Nils Nisse Visser 

Scribbler on a quest to retell old Sussex Folklore (and some Dutch Sealore) within the genres of historical or contemporary fantasy (including Steampunk). Hopes to become a pirate if/when he grows up.





Chapters Thirteen to Eighteen


Will was at Jamie’s house listening to the radio with Jamie in the living room. His mouth hung open in a rather undignified way; all thoughts of sweets, pennies, rocket-ships and mutoscopes banished from his mind. All he was aware of were bright white cliffs topped by England’s green and pleasant land and a vast expanse of bright blue sky filled with aircraft.

Will and Jamie had been listening to war news when a BBC war correspondent had stopped reading his script. It had been about a small convoy sailing into the Straits of Dover and the radio crew were observing it from the top of the iconic White Cliffs of Dover.

All of a sudden the correspondent had started speaking faster and more urgently. The convoy was being attacked by the Jerries even as the correspondent watched.

“And…there you can hear our anti-aircraft going at them now. There are one, two, three, four, five, six – there are about ten German machines dive-bombing the British convoy, which is just out to sea in the Channel.”

Jamie’s mouth had also dropped open. News reports were dry and dignified; this one was unlike any they ever heard before. They could hear noises in the background; other men talking and what sounded like gunfire.

“Here they come. The Germans are coming in an absolute steep dive, and you can see their bombs actually leave the machines and come into the water. You can hear our guns going like anything now.”

Will held his breath. He could see it all as if the Hall’s living room had been transformed into the Kemptown Odeon cinema.


“Anything interesting?” Mr. Hall stuck his head around the door, holding his pipe in one hand and a newspaper in the other. “Lads?”

“The Jerries are attacking,” Jamie said with surprise in his voice.

“Good Lord, has it begun?” Mr. Hall strode to the window as if he half expected to see a Jerry tank growling its way up the steep incline of Sussex Street. “I thought we’d hear commotion at sea first.”

“No Mr. Hall,” Will said. “On the radio. They’re attacking a convoy in the Dover Straits.”

“Now the British fighters are coming up.”

Will clenched his fist.

“Now we’ll show Jerry what we’re made of,” Jamie grinned.

“This is happening now?” Mr. Hall came closer, his face showing the same wonder Will and Jamie felt.

“I can hear machine gunfire. Oh! Here’s one coming down! There’s one going down in flames! Somebody’s hit a German and he’s coming down with a long streak, coming down completely out of control!”

Will and Jamie cheered, throwing fists into the air.

“Good Lord!” Mr. Hall said.

“And now…the pilot’s bailed out by parachute. It’s a Junkers 87, and he’s going slap into the sea…and there he goes. SMASH.”

Will and Jamie cheered again. This time Mr. Hall joined them.

“Now, then…oh…there’s a terrific mix-up over the Channel!! It’s impossible to tell which are our machines and which are Germans…there’s a fight going on, and you can hear the little rattles of machine gun bullets.”

Will saw the whole scene unfolding before his eyes; the Jerry airman clutching the lines of his parachute as he watched his burning aeroplane plummet into the sea. He was probably cursing like the Jerries in the Beano and Air Ace  comics. Gott im himmel. Donner und wetter! That sort of thing. Then looking up at the dog fight taking place over his head where the graceful Spitfires circled in a dance of death around the stricken Jerry planes.

“There’s another bomb dropping. Yes. It has dropped. It has missed the convoy! You know, they haven’t hit the convoy in all of this.”

“Good!” Mr. Hall exclaimed.

“The sky is absolutely patterned with bursts of anti-aircraft fire, and the sea is covered with smoke where the bombs have burst. Oh yes, I can see one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten Germans haring back towards France now for all they can go – and here are our Spitfires coming after them.”

This was like listening to a football match on the radio with the home team now on the counter, both teams dashing in the direction of the opponent’s goal.

“Of course, there are a lot more German machines up there. Can you see, Cyril?” The correspondent asked someone.

“Yes, there are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven on the top layer, one, two, three – there’s two layers of German machines,” Cyril answered. “They are all, I think, I could not swear to it, but they were all Junkers 87’s.”

“There are two more parachutists?” The correspondent asked somebody else.

“No, I think they are seagulls,” another voice answered.

Mr. Hall laughed at that. He motioned for Jamie to get out of his chair and sat down next to the radio. Jamie settled on the floor with Will.

“Oh, there’s another fight going on, away up, now! I think about 20, 25, or even 30,000 feet above our heads…the anti-aircraft guns have put up one, two, three, four, five, six bursts. There we go again…What?...Oh…we have just hit a Messerschmitt. Oh that was beautiful!”

“Hurrah for the RAF!” Will shouted.

“He’s coming right down. I think it was definitely that burst got him. Yes, he’s come down…Oh; he’s coming down like a rocket now. An absolute steep dive.”

“Welcome to England Jerry. Ha!” Jamie’s eyes were wide.

“There’s another! There’s another Messerschmitt. I don’t know whether he’s down or whether he’s trying to get out of the anti-aircraft fire…There’s a Spitfire! Oh, there are about four fighters up there…One, two, three, four, five fighters fighting right over our heads. Now there’s one coming right down on the tail of what I think is a Messerschmitt and I think it’s a Spitfire behind him. OH, DARN!! They’ve turned away and I can’t see. I can’t see.”

