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The horror and the heroes of war

LOOKING BACK: Bill Downer recalls his memories of growing up in England during the Second World War.
LOOKING BACK: Bill Downer recalls his memories of growing up in England during the Second World War. Claudia Baxter

BILL Downer runs his fingers along his left eye socket. "That's where the shrapnel hit me," he says. It's a statement that many war veterans can understand - the only problem is it happened when Bill was only nine-years-old.

That was the third time Mr Downer, now 80, escaped death as a child during the German blitz of England in the Second World War. The Goodna RSL sub-branch member grew up in Southampton, a port town in southern England and a target for German bombing raids in 1940. It was during the "Southampton Blitz" of November and December that year that Mr Downer, his brother and sister found out first hand the true horror of war.

"We were living alongside a railway yard and I still don't remember who was looking after us at that time, it may have been an aunty," Mr Downer says.

"The railway was what the Germans were aiming for but the misses hit the houses nearby.

"The house I was in got blitzed and we were saved by a Morrison Shelter. It was like a big metal cage and it saved our lives. They were used basically as tables and you had to sit sideways at them. All I know is my sister, myself and my brother got pushed into this thing."

Seventy-two years have past since that day, and Mr Downer went on to serve with the British Forces in the Suez Canal in 1952, but the emotion of those childhood experiences remain ever present. He pauses for a moment and fights back tears as he describes the moments before and after the explosion that destroyed the house.

"I just remember a red flash and that was it," he says.

"When I woke up it was a job to breathe, my sister was screaming but otherwise it was dead quiet.

"Then in the distance I could hear a dog barking. Then there was a light and we were rescued."

Like many British children of Second World War, Mr Downer and his siblings grew up without their parents. His father, William senior, served with the British Navy and his mother, Helen, worked as a despatch writer for the Royal Air-Force.

Mr Downer recalls his mother returning to evacuate the children to Bournemouth following the blitz but the danger had far from passed.

During the train journey from Southampton to Bournemouth a German fighter plane attacked the train causing chaotic scenes among the frightened children

"A chappy came along and bashed on the doors telling the children to get out and bring the gas masks," Mr Downer says, again struggling to contain his emotions while recalling the horrific memory.

"We got under the train and hid. We were all so small that we needed help to get back up onto the train later on."

After arriving in Bournemouth Mr Downer then survived another bombing while posting a letter. While struggling to reach to mail slot he can only remember the explosion that gave him a permanent reminder in the form of a shrapnel injury.

Following those incidents Mr Downer and his brother were relocated to Kitson House, an English mansion outside of Bournemouth that was used as a children's refuge during the war.

It was at Kitson House that Mr Downer had perhaps his most surreal war experience.

Mr Downer, his brother and a third boy were playing at the rear of the mansion when they noticed a dogfight between a German Messerschmitt and two Allied planes in the sky.

The trio climbed a wooden fence to the roof of the property's pigsty to watch the action before the fight ended in the most unusual way.

"We could see the plane trails in the sky and one of the planes got him and he started to go down," he says.

"It was on fire and smoking on its way down but the smoke stopped as it neared the ground.

"I remember it was going around as it was coming down and it had no wheels.

"Behind the fence of the next property was a big field with a road separating the two properties.

"It came down and it skidded right across the road and all the way up the wooden fence where it stopped.

"We all jumped down and as we did, this German pilot got out.

"The thing I remember is how big he was and how smart he looked in his uniform.

"He got out and lit a cigarette, sat down on the wing of the plane, looked at us and waved.

"We ran over and climbed up on the wing as well. I don't know to this day if he could understand English but we asked him if we could have pieces of his broken screen.

"He broke some bits off and gave them to us but never said anything. He was the first German I'd ever seen. He was nice to us and in the background we could see the home guard and the air force were coming across with fixed bayonets.

"They grabbed his arm began to put his hands behind his back.

"I said something like 'don't hurt him, he's a nice man'."

The experience with the German fighter pilot, bombing raids, friendly American soldiers who gave sweets to the children of Kitson House, and many more have given Mr Downer a set of experiences that make Remembrance Day very personal.

It's the reason he struggles at funerals and why his emotions sometimes get the better of him when discussing his childhood. But it's also why he understands that the horror and heroes of wars aren't always found on the battlefield.

"There are thousands of hidden heroes in every town across England," he says.

"People who risked their lives during those bombing raids to save others, nurses, shopkeepers, anyone."

So tomorrow, when Mr Downer pauses for a minute's silence, he'll remember not only the soldiers that gave their lives to protect our freedom but also the innocent victims of each and every horrible war.

Topics:  goodna rsl, remembrance day, world war 2


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