Roger Brooke
 Kenneth Brooke

It was a typical English summer’s day with blue sky interspersed with large clouds threatening nothing more than the occasional shower.  I imagined a similar setting 63 years earlier with my father lying on the grass gazing up at the sky watching the dueling Spitfires and Messerschmitts above him.  My father has always spoken fondly, almost whimsically, about life during the war, and as we sat down in his beautiful garden in Hampshire overlooking green pastures to talk about his wartime memories, he eagerly dove straight in.

My father with his sisters, Jane and Robin.
The Finest Hour

My father was eight years old when he heard Neville Chamberlain declare war on Nazi Germany on September 3rd, 1939, while listening to the BBC on the radio.  Everyone was expecting that they would be “bombed to smithereens” and sure enough, on the very first day of the war came the soon to be familiar noise of an air raid warning.  My father and his two sisters, Jane and Robin, lived in a flat in Worthing, Sussex on the south coast of England and went down to the basement expecting the bombs.  It turned out to be a single German plane whose appearance over England had caused village after village and town after town to dive for cover.

Gazing up at History

During the early months of the war when Britain stood alone after France’s defeat my grandmother, “a staunch patriot”, was always convinced of ultimate victory and my father was “never worried.”  Because of the threat of German invasion, my father’s family moved away from the coast to Tunbridge Wells in Kent to stay with his grandparents. He moved back and forth a couple of times in the early days of the war changing schools each time.

The German fighter planes looked “like little black bumblebees” as they battled with the Spitfires above the peaceful green fields of southern England.  As my father lay on the grass, he could hear the sound of the machine guns.  One day a German Messerschmitt clipped the chimney of their house as a Spitfire chased it.  A minute later, my father heard an explosion.  He heard later that the German plane had crashed into the Spitfire killing the Polish pilot.  Many Poles joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) and, despite communication problems, proved to be excellent pilots and crucial to the defeat of the Luftwaffe.

The map on the right highlights the towns bombed by the Luftwaffe and shows the main British and German air bases.  As you can see, Worthing and Tunbridge Wells, were right in the thick of the action.


Take Cover!

My father with his grandfather - these two dangerous
persons were shot at by a Messerschmitt!

Written on the back of the photographs:
"To the bucaneering barbarian of the Jolly Roger". Gramp
"This picture belongs to C. R. E. Brooke". The boy on the right!

On another occasion, my father was walking with his grandfather when a Messerschmitt appeared and started to shoot at a bungalow where two old ladies lived.  One of them lost a leg.  The pilot then spotted the little boy with his granddad and started shooting.  “Can you imagine?” my father exclaimed, amazed even sixty years on.  They found part of the bullet in a tree.  “I always wished I’d kept it.”  Many of his friends collected vast quantities of war souvenirs.

A German Messerscmitt flying over the White Cliffs of Dover

Bombs away

During the Blitz in 1940 my father remembers how “the whole of the sky was red” as the East End of London burned.  But he never lost heart – “I was never allowed to think that.”  With his mother’s faith and Churchill’s rousing speeches, he was confident that the worst would soon be over.  He admitted that things were “pretty desperate” while the British were "on our own.”  But it soon became clear that the Germans would not be able to invade.  When the United States joined the war in late 1941 there was “a great sigh of relief” as even back then there was a feeling that it would make all the difference. 

To get to school in Tunbridge, my father had to go on three different buses and on one occasion the bus got shot at by a German plane.  Soon after, my father became a boarder and the schoolboys slept in the air raid shelter.  Tunbridge was on the way to London, and German planes would sometimes unload any leftover bombs as they returned to the continent of Europe.  The shelter had an unpleasant “musty” smell to it and, as it was too noisy to sleep with all the planes overhead, the boys would stay up listening to the headmaster telling them all stories.