“Bloody hell!” Mr. Hall said completely forgetting there were children in the room.

“Hullo, there are one, two, three; and – look! There’s a dog fight going on up there! There are four, five, six machines wheeling and turning around. Now, hark at the machine guns going! Hark! One, two, three, four, five, six; now there’s something coming right down on the tail of another.”

Will was seeing it from a Spitfire cockpit now, a complex technical contraption in which all he had to understand were the controls of the machine guns.

“Here they come; yes, they are being chased home – and how they are being chased home! There are three Spitfires chasing three Messerschmitts now. Oh, boy! Look at them going! Oh, look how the Messerschmitts…”

Will released a burst of fire at the fleeing Messerschmitts.

“Oh boy! That was really grand! There’s a Spitfire behind the first two. He will get them. Oh, yes. Oh, boy! I’ve never seen anything so good as this! The RAF fighters have really got these boys taped. Our machine is catching up the Messerschmitt now.”

Will increased his speed by turning what looked like a mutoscope’s crank-handle.

“He’s catching it up! He’s got the legs of it…now right in the sights!”

Will pressed a knob and watched his eight machine guns pump out trails of bullets at the Messerschmitt.

“Machine guns are going like anything. No, there’s another fight going on. No. they’ve chased him right out to sea…I can’t see, but I think the odds would be certainly on that first Messerschmitt catching it! Where? Where? I can’t see them at all…”

“Just on the left,” another voice said. “See it?”

“Oh, yes, oh yes. I see it. Yes. They’ve got him down too…Yes, he’s pulled away…Yes, I think that first Messerschmitt has been crashed on the coast of France all right.”

“Just doing me job, Guv,” Will said, satisfied with this day’s work. “Part and parcel of being an RAF pilot.”

Will didn’t notice Mr. Hall grinning away at him. 


Will and Jamie felt like rich men when they left the Southdown Bus and Coach station near Queen’s Park. A number of bus drivers had paid them to fetch cups of tea or sweep out the buses and both of them felt the satisfaction that accompanies having a pocketful of coins. Jamie spotted a confectionary store which still stocked chocolate and invested in a Kit Kat which he split with Will.

They took the remainder of their fortune to Harper& Sharpe, so-called on account of the fading sign on the front of the two story building at the far end of a mews on St James Avenue; Harper & Sharpe, Corn & Forage Merchants. Harper & Sharpe, however, had long ceased trading in hay, straw, chaff and oats and the building was now occupied by a business the owner liked to call Blake’s Emporium. Everybody else called it Harper & Sharpe on account of that old sign.

As far as Will and Jamie were concerned the store was a treasure trove. Mr. Blake sold second-hand goods but you couldn’t really tell that from the outside of the building. The two paned windows on either side of the door were dusty and filled with cobwebs and shadows. Will pushed open the door and the boys went in. There were rickety shelves, cupboards and tables that formed a veritable maze within the shop which occupied the entire ground floor of the building. Every available surface was cluttered with the flotsam and jetsam of Brighton; piles upon piles of junk amidst which a clever lad could discover treasures if he took the time to explore all the nooks and crannies properly.

“Here Will, look at this!” 

Jamie had discovered an old brass microscope which he was eying up with bright eyes but Will wasn’t paying attention. He was examining one of the corners of the shop. It was crammed full with assorted odds and ends but his eye had been caught by one specific item. He picked it up with reverence; it was a tin hat, just like the Tommy helmet Gaffer had. It seemed old and a bit battered due to multiple dents in the wide brim and scratches in the matte khaki paint but the liner on the inside was still intact, as was the chin strap. Will tried it on, it was just a bit too big for him but he figured that if he stuffed some old newspapers in it and fastened the chin-strap tight enough it would do.

He felt a sudden overwhelming need to own it, somewhat surprising himself with this feeling. He had coveted things before but those times it had been more of a daydream. Will and Jamie could spend ages in front of the window displays of the fancier toy shops in Kemptown which catered to well-off Brightonians or out-of-town visitors. There were usually amazing toys on display, from graceful toy sailing boats to ranks of brightly painted lead soldiers. Girl’s stuff too, but they ignored those toys, preferring to look instead at the rows of colourful tin plate figures and vehicles or the Dinky Toys. They harboured no hopes of actually obtaining any of it; just pretending that you were playing with it was enough.

Jamie had nice toys at home because his father made them for him, mostly wooden lorries and cars detailed enough in the way they were made and painted to look far more realistic than the tin plate toys, just about as good as Dinky Toys Will reckoned. The two fighters Mr. Hall made marked both Jamie’s change in interest and his father’s progression in his toy making skills. Mr. Hall enjoyed it greatly and would often summon the lads to his work shed in their yard to show the progress he was making on this that or the other during his spare time. Jamie was lucky in that as most of the kids in Albion Hill simply played street games or constructed their own crude playthings, though most of the gaffers who didn’t spend all of their time in the pubs could fashion a decent set of building blocks for their grandsons. Will had one of those home-made sets too as well as a bag of marbles to which Gran faithfully added a few on Will’s birthdays and at Christmas. For the rest improvisation was a key word. If the boys encountered a stray length of rope which was long enough to be slung around one of the street lamp posts they could happily swing from it for hours and just about anything even vaguely round could reach breakneck speeds on the steep streets in Albion Hill.

