Childhood memories of growing up in Rustington in wartime

Memories of wartime in Rustington have been shared to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

Thursday, 13th August 2020, 5:06 pm

Bruce McKenzie grew up in the village but has lived in Canada since 1968. Just this year, at the age 79, he discovered he is one of the 30,000 Canadian war babies.

Bruce said: “I was born in Rustington in January 1941. My father, Hector ‘Jock’ McKenzie, spent most of his career in the British Merchant Navy. For a time, he also worked as the head cook at Ford Naval Aerodrome, a small airfield from which British planes patrolled the English Channel against attacks on shipping convoys by German planes and submarines.

“My dad befriended an American pilot at the base who had a pet English bulldog named Stan. While working, my dad would often feed food scraps to the dog. One day, the pilot said to my dad ‘hey Jock, if anything happens to me, the dog is yours’. To this day, I don’t know for sure what happened to the pilot, though I assume he was killed in action, because we ended up with Stan.

Stan the bulldog with the McKenzie brothers around 1945-46

“Stan was a large, well-fed bulldog. His coat was white with a few dark spots. He had a large mouth and the characteristic bulldog underbite, his bottom teeth protruding in rest as in play. He was a very friendly dog, he did not bark or growl, but he scared the living daylights out of my playmates on the street. If I left the garden gate open and Stan happened to wander out, the street kids would immediately stop what they were doing and rush to their houses and close their garden gates. I guess it’s the bulldog’s pug-ugly face that puts people off.

“Towards the end of the war, or perhaps just after, I saw my mother and grandmother carrying this large and noticeably heavy brown cloth sack down the stairs together. As it turns out, poor old Stan had kicked the bucket but they didn’t have the heart to tell my brother and I. They took him to the back of the garden and buried him there. Naturally, my brother and I were curious to know what was in the sack. My mother said to us ‘it’s nothing you need worry about, it’s just a dead German’.

“Many years later, after emigrating to Canada, I was teaching in a school and there was a friendly German teacher called Manfred on staff. I debated for a while as to whether or not I should tell him the story of Stan in the sack. Finally, I said to myself ‘what the heck’ and I told him. Manfred burst out laughing and said ‘I guess the market value on Germans was not very high in England in those days’.

“In 1940, the beaches at Rustington and all of the other communities along the south coast of England were heavily fortified to protect against an invasion from Hitler. This meant the local people could not go sea bathing for five years.

Bruce McKenzie with Stan in August 1941

“The Luftwaffe bombed the Tangmere RAF station, which was ten miles from Rustington, on a number of occasions over the course of the war. On August 18, 1940, the Germans bombed Ford Naval Aerodrome, killing 28 people and wounding 75. Fortunately, my dad escaped unharmed from the devastating bombardment at Ford that day.

“As a kid, I remember hearing the loud air raid sirens. Sometimes after targeted bombings of the major population centres or military installations, the Luftwaffe would drop their leftover bombs haphazardly on the coastal land to lose weight before flying back over the English Channel. Some of these bombs fell on Rustington and even more on Littlehampton. There were six or seven bombed-out houses in Rustington that I remember as a kid. Despite our parents’ warnings, us kids would often play in these buildings.

“Some people dug up their front lawns and flower gardens to plant potatoes and other vegetables. I remember my history teacher explaining to us that in the First World War, the German submarine offensive was so effective against British shipping that our food supply was threatened. For this reason, he said that at his school, they ploughed up the rugby pitches and planted them with potatoes. Even the world-famous lawns at Kew Gardens in London were converted to grow potatoes and vegetables in World War Two. Dozens of women worked there, providing fresh food for the embattled Londoners.

“Everything was in short supply in those days, including fertiliser. Once a week, a horse-drawn wagon would come up our street selling groceries. If one of the horses ‘dropped a load’ on the street, someone with a spade was sure to rush out and pick up the droppings to fertilise their garden. A few years after the war had ended, a man paid me to take his wheelbarrow down to the beach and fill it with seaweed, again to use as garden fertiliser.

Hector 'Jock' McKenzie in Amsterdam in May 1945

“There were a number of German prisoners of war working on farms in and around Rustington. They had to wear a shirt with a diamond-shaped patch on it. I am assuming they were carefully selected before being assigned to a farm.

“There was one German prisoner of war who was a fantastic soccer player. His name was Bert Trautmann. For many years after the war, 1949-64, he was the goalkeeper for Manchester City. He married an English woman and settled in Great Britain.

“At first, he was understandably quite unpopular with the fans. However, he proved to be an outstanding goalkeeper and helped the club to the 1956 FA title, winning over the fans in the process. During the war, Trautmann won five medals fighting on Germany’s eastern front against Russia, including the Iron Cross. In 2004, he received an honorary OBE, becoming the only person to have ever won both an Iron Cross and OBE.

“Canada sent clothes parcels to the needy people in Great Britain. I remember my mother giving me a long-sleeved vest. I had never seen one before.

“Later on in the war, my dad rejoined the Merchant Navy. I have a picture of him in Amsterdam in front of a bar with other servicemen and some Dutch girls in May 1945. My dad bought my brother and I each a pair of clogs, the wooden shoes worn at the time by the Dutch.

“On May 8, 1945, VE Day, the Second World War came to an end in Europe. Every house on my street had a Union Flag hanging out of the window. All of the adults seemed to be standing in the middle of the street – they were laughing, singing, dancing, slapping each other on the back. They were so happy that the long six-year war had finally come to an end. I was only four years old but I remember it vividly.

“Something else I remember clearly were the air raid sirens, which went off when enemy planes were nearby. They were so loud. Even after the war, an air raid siren would go off every Saturday morning for several years, though I do not know why this was done.

“After the war, when the fortifications were removed from the beaches, sea mines would wash up on the sand from time-to-time after a storm. A number of children lost their lives when they played with them.

“There was ‘direction of labour’ in Great Britain during the war. In other words, the government could order you to work where it best helped the nation’s war effort. I remember reading about some young men who were ordered to work in coal mines as British industry badly needed the coal to keep its factories working. The young men had wanted to join the army instead but they were prevented from doing so.

“Another example was my stepfather, who was a foreman at the Imperial typewriter factory in Leicester. The factory had been retooled to make tanks and other military vehicles. Whereas my stepfather had applied to join the Palestinian Police, he was told he was too valuable at the factory.

“Because so many men were called up for military service, there was a great shortage of farm and factory workers. Many young women also volunteered, and later in the war also conscripted, for factory and land work. They became known as The Land Army Girls and by 1944, they numbered 80,000.

“Women worked all kinds of factory jobs that were usually reserved for men in peace time. They operated cranes and drove army supply trucks, as well as many other traditional male-only pre-war jobs. Dozens of women who had private pilot’s licences before the war were employed in very important non-combat roles, such as delivering new planes from the factories to the RAF stations.

“American women pilots flew planes across the Atlantic to bases in Britain. These American pilots also flew planes to Alaska, where Russian pilots picked them up and flew them to the eastern front. Some female Russian pilots actually took part in combat activities against the Germans.

“I went to school with a friend who called his grandmother ‘mother’. His father died when his submarine was sunk. His mother died in an air raid. He has no memory of his parents. His only relative is his grandmother.”

Bruce has visited Rustington three times in the past ten years but did not manage to see anyone he knew in his youth.

If anyone remembers the McKenzie family of Walders Road and would like to get in touch with Bruce, please email [email protected]