LOOKING BACK: Final resting place of German airmen

Wreck: Belle Tout Lighthouse was a target in gunnery practice
Wreck: Belle Tout Lighthouse was a target in gunnery practice

This is the final part of David Patterson’s memoirs of growing up in Eastbourne during the Second World War. We take up his story of how he and his friends rediscover the Downs and Ratton Woods after the conflict.

David, who now lives in America, writes, “When I met up with Ron Dyson and we began to explore more widely, we came across other evidence of the war.

“Belle Tout Lighthouse was a wreck as the result of intensive practice artillery fire by the Canadian Army, perhaps in preparation for their tragically-failed 1942 assault on Dieppe on the other side of the Channel.

“In the small wooded area at the bottom of the hill, north of Belle, we found numerous spent cartridge cases and sometimes live ammunition.

“On later trips along the beach below the lighthouse we found many of what I think were solid rounds (i.e. non-explosive) from 25-pounder artillery guns.

“Belle Tout was a regular stopping place on our hikes and once we were virtually marooned there for hours during a furious rainstorm, gazing out from under a section of relatively undamaged roof at rain squalls sweeping over the Downs.

“We filled our tin cups with rainwater pouring from the edge of the overhang and used our compact solid-fuel stove to heat it up and make tea.

“That, after all, is what Boy Scouts do when they are out in the wild; Be Prepared, they told us.

“On another hike, we entered (if memory serves me rightly as to the exact church), Litlington churchyard.

“We sometimes visited old church yards on our hikes, fascinated by the wording on ancient grave markers, some of them barely readable due to weathering.

“Walking around this one, we noticed among all those old headstones four small white wooden crosses, probably no more than eighteen inches high.

“When we looked closer, we saw the names of four young men, all of whom had died on the same day.

“Along with their names were their ranks, serial numbers, and dates of birth. These details had been laboriously painted by hand - using Gothic Script.

“They were, or had been, young German airmen, from a bomber no doubt shot down somewhere in the area, and decently interred, war or not.

“I found out years later that a German bomber had in fact been shot down somewhere locally and, after the war, the remains of those four young men, like all other enemy remains, had been removed to a central cemetery at Cannock Chase, in order I suppose to simplify the business of caring for them by the War Graves Commission.

“I felt strangely dismayed that those four German graves were no longer there.

“As an amateur historian I don’t like elements of history being ‘moved around’.

“Those young Germans, in an odd sort of way, had become ‘ours’.

“Not in the sense of being captives but they had fallen on our soil and that is where they belonged. They had become our responsibility.

“Ratton Woods was another place we spent time at – just about the ideal boys’ playground, great for mock battles.

“It had a large tumble-down manor, wrecked by who knows what or whom, big chunks of masonry scattered around in great profusion, a line of cultivated trees that a boy could climb along from tree to tree without touching the ground, an abandoned and slime-filled swimming pool, a well, numerous fallen-down big trees, hidey holes, ‘secret’ bushy ‘tunnels’, a lily pond, footpaths, long vines hanging from big trees over steep slopes that we used to swing from like Tarzan.

“It was spread over two flanks of the Downs and there was a lush meadow between those flanks, where cows sometimes grazed.”

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