Wrens in pool rescue drama

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Reader Gerald McManus has sent in his memories this week of how he and his brothers were rescued by two Wrens during the war in Eastbourne when they got into trouble while playing in a swimming pool.

He writes, “My Mum had family relations in Eastbourne in Sussex, and we were taken there on holiday many times and even during the war when Dad was serving in the European theatre of war. She took her family to Eastbourne to get away from war torn London.

“On Tuesday August 28 1945 Paul, John and myself had as usual left our Aunty Biddy and Uncle Tom’’s house in Colstock Road in Meads Village to go and play and this time we had managed to get into the grounds of Hillbrow School in Denton Road where there was a concrete lined trench, which had been used as a testing tank for the waterproofing of D-Day vehicles and was now being used as a swimming pool.

“We had somehow managed to crawl on to a raft of some description and before too long found ourselves floundering in about 153cms of murky water.

“I was five years old, John six and Paul seven and we were now in serious trouble. It was pure luck that two Wrens, Margaret McMullen and Marie Milcoy, who were stationed nearby at HMS Centurion (Hillbrow School), were passing by and found a dripping John who had managed to reach dry land, holding out a stick to his brothers in an effort to encourage them to reach for it. But by this time Paul was in the mud at the bottom and I was lying face down in the water.”

This is how the newspaper at the time reported the incident in August 1945:

Prompt action by two Wrens Marie Milcoy and Margaret McMullen saved the lives of two out of three little brothers Gerald (5) John (6) and Paul (7) McManus yesterday afternoon.

The boys had apparently been playing in a bathing pool in the grounds of Hillbrow, Meads. When the Wrens came on the scene one was at the bottom of the pool, another was floating unconscious in the water and the third was apparently trying to fish them out with a pole.

Artificial respiration was applied by the Wrens who got the boys out of the water, and by a Red Cross man employed by the Navy as a civilian driver. They were taken to the Princess Alice Hospital, where last night two were stated to be making good progress, but the third was seriously affected by his experience. They are Londoners staying on holiday in Meads.

Gerald continues, “I was given to understand that somewhere in war torn Europe, a member of the armed forces who was reading the back page of the Daily Mirror newspaper at that time, turned to my father and said, ‘“Hey Mac, are these your boys mentioned here?”’ and passed the newspaper over to my father to read.

“Mum had either not got round to telling him or he had not yet received her letter of explanation.

“At a later date I was told that Mum gave the two Wrens 10 shillings (50p) each as a reward. When Dad was demobbed in 1946, we returned to Eastbourne for another holiday, where he taught “’you three buggers”’ as he sometimes fondly called us, to swim in the cold waters of the Atlantic ocean.

“In November 1994 I wrote to a local newspaper relating the near drowning story and I also wrote to the BBC programme ‘Where Are They Now? These enquiries led me to discover that Marie Milcoy had married a clergyman, was widowed, and married again in 1945 becoming a Mrs Howe. She was also chosen to represent the Wrens on the Victory Day march in London.

“Coincidentally her niece was living in St Margaret’s Avenue in Luton and having read the story in the local newspaper contacted me asking for information on her aunt. She told me that her father was the brother of Marie Milcoy and that having served in the armed forces during the war he never returned home to his family.

“I was also contacted by a Mrs Arthur from Ilford, who regularly sent Marie a Xmas card, but had recently stopped doing so and she had also lost contact with her. The trail having gone cold, I gave up the quest. Of Margaret McMullen I discovered not one thing.

“I also managed to speak to the son of Raymond Piper, the Red Cross man employed by the Royal Navy as a civilian driver who according to the Eastbourne Chronicle, helped the Wrens give artificial respiration at the scene of the near drowning.

“An enquiry at Hillbrow School in Denton Road led me to George Deacon of 46, Channel View Road in Eastbourne, who was a member of the team who blew up the offending trench or tank where the incident took place. He told me the rather amusing story regarding the process of destroying the said trench.

“Apparently a miscalculation was made of how much explosive was to be used, with the result that when everything was in place and the area cleared, the ‘button’ was pushed and many houses nearby became windowless in less than a second.

“After the destruction of the concrete lined trench, the area was filled with soil, and for many years particularly during a dry summer, the outline of the trench could easily be distinguished with the grasses showing brown above the filled in area.

“Sadly this is no longer 
possible as the whole area 
was covered with a sports playing surface in the early 21st century.”