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1940: A teenager's first hand experience of the Blitz

Updated: Dec 31, 2022

November 1940

For several years I thought I would like to join the Navy – an ambition fuelled by a school friend whose father had been Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy; he took me to Naval reviews at Portsmouth but when the war started he was recalled to the Navy leaving his wife to run Cuckfield's White Hart pub where he was landlord. His name was Ernie Stuchbury.

As my father had died many years before, I only had to persuade my mother to let me go and although initially very resistant to the idea, eventually she reluctantly gave me her blessing. I never informed my school, ‘Hove Grammar’ that I would be leaving - fortunately!

I was assigned to a naval training ship on the Mersey and invited to take an examination and attend an interview; it was November 1940 and I had just turned 15 years old. I was instructed to bring all I needed to go immediately onto the ship in anticipation that I would be successful. I was, and at the end of the interview the chairman of the interviewing board congratulated me and told me to prepare to go on board.

At the last moment, I suddenly came to my senses and decided it would be better if I returned to school to take my 16+ School Certificate Exams. When I told them, several members of the board seemed quite angry with me, but one very pleasant man just wished me luck and asked if I had enough money to get back home. Fortunately, being a canny Scot, my mother provided me with sufficient money for my return.

I spent two nights in a sailors’ hostel in Liverpool run by the Mission for Seamen – an old building with about five floors (which they called ‘decks’). All the rooms were on levels surrounding a hollow centre. I was given a berth on about the fourth floor – a tiny room with bed, wardrobe and chair. I locked the door because throughout the early night many returned drunken sailors seeking rest from dangerous sea journeys were trying to find their bunks.

Each night there were heavy air raids; the incessant noise meant it was almost impossible to sleep. I remember my final meal in the hostel was rabbit; I think the poor creature must have been running round the docks for years before giving up the ghost – and I have never eaten rabbit since!

After a cup of coffee, I left Lime Street Station soon after 07:00 hours heading for London. It was the day after the tragic, infamous Luftwaffe raid on Coventry and the midlands railway system was in chaos. I arrived in London during the small hours of the morning having had nothing to eat or drink throughout my travels; then I had to cross London to Victoria Station and predictably in that period of the war an air raid was in progress.

Many underground stations were used as air raid shelters; families slept there wrapped in blankets and at some stations where the trains were not running, they slept on the lines. Not all stations or lines were operating and to cross London I had to walk between some stations. The sky was lit up by sweeping searchlights, flares and flashes of exploding anti-aircraft shells; occasionally the noise was quite deafening, mainly from anti-aircraft guns, but also occasionally bombs. Whenever I heard the screech of a bomb I ducked into a shop doorway until after the explosion. Eventually I managed to reach Victoria Station and found an early train to Haywards Heath was scheduled to take the daily papers to distribution points on the Brighton line.

I arrived at Haywards Heath around 06:30 hours and trudged home to Brook Street and a very emotional reception from my mother, who had no idea I was returning.

It was only then from a radio bulletin that I discovered the reason behind my frightful journey.

Following a couple of days rest, I resumed my school studies; the School authorities never discovered my misadventure and later I earned an RAF scholarship to St Andrews University, followed by service in the Royal Air Force as a pilot.

James Revell - pilot in the R.A.F. c1945

From Jim Revell's 'early memories'

These are childhood memories recalled by my father; he often reflected on his early Cuckfield life and I believe they are of interest to our community and an important archive.

If you or past/present family members have memories of life in the Haywards Heath/Cuckfield area that you would be happy to share please contact us.

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