It was a Friday like no other in the history of a family and in the history of the world. A peaceful village wedding and the biggest military bombardment in history, taking place simultaneously… The first wedding bells and the first shots of World War II ringing out asHitler invades Polandandspoils a couple’s wedding day.
On Friday 1st September 1939 my mother, Daisy Ann Barnett, was as happy as the swallows swooping above the hedge-rowed fields around the little village of Clymping in Sussex by the Sea. Mum’s new-found friends, Eileen Beach and Ellen Maxwell fussed around her in the little guest house where she was staying…
Aged 18, she had travelled from her home in Failsworth, Lancashire to the Sussex coast to get married. It was a match that, even at this late hour, did not have the approval of her parents Solomon and Elizabeth Barnett, who remained steadfastly in Failsworth.
In Clymping village and nearby Littlehampton and Shoreham on Sea residents gathered round radios and shared newspaper reports, anxious to hear the latest news from Mr Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister. It was just eleven months since he had returned from meeting Adolf Hitler and declaring “Peace in our time”. Now the peace appeared to be over and the nation was preparing for war.
Nearby, the gunners of the 113th Regiment of Field Artillery were setting up a field headquarters in Buckingham Park. They had been ordered to train their new 25-pounder guns on the beach and the local airfield where the enemy might be expected to turn-up.
War with Germany was a strong possibility
My dad, Harold Walker was close by and anxious too. Like everyone else in Britain and as a serving airman, he realised that war with Germany was a strong possibility. His personal plans for the future were in jeopardy – including the short leave he managed to obtain for today and the upcoming days for a honeymoon.
He was pacing the pathway among rows of gravestones that led to the Norman period south transept entrance to St Mary’s Church. It was hidden among trees close to the perimeter fence of the Ford Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS) base where my dad was stationed. He chain smoked and gazed at two Crusader Crosses, carved into the Caan stone above the church entrance. Medieval knights in armour had used their swords to mark their own departure to wage war in the Holy Land.
My 22 year-old dad had just concluded his own long crusade, conducted from Hut 14 at 712 Squadron, RNAS, Ford, with a final missive to try and win the hand in marriage of my mum. 12 days earlier, in a long handwritten letter to her parents, he’d pleaded with them to give their consent to the marriage:
“I wish you would say yes. I intended asking you while I was on leave, but certain circumstances prevented me from doing so. I hope, Mr & Mrs Barnett that you will think it over and let me have your answer immediately.
“Perhaps, it is because I am in the RAF where I have three more years to do? Well, I’ll tell you, that Daisy and I will not wait until I am out of the RAF before we get married. If we did wait until I had finished my time we would not have saved enough to have a house and other comforts… and yet if only you will give consent we could be married shortly and I should have a lot more money raised.
“We don’t want to have to get the court’s consent, but we will be compelled to. If we get the court’s consent it will only be a reflection on your characters.”
Strong stuff, but his ultimatum had, evidently, fallen on deaf ears. A runaway wedding was in the offing…
A day not to be shared with family
Outside the church my dad stubbed out his cigarette and checked the details of the special licence to marry he held in his hand. It had cost him the equivalent of a week’s RAF pay, but today was the Big Happy Wedding Day. It was a day that was destined not to be shared with family members from either side, but a day that featured strongly historically.
The vicar, Reverend J. Lowry Maxwell, who was also the honorary chaplain to RAF Ford, conducted the ceremony. His wife, Ellen, was a bridesmaid and witness. That’s all you can expect when it’s runaway wedding and everyone’s preparing for another war against Germany.
Despite the circumstances,my mother was a happy runaway bride. But, as the latest war news swept around the village. any proper honeymoon was over shortly after it began.
For, at that same time, 900 miles away, another ultimatum was being ignored as Hitler’s army invaded Poland, backed by the biggest artillery blitzkreig in history. The invasion triggered the start of World War II, formally declared 48 hours later by Neville Chamberlain when he realised his agreement with Germany to leave Poland alone had been shrugged off by a rampant Adolf Hitler.
Soon after ringing out for my parents’ wedding, the bells of St Mary’s Church, Clymping were silent, in common with Britain’s other 16,000 churches and 43 cathedrals, for much of WW2. Later that day the newly launched BBC television service was suspended and the King ordered the full mobilisation of the army, navy and air force.
That order included my father, whose skills as an aircraft frame rigger were in line with the training, professionalism and dedication of RAF ground crews. These skills were to prove vital in keeping planes flying in the war that was just about to start.
The honeymoon was cut short and may have been only a couple of days riding along the South Downs on a tandem – “A bicycle made for two” as the popular song of the day had it. The newlyweds listened to the prime minister’s formal “We are at war with Germany” announcement on the radio. Like millions of others they worried about their future.
My dad went back to RAF Ford to see if they could move into “married quarters” and to get stuck into the Nazis threatening to invade England. My mother found herself living in a succession of homes adjacent to RAF airfields and facilities. The accommodation started in the nearby Littlehampton and eventually stretched as far as Aberdeen. Two years, two months and 28 days later, I was born in Lincolnshire and shared my mother’s nomadic “camp following.” My sister Sylvia’s birth in April 1945 in Oldham, Lancashire was celebrated with a short leave for my father. However, it wasn’t until April 1946, when, for the first time, we started to live all together as a family.
RNAS operations at Ford, Clymping became known as HMS Peregrine, a land base for the training of Fleet Air Arm personnel. 712 Navy Air Squadron was active there from 1936 to 1940. Shortly after German Stuka bombers attacked the airfield in 1940, the Ford airfield was incorporated into the RAF as a night fighter base. It also housed the Aerial Photography School. RAF Ford was heavily involved in the air war to the D-Day Normandy landings and beyond.
At the onset of the Second World War, the Fleet Air Arm consisted of 20 squadrons with only 232 aircraft. By the end of the war the strength of the Fleet Air Arm was 59 aircraft carriers, 3,700 aircraft, 72,000 officers and men and 56 air stations.
Two standards are laid up at St Mary’s Church; one of the Royal Naval Association and one of the Royal Air Force Association. The wooden plaque is for HMS Peregrine, the Royal Naval Air Station at Ford during World War II. The churchyard contains a memorial to 28 service personnel and civilians who died in an air raid on 18 August 1940. There are also a number of war graves which are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke witnessed the IBM 704 demonstration during a trip to Bell Labs in 1962 and referred to it in the 1968 novel and film 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the HAL 9000 computer sings “Daisy Bell” during its gradual deactivation – Source Wikipedia