Chronicles: Were you there when Ventnor was bombed?

Last week’s article was about the re-opening of the Ventnor Pier in 1955. This week we are going further back in time, to the Second World War, when pier was closed, with a 100 foot section completely removed to deter invasion craft landing, and Ventnor was very much on the ‘front line’ because of the giant radar masts that stood on the downs above the town.

The whole Isle of Wight was a restricted area, travel from the mainland not allowed without a special pass.  Doreen Hall, a 19 year old ATS girl, was stationed on Hayling Island, and remembers how she used to look across the water to the unattainable Island, and long to go there.  But Mike Churchill, who was living on the Island, a seven year old when war broke out, remembered that the sound of the guns was enormous, but my parents seemed somehow to feel comforted by it . There was a very real fear that the enemy might use the Island as a stepping stone to invade the mainland.

In Ventnor, the pier having been made unusable, the beach was festooned with tubular scaffolding as a defence against tanks (children had great fun swinging on these until the beach became out of bounds).  Large concrete blocks placed in the Cascade cut the Esplanade off from the rest of the town. There was a light anti-aircraft battery in Lowtherville, and another at St Lawrence. George R Haynes recalled how in 1941, after Dunkirk, the army commandeered the old bathing machines at Castle Haven, putting them across the lane outside Beach Cottage to stop any German tanks that might come ashore there.  In his words: Being exposed broadside to both westerly and easterly gales, the poor old things soon disintegrated, so after a long life, they died, so to speak, defending their country.

Although the invasion never came, the Radar Station was inevitably a target for enemy aircraft, and bombs intended for the radar masts often fell on the town, causing extensive damage and loss of life.  In September 1942, for example, a row of houses in North Street was hit, and in the High Street, The Globe Hotel was badly damaged, and the International Stores next door at 69 High Street was completely destroyed, the County Press reporting that a portion of the weighing scales was found in a garden 300 yards away. 

In 1943 North Street was hit again, along with West Street, Burt’s Brewery, and more shops and houses in the High Street.  Marie Maslin, who worked in the Co-op, remembered that: All the staff took refuge in the cellars and although the roof caved in, we all lived through the nightmare.  Seven people did die as a result of this attack.  Sadly, not everyone behaved heroically;  the IOW Mercury reported that a demolition worker was fined £3 when he pleaded guilty to looting a woollen jumper valued at 5 shillings . . .  Mrs. R. Flux identified the jumper as belonging to Mrs. Florence Norman, who, with her daughter, occupied a flat over the shop and were both killed. Florence and Hilda were the daughter in law and granddaughter of Ventnor geologist William Mark Norman, and were living at 109 Ventnor High Street where the BT exchange building now stands.

The picture attached to this article shows that part of Ventnor after the rubble was cleared; the Methodist Church is in the middle of the picture.

Women as well as men were conscripted; there were many WRNS at the Radar Station,  and ATS girls worked alongside the men on anti-aircraft batteries, although at the time the Government was very keen to emphasise that these women would not actually ‘pull the trigger’ but would generally be used as aimers, spotters and to operate searchlights.

Children were also recruited to help the war effort.  Strange though it now sounds, they were expected to collect sheep’s wool from hedgerows which was made into yarn for knitting socks and gloves for the troops. They were also directed to work on farms during the school holidays, like the tomato farm established by Mr T. Sydney Parry near Old Park at St Lawrence; Walter Zuber, of Ventnor’s Cafe Suisse was also involved in setting up the farm.

There is little to see now of those years, apart from what is left of the radar station, and patches of 1950s and 60s buildings among the Victorian and Edwardian houses and shops of Ventnor.  But they are still within living memory, although as Mike Churchill says:  As a child many of these things went over our heads. I do not recall being terribly frightened and my mother always seemed to find us food and clothing in spite of rationing. In some respects we children had a good time because we could roam about freely as there were no summer visitors and little traffic on the roads. For the next three weeks we will be giving you the story of Ventnor’s war through the eyes of one of those children, Marigold Harding.  (Click here for the first part of Marigold Harding’s story.)

Memories like this are invaluable in preserving the history of our town and we would very much like to hear from anyone who has their own recollections of life in Ventnor during those extraordinary years.

Doreen Hall, who we described at the beginning of this story as an ATS girl on Hayling Island, survived the war, and was serving with a gun crew in Belgium on VE day.  When it was all over she married and fulfilled her dream by moving to the island with her husband and baby daughter. She was in her ninetieth year when this article was first published in 2015, and was still living in Lake.

Lesley Telford, Ventnor & District Local History Society. Sources: records in our Collection including Fay Brown’s  Local History Indexes, and The Ventnor Area at War‘ by Peter Bray & Fay Brown.  Additional material from BBC WW2 People’s War Archive. This is an updated version of an article first published in the South Wight Chronicle in June 2015.