It had been harder for the lads last summer when one of the shops in St James Street had suddenly displayed Buck Rogers rocket ships and a variety of Ray Guns. These had come all the way from America. Will and Jamie had gathered up the courage to go in to get a closer look but had been promptly sent out again by an ogre with long silver hair and glasses. She made quite clear that their likes weren’t welcome in all of the town’s establishments.

Jamie had been furious.

“It’s not like I was going to bleeding steal anything,” he had complained back at the house in Sussex Street.

“Some people equate class with trust,” Mr. Hall had nodded. “It used to be a great deal worse when I was a lad before the War. We didn’t have Ray Guns either but we made do.”

The lads had grinned acceptance at that but had been very pleasantly surprised when they had been summoned to the work shed the week after that and were shown two fair sized sturdy hand catapults.

“Far better than Ray Guns,” Mr. Hall had beamed proudly. “Hawthorn for Jamie, blackthorn for Will.”

Their eyes had grown wide. Catapults like these were serious business. Mr. Hall had clearly thought so too.

“I talked to your gaffer and mum about this Will,” he had said in the serious tone he sometimes reckoned even a playful father needed to employ. “They said you could have it if you stick to the rules I am about to lay down for the both you.”

Will had nodded.

“I’ll take you out to the Downs and teach you how to use these,” Mr. Hall had said. “You’re not to use them in town. If only one Brighton window – no matter how small – happens to shatter because you were being a nuisance then I will thrash you within an inch of your life. That counts for you too Will.”

Will had nodded, oddly pleased that a grown-up man was prepared to give him a beating if he misbehaved. Mum sometimes lamented that Will could use a good smack. She was usually right as well, Will never meant to misbehave but he did get overtaken by his own boundless enthusiasm at times.

“We talked about trust last week lads. That shopkeeper might not trust you, but I do. Do you understand?” Mr. Hall had asked. “These catapults are a sign of that trust. I want your promise, as a man, that you’ll behave sensibly with them.”

Both Will and Jamie had straightened their backs and broadened their shoulders, filled with pride at this first initiation into manhood. They had already both been yearning for the day when they could exchange their shorts for long trousers, and this had been just as good, even better in a way.

Everybody had been so pleased all around that Mr. Hall had treated them to a visit to the Hot Pie Shop on St James Street. Will loved it there. The shop exuded confident professionalism with its spotless counters and floors and the pastry cooks dressed in white busily rolling and pressing the pies on their pie presses. Will and Jamie had each ordered a four penny beano pie filled with a mixture of minced steak, baked beans, mashed potato and gravy and Mr. Hall had ordered his favourite minced steak pie. Though Mr. Hall had sternly told the boys to wait with eating till they were home he was the first to burn his lips when he succumbed to the odours drifting from the paper bag in his hands. Will and Jamie had to laugh and then tucked into their beano pies, nibbling small bites because they really were still too hot to eat properly. All had about half their pie left when they came back to Sussex Street.

Mr. Hall had kept his word and taught the boys to be proficient shots. He had also made himself a catapult after the first lesson on the Downs and that December he had taken them poaching on a moonlit evening. Will hadn’t known if Mr. Hall had talked to Mum or Gaffer about that beforehand, Mrs. Hall was kept in ignorance at any rate. However, when Will had walked into the living room at Ashton Street late that evening and proudly presented his family with a small pheasant and a rabbit he had received nothing but praise. The lads kept their promise too and refrained from using the catapults in town, apart from the beach which they decided did not constitute part of the town proper.

Will turned the helmet in his hands. This was more than a toy, this was the war too. He really wanted it. He slowly walked to the front of the shop with the tin hat in his hands. Jamie saw what he was holding and fell in step.

Mr. Blake, unshaven and bleary-eyed, growled a greeting.

“How much does the helmet cost?” Will asked tentatively.

“Proper one that, Mark 1 model from 1916,” Mr. Blake peered at the helmet. “The owner got himself one of those Zuckerman helmets, the new model for civilians. Dunno why, the steel they use for them is much weaker. These old ones offer much better protection. Not a bad idea in times like these. You can have it for a bob lad.”

Will looked down at the helmet.

“How much did you make today Will?” Jamie asked him.

“Six pennies,” Will answered downcast.

“I can give you thruppence Will,” Jamie offered. He looked at Mr. Blake inquiringly. The shop owner was known to drive a hard bargain but something in Will’s expression must have softened his heart for a moment.

“As an exception only lads, and don’t you go telling your mates that I am getting soft in me old age,” Mr. Blake growled. “Ninepence.”

Jamie smiled but Will was still hesitant, it would be the first time he wouldn’t share his earnings with Mum. She never asked him to but he knew she regarded the contributions Will made to the household money as a welcome extra. Mr. Blake sensed his hesitation and grew grumpy, assuming Will was trying to lower the price.

“I gave you thruppence off the asking price lad,” he growled. “Ninepence. Going once…”

“Sold,” Will made up his mind. The boys handed over their money and left the shop, Will clutching his precious helmet.

“You were worried about your mum?” Jamie asked.

Will nodded unhappily. He wanted to marvel at the helmet -his helmet- but felt a pang of guilt.

