Battlefields we cannot see

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Peter Mackenzie Smith and guests look our across the Rye warscape

Peter Mackenzie Smith (centre in the photo) leads “A walk through World War Two Rye” last Sunday and this Saturday, September 19, as part of the Rye Arts Festival. The walks mark the time when, after the British Army had evacuated from Dunkirk, Rye was the front line in the event of any German invasion. And Rye remained the front line until well after France was invaded in June 1944 because of a new and dangerous threat from the air – the flying bomb.

The sky is now empty, but two battles were fought in the air over Rye. The first, 75 years ago, was the Battle of Britain (which reached its peak on September 15, 1940) when the Germans sought to crush the Royal Air force – and failed. The second, four years later, was when a line of hundreds of guns stretching across the Marsh sought to shoot down what the Germans called the V1, which were called flying bombs at the time and which now would probably be called cruise missiles.

Little remains to remind us of those battles in the skies. Wars, and the threat of invasion, are mainly remembered through our defences – the Martello Towers and the Military Canal to repel Napoleon and the French 200 years ago and the concrete pill boxes to stop Hitler in his tracks 75 years ago. The Rye Harbour caravan site has both.

The Battle of Britain was remembered this week, on Tuesday September 15, despite the awful weather, with around 40 plus Spitfires and Hurricanes flying over Southern England. In Rye this Sunday, September 20,  St Mary’s will commemorate the Battle of Britain at the 10:30am service, followed afterwards by a special wreath laying service.

The walkers last Sunday however could not see the air battles that were fought overhead, or most of the damage caused by Rye being bombed, or most of the sites where German or Allied aircraft or flying bombs were brought down – but they did have a history compiled by Peter from many sources. Here are a few extracts.

May 1940, and invasion is expected daily. “A Spitfire, running out of fuel after a patrol over the Channel, lands next to the Camber Road, and is eventually refuelled and takes off after a farmer moved a fence”.  May 27 “Private Charles Collins of Rye killed in action on the retreat to Dunkirk”. June “A blockship, the 97ft yacht “Toquade” is prepared and fitted with explosives to close the entrance to Rye Harbour”.

August 12 (and probably the start of the Battle of Britain) “Two Luftwaffe attacks on the radar station…the subject of a dramatic painting by Edward Burra ” (well known for his modernist paintings in the 30s).

August 18 “Seven German bombers…returning from a very damaging raid on RAF Kenley…drop twenty eight 50kg high explosive bombs on Rye… Second House, Mermaid Street, formerly the Evacuee Hospital, destroyed, together with the Summer House of Lamb House (where Henry James wrote many of his works)”

The official report said: “Since the incident there has been a marked improvement in the number of persons taking shelter, but there is rather a tendency for this number to decrease in view of the spectacular air battles which can be seen frequently over the town”.

September 6. A Spitfire crashes at Peasmarsh Place. A list of air raid shelters is published, catering for about 700 people, but many are just “covered trenches”. September 10 “Ten HE (High Explosive) and 100 incendiary bombs dropped… most in open country, but fires at 87 and 117 South Undercliff”

September 15 (believed to be the turning point in the battle). One pilot is trapped in his Hurricane when tries to bail out as his foot gets caught in the canopy – until his shoe falls off. Another bails out, his Spitfire crashes in Fairlight, and the severed engine bounces over the cliffs into the sea.

October 13 “Lydd Church receives a direct hit from an ME109 fighter-bomber. The chancel is destroyed. but the soldiers in the observation point on the tower survive”. The Battle of Britain is probably over, but the bombs continue to land on Rye… and planes continue to be shot down.

Nearly two years later in September 1942 four 500kg bombs are dropped on Rye.”One on the Regent Cinema (the manager who was on a temporary appointment to escape the blitz in London is killed)…and one in the Ypres Tower area and Gun Garden… some 800 houses were damaged in the two raids of 16 and 22 September, some twice”. In December “Mr William Edwards killed and 2 others injured by strafing FW190s on Ypres Tower Steps”

However the following year, 1943, German bombers were being encouraged to bomb near Camber Castle after a decoy site was set up there “operated by lighting a series of controlled fires during an air raid to replicate an urban area targeted by bombs”. And a new phase in the war started in June 1944 when a V1 landed at Udimore and “damages four houses and a searchlight post”. Another three days later lands on Cadborough Cliff. “6 sheep, 4 cattle, 1 horse killed”.

The V1 was launched from across the Channel, and “most of the trajectories were over the Rye area. The V1s flew at 350-400mph at about 2,300 feet. About 8,000 were launched, of which 2,300 got through”. Our defences were anti-aircraft guns, balloons and fighter aircraft – the latter either shooting down the doodlebug or trying to tip it over so it fell to the ground. “The guns covered 10,000 yards out to sea and 5,000 yards inland, with the RAF further out to sea and behind the guns inland, with a balloon barrage before London”.

“The aircraft risked being destroyed if the V1 exploded” and “balloons had some successes”, but the barrage only really stopped when the Allies captured the launch sites. Shooting V1s down had its problems too for those on the ground. “June 29.V1 shot down by RAF hits Military Road..one killed and 3 injured.55 houses damaged, one destroyed” and “July 10. V1 explodes in the air between Rye and Rye Harbour. Damage to 73 houses”.

But that was not the only problem. “July 13 to 16. Some 1,300 guns and supporting radar equipment moved from South of London to Rye/Camber in two days. residents of Rye at the time remember above all the shattering noise of constant gunfire, day and night for nearly three months”. August 5 to 11 “Damage to 26 Rye properties from AA (Anti Aircraft) fire”. But August 30 “Last V1 heard over Rye”.

The war was not quite over. “March 28, 1945. USAAF Flying Fortress, returning damaged from a daylight raid on Germany, crash lands on the foreshore at Rye Harbour” – but by May it was in Europe. And now we remember them. The pilots, the gunners, and the civilians. And the sky above Rye is empty and quiet.

Photo: Seana Lanigan