War diary set for big screen

Young diarist Strahan Soames
Young diarist Strahan Soames
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THE fascinating diaries of a teenager who witnessed the Second World War are being turned into a film.

Strahan Soames kept a meticulous diary, full of incredible detail about the dog fights and every day life of families living in Emsworth in the shadow of war.

Extracts from the summer of 1940, written by the then 17-year-old who was awaiting call up to the army, reveal his fascination with Spitfires, Hurricanes and Junkers 88s.

The diaries are now being turned into a film by students at Havant Sixth Form College.

Born in 1922, Strahan moved to Emsworth as a baby. He was the son of local GP, Dr Ralph Soames, and grew up in Trentham House, a beautiful villa in Tower Street, Emsworth, which is still there.

Along with his brother and friends, Strahan (pronounced Strawn) would excitedly watch the Nazi planes flying in, using binoculars to seek out the makes and models.

When they crashed, the teenager and his friends would clamour to find the debris and he would detail it in his diary.

In the autumn of 1940 he left Emsworth when he was called up to joined the army as an anti-aircraft gunner. Having survived the war, he went up to Oxford to read English.

His passion for writing stayed with him. After retiring from his job at Trinity House, which looks after the UK’s shipping safety, he moved back to Emsworth in 1979 in a house he built close to Trentham House, overlooking the sea, with his wife Ann.

They loved to sail around the harbour and in the 1980s he joined the Emsworth Maritime and Historical Trust which he went on to become chairman, then vice president of, such was his passion for his hometown.

All the while he wrote for Yachts and Yachting magazine, was chief editor of the worldwide magazine of the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities and also wrote for Hampshire Magazine.

But his love of language was crafted in the diaries, which evoke powerful images of the world through the eyes of a wide-eyed teenager.

Media students from Havant College have now been given permission by his family to use the extracts to create a film about them, thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s All Our Stories project.

Under the guidance of Chichester Harbour Conservancy, the students are drawing on the diaries, with the help of Millstream Productions, a film company based in Emsworth, and the wealth of knowledge of experts from Emsworth Museum.

Alison Beckett, the education officer from Chichester Harbour Conservancy, said: ‘There is a huge amount of detail in the diaries –the number of planes and the strikes. It’s an epic account.

‘What’s so interesting is the fact that he was a teenager in our local community and he quite articulately put down in his feelings, his excitement of the planes overhead.

‘It really hits home the impact it was having on his family and friends.’

Havant student Charlie Shultz is helping to make the film.

He said: ‘I find the emotional side of things most fascinating because these diaries are from an area very familiar to me – Emsworth.

‘I’m the same age as Strahan was when he wrote this diary. The conditions of the time, the panic every single day, are hard to imagine now.

‘But it happened to him. My role is to research the Second World War and I’m a writer. Through this project I’ve learned more about the war than I ever did in school.’

Strahan died in 2001 and his wife passed away in 2010. His daughter Sue Soames still lives in Emsworth and treasures the diaries.

The Emsworth Museum volunteers have given the students Strahan’s articles for the Hampshire Magazine. A paragraph from Where I belong – Strahan Soames on Emsworth, written many years after the war, sums up his feelings for the town. He says: ‘Here I can be happy. Wherever I have lived or gone the dream of the place has persisted; and the swans still glide in tentatively over the mudflats and still land in pairs, clumsily.

The premier of the as-yet-untitled film will be held May 28 at The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre, in East Street, Havant.

18 August 1940, Tower Street, Emsworth

This really is a raid. Colossal bangings as the near AA guns open up, rattle of machine guns and roar of fighters. Feel quite glad to stand by the staircase and eventually retire to the cellar. Noise gets louder and louder and the whole house shakes and quivers several times. M appears and says that she has seen a parachute come down. One long screaming dive can be heard overhead and am wondering if the plane, presumably shot down, is going to hit the house. S says that she counted several German planes in the sky before she came in. Go out when things are quietening. Down on the terrace is assembled the usual crowd of spectators. Thorney has again been hit (the third attack on it this week) and is smoking from practically the same place as before. My attention is directed to Pompey where the balloons are falling. Seven of them come down in quick succession.

19 August 1940, Tower Street, Emsworth

R’s best story is that of his mother, who wandering pensively round her garden remarked, Do you know if Hitler doesn’t come soon he won’t see the garden at its best.

26 August 1940, Thorney Island

When we hear the AA guns going we come out and stand in the mouth of the shelter. Pompey is burning again, with a great cloud of smoke going up. Then we look over us in the sky, and like flying fish in aquarium (as M described it) are about 20 Heinkels flying serenely along. They pass over at a great height as all the AA guns loose off. Then we see one of the worst things. A Hurricane comes falling down to the north of us, turning over and over and burning. What’s that blobule in the sky? Asks D. Parachute says M and down the pilot comes, falling ridiculously slowly. Then another shoal of Heinkels right up in the sky. The fighters are after them and we can see them as they rush in from the front to attack. They come in again at the back, getting mixed up in the German escort fighters. All the planes have silver wings, and all we can see is a confused jumble of stunting fighters. The German fighters seem to be able to prevent the Hurricanes or Spitfires getting in to the bombers, which sail on in perfect undisturbed formation. But we see one Heinkel diving down steeply to the east of us, but it looks as if its in control and trying to land.

1 September 1940, East Street, Chichester

Have just finished our shopping when there is a loud burst of pom pom fire. We look up, and about above Tangmere flying below the low clouds and in amongst the black puffs is a sinister, thin plane. The Flying Pencil or Dornier 217! It is silhouetted black sideways against the clouds; three fighters are circling it and it suddenly ceases its steady level flight and abruptly dives, going behind the houses before we can see its ultimate fate.

9 October 1940, Emsworth

The machine gunning story of yesterday is becoming clearer. There was one German plane, to wit a Heinkel. After flying from Portsmouth machine gunning various things and dropping two bombs near the railway at Denvilles (but not on it) it apparently gunned Thorney and then flew at roof top height over Emsworth, again gunning. Its course was up South Street, over the hospital to the Recreation Ground, up the New Brighton Road. It finally came down (possibly to the guns of two Spitfires) at Stansted Park.

2 September 1940, New Brighton Road, Emsworth

J says that she is amazed how little concerned we appear to be by the war, she met a woman in Hayling Island who hadn’t been to bed for such a long time that when she asked her husband when it was he said, Damned if I know! She said that the woman looked positively haggard and wild – but that the war did not seem to make that much difference to us. She can’t believe its happening, I’m like that too at times. As I told J, I come up from the garden having watched planes rushing about all over the sky and falling from it, and the whole heavens covered with puffs of white AA fire and ask myself whether its real of whether it’s a nightmare. It wouldn’t seem so curious if it was happening somewhere else, but above your own home and garden.

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