“Here mate,” Jamie pressed another tuppence into Will’s free hand.

“I thought that was all you had…back in the shop,” Will was puzzled.

“I had more, but I wasn’t going to tell him that was I?” Jamie grinned. “Give that to your mum Will.”

“But how about you? You…”

“Will have to do without any more sweets today,” Jamie shrugged. “The Hall-Maskall Austerity Drive. For King and Country.”

“For King and Country,” Will agreed. Those words always cheered him up. He pocketed the tuppence feeling awkward, Jamie had been a real mate today and Will didn’t really know how to express his gratitude.

“Well, are you going to put that damn helmet on or what?” Jamie asked impatiently.

Will did so immediately and wore it all the way home. When they passed their local ARP station he gave the Warden on duty a prompt salute, unaware that passers-by were grinning at the sight of a boy in shorts wearing a Tommy helmet that was several sizes too big for him and kept on wobbling left and right.

§ § § § § § §

The evening was marked by continual air raid warnings and Will helped Gaffer carry the bedding downstairs to the cellar where Mum and Gran were making tea. It was a simple stew with lots of carrots and mashed potatoes. The lack of meat was compensated by a lot of extra gravy powder and as a special treat there was grated cheese. Mum had taken a couple of mended uniforms back to the Canadians and they had given her a chunk of cheese on top of the payment of sugar and tinned fruit that had been agreed upon. She opened one of the tins for dessert, saving the other for another time. They were peaches, heavenly sweet, and everybody got two slices. Will tried to savour his as long as he could while Gaffer carefully poured equal measures of the juice in the tin into glasses. He mixed that with water and it made perfect lemonade as far as Will was concerned.

When it was time to sleep Gaffer took his accustomed place on the stairs; in his long johns, shotgun in his hand and wearing the Brodie helmet he had worn at the Somme. If the Nazis landed parachutists on Ashton Street that night to capture a tailor’s workshop they would be in for a surprise when they entered the damp cellar.

Will put on his pajamas, then strapped his own helmet on and went to sit next to his grandfather, armed with his blackthorn catapult and his bag of marbles for ammunition. He also had a bag of fine round pebbles which he had selected on the beach near Banjo Groyne but he reckoned any Nazi thug charging down the stairs deserved to be struck by Will’s Class-A ammunition.

Mum looked at him and shook her head. She was about to say something, probably along the lines of it being a school night but Gaffer shook his head at her.

“Let the lad be,” he said. “I’ll need all the men I can get if Jerry comes tonight.”

Will beamed.

“You two,” Mum shook her head. “You might as well join the Local Defence Volunteers while you’re at it.”

She didn’t know that both Gaffer and Will had made inquiries about the LDV but had been turned down because they had been respectively too old and too young.

That night Will fell asleep sitting on the stairs, his head resting on Gaffer’s shoulder and his helmet so far askance that it almost hung completely sideways. 


The children were huddled in a corner of the little green patch which centred the small square. They were enthralled by a game of glarnies. Will and Jamie were taking on two other boys of their own age. They flipped the marbles with their first finger against their thumb and tried to land them in gullies formed by the partially exposed roots of a London planetree.

Brenda and Eddie looked on. Eddie clutched Brenda’s hand and regarded the game with awe, marvelling at the intensity of the competition. Brenda didn’t share his fascination, she admired the marbles instead. The twisted colour markings inside the glass spheres were pretty, just about the only bright things on this dull grey day.

“Hurrah,” Eddie piped when the game was won and Brenda ruffled his fair curly hair. As always she envied his curls for a moment.

“Enough already?” The winner, Jamie, challenged the others. The two other boys pouted and drifted off. They weren’t keen on losing more precious marbles to Jamie and Will.

Will adjusted his Brodie helmet. The tin hat was far too large for Will and forever wobbling around and sliding askew and he looked silly in it, Brenda thought. Will’s bright blue eyes seemed to laugh as he watched the other lads drift away.

“That was good,” Will said happily. “What next?”

“Sweets!” Eddie suggested and Will laughed.

“There aint many left,” Jamie shrugged.

“Jamie is right,” Will said wistfully. “Besides, I haven’t got a penny right now.”

“Neither do I,” Jamie shrugged apologetically.

“Sweets,” Eddie said with less conviction.

“I have a ha’penny,” Brenda said. “Mrs. Parsons sells ha’penny portions.”

Eddie, Will and Jamie brightened.

“Well done, Duck!” Jamie said.

“I am not a duck,” Brenda frowned.

They left the square to go to Parsons Confectionary. The small shop had a narrow door and a display window filled with rows of sweet jars forming a kaleidoscope of bright colours. Mrs. Parsons welcomed them in, she was old but had bright emerald eyes and a kindly face framed by a mane of abundant hair with some traces of red fire still amidst the grey.

“Just a ha’penny, ma’am,” Brenda said shyly, it felt like begging a little bit.

“Which will buy you a ha’penny of sweets,” she answered with a warm smile.

“You can each taste one sweet each first if you’d like,” the shopkeeper stated and the children shared glances of disbelief; this was unheard of.

“Are you sure?” Jamie asked carefully, not quite sure if they were dealing with a sane person.