When he was living with his grandfather at Tunbridge Wells they would sleep under the billiard table and they would crack their head in the morning when they woke up!  My father told me how the area near his grandfather’s house was often bombed and all the windows were blown out.   Once, while walking in the woods, my father and his elder sister, Jane, found an unexploded bomb, picked it up, put it in a wheelbarrow and took it home!  After the adults back home discovered this, they never did this again.
Towards the end of the war, the Germans developed long-range rockets, or flying bombs, to attack Britain.  One of these, the notorious Doodlebugs, would make a staccato noise, suddenly go quiet and then drop.  One day at school, my father looked out the window to see an approaching Doodlebug.  It stopped and would have fallen right on top of the school, but it was blown up just in time by a shell.

On Sports Day, the Headmaster said that he would blow his whistle if a Doodlebug approached and everyone should then run to take cover.  During the 100 Yard Dash for the junior boys, a Doodlebug approached, the whistle blew and everyone ran to find something to hide under – except for the smallest boy who finished the race first.  He won a special prize.

A Doodlebug makes its descent on London
“He’ll get by without his rabbit pie…”

My father never leaves anything on his plate - however disgusting the food!  This is a direct legacy from the war in which food was scarce and nothing could go to waste.  Rationing meant you could only, for example, receive four ounces of sweets a month, a horrifying prospect for a family famous for its sweet tooth.  Spam, a “concoction of third rate meat;” adorned the dinner table and they had no sugar, jam, oranges or bananas.  My father’s family "dug for victory" like everyone else and used to grow food in their own garden.  Schools received extra rations so he was “pretty well fed.”

One day, his mother, who worked as an Air Raid warden during the war, cooked a snook (“a revolting sort of fish”) and tried to pass it off as steak.  One bite was enough for the excitement of real beef to pass.

Before the Invasion of Normandy in 1944, Canadian troops were stationed in his grandfather’s driveway.  The Canadians had an excess of fruit pies, a delicacy to the sweet-toothed Brookes, and my father managed to exchange his bread and cheese for the fruit pies.

The Great Escape  - My Grandfather’s War

My grandfather was a surgeon before the war and joined the army as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps.  At the start of the war, he was sent to France with the British army and was there when the Germans swept through France in 1940.  Three weeks after Dunkirk, my father and the rest of his family had heard nothing from him and thought the Germans had captured him.  Then they received a phone call from Wales!

My grandfather had been working at a hospital in Rennes and as the Germans approached, he took his patients by ambulance to St-Nazaire on the Atlantic coast.  On the way, German planes, despite the Red Cross markings on the vehicles, shot at them .  At St-Nazaire there was one Norwegian boat that could evacuate my grandfather and his patients.  The captain gave my grandfather fifteen minutes to get everyone on board and as the boat pulled away with everyone safely aboard, they could see the German artillery arriving just too late.  My grandfather received an O.B.E., the Order of the British Empire, for his efforts.


This map shows how the Germans swept into France in their Blitzkrieg campaign in 1940. My grandfather escaped from St-Nazaire on the Atlantic coast.
Afterwards, my grandfather was sent to Sierra Leone in Africa to tend to those injured in the Middle East campaign.  After getting malaria, he returned to a hospital in Leeds, in the north of England, before leaving the army to continue his practice as a surgeon towards the end of the war.


For my father, World war II was an exciting adventure, a monumental story he could watch develop in the skies above him, on the maps in his bedroom and on the news on the radio.  None of his family was killed.  “We were lucky,” he said as he neared the end of his tales.  As the rain began to drop from one of those dark clouds overhead, we brought the interview to a close.  How amazing, I thought, that even a little boy in a country that was spared so much of the horrors of the war, could have come into such close contact with the enemy.  Thank God that Doodlebug was blown up, the Messerschmitt pilot was a bad shot ...


Primary Sources:

Interview with Roger Brooke, Summer 2003.

Photos coutesy of my father and his sisters, Jane Lenon and Robin Thompson.

Secondary Sources:

Air Age Media, "Their Finest Hour", Flight Journal, 3/3/04

"Blitzkrieg, 1939-40",, 3/3/04

Smith, L.W.N., "The Blitz", World War II Ex, 3/3/04

Young, Peter, ed., Atlas of the Second World War. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1973