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Olive Thornton of Warnham

Olive Thornton

I was born in Brockley in south London in 1924. My father served in the Merchant Navy and then the Royal Navy, and fought at the Battle of Jutland in the First World War. He served on HMS Caroline, which is now moored in Belfast. I believe it is the last boat from Jutland that is still afloat and they are trying to preserve it.

My father was often away at sea, so my mum looked after me and my sister. We then moved to the New Forest when I was ten, which is where I was living when war broke out.

We all had to do something to help. I had to register for something and I had never really thought about what I would like to do, but I thought 'Well, I suppose I could look after children.' I was pitchforked into looking after children under the age of five.

School children were all evacuated from London during the war, and those that were very young were separated and sent to large country houses all over the country. Parents were allowed to visit the children once a month, but in many cases they did not or could not visit at all.

In 1941, I went to Busbridge Hall in Godalming as a 17-year-old student nurse. I remember being met at the
station by a matron, a very severe woman from Great Ormond Street. I took a room in the gardener's house. Mr Dickin was the head gardener at the estate.

Three of us were there, looking after 28 children, mostly from poor families in the East End of London. When we heard the air raid warning we had to grab all of the children and take them downstairs, with two of us carrying the babies in cots.

I felt sorry for the children as they didn't know what was going on. We would just take them for walks, and they had a few toys to play with. You couldn't explain to them what was happening, and they were terribly homesick. We ended end up taking on a maternal role, and often when mothers did visit the children often didn't want to go to them.

Bombs did fall on the estate. We had a very big bomb fall on the lawn, which blew the windows out and cows were killed in the field. Then on 9th April 1941 we had the plane crash.

I had just gone off to bed, as it was getting on for midnight. I heard a whistling noise, much like the whistle of a bomb, before a thumping sound. I just stayed in bed for a few moments thinking 'What on Earth was that?' Then I heard a voice calling out in German.

Mr Dickin came into my room and said 'I think a plane has crashed. Can you take the blanket off your bed and come with me?' I followed him down a path, across the road and through a hedge into the field. There we saw this plane that had crashed.

It was a brilliant moonlit night so you could see everything, which was good as we didn't have a torch. We could hear a hissing noise, which I presume was fuel, as we approached the plane, and we saw a young man half in and half out of the plane. We moved him out of the plane and laid him on the grass. He was obviously badly injured as he was groaning, and losing consciousness quite a lot. But in between he seemed to know what was going on.

I think Mr Dickin must have walked around the plane, as he did say to me 'I think the pilot is dead, I'm going to call the ARP.' I never saw the other three men in the plane who all died. He told me not to light a cigarette and that I should keep my eyes open, and then he disappeared for absolutely ages.

I was frightened. Not so much by the airman, but I didn't know if there were others creeping around or if there were bombs on board the plane. I just held the airman's hand, and if I tried to move away from him he would call me back by saying 'Missy!'

Eventually, the head gardener returned, and about half an hour later the Army arrived. They took the airman away on a stretcher, with him still wrapped up in my blanket. I watched him go into the ambulance, and that was the last I saw of him. The next day, there were guards put around the plane, a Heinkel 111, and nobody could get near it. But it had been quite a night sitting in that field with the German boy.

I did think about him, and wondered if he had survived, but soon afterwards we moved to Parklands in Shere. It was thought that the children might be safer. Some of the bombs fell a bit too close for comfort.

It was in Shere that I met the man who would become my husband. Charles was with the Royal Horse Artillery, stationed in Shere. We met briefly at a local dance, before his unit moved on. A lot of the soldiers went to a tea shop, and the woman who ran it, Bertha, managed to take down the addresses of some of the men she thought we might like to write to! She asked me: 'Would you like to write to one of them?' I said: 'I'll write to Charles, as he was nice!'

I moved back to the New Forest, where I continued working with children. My dad was steward of the village hall at Minstead, where all the dances were held. We would listen to music like Vera Lynn, and there was lots of jiving with the American soldiers. They would pile sweets and cigarettes on us girls. They would worm their way into girls' hearts!

It took some time for Charles to write back, as he was as Desert Rat, serving in Italy with the 8th Army, and gradually we started a correspondence that lasted throughout the War. We started the relationship by letter, and when Charles came home we got engaged.

We married in 1946 and settled in Merton, near Wimbledon, and we had two daughters. Charles became the head of a primary school. I worked at a nursery school for ten years, before we moved to West Sussex in 1977. I needed to be near my father, and I said I wanted an old cottage with three bedrooms, in a village with a church, a pub and a post office. When came across this village called Warnham, and my daughter Jan said 'Well, there's the pub, and there's the church. And there's a post office. Then we came across this cottage with a for sale sign Sadly, Charles was only here for five years and died in 1983.

I would tell my children about the German airman but I could never tell them what happened to him. But one day in 1996, I took my daughter to the field where the plane crashed. Afterwards, we went to Godalming Museum to see if they knew anything about the incident. They didn't. So I thought I would write to them to let them know about my experience in 1941.

A short time later, I received a letter from Gillian Brunton, who owned the land. She had been researching the crash, and said 'I'm so excited that I have found you!' She asked if we could meet, and told me that she had found the only survivor of the crash.

Gillian had sculpted a statue of the survivor, navigator Heinrich Berg, and I attended a ceremony when it was placed in the field. It was a very moving experience and it brought back all the memories. There was still the same pool of water there, and the trees looked the same. I could picture the wings of the plane hanging in the trees.

Heinrich was disabled by his injuries so could not travel to the ceremony, but soon after I found outside my home the most wonderful bouquet of flowers with a little note on it saying, 'Thankyou from the German Airman.' I was very touched by that, and we started corresponding. He always remembered my birthday and I always remembered the day of his crash.

My daughter decided that we ought to meet Heinrich, so we travelled by car to his home in Löhne. When we arrived, Heinrich waved to me, and I went up the stairs and we fell into each other's arms!

His daughter and grandchildren were there too, and they spoke English so were able to translate. He didn't remember much of the crash, although of course he would learn that he was shot down by E.R Thorn flying a Boulton Paul Defiant Mark One. He had vague memories of going into the ambulance and remembered me being there. I did say to Heinrich that it was amazing the plane hadn't hit the house, as there were 28 children living there.

I held his hand as I had done in the field. I could still see the young face in him. We visited the site where his wife was buried, before we had lunch and talked. Their son in law said 'If it hadn't been for you, I probably wouldn't have my family.'

We continued to correspond until Heinrich died on Christmas Day in 2008. He wrote in German, so I had a friend in the village who would translate for me. He would constantly write about the futility of war, and that he hoped his grandchildren never had to experience it. I miss that correspondence.

Warnham is a lovely village, and the people here are so kind. I helped organise our entry into the best kept village competition for many years. When we won an award, we had a village sign that was kept up for a year.

I don't do as much as I used to but I'm still active in the church and the Women's Institute. I like writing letters, with proper ink, and I garden and walk the dog when I can - I am lucky to have kind neighbours who help me out with that. I also officially clean the telephone box in the village. We were fighting to keep it as BT wanted one of those ghastly modern ones to go in, but I said I would chain myself to it! So it was decided that I should look after it. Whenever I pass by I check to see if there's anything in there that shouldn't be! Sometimes it's a bit nasty, so I have to take down my disinfectant!

I have tried to get in touch with some of the children who I looked after during the war, but so far without success.
However, I still write to Sonia, the wife of Heinrich's youngest grandson. So the correspondence goes on.