“Positively,” Mrs. Parsons smiled. Not only did she appear quite sane but she filled the space with a bright radiance, as if the sun had broken through the overcast sky outside and now danced upon the rainbows created by the jars. The delighted children drifted around the shop, running their hands along the jars and examining potential candidates more critically. They took a long time making their choices but Mrs Parsons did not seem to mind at all. She understood it wasn’t easy. Instead she voiced the names of whatever sweets she saw them look at.…there seemed to be no end to the heavenly delights.

The children waved happily at Mrs Parsons when at long last they departed, Brenda clutching a paper bag which held a far larger content than a ha’penny justified.

Seconds after stepping out onto the street there was a terrifying roar overhead and the air raid warning sirens began to wail. The children looked up to see a dog fight straight overhead and then the ground seemed to shake and a loud boom sounded from the square where they had been earlier. They looked at each other with open mouths and then ran around the corner.

The very corner of the little park where they had just been playing glarnies was now a churned mass of disturbed earth from which rose the back end of a Messerschmitt, the black and iron cross clearly visible on its rump and the swastika on its tail an odd sight in a Brighton Square. The front end of the plane seemed to have simply disappeared.

“LET’S GO!” Will began to run towards the plane, determined to beat the ARP wardens to the wreck.

Brenda held on to Eddie’s hand as the little boy struggled to follow Will.

“Will, wait!” Jamie shouted.

Will looked back at Jamie curiously.

Jamie threw a pointed glance at Eddie and Will understood. Reluctantly he came walking back adjusting his helmet with an embarrassed grin on his face.

“Thank you, Jamie,” Brenda said fervently. She had little desire to possibly see a dead German pilot, let alone let Eddie near one. She had heard Mum tell Dad stories about the war injuries she had treated often enough to know that it would be horrible.

She was surprised that Jamie had realised all of this but then he ruined it all by saying, “Duck has sweets, we mustn’t leave her out of our sight.”

“True,” Will nodded.

“I am not a duck,” Brenda said with exasperation.

“Sweets!” Eddie lost interest in the plane and Jamie winked at Brenda.

She felt bad for thinking the worst of him and held out the bag asking, “Anybody want a sweet?”

All three boys nodded and grinned. 


It was a Monday morning and Will sat at the table in his pajamas still feeling rather sleepy. Mum had already left for work which was why he was up so early. Though she always tried to be quiet in the morning Will usually woke up anyway. Mum’s main job was at the public baths in Park Street. A lot of people didn’t have bathrooms and those with a shilling to spare went to the public baths rather than limiting themselves to options at home which involved filling a tin bath tub. The shilling bought the use of a towel, a piece of soap and time in one of the huge bathtubs in a cubicle. Mum was one of the attendants who operated the hot and cold water taps outside the cubicles. Bathers would holler for more hot or cold water when they needed it and during busy periods Mum would be scurrying around trying to keep up with the demands. She always left so early in the morning because the work involved a lot of cleaning as well.

Will yawned, now that he was up he didn’t really want to crawl back into bed but he was still too groggy to do much more than yawn. It was around six o’clock and it would be another half hour before Gran came out of her bedroom to boil water for a cup of tea. Will heard the sound of horse hooves and the light rumbling of wheels on the street outside, that would be the bread vendor starting his rounds with his bread cart. As the sound of the cart became more distant it blended with the rhythmic purring of aircraft engines. Will frowned but then decided it was probably an RAF coastal patrol; he should have heard the air raid warning warbling away like a mechanical banshee if it was the Luftwaffe.

He became wide awake when he suddenly heard the stuttering of an ack-ack gun as well as the louder and steadier crack of a Bofors gun. Brighton’s defenders had opened fire and that could only mean one thing…

He gasped, Mum wouldn’t have reached the public baths yet; she was out there on the streets.


Will ran to the chair next to his mattress where his clothes lay neatly folded, already pulling off his pajama top. 

More ack-ack guns and at least one other Bofors gun joined in as the aeroplane’s droning approached. Will shot into his clothes. There was still no air raid warning, but surely Mum would realise what the sound of the anti-aircraft batteries meant and find cover.


Gaffer came storming out of the bedroom, shotgun in his hand. For just a moment Will visualised Gaffer in the middle of Ashton Street in his long johns, firing the shotgun into the air at the Jerry aeroplanes.

Gaffer suddenly seemed decades younger and fully alert. Will didn’t have to explain what was happening; the old man took it all in within a fraction of a second.

“Will, stay away from the windows. Put on your gasmask and stay low, I’ll fetch Gran and…”

A new sound was added to the cacophony outside, piercing whistles at some distance away.

“DOWN!” Gaffer shouted at Will and both dropped to the ground.

The whistling stopped abruptly, transforming into crumps and then the tremendous booms of explosions which followed each other in quick succession. The windows rattled in their frames and from his position on the floor Will saw dust jumping up as the floorboards trembled.

The explosions ceased and it seemed oddly quiet despite the continuation of the hum of aircraft engines and the fretting of the anti-aircraft guns. Only now did the incessant wailing of the air raid warning add its rising and falling pitch to the other noises.

Will put on his gasmask and then his helmet, padded now with old newspaper so that it didn’t wobble so much. He made for the stairs.

“Will!” Gaffer hollered after him. “Come back here.”

