard the whistle of bombs and then the barber beat me to the floor by about half a length. They "crumped" about 100 yards away but didn't do very much damage. Considering how near the East and South coasts are, we have been amazingly lucky so far. Places like Dover, Deal and Folkestone are only a matter of three or four minutes flying distance and the sky is black with Huns, like locusts. Latterly, they have, as a rule, been flying lower but the terrific and incessant aerial battles overhead are usually too high to be clearly seen, if at all.
There's been a big flap on most of this month; we've slept in our clothes and boots for over a fortnight but it's not quite so tense now and leave has started again. I just got my week in before the raids started on London and spent most of it sleeping in a deck chair in the garden, out in the sun. I've never been so tired before. We hadn't one alarm the whole week so I was very lucky.
Our biggest shake up recently was a mine - land or magnetic, we don't know - which, decended by parachute and landed on a hen house about three quarters of a mile away. By a miracle, the only casualties were hens and this house just rocked and I thought it was going to fall down. Only one window was smashed but all sorts of odd things happened. For instance, the heavy wooden shutters inside the windows were forced open although there were iron bars across them. The fastenings and catches on the French windows were torn off, yet the glass wasn't broken. A second mine by parchute was dropped at the same time a bit further away and it also did no serious damage.
Quelle vie! It's all hard to realize and one has no conception of what Londoners are going through by day and night.
How goes Lanes? I hope it's keeping its head above water - will you remember me to them all? No time for more. Send me a line when you are able. My love to Babs and Jean.