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Whitstable at War - World War II

...  The Military

    

Whilst Whitstable did not hold any great military significance, it did require fortification against possible invasion and it did lie alongside the air and sea lanes into London. As a result, an army presence was required.

This chapter attempts to identify some of the main billets and highlight specific installations and their function. It also shows how the troops were welcomed and became a part of the local community. 

  

Troops Arrive

  

Some troops arrived at the outbreak of war but others appeared after the German army's drive across western Europe and the evacuation of British forces from Dunkerque. It was quite a memorable event when you happen to be pre-school age. Bill Dancer kicks us off....   

  

My first recollection is of a column of troops and vehicles coming for days north along South Street from Radfall. It turned left across South Street (locally known as Spencers) railway crossing heading to places unknown. 

I suspect this must have been part of the Dunkirk evacuation and that route was one that the then well wooded areas provided maximum cover. 

I would have been 3 or 4 at the time and helped mum take cocoa out to the troops as far as rations would allow. We talked to the officer billeted at this junction who called me according to family  legend" little man".  

Bill Dancer
Victoria
British Columbia
Canada

  

Occupying the High Ground...

  

It seems that a significant number of troops were based on high ground at the southern edge of town... in the open spaces of Grimthorpe Avenue Borstal Hill, Duncan Downs and Bellevue Road.

   

View Today: Duncan Downs with Bellevue Road on the horizon

 

The lofty terrain provided a clear view of aircraft and shipping movements in the Thames estuary.... 

 

View Today: Thames estuary from Duncan Downs

 

Many of the soldiers were deployed on specific installations associated with spotting and intercepting enemy aircraft. 

Some of the bases were sophisticated... and, perhaps, secret..... 

   

Whitstable was used as a radar site and this was located off Grimthorpe Avenue at Borstal Hill. It had excellent views over the Swale. The old bunkers were still there in late 1958. 

Cliff Cuttelle 
Hua Hin
Thailand

    

I can confirm Cliff Cuttelle's message re radar in Grimthorpe Ave - now covered by the Sherwood Estate. The female workers were billeted at the top of Borstal Hill and the men worked in the underground sites. 

I have my cousin to thank for this information. At the same time, she reminded me that our grandparents worked in the Red Cross (Grandmother) and Fire Brigade (Grandfather). Her mother worked with Sterling Bombers in the Medway and my Mum worked on Fire Watch at the Castle, watching for incendiary bombs. 

Christine Punter
Auckland
New Zealand

 

However, it seems that the Grimthorpe Avenue equipment may not have lasted too long....

 

The only thing I managed to find out about the radar installation was that it was damaged and made non-operational during an air raid on the 30th/31st of August 1940. 

Louise Owens 
London

 

Other bases were more straightforward taking the form of searchlight and anti-aircraft batteries.....

   

On Duncan Downs...

 

I wonder how many recall the army hut(s) built on the crown of the Down. There were two but one wasn’t there for long.  

Both were wooden weatherboard huts with the larger of the two overlooking the ‘toboggan runs’. I think that hut had two rooms but do not know its purpose other than to serve the anti aircraft guns stationed there. 

In front of that hut was what appeared to be a well.  Perhaps it had been dug to take any waste or perhaps rainwater from the hut. It always had water in it but gradually it became filled with bricks and rubbish after the army left.  

During that latter period of the war, we Stanley Road kids were playing around the site when we saw a Viper near the well.  That immediately attracted a few shots from my catapult and sundry missiles from other kids.  The Viper slithered into the well where our bombardment drove it under water.  

The snake didn’t re appear so about half an hour later we left assuming our bombardment to be successful. During all my later roamings through Benacre, Willow and Clowes woods, behind the Downs and around the Bogshole valley I never saw another Viper.

Brian Smith
Hoppers Crossing
Victoria
Australia

   

At Bellevue Road....

We Swire Boys remember well the searchlight detachment that was at the top of the cemetery on Bellevue Road.

We had to pass it every time we went to town or school. The Generator truck would drive down towards the top of Douglas Ave trailing its cable to power the light. 

The personnel were billeted in the farm house next to our house.

Tom Swire
Tin Can Bay
Australia 

  

Local buildings were used as billets for army personnel and some soldiers were impressed by what they found....

    

At the Windmill...

I do not remember anything about the war at all but knew that my father, who was in the army, was stationed at the Windmill at the top of Borstal Hill. 

All the soldiers could have the families move to be near them. So, we were moved down from London and stayed with a family near Duncan Downs. I seem to think their name was Manning.

I was so impressed with the Windmill that, when I got married, we had our reception there. It seemed to me that it was part of what had bought my family to Whitstable, for which I will always be grateful.

Ann Nash
Whitstable

     

Training Grounds

 

Troops needed to be trained and kept active. The mixed and relatively rough terrain of the Borstal Hill and Duncan Downs areas provided a suitable location. 

However, when you have a military presence so close to civilians for any length of time, there is always a danger of relationships becoming  strained - particularly if the younger members of society are involved....    

 

Part of our wartime playground was the field behind Duncan Downs - between the Gorrell stream and Benacre Woods. It was an elongated triangular area of woodland stretching from the coastal road (Thanet Way) towards Millstood Hill and it was used as an "occasional" army training ground - often for mortar practice . As a result, it became pock marked with trenches. Sheets of corrugated iron were used to cover occupied trenches during such practice.  

