Bob Monkhouse was a pupil at Goring Hall School back in 1939. He died aged 75 on Sunday 28 December 2003. Whenever he performed at the Pavilion Theatre here, he talked about visiting the Dome Cinema and how he went walking on the beach at that time. This story comes from his autobiography.
THE German airman knew he was seconds from death. But just before his
crippled plane smashed into the sea off Worthing, he threw a tin earthwards. A young boy, who watched the drama unfold, found the tin and took off the lid. Inside were three photographs, a coloured stone and a letter in German on yellow paper.
That boy was future comedian and quiz show host Bob Monkhouse, who moved to Worthing during the Second World War. In his autobiography, Monkhouse recalls: “Just before the end of August 1939, my father stood up after Sunday lunch in our Beckenham home and announced that Hitler was sure to launch a huge surprise blitzkrieg upon London.
“He told us he had bought a small house in West Worthing and that we were to move down there at once. During the phoney war, that strangely peaceful period that followed the declaration of hostilities, I wondered if my father had been right to move us to the coast.
“But one sunny morning in the following July, the distant pulsing growl of a plane engine made me look up at the sky to see a Dornier 17 bomber flying very low and slowly over the rooftops, heading towards me.
“The German plane passed directly over my head leaving a sooty trail. I could see the outline of a pilot’s helmet as the aircraft swept away and a few moments later I smelt the smoke.
“Two Spitfires came banking down from over the sea, engines grinding out a lighter note than the bomber. Immediately behind them, higher and in a Vformation, three Me 109s appeared like shepherds searching for their lost sheep.
“All the planes vanished inland and then, lower than ever and with its
right engine flickering with little rosy petals of flame, the Dornier
returned, heading for the sea.
“One of the crew of four was pressed against a glass panel in the bulging forward section and I saw something fall as the body of the fuselage glided away.
“By this time, I was on my bike, cycling as fast as I could round the little lanes to see if I could find what had fallen from the Luftwaffe bomber.
“Lots of people were out of their houses, shielding their eyes as they gazed upwards. My gaze was downwards. When I saw it lying in the gravel at the edge of a private drive, I recognised it at once.
“It was a military mess tin, a grey metal box with a lid, intended to carry rations. It was stamped with the outline of a swastika on one side and an eagle on the other.
“Inside it were three photographs, a coloured stone and a letter in German on yellow paper. The photos showed a handsome young man with closecropped hair and wearing an NCO’s uniform jacket, a pretty young woman posing coyly beside a farm pump and a fat baby on a rug in a bushy garden.
“I later heard the Dornier had hit the sea and broken up about two miles offshore. There had been no survivors. Alone in my room at night I pored over the letter. It seemed to be addressed to someone called Fremde, which I took to be the name of the girl in the photo.
“I could picture the desperate airman, resigned to a fatal crash, hastily penning his last message of love to his young wife in Germany and then casting it from his dying craft.”
Monkhouse painstakingly copied the note and gave it to his teacher at
Goring Hall School, Mr Hatfield, who could read German. Returning home after school, Monkhouse was met by his mother, who was pale with anger, and the headmaster, Mr Green. Monkhouse told how he found the
note and was sent to bed without his supper.
It turned out that the letter urged the finder to do all he could to
sabotage the British war effort. The photographs were typical examples of healthy, strong and friendly German people.
The stone was a valuable piece of red jasper dating back to Roman times, intended to fund the cost of derailing trains and starting fires. Monkhouse recalled: “I was given to understand that the gem had been surrendered to the Crown. I didn’t much care. All I knew was I had a month of extra prep, early bedtime and no going to the Worthing Odeon. Bloody Jerries!”
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