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1939-1945 People's War - Independent State of Cuckfield founder Phyl Bowring looks back

Phyl Bowring recalls life in Cuckfield during World War Two

We moved to Cleaver Lane, Cuckfield on December 1st 1938 with a little daughter just one year old and another baby on its way.

My husband, Peter, was a Territorial in the Royal Artillery Coastal defence based at the Fort at Newhaven. He was called up on 11th August 1939 and was stationed at one of the breakwaters at Dover.

My first wartime experience was when someone from the Local Defence, who looked just like Colonel Blimp, called and said he understood I had a well and where was it? “Under the dining room table”, I replied, to which he retorted “It’s a time of national emergency, so could you move your dining room table!” This done he took a sample of the water to be tested — proved “potable” and I was told I had to supply the lane with drinking water should enemy action sever the water mains.

Phyl Bowring with son Mike in 2006

Of course we had a grand-stand view of the Battle of Britain, and also of the German bombers on their way to attack London.

In some ways life was easier then than it is shown.

The milkman delivered twice every day, the wonderful grocer where now the Co-op stands, delivered every Thursday, and Miss Edwards, who worked there, always rang me up to ask if I needed anything from the chemist or the drapers, would get it for me, and send it up with my groceries.

We wasted nothing — because we saved the crocks for the winter, eggs were put down on water-glass — we picked pounds of blackberries to bottle, found wild plums and supplemented our meat ration with rabbits, our vegetables with dandelions and nettles etc, and our fuel ration with wood collected and brought home in the pram.

My life-line was Jock, our Cuckfield telephone operator who always called when we’d had a particularly frightening night of air attack to check if I was OK.

We hit the headlines which at 3.15 am on June 13th 1944 when the second doodlebug to land in England (some 2 or 3 minutes after the first fell on the outskirts of London) fell just beyond our house. I was actually awake and sat up in bed when I heard this horrible grating noise and I saw what I thought was one of our bombers limping home on fire. It was so low I didn’t think it would clear the house. Our youngest was sleeping in a cot in our room.

I flung myself on top of her to shield her, but she only stirred in her sleep. However the other children, who were sleeping at the other side of the house, were screaming. When I went to their room to get them dressed, the leaded diamond panes in their windows were all buckled, the glass all broken — they probably had been nearly blown out of bed! Downstairs the kitchen windows were all in the same sorry state; outside, one chimney was cracked all the way up.

I packed them all off to school where, of course, they rapidly became heroes with their “bomb story”. The Head Teacher’s elderly brother cycled up to see what he could do, then all the VIPs from the Air Ministry arrived to investigate — still just referring to it as a “bomb”.

It was exciting, though, watching the doodlebugs. The RAF had devised a method of flipping them over to make them crash and patrolled the valley which extends from our ridge to the hills above the viaduct.

The next excitement was Canadians camping in our garden on what had been a tennis court, and shaving in a cattle trough in the field. They kept the children supplied with candy, and once gave me an awful fright when they took Mike, our four-year-old, to Cuckfield on a Bren gun carrier as their mascot, and I couldn’t find him for tea!

Cuckfield Hospital was now a Canadian hospital — there was a big POW camp at Ardingly and prisoners came out by truck to work on farms and gardens daily from there.

I had a German lad, only 17, to help me in the garden, Wilhelm Better, known as Bill, a farmer’s son from East Germany and the nicest and most hardworking lad you can imagine.

Peter had ended up in Combined Operations in Malaysia, and eventually managed to hitch a lift home on an RAF bomber, and arrived on November 1st 1945. The younger children didn’t remember him, but it was so wonderful to have him back after six years.

Bill, our German POW, and his friend Heinz spent Christmas with us (they were allowed a 48 hour pass if anyone cared to invite them), and we kept in touch for many years, until sadly I think he must have died, as he’d been in hospital the whole of the previous year.

Some good things were the result of war rationing — “Make do and mend”; unpicking old jerseys to re-knit the wool into new garments; children’s winter coats made from army blankets; and a party frock made for one of the girls from my old maternity smock.

Contributed by

People in story: Phyllis Ruth Bowring

Location of story: Cuckfield

Background to story: Civilian

Article ID: A8992443 Contributed on: 30 January 2006


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