Will was already at the backdoor and with surprising speed Gaffer bounded down the stairs and then through the little yard where he apprehended his grandson by the gate; grabbing the boy by the scruff of his neck.

“Mum is out there!” Will shouted desperately. When he realised his voice was garbled he pulled the bottom half of his gasmask up and repeated the message.

Gaffer nodded. He looked at the sky; thick dark columns of smoke were rising up to the east.

“Looks like the far end of Kemptown got it,” he said. “Well beyond Queen’s Park, Will.”

“I need to know,” Will insisted.

“So do I lad,” Gaffer nodded. “You wait here, do you understand? Wait here. Don’t move. I’ll get dressed, tell Gran and then we’ll both go looking for your mum.”

Will nodded, relieved that Gaffer was coming with him.

Gaffer had put on his helmet as well as an old khaki overcoat which made him look semi-official, like he belonged with the ARP, albeit without an armband or a proper identification mark on his helmet. Most of the Wardens wore black helmets with a white ‘W’ painted on it and there were other functions as well. Gaffer carried his gasmask in the cardboard box his had been issued in. Will kept his mask on and wished he had brought his catapult.

The anti-aircraft batteries had ceased firing and the plane was long gone, but the air raid warning kept on wailing as the two walked down to Queen’s Park Road till that road turned west, running along the bottom of Queen’s Park.

The streets were oddly busy; many folk had come outside to look at the smoke boiling up over the eastern end of town.

“Fools,” Gaffer snorted. “We’re fools too, Will. If the Luftwaffe send over any more bombers they’ll catch half the town out in the bleeding open.”

Will said nothing, he felt oddly safe with this new version of Gaffer by his side. When they came to the intersection where the road met South Avenue and Freshfield Place they turned right onto Park Street. Mum was safe; she was outside the public baths with other attendants looking at the smoke.

“Dad? Will?” She was surprised to see them.

“Will was…we were worried about you,” Gaffer explained.

Some people there had been on the streets on their way to work, and a few of those confirmed it had just been a single aeroplane, one man claimed to be certain it was a Dornier DO 17 which had turned tail after dropping its bombs.

Gaffer decided to take Will further down Park Street. There was a small Salvation Army Hall at the bottom of the street where the ARP had a control centre. It was busy there, men and women were running in to report for duty whilst others ran out to jump into waiting vehicles or hop on bicycles. They all turned left onto Eastern Road, somewhere along the end of which the bombs appeared to have fallen. Gaffer walked up to one of the Wardens who was keeping gathering members of the public at bay.

“What’s the situation?” Gaffer asked the Warden.

The woman looked confused, uncertain as to whether Gaffer belonged to the ARP or not. She decided that the authority in Gaffer’s voice indicated that she’d better answer him.

“Single bomber, it dropped nine bombs we think. Bennet Road and Prince’s Terrace got hit, Whitehawk Road too. There are fires and casualties. I don’t know how many.”

“Thank you,” Gaffer said.

Will took off his helmet so he could remove his gasmask.

“Gaffer, can we go look?” he asked hopefully.

“Will, lad, right now we’d only get in the way. Besides that they’ll be pulling out bodies from beneath the rubble and gathering what they can still find of those who have been shredded by shrapnel.”

Gaffer suddenly looked old and weary again. “To be frank lad, I hope that you never have to see that sight.”

Will nodded, trying to hide his disappointment. They walked back home in silence.


The air war began to increase in intensity. Air raid warnings became the order of the day. Officially an air raid warning consisted of three phases. The first one was the signal that danger was approaching and an instruction to the general population to seek cover. The second the signal that danger was imminent at which point all the essential personnel had to seek cover too. The third was the all-clear. Sometimes though, the sirens just kept on wailing without a pause and sometimes they would start again even as the all-clear sounded. It was easy to lose track of whether or not a warning was the first or second on the days the sirens seemed to work without synchronicity, each alarm following its own course.

At Ashton Street sleeping in the cellar became permanent and Mr. Hall came over to help Gaffer strengthen two already sturdy tables with additional wooden struts and screens of wire under which the mattresses and bedding were placed.

Will expressed skepticism. If a bomb were to hit the house it was like as not to burrow itself into the cellar. Though the tables looked sturdy enough he doubted they would be much use if a Jerry bomb exploded in the cellar. Mr. Hall explained that the raid on Kemptown had destroyed six houses in their entirety, but that thirty others had been very badly damaged and it was in the buildings surrounding the impact point that these sorts of improvised shelters could mean the difference between survival and death.

Most of the air raid warnings didn’t concern direct attacks on Brighton. The daytime alarms would often sound at the approach of the tiny silvery specks high up in the sky denoting Luftwaffe bombers heading inland. Almost always a pattern of vapour trails would be drawn around these formations as Spitfires and Hurricanes dived in to engage the Heinkels and Dorniers as well as their protective screen of Messerschmitt fighters. These combats would sometimes pass over deeper into English airspace but if the formations were broken up quick enough the whole would suddenly disperse; bombers diving to evade pursuing RAF fighters whilst other RAF and Luftwaffe fighters turned and twisted about each other in dog fights. Some of the planes would streak down low enough for those on the ground to hear the bursts of the machine guns.

