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Gilbert Saunders of Steyning

Gilbert Saunders

Published on 4th October 2016


I was born in Partridge Green on 13 January 1927. My father had a few jobs, although spent many years at one of the two brick makers in the village. There was one at the end of South Street and another just off the High Street over the railway line. 

My father fought at The Somme in The Great War. The Sussex Regiment marched from Horsham to Shoreham and passed through Steyning on their way. My father was a 16-year-old ploughing on a Steyning farm at the time. He saw them and said, “That’s it, I’m off!” 

I was the fifth of eleven children. I had two older brothers and two older sisters and half a dozen followed me! Growing up was tough, as we had no money. I would often go to bed hungry. We did have a huge garden though, so we grew potatoes and our greens. Dad would capture the odd rabbit and bring them home too. 

I went to Jolesfield Church of England School in Partridge Green. Mr Garton was a great headmaster; he was a former Major so was a disciplinarian, but he also provided a terrific standard of education. When he retired, a new head came in who we nicknamed ‘Gummy’. I didn’t like him. 

On Friday afternoons, we had an individual reading session. I was reading Black Beauty and was so engrossed in it that I hadn’t realised that some of the boys had been coughing to annoy the teacher. She said “the next person who coughs will be sent to the headmaster!” Well, I genuinely needed to cough, and was sent to Gummy’s office. He wasn’t there, so I went home, but on Monday morning during assembly, I was pulled out and given the cane on both hands. Gummy used a big pointer stick rather than a standard cane, and he caught me across the wrist. It came up in a big lump. When I got home, my dad was fuming and wanted to go and lump Gummy! 

We lived in a terrible house; there was no electricity, no heating, no running water and the toilets didn’t flush. In my room, five of us shared the bed, with three at the top and two at the bottom, so we were feet-to-feet and would kick each other during the night.  

When I was nine, we moved into a brand-new council house at the end of South Street. We had electricity, flushing toilets and running water, so it was like luxury! Still, the family was often separated. My two older sisters lived with my Grandma above the draper’s shop on the High Street, and my eldest brother went to live in Henfield.

I didn’t have a bike until I was about 17. I was a newspaper boy, and would get up at 6am to meet the 6:45am train at 

Partridge Green station, before Dr Beeching swung his axe and closed the South Downs Line. I would load the newspapers on to a wheelbarrow and take them to Mrs Paris, who ran the 

newsagents. She had a rusty old bike that was in a bad state, but she let me have it. My dad, who was very mechanically minded, stripped it completely, painted it and made it a proper bike. 

I was 12 when war broke out. I remember that there was much to do, as we had to arrange for gas masks, and mum added blackout material to the curtains.

Dad taped up the windows to make sure they wouldn’t shatter if a bomb dropped. One night, eight bombs dropped on the Lock Estate in the village. A Junger Ju 88 German fighter bomber crashed into Cooper’s Cottages and set three houses alight. My grandad lived in one of them! Only the Germans on board lost their lives. The pilot who shot the plane down came to Partridge Green the next day to apologise for dropping him over the village. He had wanted to drop it over the sea, but was running out of petrol and couldn’t pursue him any further. 

The Partridge Green platoon of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) was initially just a group of civilians, much like Dad’s Army. They would bring their own rifles and wear their own clothes. My dad was a gamekeeper at that time and joined straight away, with his 12 bore shotgun. Later, the LDV became known as the Home Guard. The platoon would patrol the village and attend training exercises with Army instructors on Tuesdays, Thursdays and sometimes Sundays.

They needed a ‘runner’ who knew the area. I knew Partridge Green like the back of my hand, so I was perfect. That was how I joined the Home Guard. 

The platoon would regularly go to Steyning rifle range, off Mouse Lane, using .303 rifles, Sten guns and Bren guns. Sometimes, they would go to Soper’s Bottom at the southern end of the village, to train with hand 

grenades. Occasionally they went across to Kithurst Hill. Both those sites were also used by the Canadian Army Second Division for training. 

I remember using a Sten gun for the first time. They came with a 32 round magazine, but were so sensitive. I was loading the gun by banging the magazine on the ground, and it fired all 32 rounds in one go, straight into the air. My Sergeant went ballistic!

We would join with other local Home Guard platoons, including Maplehurst, Cowfold and Shipley, for exercises with Canadian soldiers. Once, they had to attack our post, which was the Hare and Hounds in Cowfold. As runner, I was looking 

out on a barn roof and when I saw them, I jumped on my bike and rode like hell through the woods. But the soldiers had placed wire right across my path, intending to take out the bike. I never saw it and went straight over the top. I still have a scar on my leg from that today! 

During the Normandy landings, the Home Guard were on standby for 72 hours. We all had our guns, as it was feared that the Germans might drop soldiers on the South Downs. Two concrete anti-tank shelters were built that are still there now, and mines were hidden too. For a while, we were on high alert.

The majority of the Home Guard were ex-servicemen, like my dad. So when anti-tank shells suddenly starting blowing up around us, most dropped to the ground...

