Chronicles: Recollections of a Ventnor Childhood 2: memories of war

Last week, in Recollections of a Ventnor Childhood Part 1, we heard about Colin Brown coming to Ventnor with his family in 1937, living on Southgrove Terrace where they ran a boarding house. Within three years, the safety and freedoms of life in Thirties Britain were rudely awakened as the country went to war with Germany in September 1939. Colin could not recall much from the early months of the war (what was commonly known as ‘the phoney war’), but a little before the Fall of France in the early summer of 1940, he remembered hearing guns in the distance for weeks as well as lingering palls of smoke on the southern horizon. After the French defeat, Colin registered how people were looking more worried than he had ever seen: they remarked how ‘soon it will be our turn’.

With the country at war, of course, the business of running a boarding house ceased fairly abruptly. Instead, Colin’s family had serviceman billeted on them. They soon had six airmen allocated to them and Colin observed that ‘they were not very good specimens and did a lot of damage’. As the war progressed, one was often able to see convoys being attacked in the Channel and one day he went down to see an oil tanker beached at Bonchurch after its bridge had been destroyed in enemy action. Another time he watched when a U-boat exploded off the pier after being depth-charged from the air.

Colin recorded (as many others have also done) how Ventnor suffered a lot of ‘hit and run’ raids. The aircraft usually came in pairs, flying very low so that they would not be picked up on radar. They ‘swooped up over the town machine gunning all the time and dropping usually four to six bombs’. Within five minutes, though, it was all over and the planes vanished. Many windows in the town were lost in these raids and were replaced with asbestos sheeting. Colin recalls the International Stores next to the Congregational Church on High Street being hit. A cat was found alive underneath the wreckage, covered in marmalade. The nearby Globe Hotel was also lost, as well as a row of shops opposite Burt’s Brewery and parts of North Street (as here in the photo of No. 10). Further away, on Belgrave Road, bombs resulted in severe blast damage to the once famous Royal Marine Hotel and caused buildings next to the Rex cinema to collapse seaward, enveloping several of those on Esplanade Road beneath and trapping the people in them.

By 1943, the Island was, as Colin recalled, flooded with servicemen from Canada, America as well as from Britain. The family now had Royal Marines billeted on them who turned out to be ‘perfect gentleman’. Part of their commando training involved running from the beach up to the top of the Downs in full gear. They went to France in 1944 as part of the invasion force and the family never heard from any of them again. By this stage of the war, big air raids were in progress over Germany and aircraft would be constantly going out and coming back over Ventnor. Sometimes, they were in distress having sustained damage from enemy fire and could not quite make the return trip ending up having to ditch in the Channel. When this happened, St. Catherine’s Light would be illuminated temporarily so that vessels could recover survivors more quickly.

On D-Day, 6th June 1944, the horizon seemed to Colin to be a continuous line of ships. One landing craft broke away for some reason and came up on Ventnor beach which for some years had been festooned with anti-tank defences that had the general appearance of scaffolding. Another day, a sea mine drifted in and exploded near Steephill. In the Solent, there were so many landing craft assembled that the ferry sometimes could not get through.

After the war, in 1946, Colin left school and went to work for the Isle of Wight Mercury under its then editor Mr. Charlie Cooper. Another world altogether.

Michael Freeman, Ventnor & District Local History Society.  This article was first published in the South Wight Chronicle in 2016.