TitleVillage People in World War II - Birch Centenary Chronicle 35
AbstractVillage People in World War II

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 35.

Published in Parish News - August 2004

Much TV and newspaper coverage has been given recently to the 60th anniversary of D Day. Details of what happened on the day, and in the subsequent weeks, provided us with tales of heroism interspersed with reactions from those who took part in those historic events.

Although many of the stories centred on the role of those at senior levels responsible for planning and carrying through the operations it was always clear that success rested on people at lower levels carrying out their responsibilities. Much was also made of the fact that those involved had undergone years of training to ensure success was achieved. All too often the coverage was confined to the more dramatic operations, such as Pegasus Bridge, but many others played a vital part in various ways.

The "Essex Standard" recently carried details of the part played by local resident Tom Wiseman, who in addition to being a code breaker and interpreter, was present at the event everyone had looked forward to since September 1939. Tom was at Eisenhower's headquarters in Reims on May 7th 1945 when members of the German High Command signed the surrender of all German forces on all fronts. Just a few weeks later, he was also on an aircraft to Perth, Western Australia, and then on to the tiny island of Morotai in the South Pacific where he was present at the surrender of the Japanese. This is believed to be a unique experience. His return to the UK and a career culminating in becoming head master of a local school must have seemed rather mundane. Fittingly he and his wife celebrated their Diamond Wedding anniversary also this summer.

Many others locally played their part and, in most cases, little has been heard of them in the intervening years. Just to reinforce the fact that it was people from all walks of life who had their lives transformed, in the years between 1939 and 1945, here are notes of another two neighbours.

The late Dick Bartlett, who died in February 2004, worked in the offices of the local gas company in South London before he was called up by the Navy. Joining as an ordinary seaman he attended various courses and was commissioned. The day before the invasion, and D Day itself, found Dick as a second lieutenant on one of the leading minesweepers close off the coast of France. It was Dick's job to plot the course precisely in order to ensure that the German mines protecting the beaches were cleared in the hours prior to the invasion taking place. Not only had he to concentrate on the navigational details, in order to minimise losses in the invading forces, he had to do so in the face of heavy enemy fire and in relative isolation in the early hours before the full invasion forces arrived.

Post war Dick returned to the gas company but then changed course to work in banking rising eventually to a managerial post in Fareham. He and his wife, whom he married in 1942, retired to Layer Breton where he served as churchwarden and treasurer. A quiet, gentle man, it was difficult to imagine him on the bridge of a ship at such times, but this merely emphasises the fact that "cometh the hour cometh the man" in so many cases. We are fortunate that Dick recorded his memories for his family, and posterity, for which we are grateful.

Dick's next door neighbour in Layer Breton also saw service. In 1944 Ann Stewart was a nursing sister. Her story serves to remind us that it was not only men who went to war. Her wartime experience in France resulted in an invitation, from the President de Normandie Memoire 60th Anniversaire to attend a recent celebration, in Caen, at which she, and others, were honoured.

In 1944 Mrs Cox (née Stewart) was undergoing midwifery training when the call came for nursing staff to go to France. Ann volunteered, for the QAIMNS Reserve, and only a few weeks after D Day she arrived in France, with 18 others, to find that the ship carrying all their equipment had been sunk by enemy action crossing the Channel. Initially billeted with Canadian nurses at St Lo and later at Bayeaux, she was posted to Caen when it was freed by the allies. The hospital, as could be seen in the recent D Day TV coverage, was badly affected by the battle round the city and was one of only two buildings not destroyed - the other was the Cathedral. It was there in a much damaged building that the nursing staff were required to deal with Allied and German casualties for the coming months.

Returning to the UK in November 1944 Ann was on stand by to go to Belsen concentration camp when it was freed but instead found herself on one of the first ships through the Suez Canal en route to India where, once again, she found herself under canvas dealing with casualties. Initially she cared for allied troops suffering the effects of malaria but then casualties evacuated from the Burma front arrived to be cared for. After a time of rather hectic activity, under less than ideal conditions, she met a young officer in India who was to become her husband Donald, in turn also a stalwart of Layer Breton Church, for many years before his death.

In the February edition of these Chronicles we sought information on a possible aircraft crash near Blind Knights. As a result a number of people have kindly made contact and what follows is the gist of what we have been able to discover.

The National Archives at Kew hold records on the location of enemy aircraft which crashed in the UK and includes details of a crash on 24th August 1940. The first report is that it took place at "Hill Farm, Layer, 5 miles from Colchester". A slightly later report is that it crashed at "Hill Farm, Layer - 2 miles from Felstead(?) due to fighter action. No markings visible. Completely wrecked, 1 prisoner, 3 dead, 1 missing believed drowned in reservoir."

The next report was much the same but added the engine types and the fact that no armour plating was evident. A summary of the events in "The Battle of Britain - Then and Now" - page 595, shows that the aircraft had raided Hornchurch RAF aerodrome and provides the crew details.

So much for RAF records which concentrated on technical details. In addition there are ARP records, held at the Essex Record Office, Chelmsford, which show an equally confusing picture! The first two reports concern a crash at Mersea Road, Colchester, and then a report of a crash, at the same time, 10 miles North West of Mersea. The Colchester wardens reported an aircraft down in the direction of Peldon but outside the borough with a bomb falling at Middlewick. Lexden wardens meanwhile reported an aircraft crashing in flames in the grounds of Peldon Lodge with the pilot landing by parachute in the garden. The next report shows signs of exasperation when it states that "There was only 1 bomber crashed 1 mile south of Hill Farm on Layer side of South Essex Waterworks reservoir. Under military guard. There has been a big explosion and it is burning furiously and I am informed that nothing can stop it being burned out completely."

A few hours later it was reported that two wounded Germans were landed at Brightlingsea by naval authorities but it seems that they came from a different aircraft as at 2045 that evening it was said that two of the crew burned to death in the aircraft, 3 baled out - one parachute failing to open, one man was captured by Royal Scots and the body of the third had not been found. Two hours later and "Police and military are definite that crew of 5 have been accounted for 4 killed and 1 in military custody.

There is little wonder that confusion reigned at a time of heavy aerial activity and it is interesting to note that around that time German tactics changed from attacking RAF aerodromes to attacking cities. A move which some authorities give as a turning point in the war.

Being close to the East coast, and en route between London and German occupied Europe, it is not surprising that there seems to have been a great deal of metal falling out of the sky during the Blitz and later. Many reports were confused and locations are difficult to identify today. We heard from Mr Goody, formerly from Layer Marney now living at Lingfield, Surrey, recollecting being at school, later in the war, when an American Thunderbolt crashed. The ARP reported the crash happening on 13th September 1944 at 11.15 am and it fell at Wick Farm, Layer Marney. The pilot was killed but there were no other casualties. Going through the various files it seems that although this area had its fair share of debris falling on it we were fortunate with regard to civilian casualties. Not all the records have survived but those that have provide details of some of the awful experiences for the civilian population of the locality.

PublishedAugust 2004
SourceMersea Museum / Breton Heath