Brief Wartime experiences in Battle

By John Humphreys, 2014
A while ago I was asked to write down some of my experiences during the war at Battle, here are some of my
memories of that time.
We lived in Watch Oak Cottages, Netherfield Road, Battle. When I was 14 years old my brother, Brian, and I went to
join the Sea Cadets at St Leonards on Sea. We went to the meetings and parades for about 18 months. I must have
been a bit fed up with going and said to Brian that I was going to join the Home Guard. I must also have told my
mum too.

When I was 15 or 16, one Sunday morning I went up to the Drill Hall at Battle and went into the Quarter Master’s
room. I said I wanted to join the Home Guard and he said “How old are you?” I said I was 17 and he said he’d put
me down as 18. In fact I was only 15 or 16. Anyway, I was in. he asked me to come to the Drill Hall the following
Sunday to collect my kit and uniform etc.
Sunday came around and I collected my uniform, tin hat, gas mask, webbing and gaiters etc. it was nearly as much
as I could carry home! The Quarter Master said “Come back next Sunday in your uniform”. Next Sunday comes. I
don my full uniform, webbing, gas mask, tin hat and gaiters.

Two of my mates lived down Netherfield Road in Farm Cottages. One was called Jim Langridge and another I called
ginger but his name was Tubby Martin. I arranged to meet them on Sunday morning to go on parade at the Drill
Hall. I waited for them in the road with all my gear on. When they saw me they burst out laughing and pointed to
my feet. I had my gaiters done up wrong with the buckles at the front instead of the sides. I soon rectified that! Jim
Langridge went on to be Bevin Boy. I don’t know what happened to Tubby Martin.

Anyway, off we go up to the Drill Hall. I was put into a platoon of recruits. My name was called out to go to the
Quarter Masters Store where I was issued with a brand new 303 rifle covered in grease. He said “When you get
home, pour boiling water over it to get the grease off.” I soon got into the swing of things and looked forward to
going on parade and going down to Butts (a Rifle Range). I will try and explain some of the events that took place
and things I can remember in the 19th Home Guard Battalion, Sussex.

There was a proficiency test we had to pass like shooting, map reading, first aid, grenade throwing etc. Anyway, I
passed ok and got me red diamond and stripe sewn into my uniform. A group of about 11 or 12 of us younger ones
were sent out around the country side with an older Sergeant in charge finding places to hide and set up ambushes
among other things.

I remember in the Drill Hall we were preparing how to prime hand grenades, ready to go down to the range for
grenade throwing practice. Once, somebody dropped a grenade on the wooden floor of the Drill Hall. As it rolled
across the floor the Sergeant in charge threw himself on it. I remember thinking to myself how brave he was.
Fortunately it was not primed.

My first big parade was in front of Battle Abbey where we were parading in front of some high ranking people. I
think there are some pictures of that day in the Museum at Battle.

There is a photo of our platoon taken in the old Cattle Market where the library now stands. I have the original
photo.
One day, I remember going down to the Butts rifle range for target practice. I believe the Officer in Charge had the
garage at the top of Senlac Hill. His name was Hubbard. As I was firing my 303 rifle, he came and lay down beside
me and started firing his pistol. When he gave us lecture, he said if we are ever invaded, we would not have time to
take any prisoners so we knew what that meant if it ever came to it.

I remember walking down Battle High Street in my uniform one day. Who was coming towards me? our School
Master, Knobby Clark. He was also in the Home Guard! He asked me how old I was. I didn’t answer but he knew I
was only 16. I heard a woman passing by saying “They are taking kids into the army now!”

At one parade my name was called out “Pt Humphreys - report with your rifle to the Quarter Master!” I thought….
“What have I done now?”. I was told to hand my rifle in and collect a Sten Gun which was a new issue to the Home
Guard.

Being young, I was made a ‘runner’ for the platoon (that’s another story). I became a pretty good shot with this new
Sten Gun and was congratulated by the Officer in Charge. Little did he know that I used to get extra ammunition and
go rabbit shooting with it.

I remember on the way home from a parade one day, we were shooting into the bank going down London Road
near Watch Oak and a bullet from my Sten Gun hit something solid, ricocheted and then landed by my feet flattened
out. I heard that one chap who had a Sten Gun shot his wife. I never knew whether this was an accident or
intentional…

One weekend we were to have manoeuvres with the French Canadians who were stationed in the Battle Abbey. I
remember us being told not to carry knives or bayonets; I don’t know if some of our older guys were bloodthirsty.
Some of them were good old 1914-18 British soldiers. During the manoeuvre, one of our guys was blinded by a
blank cartridge and one had his glove blown off of his hand, but it was all exciting at the time.

