The young man strolled along the Hastings seafront. Daylight was fading and the breeze from the sea was becoming cold. He turned away from the promenade and crossed the road. He was going to meet his girlfriend in the Bamboo Bar.
As he walked along the bottom of Warrior Square he noticed a figure sitting on a seat about twenty yards ahead. When he was nearer he could see that it was an elderly man who appeared to be propped up in the corner of the bench. There was a shopping bag beside him and a piece of paper clasped in his fingers, which fluttered in the breeze. His eyes were closed but there was a slight smile on his lips.
The young man stopped and said, “Are you alright mate?”
There was no reply.
He said again, “Are you alright?” When there was still no response he stood beside the old man, and hesitantly reached out to touch his hand. It was cold as stone.
He sat down heavily on the bench. The old man was dead, wasn’t he?
Feeling quite shaky he gingerly extracted the piece of paper from the cold fingers and tilted it towards the light of a nearby lamppost. It was a letter, handwritten in a rather spidery, old fashioned style.
Dear Good Samaritan,
I would be very grateful if you would take a few moments to read my story and find it in your heart to fulfil my final wishes. I have been coming to this place at every opportunity for the past sixty-six years to carry out my own private act of remembrance. I have been ill for sometime and today I feel that the end is fast approaching. It is only right that what began here all those years ago, should also end here.
On that Sunday morning in May, 1943, I was a little over ten years old. If the weather was fine, two of my friends and I would race each other along the promenade and back. Of course, we weren’t allowed on the beach because of the barbed wire and the mines.
We were under strict instructions from our mums, that if the air raid siren went, we were to run to the nearest shelter and take cover until the all clear went. It sounds very strange now, but in those days that was the way we lived our lives.
We had just noticed on the hotel clock that it was getting on for dinnertime, so we were making our way home. I lived in a different direction from my friends so I was walking alone past Warrior Square. There was a mist hanging over the water that day and as I glanced out to sea I noticed a small black plane flying just above the waves towards me. I stopped to watch and as I looked it seemed as if lights started twinkling along the front edges of the wings.
Before I knew what was happening a large hand clutched the collar of my jacket and I was flung down the steps of an air raid shelter. As I landed in a heap there was a huge explosion behind me. I think that I must have been unconscious for a few minutes because when I came to my senses and emerged from the shelter, the world had gone mad. The air was filled with smoke and brick dust. There was a mountain of rubble where a hotel had stood a few minutes earlier and the air was filled with the sound of ambulance and fire engine bells. Realising that my mum would be worried sick about me I began to run home. A yard along the road I almost tripped over the object that you will find in the bag beside me. I picked it up and took it home, hiding it in my room. I know I should have told my mum, but somehow, I couldn’t.
Please take it to Hastings Museum and give it to the curator, together with this letter and the rest of my story, which you will find in my jacket pocket.
Perhaps I shall have the chance to thank you for your kindness in the next life – for most assuredly, it will not be in this one.
With my eternal gratitude,
A few days after my brush with death, my mum said that my pals, Brian Wilkinson and Jack Bedford, were very lucky to have lived in the opposite direction, so they were not there when the bombs hit Warrior Square.
I said Brian was not that lucky, as his dad had just disappeared, it was said, with a barmaid who worked in the Metropolitan Hotel where he was the maintenance man.
Brian’s mum came round to our house in floods of tears to tell my mum the sad story.
I was embarrassed, but couldn’t escape.
She said she had known he was up to something because he was always coming home late – especially after an air raid. He maintained that as the Civil Defence volunteer for the Hotel he had a duty to help out if there was a local raid.
Brian’s mum said “he had been seen with Ethel Thompson who was, ‘no better than she ought to be,’ so they couldn’t fool her.”
Just over a year later, Brian and his mum were killed by a doodlebug that landed in Hollington. That broke me up, because Brian was my very best friend.
Jack and his parents moved away to Scotland and I lost touch with him, but I never really got over losing Brian.
The tin helmet stayed in the bottom of my wardrobe. In fact, it stayed there until 1955. My mother died that year and she did so without me ever having the nerve to tell her about the helmet. To this day I still don’t know why I couldn’t tell her.