Several Home Guard platoons were on Steyning Rifle Range for training with Army instructors. The Partridge Green group were there, as was Maplehurst, Cowfold, Shipley and Dial Post, and one or two others. We had been firing rifles in the morning, and were about to go inside a building used for gas chamber training. They gave us cotton wool with a special lotion used to repel a mustard gas attack. I hadn’t even wiped it off when I heard the first blast. 

For a second, I didn’t register what was happening, as it was a situation I’d never faced before. My dad had dived straight on the ground. I was still standing, as was our Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Greenwood, who was next to me. One shell exploded near us and shrapnel ripped through the back of his legs. The Maplehurst Home Guard were lined up along the wall of the gas chamber when poor old Les Wylie took the full force of a shell and lost his life.  

There was panic. I ran over to check that my dad was okay, as most of the Home Guard were quite old and couldn’t run down the hill like I could. We had no idea who was firing on us, so we all ran down to the lorry and got out of there. Six shells fell around us and they were still being fired as we drove back to Partridge Green.

The next day, we heard that a lad, Arthur John Chandler, who was only 16, was killed as he was helping his dad clean out the chicken run at his home in Steyning. Another shell landed in the High Street but didn’t explode, one hit the cricket field and another one landed at the gas works. They were anti-tank shells fired by Canadians from Soper’s Bottom. They were aiming at the hill, but their range was completely wrong and the shells sailed over the hill, towards the village. 

In February 1945, I joined the Army. I wanted to follow my father and grandfather into the Royal Sussex Regiment, so needed more training after my initial six weeks of training in Maidstone. I went to Wrexham for a three month course to toughen us up, and was assigned to the Kent Regiment. I said “I’m not having this! I’ve done extra training to get into Sussex.”  

The war ended before I was sent out to fight in Europe. Instead, I was one of 98 men chosen for a ‘silent killing’ operation in Burma. We were trained by a commando unit, with the intention of fighting guerilla groups of Japanese soldiers, who would rather die with honour than surrender. The plan was to acclimatise in India, before heading to Burma.  

We were all lined up outside the Sergeant’s Mess at Norton Aerodrome in the early hours of November 8, 1945. A friend of mind from Lewes called out ‘Sandy!’ which was my nickname. I moved up the line to chat to him. The sergeant came along, tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Everyone up to here is on the first plane; you and the rest are on the second plane.” Moving along the line would save my life. The first Avro York plane took off half an hour ahead of us, but it crashed on the approach to the runway at Malta and exploded. 

Those of us on the second plane spent a few days in Karachi and later boarded B-24 Liberator bombers. But we lost another plane in woods over Iraq, and only one senior officer was still alive.

They didn’t know what to do with us, but where was not enough of us to go to Burma. Instead, we were placed in The Queen’s Regiment and stayed in India until the country gained independence in 1947. I didn’t particularly enjoy my time there; the stench was terrible!

We caught a ship home, and I ended up in Crowborough, where I met my wife, Ivy. She was working at a private girls’ school. After a short visit to Dortmund, I was de-mobbed. I nearly signed on to pursue a career in the Army, but instead returned to Partridge Green.  

I married Ivy and we had a son, Derek, but we were still living with my mother. After I left school at 14, I spent four years working for Goacher’s grocery shop in South Street. Having left the Army, I went back there, this time as a van driver. I was working 70 hours a week for £3 7s & 9d.  

They were building in Blanches Road, so I walked over and spoke to the foreman, Jack Travers. At that time, most tradesmen were travelling to Crawley where they were paying London rates, so Jack needed men desperately. After a couple of years as a labourer, I noticed I was working a lot harder than the bricklayers for less money. I couldn’t afford training, but the foreman let me learn from his best bricklayer. I spent the next four years bricklaying and 45 years in the building trade.  

I stayed in Partridge Green until I was 21, when we moved to a council house in Cowfold, where Ivy and I lived for 46 years, eventually having two children. When we first moved in, the rent was one guinea a week and I could have bought it for £1100!  

For many years, I was involved with Cowfold FC, first as a player, then a coach. I suffered three smashed ribs in a cup final against Nuthurst. I went for a header with a stocky lad called Bob Potter and he landed on top of me! For about 25 years I helped coach and in 1955-56 we won the league and cup double. 

For 18 years, I’ve lived in Steyning, close to my daughter. I have three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Ivy passed away seven years ago. You learn to adapt, but it was horrible to begin with. Ivy was known as Liz, and for a while I would still walk in the door and shout ‘Hi Liz, I’m home!’ before realising she wasn’t there. You just get so used to doing things like that.  

I think as a society, we are going downhill fast. We have too many unproductive people coming to our country. I don’t know much about politics, but no government - irrespective of party – has been willing to grab this issue by the throat and do something about it. I can’t complain because I haven’t voted for years, because whatever you hear and read is a pack of lies.  

Recently, I had the honour of unveiling an information board at Steyning Rifle Range, to mark the 70th anniversary of that tragic day. The Steyning Download Scheme organised it. It was an honour for me personally and I felt I was also honouring the Home Guard and the people who died that day.