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When Funtington School re-opened after Christmas, there were just 90 evacuees on the roll[i] as nearly a quarter had returned to their homes in London during the period which became known as the ‘Phoney War’ as the feared bombing raids on British cities had not taken place.
Britain was in the grip of an Arctic freeze, with an average temperature of -1.4C. January 1940 was the first sub-zero month of the 20th Century and the coldest month since February 1895[ii]. The river Thames was frozen for 8 miles between Teddington and Sunbury, there was skating on 6in thick ice on the Serpentine in London, and the sea froze at Bognor Regis – just 13 miles from Funtington.
“In southern Britain, rain fell instead of snow, resulting in an even greater catastrophe, as trees, telegraph and power lines were all coated with a thick layer of ice – up to 0.3 metres in some places. This was too much to bear, and many branches and lines collapsed under the sheer weight of ice. To make matters worse, it then snowed, creating even more misery for people already bearing the burden of war. Known as the 1940 Ice Storm, this goes down as one of the most dramatic weather events in history.”[iii]
Unsurprisingly, conditions were so bad that few children were able to get to school[iv], but Peter and the other evacuees at Funtington Lodge amused themselves playing on the frozen swimming pool – most of them wearing shorts, which presumably were still their only available clothing.
It’s likely that the children’s health and wellbeing had significantly improved since joining the Booth household the previous September. Mrs Wilkins, wife of the Head of Funtington School later recalled “Most of the children were clean and quite well dressed but a few had had lice and this was very unfortunate, as our own children had not had this trouble for several years. We had a few who wet their beds but the village nurse helped with this problem.”[v] Despite food rationing being introduced in January, beginning with butter, bacon, ham and sugar, followed by meat in March 1940, children’s health and welfare was seen as a priority, so cod liver oil and orange juice was supplied by the government to boost vitamin levels of A and D.
Apart from the experience of the evacuation and settling into rural life, the progress of the war probably did not affect Peter directly as there had been little fighting in western Europe. However, the situation began to accelerate rapidly from the start of April 1940 when Germany occupied Denmark and invaded Norway with the dual aim of safeguarding iron-ore supplies for their war effort from Sweden, which was shipped to Germany via Norwegian ports, and of preventing the Royal Navy from blockading the German Navy in its own ports and securing control of the North Atlantic. A month later, Germany launched air raids on Belgium and the Netherlands, following these with parachute drops and ground force attacks. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, resigned and Winston Churchill was appointed his successor.
The British and French responded to the initial attack by sending their best forces to Belgium[vi] but the French force was repelled, and, on 13th May, after a two-day battle, the first German tanks rolled into France and the race to the Channel coast began. Just a week later, the German spearhead force reached the English Channel north-east of the French town of St Omer, trapping the Dutch, French, Belgian and British forces in a pincer movement:
On 26th May 1940 Churchill ordered the evacuation of the British forces from Dunkirk. Over 900 vessels, less than a quarter from the Royal Navy, took part in the evacuation when an armada of small civilian fishing boats, barges, yachts, and other small craft ferried troops from the beaches to the bigger ships offshore whilst large passenger and merchant vessels loaded men from a flimsy breakwater in Dunkirk’s outer harbour. Despite many ships being sunk and many lives lost, over the course of nine days 338,226 British and Allied troops were rescued and their escape riveted the world.
Days later, Italy, led by Mussolini, declared war on France whilst German troops advanced on Paris. France almost immediately capitulated, resulting in German occupation of most of north-west Europe. The remainder (“Vichy France”), shown in blue on the map below, was to be governed by the Free French.
Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, had expected the British to seek a peace settlement after France’s surrender, but Britain, led by Churchill, was determined to fight on and the Battle of Britain began. There were several RAF squadrons based at airfields around Funtington, with Hurricanes at Westhampnett (now Goodwood Aerodrome), just 6 miles away, and Tangmere[vii], less than 10 miles away. Peter would have witnessed first-hand scenes of some of the dogfights which took place between July and October 1940. The Funtington School log mentions three air raids on each of the mornings of 3rd, 4th and 5th July 1940 and that some children returned home during air raids[viii]. Mrs Wilkins confirmed “Most [evacuees] stayed until the Germans started bombing Tangmere and Thorney. Some stayed until the war ended.”[ix]
I can’t help wondering whether Peter’s parents ever considered bringing their children back to London following the retreat from Dunkirk and the perceived vulnerability of the south coast, but Peter remained at Funtington for the duration of the war and, somehow, with his fellow evacuees, and other neighbourhood children, found time to enjoy summer days making good use of the Lodge’s outdoor swimming pool.
Throughout the summer, the Chichester Observer and other local papers printed graphic reports of the fierce fighting in the air, with excited eye-witness accounts of dogfights, crashed aircraft and captured German aviators who had managed to bale out of their stricken planes. On Friday 16th August, at lunchtime, Tangmere aerodrome was bombed by a large force of ‘Stuka’ dive-bombers inflicting severe damage on the airfield and loss of life[x].
The courage of the “Few” during the Battle of Britain, and the high casualty rate, is well documented. The British lost ten fighters for every nineteen German aircraft destroyed and the eight squadrons based at Tangmere and Westhampnett claimed over 300 enemy aircraft destroyed[xi].
As well as being thrilled and awed by the action in the skies over West Sussex, I know my father was deeply disturbed by the sight of a dead German airman whose plane had crashed in a nearby field. I don’t have details of the incident, but I know that, as an adult, my father was an ardent pacifist, totally opposed to the concept of modern combat and mechanized slaughter.
Another feature of the war in West Sussex around that time was the descent upon the towns and villages of British and Canadian troops, and equipment. Many soldiers were billeted with local families or in tents or hutted encampments in woods and fields. Much of the South Downs, just north of Funtington, was requisitioned as a training area and the troops were generally welcomed by local people. Although I have not been able to identify the solider in the below photograph, it’s a lovely image of George Booth holding the hand of an unidentified evacuee, his daughters Toni and Polly, John Mann (evacuee) and the Booth’s youngest son Zach.
Zach Booth had a passion for fast cars, travel, photography, and film and he would become the single most important influence on my father’s life in the 1940s. Before the war, when he was just seventeen, he was caught by the police near Bognor Pier one night driving a car without a valid licence and having no front nor rear lights. He appeared in court and was fined £1 5s[xii] and I would not be surprised if there were other incidents that went either unnoticed or unreported. I get the impression that he was the sort of person who might be described as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’.
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[i] West Sussex County Records Office: Funtington School Log Book (part of Accession 17429)
[ii] The Weather Outlook https://www.theweatheroutlook.com/twoother/twocontent.aspx?type=tystat&id=1180&title=January+1940 last accessed 13 Dec 2021
[iii] The Guardian Weatherwatch https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/26/weatherwatch-1940-ice-storm-added-to-misery-of-war 26 Jan 2018
[iv] West Sussex County Records Office: Funtington School Log Book (part of Accession 17429)
[v] Funtington Archive https://sites.google.com/site/funtingtonarchive/General-history/sidney-wilkins last accessed 25 Nov 2021
[vi] https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/fall_france_01.shtml last accessed 13 Dec 2021
[vii] Tangmere Museum https://www.tangmere-museum.org.uk/articles/battle-of-britain last accessed 13 Dec 2021
[viii] West Sussex County Records Office: Funtington School Log Book (part of Accession 17429)
[ix] Funtington Archive https://sites.google.com/site/funtingtonarchive/General-history/sidney-wilkins last accessed 25 Nov 2021
[x] Tangmere Museum https://www.tangmere-museum.org.uk/articles/battle-of-britain last accessed 13 Dec 2021
[xii] Chichester Observer 23 May 1934
[a] https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/dover-castle/history-and-stories/fall-of-france/ last accessed 13 Dec 2021
[b] https://omniatlas.com/maps/europe/19400621/ last accessed 13 Dec 2021