Memories of Limpsfield in the Battle of Britain & Blitz

This year’s Limpsfield in Bloom marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and while many people may not think of Limpsfield as being at the heart of WWII, as one former resident, the late Patrick Garnett, recalls, it certainly saw its fair share of action in the 1940 battle of the skies…

Just 20 miles from London and with Biggin Hill and Redhill airfields being a very strategic and important RAF bases in the war, Limpsfield was, in fact right in the thick of it, hence the air raid shelters by Limpsfield CoE Infant School.

The shelters were in use during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 at the time when a Messerschmitt 109 crashed nearby following one dogfight. The shelters apparently filled with black smoke.

At the time, the cricket pitch and surrounding land was covered in barbed wire fencing to stop enemy aircraft from landing and when the air raid alarm sounded, the terrified children and teachers would have to run across this area to get to the shelters.

Recently, Oxted resident, Bridget Glynne-Jones (nee Garnett) sent us this amazing memoir written by her father Pat Garnett, who lived in Kilnfield, Itchingwood Common during WW2 and whose great uncle, Edward Garnett built and lived in The Cearne at Limpsfield Chart. 

Patrick Garnett, around 1939-40

Patrick, who sadly died last year, was seven during the Battle of Britain. Here he vividly recalls the numerous dog fights over the area, and one day in September when an enemy plane crashed on Limpsfield Common…

Memories of Limpsfield in the Battle of Britain & Blitz

My first war time experience was actually before the war. In August 1939, less than a month before the war started, we were on holiday in Sussex. I was six. We were on the beach when we heard a strange roar of engines in the air.

From the low clouds emerged in front of us the biggest aerial thing I have ever seen in my life. It was the German airship the Graf Zeppelin II. At well over 1,000 feet long it is the biggest thing that has ever flown. Its numerous diesel engines each drove a propeller. It was truly awe inspiring. I have since found out that it was doing a series of spy flights spotting the British coastal defences in preparation for the war. 

In May 1940 my father went to Dunkirk in his boat the White Ghost, but he wouldn’t let me go with him.

A year after the zeppelin, in September 1940, I was seven. My parents and my brother Robert and I lived in the country in Limpsfield; Robert was four. Limpsfield is 20 miles south of London, and the RAF fighter airfield Biggin Hill is a few miles away. The Battle of Britain was fought over our heads.

A Spitfire Mk IIa flies alongside a Hawker Hurricane Mk IIC.

The weather that September was beautiful with clear skies every day. Starting in about the second week of the month the German bomber raids started and masses of planes marked with black crosses would come high over our house every day on their way to bomb the various RAF airfields. They were met by our Spitfires and Hurricanes.

Robert and I watched the dogfights from our front garden. Most of the dogfights took place really high up, and the sky would be filled with fighters milling around each other leaving their curving contrails in the blue sky. Most of the German bombers kept in their formations and continued heading for their targets. 

We soon became expert at knowing which were German and which British planes just by the sound of the engines. We also knew the names of all the different German bombers and could easily tell Spitfires from Hurricanes from Messerschmidts. 

Messerschmidt

We saw many planes shot down both British and German, usually with smoke and flames pouring out of them. We saw pilots jumping out of their crashing planes and coming down by parachute. We thought it must be great fun coming down to the ground with a parachute. But one day we watched a pilot jump out of his Spitfire, which was on fire and saw his parachute unfold. There was a bright spark in it and in a moment it burnt up in a puff of flame and we saw the pilot fall down, down, down.

Another day a German pilot’s parachute failed to open, and he buried himself in Limpsfield churchyard. We thought that saved everyone a lot of bother.

A Messerschmidt fighter crashed on Limpsfield Common and Robert and I went to see it in a clearing in the woods. A few other kids were there, but no grownups. It was a bit like a Guy Fawkes bonfire but made of metal not wood.  The heat from the burning petrol was very fierce and although we tried to collect souvenirs, we could not get close enough. It was very exciting as machine gun cartridges were exploding in the heat and the bullets kept whanging out of the fire in all directions into the bushes. When the policeman arrived, he chased us away. 

We were mad on collecting souvenirs and were able to find brass .303 cartridges, black machine gun belt clips and once a brass cannon shell cartridge, all from our garden. 

This battle suddenly stopped and we saw no more action for a short while. Then the night raids on London began, which people called the blitz. Our father had got the builders to excavate an air raid shelter into the bank at the back of our house, which they roofed with a concrete slab. The floor was cold concrete.

My father brought home an enormous steel safe door from the office, which became the door of the shelter. Inside he built two wooden bunks one above the other and installed a paraffin heater and tinned food. But it was damp in there. 

When the siren went in the evening, we grabbed our blankets and pillows and went into the shelter and closed the great steel door. Mostly we could not see the German bombers because it was dark, but we heard them go over our house in their hundreds.

They were attacked by the RAF fighters over our heads and we heard their machine gunning. One night when we were in bed in the shelter, we heard a tremendous rattling noise as cartridge cases and clips fell from the sky on to the roof tiles of the house. In the morning we thought there would be plenty of spent ammunition to collect but although we searched and searched, we found nothing at all. 

If it was not too late when the bombers had gone past, we would come out of our shelter.  Looking to the north for night after night we would see a great red glow in the sky as London burnt. But we always slept the whole night in the shelter as usually there were several waves of bombers throughout the night. 

I remember one late evening before it was quite dark looking in the direction of London. I saw silhouetted against the glow of the fires four German Junkers bombers trailing black smoke and crashing in perfect line astern.  

During the blitz the British installed a huge number of anti-aircraft guns called ack-ack around London, which made a terrible noise, quite different from the crump of exploding bombs. But I don’t think they shot down many bombers. 

One morning we were having breakfast when we heard a bomb exploding not far away. It was immediately followed by another, nearer, a third nearer still and a fourth huge explosion close to the house. We were all taking cover under the dining room table. Naturally I peeked out.

First, I saw our big dining room window and its steel frame move inches inwards and then outwards again from the blast of the fourth bomb A moment later I saw the German twin engine bomber very low indeed just above the mist on the common in front of the house. It was so close I could see the pilot sitting in the cockpit and another man lying in the glass nose. That was the only time I saw the enemy close up and I have always wondered since whether they made it home safely. The window was not broken, and the house was undamaged.

Doodlebug bomb

In 1944 a doodlebug destroyed our neighbours’ house killing them, and also damaged our own house, but that is another story.  

My brother and I were naturally interested in explosions with all this going on around us, and we decided to make gunpowder, or black powder. It was easy and cheap to buy sulphur and saltpetre at the chemists in Oxted, but charcoal could not be bought in the chemist.  So, we burnt our own charcoal and experimented with various proportions of these ingredients.

The results were rather disappointing. One day however we found in the garden an unexploded .303 round (the only whole one we ever found). We fixed the cartridge in the vice, levered out the bullet with pincers and poured out the cordite.  We laced our homemade gunpowder with cordite and made a satisfactory bomb with a section of iron pipe, sealed at both ends. So, we invented pipe bombs, not the IRA…

Pat Garnett, 11 September 2010

With thanks to Bridget Glynne-Jones

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