'A Night to Remember'
Chidham, during World War Two (1939-45), was a village that was very much on the fringe of passing events. Admittedly, those in the area at that time would have endured rationing, the hazards of the black-out, worries about youngsters serving in the military and the pressures of war-time farming targets. Occasionally though, villagers did get a much closer glimpse of the war. The bombing of the RAF airfield on Thorney Island in August 1940 was one such occasion. Villagers could not have missed the screaming Nazi Stuka dive-bombers and their escorting Messerschmitt fighters. Similarly, the dark winter evenings of 1940/41 saw the distant skies frequently lit as the most unfriendly of bombs fell on not so distant Portsmouth .
Much closer were the four occasions on which bombs actually fell within the parish of Chidham. The official Air Raid Precaution diary for the village, now held at the West Sussex Record Office (Chichester), shows the dates of these bombs to have been 1 st and 9 th September and 8 October 1940 and the night of 25/26 April 1941. None of these resulted in any casualties. Undoubtedly, on that last occasion, when seven H.E. (High Explosive) bombs fell close to Manor Farm, the real target was Portsmouth , the city on that night recording its forty-sixth air raid of the war.
Of the dates upon which bombs were recorded as having fallen within the parish of Chidham, it is that of 8 October that proved to be the most dramatic. This was not only the night that the Vicarage (now the Old Rectory) was damaged by a falling incendiary but also the occasion when a torpedo bomber, carrying a crew of four, crashed close to the church. While the fire in the vicarage was quickly extinguished by the local voluntary fire service, the aeroplane proved a much greater hazard.
The Vicarage (now the Old Rectory) was bombed and blasted on 9 October 1940 .
Earlier that evening, at a little after 6.30, two Royal Air Force Bristol Beaufort torpedo bombers of 42 Squadron had taken off from nearby Thorney. Their orders were to patrol an area of coast between La Havre and Cherbourg , with instructions to attack enemy shipping. Almost immediately, one of the Beauforts had developed engine trouble and had been forced to return. The other (L4454), under the command of Flight Lieutenant Kerby, continued its flight towards the patrol area where an enemy vessel was seen just off Cherbourg . The subsequent attack proved unsuccessful, the vessel disappearing under a thick haze of rain and low cloud. It was for this reason that the Beaufort returned to Thorney with its torpedo still on board.
Beaufort Torpedo Bomber
At approximately 9.30 pm the returning torpedo bomber was within sight of the airfield when, and without warning, the starboard engine cut out and the aeroplane began to rapidly descend. Underneath the fuselage, of course, was that one single torpedo, it containing a sufficient amount of explosives to sink an entire battleship. The effect on the aeroplane, if it exploded on hitting the ground, could only be imagined. Fortunately, Flight Lieutenant Kerby was able to regain sufficient control over the Beaufort to level her out so that she did not directly plough into the ground. Nevertheless, when she did hit, all on board suffered a variety of injuries.
The Beaufort, having narrowly missed the church and the already damaged vicarage, came down at Chidmere. Quick to arrive on the scene were a number of villagers, including the Rev Cecil Ronald Evans, rector of the parish since 1937. In a letter that he later sent to the regional Civil Defence Office, he provided an eyewitness account of what followed. The original letter has long since been lost, but a hastily scribbled draft is also to be found at the West Sussex Record Office. Evans purpose in writing the letter was to obtain just recognition for bravery shown by two of his parishioners, George Parker and Len Hackett. Both were members of the Home Guard, having volunteered earlier that year. Another thing they both had in common was that of being poultry farmers, with 46 year old Parker residing at Knepp House and 48 year old Hackett, who was also an ex-serviceman, living at Rose Lynn, a small cottage near the site of the crash.
Rose Lynn. The house where Home Guard villager, Len Hackett, once lived.
The letter, which Evans wrote, was sent on 9 November 1940 and was acknowledged as received on 15 November. The wording of the draft letter is given below, this providing a most dramatic description of just what happened following the aeroplane’s unplanned descent on the village:
About 8 pm on the night of Tuesday 8 th October, one of our bombers crashed on the garden of Chidmere [House] in this parish on its way to Thorney aerodrome as it was returning from a raid.
On crashing, the machine burst into flames and [from] which, those of the crew escaped with slight injury, one was badly hurt and unconscious. The other members of the crew were unable to get him out but two of my parishioners – Mr G. Parker and Mr L Hackett – acting with great bravery succeeded in dragging the man from his plane flying machine in spite of the fact that his parachute harness was entangled in parts of the machine plane. Mr Parker had his face and neck burnt and both he and Mr Hackett were affected by the fumes and both were very sick.
Although no names were mentioned, a description of the incident was obviously [sic] broadcast in the six o’clock news on Saturday October 12 th. Naturally it was not stated that there was the danger of an aerial torpedo in the plane exploding.
I did not actually see the event described as I was on the other side of the plane but I believe the captain of the craft would confirm and explain the details.
I sincerely trust that the two men will receive appropriate recognition for their work and gallantry.
Surprisingly, the Rev Evans fails to add a further item of information, and one that would clearly have underlined the danger to which they had all been exposed. Unbeknown to the rescuers, the crashed aeroplane not only carried an armed torpedo but the fuel tanks were less than empty. Shortly after their retreat from the burning wreckage, there were two massive explosions, the fuel tanks having ignited. If this had happened a few minutes earlier, then all of the rescuers and the four-crew members of the Beaufort would have been instantly killed. Less fortunate however, was the nearby rectory and St Mary’s church. Both were damaged in the explosion, with a number of windows blown in and the chancel of the church having to be later re-plastered.
Len Hackett, who died in 1970, is buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s.
[Note: Messrs Couzens and Sons carried out re-plastering of St Mary’s church during mid-November 1940. It was not until October 1947 that repairs to the church’s leaded lights was carried out, this funded by the War Damages Commission with the work carried out by the Brighton firm of Barton Kinder and Alderson at a cost of £47 9s. A memorial to the Rev C.R. Evans is to be found at St Mary’s church, this in the form of a list of former incumbents, a framed gift to the church given by his wife as a memorial to her late husband. Both George Parker and Len Hackett had their bravery recognised, mentioned in despatches later that year. ]