Horndean’s wartime past

Tanks at Horndean
Tanks at Horndean
The Russian destroyer Vice Admiral Kulakov as seen from HMS Somerset in the Moray Firth

Royal Navy ship shadows a Russian destroyer

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JEFF TRAVIS takes a look back at the vital role Horndean played during the Second World War.

Portsmouth saw heavy bombing during the Second World War and the impact of the war on buildings and the population was severe.

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Horndean, by comparison, was a quiet rural area of small farms, with perhaps 900 houses.

But as it turns out this did not mean the war passed the village and the surrounding area by.

It turns out that Horndean had its share of the action and misfortune of war including doodlebugs, landmines, armaments, plane crashes, spies, hidden bunkers, Churchill, and some tragic losses of life.

Horndean councillors Guy Shepherd and Sara Schillemore were determined to find out more about the period.

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They spoke to Dennis Longhurst, who was born in 1932 and grew up in wartime Horndean.

Mr Longhurst, who lives in Cowplain, had vivid memories and recollections of the time.

Here is their account of the period based on conversations with Mr Longhurst.

Anti-aircraft defences

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The area was packed with anti aircraft defences.

Some were fixed Ack Ack guns and the biggest static site was behind the Bird in Hand pub in Lovedean. The next biggest static site was in Crookhorn.

The mobile anti -aircraft defences were pulled by big lorries to different locations to confuse the German pilots.

The trucks were based at Hinton Daubney and the officers lived in the house and the men in the stables. They came out every night without fail to shoot at the bombers.

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Churchill’s army

One of the many secrets of the war was ‘Churchill’s Army’ or the Auxiliary Home Guard.

These were special units that were formed and trained to act as guerrilla units in the event of a successful invasion. A network of underground bunkers and stores was built to hide munitions.

Horndean had its own network of stores. A local farmer was in charge of one of these and his team was a very close bunch.

One was in the woodland concealed by shrubbery and the second exited into an old overgrown chalk pit. The army engineers who built these were very cunning. They constructed a hollow door in the side of the chalkpit and then filled the door and frame with chalk and greenery so it would blend in unseen.

The army cordoned the whole area off. No-one knew what they were doing and no-one knew that the final lorries to arrive were bringing ammunitions and explosives.

D-Day

The area was a hive of military activity, especially in the run-up to D-Day.

Keydell house, now demolished, is just one of dozens of buildings which were taken over in the war.

It is said that senior German prisoners of war were often taken into Keydell House where ‘dark things’ occurred.

One shocked eyewitness recounts seeing Churchill, Eisenhower and Montgomery in the grounds prior to D-Day.

In Clanfield, Rooks Farm became known as ‘Canadian Kitchen’.

Commonwealth troops accumulated here and also at Ham Lane, Catherington.

Just before D Day tanks lined the A3 from Catherington to Portsmouth, hiding under any tree they culd hang camouflage from.

Guns and soldiers were everywhere.

Air raid sirens

Dennis recalls being at school during numerous air raid warnings.

It was Catherington School and the classrooms were dark because the windows were blocked up on the outside with bricks to near the top.

A sticky paste was smeared on the glass so if there was a bombing it would not shatter if there was an explosion nearby.

Flying glass was a real killer and a big worry.

‘You could hear the Cowplain air raid siren from the school.

‘When we heard the Ack Ack, everyone would dive under their desks until the all clear,’ said Dennis.

The United Kingdom was hungry for resources and metal was desperately needed.

Even if it came out of a German plane, it was still metal.

As a lad, Dennis and his friends all used to collect shrapnel and take it to one of several organisations who then sent it off for the Allied War Machine.

Memories of bombing

Horndean was not a target for the Luftwaffe.

The bombs which fell were usually from damaged planes where the pilot did not want to crash-land with a full load, perhaps hoping to trade weight for manoeuvrability, or after raids where there was leftover ordnance the crew needed to drop before returning across the channel.

Occasionally bombs were just dropped in error due to poor targeting.

Dennis’ home and the surrounding buildings had considerable damage with roof tiles stood up on end and shattered glass everywhere.

‘It was a good time for the builders,’ says Dennis.

Bulls Copse was a woodland community where several families built shelters, but on April 18, 1941 the quiet safety of the woodland would come to a tragic end.

Dennis remembers bombs scattering mud and debris over a 2.5-mile radius.

The bomb left an enormous crater and killed several people. The previously safe woodland suddenly took on a darker feel, he says.

Air raid shelters

Money was not spent on air raid shelters and members of the community were left to protect themselves as best possible.

The nearest public shelters were towards Wecock Farm and air raid sirens were in Cowplain.

It must have been a moment of apprehension for the daily commute to the dockyard as they passed over Portsdown Hill and saw the damage and dying fires from the night before.

Some families from Portsmouth who could afford to, bought land to build shelters and shacks so they could live in safety and also have an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

One of these areas was in Catherington Lith Nature Reserve where over 150 plots were sold off at £50 each.

The night a bomb landed...

Dennis describes one night when a German nomber dropped three parachute landmines.

‘These could have been for the dockyard but were blown our way in the wind,’ says Dennis.

One of these landed half a mile from Dennis’ family home smack in the middle of Lovedean Lane, badly damaging a terrace of six houses and a pair of semi-detached homes.

Bassets Farm house was split from top to bottom and two thatched cottages completely destroyed. Eight bungalows had their roofs blown completely off.

An elderly couple had to be dug out from the rubble in one of the terraced houses where they were found alive and well under what was left of the staircase.

Memories of home guard

The Home Guard started off as ‘Local Defence Volunteers’ and was largely made up of men who were outside of the conscription age, or in reserved occupations.

In its early days, the Captain Mainwaring-style jostling for power was not far from the truth and there were moody glances at the farmer and gamekeeper, privates who had shotguns that the ranking officers did not.

Nonetheless many people joined up and everyone wanted to do their bit.

One of our local Home Guard units was based in Catherington in a hut by the Farmer Inn and was well served by local men who were ready to fight the Germans once again.

Jack Turner, the landlord, undoubtedly saw the beneficial use of his hut as a steady source of income behind the bar.

The younger members of the Home Guard were assigned to the rocket defences at Southsea.

Dennis recalls one exasperated young guard saying ‘You couldn’t hit the side of a battle ship with one of those rockets’.

Nonetheless, everyone did their bit with good humour and energy!

Every year there was a ‘Dig For Victory’ show held in the field next to the hut. There were best rabbit and ‘Bowling for a Pig’ competitions.

Capturing a German pilot

German planes were not a rare sight in Horndean and at least three bombers and fighters crashed in the area after dogfights and anti-aircraft fire.

Fortunately for one German pilot who parachuted into Blendworth, a bounty specifying the need to capture airmen alive had been brought in.

For Dennis, this was one of a few occasions where he would come face to face with the enemy.

The pilot was found in Blendworth by a team of farm workers. They had hay forks and he was well surrounded. When Georgie Barge, the local policeman, arrived the pilot was probably quite relieved to be taken into formal custody.

The German was marched into Horndean village with his hands up.