The East Meon Blitz 25th – 26th June 1941
by Peter Head and David Hopkins, for Meon Matters November 2015
On two misty, moisty days in September 2014 the East Meon History Group embarked on its first archaeological enterprise….using geo-physical scanners and metal detectors to discover Saxon artefacts in a field “close to the village” (we all had to sign ourselves to secrecy) as part of the ‘Saxons in the Meon Valley Programme’. We found nothing Saxon. But among our finds were pieces of thick, shaped aluminium which got us all talking. Most thought they must be part of aircraft skins….but had a plane ever crashed in East Meon?
So began a trail of asking those who might have remembered the fighting years of the 20thcentury of their recollections. A fascinating picture began to emerge both from our archives and from interviews with people still alive.
No aeroplane crashed in East Meon. A Fairy Firefly did hit the side of Butser Hill, a Horsa Glider crashed near D-Day on Old Winchester Hill killing passengers and crew, and a German JU-88 was shot down trying to bomb West Meon Viaduct; the crew was rounded up by locals with pitchforks at Clanfield….but not in East Meon.
Many villagers remembered one night on which a number of bombs fell near the village, but they couldn’t recall when. The School Log Book provided the date: “School closed….many roads closed with unexploded bombs” … on the night of 25th-26th June 1941.
We tapped Denys Ryder’s memory; he was at Westbury House School …. “Oh yes… there were German bombersand they dropped these incendiary bombs, and the whole of Hen Wood went alight that night and it burned for two or three days. Then we were allowed out of the school, the Headmaster said ‘Not to go into Hen Wood’. Of course, boys are boys and you know exactly what happened; we all went in there. One lad picked up a complete bomb, unexploded, and started throwing it around!” The standard German incendiary bomb matched perfectly our fragments of aluminium casing.
Arthur Newbury, sympathising with the evacuee children from Portsmouth, recounted “… that little raid on East Meon. They must have mistook East Meon for Mercury. We went up Temple Lane, that’s where the Newbury family went. They dropped a bomb about fifty yards from the road in the vineyard. Another bomb was dropped just behind those five cottages in Frogmore and the other was dropped on the cricket field. It was a straight line – three bombs. You just saw these big flashes. Goodness knows how many bombs there were. Mum would say. “Tuck your little face into the bank, ducky”. The very next day there were unexploded bombs all over the place”
Jean Samways recalled: “My father passed bombs all the way down the West Meon road”. Ray Stone, the village coalman, remembers a parachute mine hanging in the trees opposite Drayton Farm and, for many years after it was detonated, a crater there, whilst Tony Simpson remembered being turned back by police at Lythe House from a fruit-picking trip to Buriton with a “Keep to the middle of the road – there are lots of incendiary bombs”.
Wilson Atkinson remembered a late summer evening raid “…a single German bomber came over and dropped three high explosives and an oil bomb aimed at the naval establishment, but missed. It set the hedge on fire”. Wilson and others saw lots of dog-fights over the village, whilst expelled shell cases dropped between Denys Ryder and a school mate, whilst they watched.
Why was East Meon bombed? As many theories as accounts! German bombers jettisoning bomb load when pursued by RAF night-fighters, Luftwaffe navigational radar ‘bent’, decoy fires on hills, pre-emptive raid on Mercury (in 1941 in early stages of construction). Perhaps we’ll never know. Was it bombed morethan once? Probably not. The casualties? Mercifully, only one pig and a few sheep.
After many hours spent at the National Archives, Kew, sifting through the numerous RAF combat reports for that night in June 1941, we could find no confirmation of RAF interception forces in contact with German aircraft over East Meon. The nearest reports for that night were filed by three pilots who took off in Beaufighters from Ford; directed by Tangmere, they engaged and shot down an enemy aircraft over the Solent using a then-classified night-detection device.
Looking at records of raids on Portsmouth, Gosport and Southampton areas, it is likely there was just one bomber, possibly a Henkel III, approaching from the South over the recently established HMS Mercury at Leydene; it flew in an arc, jettisoning its load of high explosive, incendiaries and a parachute mine over Frogmore, East Meon and Hen Wood.
1941 incendiary bombs incorporated an explosive charge in the nose cone. When a small percussion charge was detonated, the magnesium alloy shell case burst out, spreading burning Thermite and magnesium over a wide-spread area. “The heat was so intense it could burn metal” No wonder‘the fields were burning for days’.