Article written by Linda Rene-Martin
This summer has marked the 60th anniversary of D-Day, evoking its triumphs and tragedies with memorials and celebrations. Coincidentally, a horde of letters spanning the years 1940-45, has just come to my notice written by my father, Max Ritson (BA Cambs) to relations and friends in America and elsewhere, who were anxious for our welfare.
Never mind the propaganda machine and the daily press, my father liked to convey the tenor of family life, sometimes during the London Blitz or, later, ‘bedoodled’ (flying bombs), written in a steady ‘we can take it’ spirit full of insight, incident and humour.
He made a point of keeping copies, perhaps for posterity, or, maybe, through enemy action or other mishap his letters could have failed to reach their destination. Happily I discover, they are in the possession of my brother David (Prof. Emeritus, Stanford Univ. USA) with whom I share happy memories of our carefree, pre-war youth in Sandgate, 1932 on.
So here are some extracts which cast light on Sandgate, a defence area in those momentous days and of Coast Cottage which we love as much as ever.
August 1941: In sight of Hellfire Corner, David and I went to Sandgate to see our beloved Coast Cottage again. We went armed with a police permit for a one-day visit, and a demand for rates on the cottage we are not allowed to occupy for holiday purposes. We went with the expectation of seeing hordes of our war-planes flying over the French coast, hearing mighty bomb explosions form across the Channel; and the long range guns from Cap Gris Nez and German bombers trying for retaliation; and our ‘crash-boats’ tearing across the Channel to rescue baled-out airmen. In brief we expected a lively time.
You might be surprised how peaceful everything was during that twenty-four hours. Whereas in Surrey one never seems to be no more than ten minutes away from the sound of an airplane, practising day or night flying, here, at Sandgate, there was never a sound for one of 23 hours out of the 24.
On the sea, the fishing fleet from Folkestone goes out calmly every morning and returns in the evening laden with fish. Across the way, there are white cliffs between Calais and Boulogne, visible almost down to the waters edge. In between to all outward appearances, just a peaceful sea. On land, Folkestone and Sandgate and Hythe, very few people, and those mostly middle-aged and elderly. No longer the seaside crowds thronging the main street and promenades and harbour, no longer the bustle of soldiers and airmen and rumbling army lorries and rushing motor cyclists – as in May 1940 (Dunkirk evacuation).
But everywhere a jungle of barbed wire, anti-tank traps and concrete pill boxes (note: some dummies) – on the promenade for mile after mile, on the beaches, on the hillsides flourishing like seaweed used to flourish on the rocks.
What of the bomb damage in the local towns, my Father goes on to ask. Goering would be surprised he says, for contrary to German communiqués the damage seems negligible.back to the camp. He declared that every inch of land would be fiercely defended. On the heights of Shorncliffe he trained the Light Brigade in the tactics of swift movement and harassment of the enemy that he had learnt in the American war.
In Sandgate and Hythe you would see very little difference, except for the many closed up shops and almost empty streets … everything so quiet and peaceful while we were there, everything still so trim and tidy – the public gardens still kept gay with flowers (note: one gardener did the work of three in those days) all marking time till the war’s over and the people may come back to this lovely Kentish coast and White Cliffs of old England.
Turning to our beloved, simple unadorned cottage he writes the sturdy stone walls are untouched. They look as if they would outlast another hundred years. As for our hospitable neighbours the Haynses (Lionel a former Coastguard Officer) with whom my parents stayed the night, he looks officially after the fishing fleet and also cultivates two allotments. They had really nothing to tell us about the war as they see it …
Within sight and sound of Hellfire Corner, within 25 miles of the monster guns on Gris Nez and the invasion barges at Boulogne, and within 50 miles of a dozen German aerodromes … they live peacefully, placidly, unafraid.
In February 1943, in answer to a query from Seattle, my father writes about ‘The Silent Cottage’ of which many of you have such happy memories. Nothing has happened to it. The sturdy walls still stand, most of our furniture is there but all the windows are boarded up and the cottage sleeps. Outside, our private promenade is a tangled mass of rusty barbed wire and uncleared shingle thrown up by the winter gales … We offered the cottage to the Admiralty but they didn’t want to occupy it. Another government department asked me to sign a ‘waiver’ on any claim for damage caused by anything the army might like to do with it, including blowing it up if necessary. I signed this.
My father adds ‘There was a government moratorium on payment of local ‘rates’ for houses such as these in coastal areas which had to be evacuated. But every six months, the Folkestone Borough Council sends me a coaxing letter asking wouldn’t I like to pay part of the rates, on a Bargain Basement basis instead of waiting till end of the war and having to pay all the arrears in full? In view of the above (not write off) this offer doesn’t appeal to me.
August 1944 – Flying Bombs on the South East Coast A good friend in the Coastguard Service who lives next door to our cottage, keeps an eye on it for us. He wrote that a Flying Bomb had been shot down in the sea 100 yards from the cottage and our windows, doors, ceilings etc had been damaged. So David went down to see about it. Before she could get there, another shot-down flying bomb had had another crack at our cottage. But David found that the sturdy old walls of Coast Cottage had stood up faithfully to the blast. Following our friend’s advice, we are deferring any repairs while the same thing may happen any day. He said ‘Never a night passes without a dozen or more being shot down in the sea within a mile or two of here’. Apparently ‘they on the coast’ are getting very tired of shielding the ‘bedoodled’ Londoners