One dark night, we had a manoeuvre where we were transported to somewhere near Hastings. We were supposed
to capture Hastings Railway Station and the power station against the Hastings Home Guard. I was ordered to go
along to the Railway embankment to see if we could get down to the station. There was an air raid on at the time.

Anyway, they hoisted me up the wall and I went along the embankment on my own in the pitch dark, and went
through some allotments. They used to cultivate along the railway embankment in those days. I fell head first into a
trench which I suppose somebody had dug for cover. I scrambled out, went a bit further and thought… “Sod it. This
looks okay”.

I reported back and said “Yes, it’s okay”. I told the Officer about the trench and he said “Well, you lead Private
Humphreys”, and I though…. “Oh shit!”. Anyway, we scrambled along the embankment and over the railway line
and got to the station. There was one hell of a commotion and shouting and fire crackers were going off. Three of
us took up position to the entrance capturing anybody who came in. I remember an Officer of the Hastings Home
Guard coming in with his men. I shouted “You’re captured!” and he said “you can’t see us!” to which I replied “who
the bloody hell do you think I’m talking to then?” I thought I might get into trouble but I didn’t. I think we won the
exercise.

When the invasion scare was on and all the regulars were on the move, the Home Guard was ordered to patrol the
coast and our patch was Fairlight near Hastings. One day we were assembled and billeted in a house at the top of
Marley Road. A lorry picked us up in the evenings and transported us to Fairlight where we were billeted in an old
hut somewhere on the coast. Our job was to patrol the coast along Fairlight for 2 hours on and 2 hours off, then
report to an anti-aircraft battery post, and then to a searchlight post. That was at the time when they were shooting
down the Doodle Bugs.

I remember standing outside the hut with a cup of cocoa in my hand when they began shooting at the Doodle Bugs.
The noise was unbelievable. I think I spilt most of my coca - no wonder I got Tinnitus!
I was on patrol with my mate along Fairlight (with loaded guns of course). We saw someone coming down the hill
on a bike and I said “we’ve got to stop him or shoot him”. Next thing I know, my mate has jumped into the ditch.
The guy on the bike went haring past; I suspect he was one of the anti-aircraft gun crew. Well, I hoped.

Then, further along the road we heard this noise in the field, so then crept through the hedge with our guns at the
ready. Fortunately it was only cows grazing, there were lucky... ha ha! They were all good experiences and I would
not have missed them for the world.

Toch H was a place laid on where Service Personnel could go to shop etc. the good upturn was, we could go up to
the Toch H (which was at the bottom of Battle High Street over the pub) wearing our uniform and we could get
cheap cigarettes and chocolate.

I clearly remember an aircraft that crashed near Battle, south east of Virgins Lane. It was early one morning when
my sister, Joan called me to the window. We saw these two aircraft collide and, as far as I can remember, one was a
Flying Fortress and the other a Mitchell Bomber. We heard the explosion of the Fortress crashing to the west of us. I
ran downstairs and got on my bicycle. I raced up Virgins Lane and saw smoke coming from the Mitchell Bomber that
had crashed, and got to it along with some other onlookers. Most of it was burning fiercely but the only part which
was not burning was the tail. We could see where the tail gunner was and tried to get him out but soon realised that
his head had been smashed by the impact and he was dead. The firemen soon arrived but it was too late. All five
airmen on the aircraft were dead.

The bullets were exploding and cracking away on the crashed aircraft, and I didn’t know if there were any bombs on
board, but …. Who cared in those days? You did what you had to do. What a sad day, and one which I have never
forgotten. Something like that stays in your memory.

Another memory is when three dive bomber planes bombed Battle, with the obvious intention of hitting Battle
Abbey. At the time that day I was at the north of Watch Oak offices at Stream Farm. I saw these three dive bombers
with a single bomb slung underneath each of them. They circled around Watch Oak, and then lined up straight down
the High Street. The front one had a yellow painted nose and I thought to myself “if only I had some sort of gun
right now…”

They bombed the Tickner’s paper shop. I knew them, and knew their daughter Peggy well. Nice people. One bomb
also went through the Battle Abbey gates but did not explode.

We lived at Watch Oak Cottages, Netherfield Road. I used to help the farmer at Stream Farm. One day we were out
in the field next to Stream Farm when a Doodle Bug came down. The impact knocked us both down. Our house was
wrecked and we were evacuated to different people until the house was repaired.

We had to clear the pieces of the bomb from the field before harvesting the crop. I cleared off the biggest part of the
engine from the field by using a horse and chains, and dumped it in the pond. It’s probably still there now.
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Last Updated 2015