Lessons at school were interrupted ever more frequently, sometimes up to two or three times a day and staff and pupils would huddle in the trenches, straining their necks and mesmerized by the Battle of Britain taking place right over their heads. Once, after chasing a Luftwaffe formation back across the Channel, two Hurricanes came flying back close over the rooftops and playfully performed Victory-rolls right over the school. Just about everyone scrambled out of the trenches to wave at the pilots and collectively roar approval -including many teachers. By God, but Britannia didn’t just rule the waves it seemed to be master of the skies too at moments like that.

Far more dangerous for Brighton were the Luftwaffe raiders which had participated in attacks on RAF bases like Shoreham and Tangmere and flew over the town in ones and twos after the raids, releasing any bombs they had left or strafing the streets before flying back over the Channel. They tended to fly in low from the north and were hard to detect meaning the advance warning was dreadfully short. They heard it was far worse in Eastbourne where planes coming in from the west weren’t spotted till the very last moment when they suddenly appeared over the South Downs which towered over the edge of town.

When they were not at school Will and Jamie would be moving from one good vantage point to another in the hope of catching a good dog fight. The view from the top of Richmond Street and Sussex Terrace, near to both their homes, was a boon of course. The hike to the Dyke Road Park was worth the effort as well. Dyke Road Park was beyond their usual bounds but the playing fields of the Brighton Hove and Sussex Grammar school now held a battery of ack-ack guns and on a lucky visit Jerry planes would pass high overhead and the ack-ack guns would start stuttering and cause puffs of black smoke to appear amidst the planes.

Will and Jamie, as well as countless of other boys, were frequently informed as to the danger by Parkies – usually Wardens and occasionally coppers – who did their best to keep the park clear of small boys but theirs was an almost impossible task for a bout of shooting would be followed by the very danger that was warned of: A rainfall of shiny metal pieces. Shrapnel had fast become a valued collector’s item which could be proudly displayed at school or used as a trading commodity with the other boys and this outweighed the risks as far as the children were concerned.

“That was a good haul,” Jamie noted with satisfaction as they departed Dyke Road Park again, half-running because one of the Parkies was making a half-hearted attempt to catch up with them. He gave up when he saw the boys exit the park.

“It sure was,” Will grinned. He turned over one of his new pieces of shrapnel in his hands. Thoughtfully he added, “to shoot Jerry planes out of the sky with.”

Jamie understood instantly. “We could test it, not all of it of course.”

“No, just a few small pieces,” Will agreed. It was clear that the qualities of used shrapnel as catapult ammunition required instant investigation.

“The Racecourse?” Jamie suggested.

Will nodded, “We’ll take the doormat as well.”

“Shoot as we fly!” Jamie’s mouth dropped open. “Will, you’re a genius.”

Will grinned happily, even though the thought of combining the two activities had not occurred to him yet. The boys hastened their step.

§ § § § § § §

Mum asked Brenda to go to the shops. She was hesitant because there was real danger out on the streets now. 

Mum said an increasing number of lads had been brought in, burnt by red-hot shrapnel they tried to pick up or bruised and cut by the stuff.

“I won’t go near shrapnel,” Brenda promised. She knew why she had to go. Eddie had come down with the flu and Mum preferred to nurse the feverish boy herself.

“Try and find a lemon if you can, otherwise an orange will do,” Mum said, pressing some coins in Brenda’s outstretched hand. “It may take a while to find a greengrocer that has them.”

“If I see a queue in front of a greengrocer, I’ll join it.” Brenda nodded. A queue in front of a shop had become an indication that there was something worthwhile in stock.

“Good girl,” Mum smiled. “You’re a real dear. Be careful please.”

Brenda was lucky. The nearby greengrocer knew Brenda and when she explained the situation at home he called his wife who took Brenda into the storeroom at the back of the shop. It was mostly empty packaging, food shops seldom had excess wares anymore but there was half a crate of oranges tucked into a corner. The shopkeeper’s wife winked at Brenda as she carefully put three oranges in a paper bag.

“I’ve got one lemon left, that’s all,” she said regretfully. “And my own boy is ill as well.”

Brenda nodded her understanding.

“So I’ll cut it in half, your mum and dad are decent people,” the woman decided and proceeded to do just that.

Brenda smiled.

“Best you go out back into the twitten,” the shopkeeper’s wife said.

“Yes, thank you so much!”

“Tell your mum I said hello, please.”

“I will, thank you!” Brenda headed into the small backyard and left through the gate to emerge in the twitten. 

Oranges were in short supply and although they had been reserved for children it would not really do for other customers to see someone emerging from the back room with a bag. People might think there was under the counter business going on, and in a way there was, for Brenda had one more orange than was allotted.

Mum was really pleased that Brenda was back so fast and with such a treasure too.

“Please go tell them I’ll drop round. Your dad will be home at six, so I can probably come around eight, after tea, to have a look at their Timothy,” Mum said, then added “Brenda?”

Brenda nodded, ready for the next task.

Mum gave her a grateful smile, “Why don’t you go out to play for a while?”

“Play?” Brenda was confused, “I can help you.”

“You help so much already,” Mum said softly. She wiped an eyelid and Brenda felt uncomfortable and wonderful at the same time. Mum made up her mind, “Go have some fun, or else you’ll be missing out on too much. Be careful, stay away from the ack-ack guns. Be back at six for your tea.”

