It was the year 1944, and we had another year to go before this dreadful war ended. I had lied to the authorities in 1942, after we had lost three homes through high explosive bombings and incendiary fire-bombs which came down in swarms, by telling them that I was three years older than I actually was, and by them believing I was 15 instead of 12, allowed to join as a cadet a Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery based at Streatham Drill Hall, and after training becoming a message runner for one of the big mobile guns, that went out onto the streets of London every night firing at the swarms of bombers overhead. Then supposedly a senior cadet Lance Bombardier , leading servicemen between main line stations in London when raids were in progress, which some days were constant.
Then after a period as a Cadet Corporal with the Duke Of Wellington Light Infantry during 1943, when I obtained my red star on my sleeve, which was my proof of passing the exam "War Certificate A", which made me quite a bloodthirsty young man at the tender age of 13, although everybody still thought me 16, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes like a man.
But to return to the year in question, 1944, I was now a Cadet Sergeant in the East Kent Regiment, (The Buffs), and living in a house on the cliff at Ramsgate, it was natural to become the Cadet signal's runner for the three Bofors guns along that short stretch of pavement still called The Paragon. They were all in sandbagged emplacements, with an offshoot holding the twin Vickers machine gun, which I fired on three occasions. The crews lived in the basement of houses opposite, but my favourite crew lived next door.
I can tell many stories about that gun emplacement, but this story is about an American Liberty ship which had been part of a convoy bringing much needed food and supplies to us from Canada and America. The convoy was headed for Liverpool, but this ship fell far behind, and was damaged by a U-Boat, but continued on alone, lucky to still be afloat. The convoy heading for Liverpool was being decimated, so the captain decided to go the nearest way via the English Channel, although no ship at that stage openly sailed in daylight so close to the enemy held coast.
It was again attacked opposite Deal and broke in two, and from our cliff top vantage point we could see it all happening, Within a few hours we could see wooden barrels and other wreckage floating past us as the Atlantic pushed up the English Channel. We could see that four of those barrels had been washed ashore on the beach below us, but we couldn't reach them.
The beach had rocky outcrops with sandy strips between, and all the sand strips had been mined, and it was almost impossible to get down there with the masses of barbed wire. I spoke with my best crew, and pointed out that I could leap across the sand strips going from rock shelf to rock shelf and could reach each one of the barrels, but I needed help to cross the barbed wire. Several were totally against the idea, but I had enough volunteers. The next thing was to convince the other two crews and to find the easiest place to cross. This could only be done without any officers or Sergeants being present. We had to promise a barrel of whatever they contained to the other two crews.
So as soon as those in authority vanished, planks and canvas was put across the wire and I crawled across. I leapt across the gaps, and reached the first barrel, and found it very heavy. With it on my shoulder , like a smuggler of old, I could not leap across the gaps, so had to step across, but slowly moved sand from where I would place my feet, and that was the scariest thing.. I got three of the barrels, and rolled them over the wire on those planks and canvas, but thought it too dangerous to reach the fourth one, which washed out to sea again on the next tide.
We disposed of two of the barrels with the other crews, and in an empty basement broke ours open, and it was filled with packets of real butter, which we had not tasted for many years, having only margarine. I have never tasted anything so delicious. We shared out the contents and mum and my sister Dolly were overjoyed to get it, and I refrained from telling them how it was obtained.
I have often wondered what those sailors on the harbour wall, who manned their Bofors, would have thought of my lonely khaki figure on that mined beach, leaping about, but carrying off those prizes.