Ventnor and Alexandra Gardens in World War 2

There was much speculation as to the unusual activity that was witnessed around the Ventnor area in 1938 ahead of World War 2. Thundering lorries rumbled across St. Boniface Downs 750 feet above the sea and before long a web of masts and pylons were spun high above Ventnor. A chain of radar stations were built to protect the coasts of Britain, particularly the south-east, Ventnor with its four steel transmitters masts and four wooden receivers masts, was the farthest west. The state of the art Early Warning System could detect targets 250 miles away and sometimes at much greater distances if they were high flyers.

Nissen huts were built at the base of the masts to accommodate equipment and personnel. All over the island there sprung up anti aircraft gun sites, militia camps, including RAF Ventnor ,the smallest RAF camp in the land, and observer posts including the one at Niton.

After Chamberlain’s ‘We are at war’ speech the island expected a wave of German bombers but none came, apart from the blackout life was almost normal. However, after the fall of France in the summer of 1940 the Ventnor station tracked the approach of a number of enemy aircraft across the island on its way to attack Portsmouth. Island life changed as work began on coastal defence. The piers at the popular resorts were mined and cut in two – when Ventnor’s pier was mined it was with such force that it blow the windows out from nearby houses. Mines were laid along the beaches and pre war holiday makers were replaced with barbed wire and metal scaffolding.

Evacuees in Alexandra Gardens

31st August 1939 signaled the start of operation Pied Piper the great evacuation where one-and-a-half million people were evacuated by the British Government, in one week, to safe country areas. If schools were included in the list of evacuation areas they were closed and the children, accompanied by teachers, some mothers and helpers, were moved out.

Ten year old John Graham, sister Jessie and 11 other children, possibly more, from Reginald Road School in Southsea, Portsmouth were all evacuated at this time to Dean House in Alexandra Gardens.

Primrose and Iris Carter in garden in front of 5 and 6

Mr and Mrs Phillips owned 6 Alexandra Gardens and by 1938 had acquired number 5 and joined the two houses together. The Phillips gave a home to all 13 children and two helpers, Mrs May Carter, mother of two of the other children and John and Jessie’s step mother Winifred Graham. When the children arrived they attended Albert Street School. This was a small school but before long was over subscribed and the children were moved to St. Boniface School for their remaining time here. As John Graham reminisces he recalls the pylons on top of St. Boniface Downs, four wooden and four steel, the reinforced basement in Dean House and the putting green in the garden. He also believes seeing what remained of the Black Watch Royal Highland Regiment coming ashore on Ventnor beach during the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940. The children stayed at Dean house until October 1940.

The Evacuees at Dean House 1939:
John & Jessie Graham, Primrose & Iris Carter, the two Fisher Brothers, the two Rappie Brothers, Dorothy & Derek Hall, Aubrey Basset, David Todd and Barbara Knight

Foot notes:
David Todd’s father served on board HMS Emerald.
The father of the two Rappie Brothers served on HMS Fiji. HMS Fiji was bombed and sunk in the Battle of Crete on the 22nd May 1941. Over 500 men were rescued but 241 men went down with their ship, the father of the Rappie Brothers was one of those men.

Soldiers billeted at number 7

During World War 2 Mrs Dashwood owned number 7. During her time there, her daughter recalls, the house was used as a billet for soldiers. All the rooms were used and on one occasion she remembers her mother complaining that there were not enough washing facilities for all who billeted there. The same evening the soldiers returned with enough wash basins for all the bedrooms, although it was not clear where they had acquired them…

As the war progressed daylight raids across the island increased. Hundreds of JU87s JU88s escorted by Messerschmitt 109s made for the RAF installations above Ventnor and there was another fierce raid on Ventnor radar installations on 16th August. More incendiaries fell in a dusk to dawn raids towards the end of August on many places across the island, including Ventnor. During the Summer of the Battle of Britain, fighting in the skies over the island was watched by many islanders. On 14th November the islanders watched as continual stream of bombers droned over, for 11 hours they headed inland and returned. The next day brought news of the blitz on Coventry.

During August, September and October 1942 Ventnor suffered hit and run raids. There were many casualties and building destroyed. Hit and run raids continued in 1943 and by 1944 there was evidence of growing American air strength as islanders watched as the biggest formation of Flying Fortresses, no fewer than 135, headed for the enermy coast.

Mrs Dashwood’s daughter recalls standing on the cliffs, now the site of East Cliff car park, and watching much of the activity including dog fights over the Channel during the war years. There was an air raid shelter sited on the cliff for the safety of the residents of Dudley Road and Alexandra Gardens but it was used very little.

Of course, the Island did not suffer raids on the scale of those inflicted on the mainland towns and cities. Nevertheless, for its size it suffered heavily enough, with more than 800 casualties and nearly 11,000 buildings damaged or destroyed. The Ventnor area alone had 1,413 buildings damaged or destroyed.