Lifestyle

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


Stay Connected

Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.

MP calls for Brisbane Valley roads upgrade

FIX IT: Member for Nanango Deb Frecklington is calling for Brisbane Valley roads to be upgraded. FILE IMAGE

MP calls for Brisbane Valley roads upgrade

OLGC pave the way for bright future in centenary year

BLESSED: The Mercy House Administration Centre at Our Lady of Good Counsel was blessed by Father Noyichan Mamoottil last Wednesday at the official opening.

The Mercy House Administration Centre, was officially opened.

One small egg could crack title

SO SMALL: Col Bradford found this tiny egg in his chicken coop and is considering applying for the Guinness Book of Records.

Col Bradford believes he could have the world's smallest chicken egg

Local Partners

Brisbane Valley footballers set for nationals

After impressing at the QCSA State Titles earlier in the month, four Brisbane Valley Soccer Club players are heading to the national titles in September.

What to expect at Birds of Tokyo's Ipswich gig

The band will perform at the Racehorse Hotel on Friday.

BAND member Glen Sarangapany talks music, pub grub and doing shoeys

What public holidays are left in 2017

Ipswich residents will get the day off tomorrow for the show.

IPSWICH residents will get tomorrow off for the show

Caitlyn comes home to launch debut album

Gympie's Caitlyn Shadbolt will launch here debut album Songs On My Sleeve at an exclusive all-ages concert in Gympie on Friday, May 26.

Win tickets to Caitlyn's album launch

Dreamworld may supersize with 'Disneyland expansion'

OWNERS of icon Gold Coast theme park Dreamworld want to super-size the site with accommodation and entertainment to turn it into Australia’s Disneyland.

World’s strongest man reveals incredible 12,000 calorie diet

Brian Shaw won his 4th World's Strongest Man title. Source: Twitter

World’s strongest man reveals incredible 12,000-calorie diet

ABC2 slammed over football exhibition match coverage

Fans weren't too happy with ABC2's coverage of Wednesday night's game.

ABC2 slammed for coverage of soccer exhibition match

'Bulls--t!' Lisa Wilkinson grilled over Karl's pay packet

Join us for a Great Night as we Proudly present Lisa Wilkinson

“And you believe everything you read?”

Rebel Wilson trial: The secret we never could have known

Rebel Wilson outside court

“Most people wouldn’t know it exists,” she said.

Janet’s back in the ring

Marta Dusseldorp returns in season three of the TV series Janet King.

Season three of ABC's legal drama delves deeper than ever before.

Game of Thrones drops new trailer for season 7

Game of Thrones fans have been given a new trailer for season 7.

Fans are finally getting a full-throttled peak at season seven.

Open for inspection homes May 25-31

Check out this weekend's homes open for inspection

How Toowoomba house prices compare in Australia

For sale sign in front of home.

Here's what $700,000 will buy you in Toowoomba, Brisbane and Sydney

One of Maryborough's most historic homes is still for sale

FULL OF HISTORY: Trisha Moulds is owner of the historic Tinana state known as Rosehill. The beautiful home is currently for sale.

It has been the scene of both joy and tragedies over the years.

The face of the Sunshine Coast's overpriced rental crisis

Alyx Wilson had to rent a $385 unit in Currimundi because the market was too competitive for cheaper rental housing. She is now renting a room from friends who own a house in Currimundi, and says its much more affordable.

Young people feel the strain in competitive, expensive rental market

Ready to SELL your property?

Post Your Ad Here!