Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Huns flew over Hythe

Viking, part of the Penguin group, has just published the diaries of Rodney Foster, who served in the Home Guard during the Second World War. He rose to become a major within the organisation but resigned a few months later. Such journals are very rare since Home Guard personnel were forbidden from keeping diaries. However, contrary to Penguin’s publicity that this is the first Home Guard diary ever discovered, I believe there is at least one other.

Rodney Foster was born in India in 1882 into a British army family. He was educated in England, and then entered the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in 1900. The following year he was commissioned in the British Army and was sent to India, where he served for a time on the North-west Frontier. In 1906, he joined the Survey of India and worked as a surveyor and cartographer.

Foster returned briefly to England in 1910 to marry Phyllis Blaxland, a friend of one of his sisters, and they had one daughter, Daphne. Although he rejoined the Indian Army during the First World War, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he stayed with the Survey of India until retiring in 1932, back in England, to Saltwood, near Hythe on the Kent coastline. In 1940 he enrolled in the Home Guard, becoming a major in 1942 with 560 men under his command, though he resigned a few months later, frustrated with the organisation around him. He died in 1962.

These few biographical details can be found in Ronnie Scott’s introduction to a new book from Viking - The Real ‘Dad’s Army’ - The War Diaries of Lt.Col. Rodney Foster. The diaries were discovered, Viking says, in an auction, and were then edited by Ronnie Scott. Also in the introduction, Scott says: ‘Rodney’s diaries offer an invaluable insight into the Home Front during the Second World War. Not only do they detail life on Hellfire Corner [a stretch of the English Channel in the Dover area heavily bombed by the Germans], they clearly depict the inception and development of the Home Guard from the point of view of a serving officer - something that, until now, had never come to light. Home Guard personnel, especially those serving in the areas most vulnerable to invasion, were forbidden from keeping diaries, in case the information in them could be of use or value to the invader. So it is all the more remarkable that such an establishment figure as Rodney should break the regulations in this way.’

Viking makes great play of the link with Dad’s Army, an ever popular BBC TV comedy series first broadcast in 1968. The Dad’s Army of the title was a bumbling Home Guard platoon, located in a fictional town on the south coast of England (i.e. somewhere in the vicinity of Foster’s Home Guard). According to Viking: ‘Writing from the village hall, abandoned barns, churches and makeshift officers’ messes, [Foster] records with a unique wit and wisdom the everyday details of family life during the war: the domestic routine dogged by air raid warnings, the antics of soldiers stationed nearby taking every chance to improve their lot, the quiet strength of a small community faced with great adversity.’ His ‘humanity and care shine through’, Viking adds, ‘proud testament to the spirit that defied the Nazis and won the war.’

Foster’s diary is indeed a substantial document and record, and the Viking book is beautifully produced with lots of illustrations by Foster himself, as well as some relevant photographs. However, Penguin is promoting the book as ‘the first Home Guard diary ever discovered’. It even goes so far as to say that this ‘fact’ has been verified by the Imperial War Museum. But is it a ‘fact’? A diary kept by Charles Graves, a journalist and Home Guard officer, during the war was published as Off the Record by Hutchinson in 1942. There is not much information about this on the internet, but see Abebooks for secondhand copies.

Here are several extracts from The War Diaries of Lt.Col. Rodney Foster.

5 November 1940
‘Frost in the morning and a fine sunny day. Huns came, passing over Folkestone, returning later with our fighters on them. At 10:30 am after a burst of firing I saw one of ours drop from the sky like a falling leaf then recover itself and stagger off to Lympne. At 11:30 am three Huns dived on the two from over Pedlinge and dropped bombs. Two fell on the Ranges, and one hit the quarters of the Quartermaster of the Small Arms School. The next hit and demolished the barricaded side of Nelson’s Bridge over the canal, spattering the small houses nearby with black canal mud, and the last fell on Hospital Hill, Sandgate, killing a Sapper from the section in Hillcrest Road. Shortly after, the rain came down. On my way up to mount the guard I saw the strafing of the French coast in retaliation for the shelling of Dover. It came down in buckets as I left the post and I was wet through. Hillcrest Road was full of lorries, some backing into the Choppings’, and there was great activity all night preparing to move the big gun. If the gun goes we ought to be able to return home. It is not pleasant having to go so far at night and sleep in a cold house.’

9 November 1940
‘A strong south-westerly gale. In morning Captain Fuller drove me up to Saltwood and I walked all over the village distributing greatcoats. About 1 o’clock, two Huns flew over Hythe and dropped (some say ten) bombs on Cheriton. The London Division leaves today and a new Division comes in. The roads everywhere were full of troops and lorries and buses and there were pom-poms [AA guns] out on the ranges, in our allotments and in Sandling guarding against dive-bombers. Alarm 6 pm to 10:30 pm. I again got soaked mounting the guard. Neville Chamberlain died today.’

7 May 1942
‘I was out of bed just after 6 am when a plane roared over our roof and there were two explosions to the west. I saw a black snub-nosed Hun fly over my head. Another flew part to the north. Then I saw a third over Seabrook Road and saw a bomb leave its rack. This fell on the Hythe cricket pitch. The first bomb cut Sandling Park House in half, the other two fell in trees. The siren sounded after it was all over! The Huns did no machine gunning. I was so interested I forgot to tell my family to go to safety.’

Postscript (30 November): Penguin has responded to my point about Foster’s diary not being the first such Home Guard diary by passing on information from Shaun Sewell, who is credited with finding the diary. Sewell says: ‘[The Graves diary] was published in 1942 and can hardly be a diary covering the entire war! I'm guessing [it] is not a day to day account of Home Guard life, perhaps a collection of entries for wartime propaganda. I think that paper was rationed in the war so publications might have been censored and very limited.’

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