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Bob Piper of Southwater

Bob Piper

I was born at Little Bridges Farm on Station Road, Southwater, on 10th June 1925. My family has lived here for 300 years.

When I was growing up in Southwater, there were about 1,000 people in the village. Everybody knew each other.

I am saddened by what has happened to Southwater. Okay, we have to move with the times, but when I went to school we used to walk up the road and get out of the way if a horse and cart or a steam roller came along. If a steam engine went by we used to run to the rails and wave to the driver. Now, nobody knows anybody.

I think the plans for more housing in the village would kill Southwater.

I got a job as a ten-year-old working for the butcher in Southwater. I worked on Saturdays and during the holidays, but I had to ride my own bike to deliver the meat as I was too small to ride the trade bike. I would start at 6am and finish at 8pm, and was paid half a crown.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, I would work in the slaughter house. I would deliver meat on my bike all over the place - Copsale, Itchingfield, Shipley - in winter and summer. I did that until I was 14.

I wanted to be an engineer, so I wrote to the air ministry about an apprenticeship, but nothing was available. So I took on a job as a milkman at Abbots Leigh for a time. After that my dad spoke to Ivor Dunkley, who lived in the village and had a lorry business. He would go to London every day to deliver bricks or timber. I worked for him and he paid me 15 bob a week, which is about 75p.

Jerry (the Germans) had started dropping bombs and I wanted to do something, as we were in real trouble in Europe. I spoke to the village policeman, who told me to go and speak to Captain Erwin, who lived at Cripplegate House.  He told me I could be a messenger because I had my bike. So I joined the Local Defence Volunteers.

When I was 15, I went to the recruiting office. The chap there said ‘how old are you?’ and I replied ‘I’m 15’. ‘Oh’ he said. ‘You look older than that. If you’d have said you were 18 you could have joined the Royal Sussex
Regiment.’  I went back a little while later and said I was 18...

I passed a medical in Brighton and that was it. I joined up and in Christmas 1940 we marched to Heathfield and the battalion was split into companies. I started carrying out 24 hour beach patrols. The invasion threat was not on at that time, but they were expecting German commandos to come over and blow up key transport links. So there was me as a 15-year-old prancing up and down the beach in the snow, wondering if Jerry was going to land with the tanks and goodness knows what else.

I was sent to RAF Westhampnett, which is now Goodwood, to do gate guarding and patrols. We made ammunition belts for the spitfires and hurricanes.

My next job was to go to Arundel Castle and guard the Duke of Norfolk. There was always this possibility that somebody might parachute in and kidnap him.

We were all given IQ tests and I was assigned to Royal Corps of Signals. I trained as a
wireless operator, and I kept improving my speed with Morse code.  We were moved all over the place and then in 1944, we had a massive training exercise on the Yorkshire moors.

Then finally, one night, they said ‘don’t go to bed, get your kit ready and be outside in 20 minutes’. Troop carrying lorries were coming to pick us up.

We went to Leeds station and boarded a train which was all blacked out. We travelled through the night and when it stopped I stepped out and said ‘Partridge Green!’ Two military men grabbed me and asked me how I knew. They feared that somebody had known that the division was moving south. I had to explain that I knew the area well!

We were taken to West Grinstead House, although it was only me who knew that. They made a sand map, and it showed barb wire and trenches and they said ‘that’s where you’re going to land’. They couldn’t tell us where it was, only that we should remember the map.

We then briefly went to Knepp Castle, as that was the divisional headquarters, before going to Southampton. I remember somebody checking if I had made a will.

I remember when we landed at Normandy the flow of tanks went through and I was in the advance party. We waited for the rest of the Division to come, and finally we piled the Germans up around Caen. We drove a wedge through Jerry’s line which was six miles deep and just over a thousand yards wide. We lost 2,500 men out of 11,000.

You don’t fight for your country, you fight for your friends.

The 11th Armoured Division followed us through and got shot to pieces, because Jerry had dug himself in and he had 88mm guns which could knock anything of ours out at 1000 yards. The only thing that eventually shifted them was a bomber raid.

On the second day I was in Normandy, I was talking to my driver and a mortar bomb dropped and he was laying on the deck, dead. I didn’t even know his name. I remember he came from Sussex and had two children.

After the war, I was posted to 3rd Division and I was sent out to Palestine.  It was peacekeeping, but we lost 1,000 men in two years in Palestine. One of my corporals came to me and he said he was going home soon. He told me he was getting married, and that he had got hold of some white silk for his bride-to-be to make a wedding dress. He said he was lucky as he had a job and a house to go back to. John is still out there, aged 20.

I came home to Southwater and did nothing for four months. I walked the dogs in the fields around Southwater. That was it until my dad got me a job at the Southwater Brickworks, which was where the country park now sits.

In 1955 I married Betty, the girl next door, in Southwater Church. In 1966 we moved into Wheelwright House, which has been in the family for generations, and have been here ever since.

I took on the driving of the minibus for the David Bryce Day Care Centre as a volunteer for 18 years until I got laid up with pneumonia. Ten years ago I had three major operations and eight years ago I had prostate cancer.  A year after that I got cancer of the lymph nodes so I’ve undergone operations and chemotherapy.

When the doctor told me I had cancer, he said ‘sit down, I’ve got some bad news’. I laughed and said ‘I went to Normandy and I’m still here. My mates are still out there, so I’m lucky’. Every day is a bonus.

I’ve returned to Europe and stood in the middle of cemeteries filled with hundreds of soldiers. I have talked to some of our blokes. The thought is always the same - why them and not us?

I do look at the war years as being the days of my life.

I still meet up with survivors from the Royal Sussex and Royal Signals. We don’t talk about the war. We talk about the way kids are today, going out and getting drunk, and people who live on handouts and don’t appreciate what they have.

I think people have gone a bit soft. There are too many handouts these days. Our fathers were tougher than us.