This article was written in 2015 by Harry Mottram for the Burnham and Highbridge weekly News. He’s updated it slightly but the interviews still give a vivid picture of a time when Somerset was under attack.
IT WAS the night when the Luftwaffe attempted to bomb the train at Highbridge, only to be thwarted by a quick thinking railway worker.
Iris Rowe, 81, of Westonzoyland lived in Highbridge during World War II, where her father was in the Home Guard. She recalled one particular incident which had an extraordinary twist thanks to Czechoslovakian saboteurs.
She said: “I was born in Middle Burnham and my father belonged to the Home Guard. One of the incidents I remember was when a siren went off and it was expected that German planes would come over to bomb the railway. His unit were stationed on top of the railway bridge at Edithmead.”
As the members of the defence force assembled on the bridge the Luftwaffe arrived on cue, clearly intent on bombing a steam engine passing through. The quick thinking train driver shunted his engine under the railway bridge to save it from being destroyed.
Iris said: “The German planes dropped incendiary bombs all around the area and some fell into the road outside the cottage where we lived. Dad came running back and found us hiding under the stairs which was the safest place to go during an air raid. He said tonight you’d better go up the farm for safety. The farmer was one of the members of the Home Guard. We ran up the road and every time a bomber came over we hid by the side of the road. Because it was moonlight they could see the roads.”
The next day everyone including children came out to watch the bomb disposal team deal with the bombs and they discovered an extraordinary twist to the story. The bombs had been deliberately made safe by the people who made them.
She said: “Most of the bombs didn’t go off. The army disposal team took one of them apart and found a note. They had been assembled using forced labour in Czechoslovakia and the note said ‘this is all we can do for you.’ It was definite as so many didn’t explode. Some incendiaries fell on the American base down the road and they didn’t go off. They took one apart and it had been sabotaged. There must be some still in the ground around Edithmead as they dropped so many.”
The railway works at Highbridge closed in 1930 with the loss of hundreds of jobs but the line was still important in the town. After the war the docks proved too small for the larger ships and their decline and eventual closure followed. But in the war the town was still playing a vital role in the fight against Hitler. Weston-super-Mare, Wedmore, and Burnham were all hit by bombs.
Iris researched the war in the town following the conflict and said that the American diner at the Fox and Goose at Brent Knoll was named after an American service man whose plane landed on Burnham beach.
If the Nazis had landed then Highbridge would have found itself on the front line as the Stop Line ran north to south across Somerset. The line was a chain of pill boxes and anti-tank traps constructed at the start of the war to stall a German advance across England.
Iris said several planes were downed in the area. She said: “There was a Heinkel that crashed into Bridgwater Bay and two of the crew were still on board as they hadn’t been able to bail out. A Dornier crashed on its way back from Cardiff and one of the crew was washed ashore at Berrow beach and he was buried in Weston cemetery.
“The Germans would jettison their bombs on the way back from Bristol or Cardiff on Somerset. One bomb hit a bungalow on the Berrow Road and demolished the house and the occupants were never found and out at Watchfield there were craters on the moors where bombs had exploded in the fields.”
Could Hitler’s forces have taken over Somerset? In 1940 Operation Sea Lion was hatched by the German high command to invade England but the practicalities and the opposition of the RAF held them at bay. Somerset was ready to fight back and as we know Hitler’s armies turned East only to ultimately face defeat at the forces of the Red Army and the eventually the Normandy landings in 1944 by the Allies.
Across the West Country the curious will come across parts of the nation’s defences of the 39-45 conflict. Pill boxes and tank traps. It all seems so out of kilter from today’s consumer centred world.
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