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1939-1945: What Cuckfield did in the War

On the morning of Sunday, 3rd of September 1939, Dr Farr was attending a patient at the Deaf School in Cuckfield House when the air raid siren sounded (1).

His next patient was in Haywards Heath so he set off, but was stopped in Broad Street by Mr Steele, the chief ARP warden and told to proceed no further.

Instead he was ushered into the lounge of Hatchlands which was full of people also seeking shelter. Cuckfield was ready for war.

Hatchlands circa 1930

Preparations had begun a year earlier at the time of the Munich crisis when gas masks had been issued and fitted in the Parish Room (Church Hall), then ARP wardens and fire watchers had been recruited. A branch of the Royal Observer Corps manned a post near the churchyard continuously from August 1939 to 8th of May 1945. Later, when the Home Guard was formed, a company in Cuckfield was part of the East Sussex zone. Certain volunteers were authorised to order the ringing of the church bells once reliable information had been received that enemy troops had landed in the area.

The first invasion however, was by schoolchildren, evacuated from the East End of London early in September 1939. Some came from Heckford Street School, Stepney. All halls were taken over by the district Council who billeted the children in houses in the village. The difference between life in the country and that of the big city was a culture shock for both children and hosts alike.

Evacuees at Cuckfield Swimming Pool circa 1940

The canteen was set up in the Queens Hall, providing meals for the Londoners, while villagers donated surplus fresh fruit, vegetables, and home-made soup to supplement the rations. This was organised by the WVS and functioned for over three years until the children joined with the Cuckfield’s school children for lunches.

In September 1941, Heckford Street School gave a display of country dancing and singing in the Queens Hall in aid of the Warren Heart Hospital for Children, which had been evacuated from Lancing, where there was a fear of invasion in the summer of 1940, to Copyhold Lane. At the same time 12 children had arrived from Dungeness, another danger area.

The pattern of life in the town changed. The younger men volunteered or were gradually called up to serve in the forces, as were the younger women later in the war. A roll of serving men and women was posted in the church porch and they were remembered in prayers.

To help with the food shortage, farmers ploughed land not previously used and most was made of allotments and gardens. Soon land Army girls appeared to replace some of the men on the farms.

Probably the biggest change happened with the arrival of Canadian troops, who were stationed in the area. These men were billeted in large houses locally and also in temporary huts in the grounds of Borde Hill. This brought new life to the town and social events were held once or twice a week in the Queens Hall. The men were invited into local homes and food parcels from Canada were shared with their new friends.

In 1939 when building work was slack, huts were erected at West Hylands, the workhouse site. This was gradually run down with most of the adult inmates going to Chailey or Southlands. It was later used as a hospital by the Canadian troops.

Once the bombing started in 1940 people watched the skies at night and as the waves of planes passed overhead they could tell from their direction whether London or the Midlands was to be the target. Some of the single planes ‘hedge-hopped’ to avoid our radars. According to hearsay, the golden cock on Cuckfield Church was a landmark to both RAF and enemy pilots.

The first bomb fell in Cuckfield on the 6th of December 1940, at the top of Brook Street and two houses were demolished. Great rocks of sandstone came through the roof of the next house, Oak Cottage. They caught the side of the bed, then rocks and bed crashed through the ceiling onto the ground floor with the old lady still in the bed. She was shaken but unhurt. The crater was large enough to take a bus and the following weekend there was a pilgrimage to view it. A fortnight later a bomb fell on an isolated lodge in Hanlye Lane and the occupants were trapped under the rubble. They managed to crawl out safely and walked to the hospital for treatment before assistance had arrived. During air raids doors were open to anybody who needed shelter.

Scrap metal was much in demand to recycle for munitions. The chain walk from Cuckfield Park to the Church was removed, as were the railings around the churchyard. There was also a shortage of fuel, and in the winter of 1942 this prompted complaints about the cold church.

With rationing of food and clothing as well as other shortages, the women were busy. The local council gave permission for the Women's Institute to use the kitchen at the Queens Hall to make jam from surplus fruit, which was then sold and the profits donated to the Red Cross Society for parcels for prisoners of war. This was no small task as they potted up pounds and pounds reaching a grand total of 1066 pounds in 1942. A letter of thanks was received from Lord Walton, the Minister of Food.

In addition, adults and children collected herbs, both medicinal and culinary, as part of the County Herb Scheme. Nettles were needed in May 1943 and collectors were advised to ‘wear strong gloves, use a pair of shears and bring a big basket or barrow’.

Then there was a Meat Pie Scheme. The Ministry of Food operated a scheme whereby local bakers were allowed to make pies under license to help out the meat ration. W.I. members had visited all the homes in Cuckfield to obtain orders. It took perseverance with repeated food visits to the Food Office, but eventually the scheme was put into operation. At the depot in the W. I. Room in Ockenden Lane, 200 pies were distributed each Wednesday and other pies were sold at the two bakers shops and delivered by them. There was a total of 1,400 pies sold each week.

Knitting needles worked overtime throughout the war. Through the Cuckfield Troops Comfort Fund, socks and scarves were dispatched to the troops before the first wartime Christmas. Later they knitted for merchant seamen, Russian women and children and people in liberated Europe. Although clothing coupons were normally required, special wool was provided for these projects. During the summer months women were urgently needed as part-time workers on farms to weed - and later with the hay and harvest. Any volunteer who put in 88 hours of work could apply for more clothing coupons!

In the weeks before the D-Day landing in Normandy on the 6th of June 1944, troops with their equipment assembled on the south coast. Civilian travel of more than 4 miles was banned, special passes were issued to those who needed to travel a distance for their work.

Cuckfield made history when the second flying bomb, a V1, came down at 4:20 pm on Tuesday, the 13th of June 1944. Eyewitnesses thought it was an RAF bomb limping home with an engine on fire. When the engine cut out there was an uncanny silence followed by a shattering explosion. The bomb landed in a wheat field of Mizbrooks farm where all 18 acres were cut down by the blast and the crops stripped to a uniform height. As a result, experts from the ministry, war office, and Home Office came to investigate.

Other ‘doodlebugs’ also fell in the area. During air raids, the young children sheltered under the stout walls of the school, while the seniors were in the church.

Once again Cuckfield received visitors from the East End of London. This time it was expectant mothers who were brought to the hospital for a rest from the attacks by the flying bombs and rockets, before returning home to have their babies.

At last, on eighth of May 1945, the war in Europe ended. Mr Baker, headmaster at Cuckfield School, hung out victory flags and told the children “no school today, boys and girls”. The lights went on again and the bells could ring. On the following Sunday, special services were held in holy Trinity Church to give thanks.

It was not until after VJ day on August 15, 1945, that most of the men and women in the Services were demobilised. Some did not return and the names of those who died were added to the War Memorial in the churchyard.

In celebration of victory the WI donated a sign which was erected at Whitemans Green. The gift was regarded as a thanks offering for the preservation of the town and as a reminder of the sacrifices and sense of fellowship called forth by all who worked together during the war years. Members of the services who have been stationed in Cuckfield also donated a seat for the churchyard.

Thanks to Ruth Baker 'Cuckfield 900 - The Souvenir Programme' published by the Mid Sussex Times 1992

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