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May. 26, 2019 | Sunday
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Writer's Circle: Corporal West’s Adventures - Cliff Top
File photo.

SUBMITTED BY RICHARD WEST
WRITER'S CIRCLE

Once the Luftwaffe started bombing London the unit was hastily moved back to the city. Dick hoped they would be close to Greenwich. Winn was staying with her parents there. Too much to hope for?

The guns and searchlights were set up on Hampstead Heath. Why? Dick failed to understand why.

Smoke from fires in the docks could be easily seen to the east of the city. The units job seemed to be, try and shoot down aircraft as they turned back towards France.

As soon as the Observer Corps signalled the bombers were over London all the searchlights turned on and swung their beams across the dark sky. 

In theory, they were to catch an aircraft in the beam, then the gunners would target it. In practice it is difficult to find an aircraft in so much sky and hold it in the searchlight beam. It’s more of an art than a science. But every night they tried. 

“Have you noticed, Corp. It doesn’t seem to matter if we find an aircraft because the guns are blazing away regardless.”

“I’ve noticed Stinky. “Ours is not to wonder why.” Keep your eyes peeled and hope you can find one of those bombers.”

For ten nights they engaged the Luftwaffe, with no results, as far as Dick could see.”

The “All Clear” sounded at six that morning so they put the searchlight to bed and headed for their tents, to sleep.

“Corporal West.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“At ease Corporal.”

“Yes, Sir. Thank you Sir.”

“We are going to try something else Corporal.”

“Sir?”

“One searchlight from each unit is being released for a special job. You will pack up the light and everything you need to keep the squad going for a week.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Hitch the light up to a three tonner and go to Dungeness on the Kent coast. There you will be joined by the other teams. This is the rendezvous point.”

The Captain handed Dick  orders with the address. The orders were marked “Special Operations.” 

“Be there by fifteen hundred hours today.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good Luck.”

“Thank you Sir.”

Dick marched over to the tent, interrupting his lads preparations for kip.

“Sandy, Jonesy and Stinky. Prepare the searchlight to move. Everyone else, pack tents, stores and anything we may need to be self-sufficient for a week. I’ll collect the lorry. Move. At the double.”

Two hours later they were squeezed into the lorry along with as much gear and as stores they could lay their hands on.

Dick drove southeast across London. He crossed Tower Bridge and headed for Sevenoaks. Jonesy was excited as he had never seen the Tower of London before. From Sevenoaks he knew the roads to Dungeness.

At each security checkpoint he showed his orders and was passed through, although more than once the sentry jibed, “London’s the other way. Corp.”

As they entered Dungeness a Lieutenant waved them down and changed their destination. “Take that road Corporal and drive to the cliff top.”

Dick put the lorry in gear and crawled up a steep hill to the South Downs. Another officer directed them on to grassy Downs and almost to the cliff’s edge. Dick got down from the lorry and reported to a Sergeant.  He could see France across the English Channel. Presumably the Germans could see England from there. They seemed very close.

“Corporal West.”

“Yes, Sarge.”

“Listen carefully. Don’t get the lorry or the searchlight too close to the cliff edge. Never know if it might collapse.”

“Position the searchlight so it can point out over the Channel. Not pointing up but down. Got it.”

“Yes, Sarge.”

“Any of your lads ever used a Lewis gun?”

“No, Sarge.”

“When you are set up, assign two of them to learn how to use one. Send them to me for instruction. The lorries cab will make a good gun platform.”

Once all was ready they had a good kip. At 21:00 hours the sergeant woke them and ordered their searchlight to be kept ready pointed out over the sea. It had to be turned on immediately once the order was given.

That night they stood ready but nothing happened. It was the same for the following two nights.

On the fourth night they were again ready at their stations. At midnight the telephone rang. Dick listened to the control officer.

“Stand ready lads. They think it”s going to happen.”

Ten minutes passed, then they heard a rumbling noise.

“Pay attention.”

The noise grew louder. They knew it was aircraft engines, but the noise wasn’t coming from above. It was below them.

A red flare went up.

“Turn on the searchlight.” Dick ordered.

The beam shone out over the Channel and Jonesy started to switch the shutters on and off, so the light blinked brilliantly out over the dark sea.

Moments later the noise grew louder. Aircraft roared over the cliff top not far above their heads.

Dick heard the clatter of the Lewis guns shooting up at the racing planes. Some of the aircraft were clearly flying at odd angles, probably trying to avoid the glare of the lights as they hurtled towards the cliffs.

In less than two minutes the aircraft were gone and the searchlights were turned off. 

The next three nights nothing happened.

The Sergeant came to them the following morning.

“Report to the barracks at Woolwich and hand over all your kit there. You are being reassigned.”

“We are Sarge?”

“Yes, Corporal. You and your lads are going to Aldershot to train with a Bofors gun.”

“You mean we’ll be shooting at the planes in future?”

“Yes. Maybe at other things too.”

“Thanks Sarge. But can I ask what we were doing here?”

“That’s simple. The Germans figured if they cross our coast as low as possible our Radio Detection Finding Stations wouldn’t be able to tell where they were headed until a lot later. This little stunt was designed to make ‘em think twice about doing it. Pity though.’ We’d hoped some of them might crash into the cliff. Still. We think they won’t be as keen to do it again in the future. Having those flashing searchlights in their eyes gave them a terrible shock.”

“Fancy that. Thanks Sarge.”

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Authors Note: 

Corporal Dick West served in the British Army, Royal Artillery during the Second World War, while his wife Winnifred (Winn) struggled with the war in London, England. They were my parents. These short stories are derived from them telling me what it was like in those times. All the characters except for Corporal West and his wife Winn, are fictitious.

Dick was first called up in 1938 during the Munich crisis. He returned to civilian life in 1939 only to be called up again in late summer as the Second World War broke out. He was finally demobbed early in 1946. These stories are in chronological order.

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About Richard West:

Richard grew up in London, England. He trained as an engineer then emigrated to Canada. His career involved travel to many parts of our wonderful planet. Richard is blessed with two wonderful children, and  four super  grandchildren.

West has lived in NOTL since 1979. He has always loved to read. Exposed to Welsh poetry and verse by his wife, he has a soft spot for Dylan Thomas.

He started writing stories in the early 1990s, to see how it was done. Over the intervening years, he has written about family memories and science fiction stories. His journey of learning about this craft has been rewarding.

Richard has written a number of short stories and newspaper articles, as well as two novels.

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Editor’s note: This story will be published as a series of 10 short stories. This is part six.

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