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A History of Brickendon

Rural Peace Shattered by a Doodle-bug, by Peter Ashley

from the Hertfordshire Mercury, 18 September 1998

OLDER readers will recall the V1 flying bombs, nicknamed ‘doodle-bugs’, which were part of Hitler’s final assault upon Britain, especially London.

These weapons were self-propelled and droned frighteningly and erratically towards their targets. When the engine cut out, they dived steeply to earth and exploded.

Isolated in the woods near our farm was a substantial cottage, built towards the end of the last century for a keeper on the Broxbournebury estate, owned then by the Bosanquet family.

In the summer of 1944, this was occupied by the Dench family – two parents, a girl of six, a baby boy (born on D-Day, June 6, 1944) and a grandfather.

Some 20 yards to the west of the cottage was parked a caravan and a tent, in which lived a forester, his wife and two children, the Basham family, who had been bombed out from Hackney, east London, in 1941.

They had staying with them two young cousins, a girl of eight and a boy of four, brought down by train that day by their mother to give the children a weekend’s respite from the bombing.

Having returned one warm July evening from Bayford railway station, where they had been seeing off the cousins’ mother, the Bashams made a cup of coffee.

Too hot to drink immediately, 15-year-old Ben Basham went outside to watch the doodle-bugs cross the wooded valley on route to London, spurting flame and carrying destruction. The air-raid sirens had wailed in the distance.

To his horror, Ben clearly saw an approaching doodle-bug coming straight at him. The engine cut and the machine dived towards the cottage.

Ben yelled a warning, his mother ran from the caravan with the two children and threw herself on top of them beside Ben and his sister. Ben’s father was standing near the house.

Mrs Dench had also seen the flying bomb and ran screaming back into her house to protect her family.

Ben’s father saw the wing-tip of the doodle-bug catch one of the trees which had been left to screen the cottage from the felling in the rest of the wood, and this contact tipped the bomb exactly into the space between the cottage and the caravan, where it exploded, completely wrecking both.

Ben, his mother, sister and two cousins, although only some 15 yards from the eventual edge of the crater, were unharmed, though Ben, arising into swirling thick dust and falling leaves, at first thought he was dead and in some ethereal after-life.

He wrote: “The leaves from the oaks nearby were all split into fragments by the blast and were falling like the sound of falling rain.”

His dog, Pablo, appeared through the mist (“Thank goodness, they let dogs in,” the boy reflected), then his father, who had been blown into a ditch. The Basham family had all survived, covered in dirt and dust. Sadly, the Dench family were not so lucky.

Mrs Dench (“Such a nice, friendly woman”) was killed outright, her daughter was badly injured, covered in blood and in great pain, and the grandfather suffered a broken leg. The baby, miraculously, was in a pram in the chimney breast, which protected him from falling masonry, and he was uninjured.

The father was away at work. When he returned, he took one look at the scene of death and devastation then turned and drove away again, poor man.

Ironically, “Aunt Ivy”, the mother of the two children sent to the country for some peace and quiet, returned home to receive a message that, while she had been travelling, her children had been bombed out and sent to hospital. Fortunately, they were unharmed.

The Bashams were given shelter by the farming Patemans in the house in which we now live, which suffered a stripped roof on the side facing the blast.

Tom Pateman and one son – the other son was in the Army and busy trekking across Europe to freedom, having escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp (today, happily, he still farms in the area) – constructed a straw house of bales and tarpaulins, in which all hid from the constant bombardment of V1s and in which the Bashams dwelt for many weeks, using a barn for cooking and eating.

What a world away from our cosy existence today! Rats and mice scurried and chewed among the bales protecting the families, bats swooped above them as they ate, rotting mangel-wurzels squashed underfoot in the dark and rain, all water was pumped from an inadequate well, candles flickered in the wind.

It says much for the warmth of human spirit among shared troubles that such times are remembered almost with affection.

Ben Basham, who kindly supplied this information, is still alive, residing in Chelmsford, Essex.