For the first two years after the air raid – every time there was a ring on our front door bell, I thought it was a policeman – come to take me away for theft. Because, technically, that’s what it was. By the time I was about fourteen, I had forgotten about the helmet, and the war was over so I was pretty sure that I was safe.
It wasn’t until Mum died and my sister and I were clearing out her things that I thought about that dreadful day again. With all mum’s clothes going I thought that it was time that I sorted out my own wardrobe. I still had my last school blazer in there – and my satchel. We didn’t have briefcases in those days.
Finally, in the far corner of the wardrobe, there was the tin helmet. I pulled it out and sat with it on my lap on the edge of my bed.
Out of nowhere I found that tears were dripping off my chin onto the dusty old helmet. I don’t know how long it went on for and I still don’t know if I was crying for Mum, or the fact that I had stolen something and never told her, or for Brian, whom I still missed.
I slipped along the passage to the bathroom, anxious to wash and dry my face before my sister saw me, and extricated my shameful tale from me.
It was about this time that I started having sleepless nights – interspersed with nightmares.
I was looking out to sea peering through the mist and seeing the black plane skimming the waves towards me. I saw again the twinkling lights along the leading edges of the wings, but this time, I knew what it meant. I turned to my right and running towards me was a man in ARP uniform. It seemed that I recognised this man but I couldn’t quite recall a name to match the face. Then he grasped the collar of my jacket and threw me down the steps of the air raid shelter- which was when I woke up.
The sleepless nights persisted and I felt that somehow, I had to make reparation. Every Sunday morning I would walk along the seafront to Warrior Square. Even ten years after the war had ended there were still blackened gaps where the bombs had landed – The bombsites in Warrior Square had been cleared of rubble but the gaps remained. My air raid shelter was still there although it was locked up, as were they all. I would sit on one of the benches and give thanks to the nameless warden to whom I owed my existence – and remember Brian Wilkinson, whom I loved as the brother I never had.
The nightmares persisted but I never managed to see the man’s face. I had to find out who he was for he had saved my life.
I went to the council records office and cultivated the young lady who served as clerk. The records were still confidential in those days, but she accepted my invitation to go out for a drink one Friday evening, and after three halves of cider she agreed to borrow the relevant file and lend it to me overnight. We met at the bar again the following evening and she covertly pushed a carrier bag to me under the table.
I took the ARP Incidents File home having given my solemn oath that I would deliver it back to my co-conspirator near her bus stop at 7.30 the next morning.
All that night I sat at my desk, going through fading pieces of paper that catalogued the dramatic events of those bloodstained years. Astonishingly, most of the ARP reports were written in pencil, so they were the hardest of all to decipher.
My incident had happened on Sunday, May 23rd during the second most destructive raid on Hastings and St Leonards of the entire war. That Sunday lunchtime the fighter-bombers struck along the entire length of the seafront – destroying lives and buildings from the Swan Hotel in the Old Town to the Albany Hotel in St Leonards, where a number of Canadian soldiers were killed.
I must have gone over the reports of that day’s events at least six times – and although there were numerous fatalities, nowhere was there any mention of an air raid warden killed in Warrior Square. Even, as I believed likely, he had been blown to bits there should have been a ‘missing’ report posted.
In the end I had no choice but to give up my search – I don’t know quite why that decision felt like a betrayal to me. I suppose that I needed to give a name to my saviour.
In 2002, my wife died and I found myself spending more and more of my time, sitting on the seafront, looking out to sea.
Two years ago I started getting abdominal pains. I took paracetamol and ignored them for as long as possible but eventually, I knew that I needed more help.
I went to the doctor. It was cancer, of course. Pancreatic. He was coy about how long I had, so I decided that I would control matters for myself. They gave me morphine. I increased the dosage to try to keep pace with the pain.
Today, I decided that enough was enough. I wrote my letter and I am just finishing these notes. I determined to take the old tin helmet with me in my wife’s shopping bag.
All my memories together.
As I looked at the steel helmet for the last time, I realised that the leather lining was beginning to perish. I adjusted the headband, which had dropped down at one side, I found something. A name was written in ink, now very faded. E.G. Wilkinson.
At last, I recognised the face in my dreams.
I shall go and sit on my bench now as the daylight begins to fade. I have my morphine tablets and can wash them down with my bottle of water.
Perhaps I shall get the chance to tell Brian that his dad saved my life.