 

 Scene Today: The Downs with Benacre Wood in the distance

 

A couple of us were walking across to ‘the Woods’ one day when a khaki clad arm shot out from under one of those covered trenches. It grabbed my friend and it was accompanied by a "Come here you silly young buggers. We’ve got shelling practice under way!" from its sergeant owner.

Those same woods were used, as we understood it, for commando practice. Certainly, there was a rope suspended from one of the larger trees and a long extension ladder against another. The lower knotted end of the rope hung near the foot of the ladder. We would climb the ladder, rope in hand, swing the rope away and, as it swung back into reach, grab it, jump onto the knot, swing away from the ladder and let go at the end of the swing. 

The main challenge was to graduate up the ladder to the top. Few were game enough to launch themselves from the top few rungs. A "little over half way up" was doing pretty good. 

One incentive to quickly graduate to at least half way was the bramble bush beyond the foot of the ladder. ‘Sissies’ swinging from the lower few rungs were guaranteed at least bramble scratched legs and perhaps bottoms. In retrospect, I wonder how some of the girls explained their scratched bottoms or torn knickers to mum when they got home.

Brian Smith
Hoppers Crossing
Victoria
Australia

   

Below the Hill....

  

Of course, whilst high ground may be good for spotting things and undertaking military exercise, it is not necessarily the best place to billet significant numbers of troops or store vital mechanical equipment. Thus a camp was established at the foot of Borstal Hill where it utilised an existing garage. It was here that any strained relationships with the young could be repaired by deploying a few delicacies in a world of rationing.... 

 

During the war, Cage’s site (at the foot of Borstal Hill) was a camp where the army were stationed. I remember going there to get chocolate and other goodies.

Tom Swire
Tin Can Bay
Queensland
Australia

       

... or offering a ride on a hitherto inaccessible form of transport....

 

Gordon Rd. had a far more interesting feature for me in wartime. The garage opposite Gordon Rd. at the bottom of Borstal Hill (mentioned by Joe Gibbens 7/5) was taken over by the Army. Their lorries, Bren gun carriers & gun tugs were parked out of enemy sight under those large trees which once graced the Canterbury end of Gordon Rd. 

Suppers of cheese sandwiches with seemingly inch thick slices of fresh bread & 1/2 inch slices of cheese were a delight to me. But, they paled in the light of driving a bren gun carrier. Well, the Sergeant said I was driving & how could a 9 y.o. argue with an army sergeant?

Brian Smith 
Hoppers Crossing 
Australia

  

West Beach...

   

The high ground wasn't the only area to be used extensively by the military. The coastline was another key location and none more so than West Beach where the army occupied the flat seaside links of Seasalter Golf Club.... 

  

My most vivid memories of the war were the arrival of the Monmouthshire Regiment in early 1944 before D-Day; the anti-aircraft battery stationed on the golf links; and the V-2 missile attack which happened when I was at Westmeads.   

 

 Seasalter GC - Once the site for a searchlight & AA battery

 

During the period the Mons were stationed in the region, we all became very attached to them. They became familiar faces at the Churches and in our living rooms. As a young boy of 5, I was particularly taken with their uniforms and friendliness. Many of them were from Wales. 

It was Emlyn Edwards who taught me to swim from the tank barriers set up all along West Beach.

One consequence of the anti aircraft battery was the effect the searchlight had on the local starling population. The poor birds would be blinded by the light and each morning we had to pick those that died flying into the houses along West Cliff. 

During the war, the golf links were overgrown and the dykes and fairways became a source of extraordinary adventure for young boys

Geoff Kemp 
USA

   

Once again, the same considerations arose in terms of billeting and training....

   

Along West Beach, soldiers were billeted in the large wooden buildings opposite the Boating Lake. That whole area and far end of the Golf Links were used for small arms practice, particularly 2" mortars - not the high explosive kind but smoke bombs and parachute flares.

John Harman
Canada

   

Mobility....

 

Not all military installations were static. At the western end of West Beach, the railway line trims the waterfront....

 

View today: The rail line at Sherrins Alley, West Beach

 

..... and this piece of geography was used for a rather curious and ingenious train service.....

 

Occasionally, an armoured train would come down the line, stop at Sherrins Alley and practice firing at targets out at sea. 

John Harman
Canada

 

At Seasalter...

 

Army operations also utilised the flat, less populated spaces of Seaslter where they commandeered some existing buildings....

 

The pre war Holiday Home for children owned by Shaftsbury Homes became a war time army depot.

Brian Smith

 

In Town....

 

The commandeering of local facilities also occurred in the town itself .... 

   

Brian Smith has mentioned the use of the Borstal Hill garage by the army. 

Probably, not many will remember the Northwood Road Garage. This was located just around the corner from Tower Parade. At the start of the war, this garage was also taken over by The Army. There were lorries and bren gun carriers - all parked down the side lane behind Tower Parade. 

John Harman
Sidney
British Columbia
Canada

   

However, this close mix of army and civilians posed dangers. As John Harman will explain in our "Bomb Strike" chapter, that Northwood Road garage suffered a direct hit and a substantial fire. 

 


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