Brenda nodded and then headed to the greengrocer’s to pass on Mum’s message. When she stepped out of the shop again she felt wonderfully free. For a moment she was absolutely delighted with the unexpected escape. Then her shoulders sagged. But what to do with it? She had given Mum back the change and had no pennies for sweets.

 She suddenly realised that play had always involved Eddie for a good few years now and she felt kind of empty without his little hand in hers as he scampered to keep up with her.

Then she saw Will and Jamie walking on the other side of the street. Will was wearing his ridiculously large soldier’s helmet. They both had catapults tucked into their pockets and were carrying a heavy doormat as they chattered with anticipatory gleams in their eyes. Brenda tutted to herself, they were clearly up to no good. Then her eyes lit up and in a momentary lapse of reason she crossed the road and ran until she was behind them.

“Hullo Duck,” Jamie greeted her.

“I am not a duck,” Brenda protested.

“Quack, quack,” Jamie answered and she stuck her tongue out at him.

Neither of the boys seemed surprised that she continued to follow them. They had become used to her presence, she reckoned. Good. Brenda was in a strange mood; it would be nice to just be careless for a little while. Mum had told her to go out and play so she wasn’t really doing anything wrong.

§ § § § § § §

They headed down Freshfield Road till they got to the hill by the Brighton Racecourse. Brenda’s eyes widened as she took in the broad hill slope and she understood why the boys were carrying the doormat.

Before the war started this had been a good place to fly kites but that activity had been prohibited now and it seemed that sledding down the hill on just about anything that would slide with one, or preferably more, children perched on it was the new popular pastime.

The boys made a great fuss about placing the mat just the right way on the top edge of the slope. Then they sat down on it; Jamie in front and Will behind him.

Jamie shot Brenda an impatient look, “Well, come on then.”

Will indicated the last bit of visible mat behind him and Brenda joined them tentatively. She chided herself, if she had been daring enough to follow them she shouldn’t give up now.

At first the mat slid slowly and the boys helped it along by pushing the ground with their feet and grabbing tufts of grass with their hands. Brenda imitated them and suddenly the mat began to gather speed of its own. Faster and faster it went and the hillslope was treacherous because what looked like a smooth bank of grass was full of bumps which caused a rocky ride. The boys hollered their pleasure and Brenda held her breath as she felt sheer exhilaration course through her.

When they got down in one piece the mat came to a sudden halt and they spilled off, rolling over the ground, all of them laughing. They ascended the hill again for another go and Brenda felt as carefree as she had ever been.

On the third run a particularly large bump sent them sprawling off the mat and rolling down the grass. The slope was steep here and Brenda turned over and over again, the world passing by in a flurry of blurred blue and green.

Then, to her disbelief, she heard the air raid warning start up. It wailed again and again to indicate some danger in the sky and Brenda was in a momentary state of panic as the world just tumbled round and round and she couldn’t see the source of possible danger.

§ § § § § § §

When Will slowed down sufficiently to dare a stop he sprang to his feet to scan the sky. Jamie and Brenda did likewise.

It looked like a formation of bombers had been broken up over the Channel and the aircraft were taking evasive manoeuvres as RAF fighters closed in for a kill. Then Luftwaffe fighters pounced from the cloud cover high up, streaking down to their English foes and a dogfight broke out. Some of the jumble of planes up there suddenly hurled to much lower altitudes and the children could clearly hear the machine guns at work now.

“Germany calling, Germany calling,” Jamie mimicked the German radio’s English language service announcer: Lord Haw Haw.

“Get those Jerries,” Will shouted his encouragement to the RAF pilots overhead. They slowly turned as the bombers and fighters made their way inland towards the open countryside around Castle Hill.

A stricken Heinkel bomber trailing smoke hurled northwards in a steadily descending trajectory low overhead. 

Will remembered his catapult and quickly loaded it with a bit of shrapnel. Jamie was half-a-second behind him.

“FIRE!” Will shouted and the shrapnel took to the air once more, ineffectively falling far short of the bomber.

 That didn’t bother Will and Jamie one bit, they got off two more shots before the stricken aircraft made a getaway.

Will readjusted his helmet which was sliding over the back of his head and grunted with satisfaction.

“Looks like we got a direct hit,” he told Jamie who nodded his agreement.

“Flamerinos boys!” Jamie shouted after the German plane.

“Sizzle, sizzle wonk!” Will added enthusiastically.

“What are you two on about then?” Brenda asked.

Jamie sighed and rolled his eyes at Brenda’s question and Will understood. Girls. Even ones that seemed okay like Brenda never seemed to know what really mattered.

Will looked at her curiously. He didn’t know why Brenda had chosen to tag along but he hadn’t minded. Her little brother Eddie was always fun to have around as he instinctively understood their games. Brenda had always seemed a bit standoffish, never really joining their play though she hadn’t seemed to mind watching. Will accepted her mostly because he felt her basin hair cut created a certain kinship. Today she had even been fun to have around. A lot of the girls had joined in some of the more rough and tumble games, emboldened perhaps by the sight of women driving buses and ambulances or wearing the Warden’s black helmet and giving orders and instructions to both men and women. It was like having a sister he supposed and he gave Brenda a smile.

“It's all clever stuff, no rubbish!" Jamie quoted Max Miller. “They don’t make ‘em like Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock anymore, Duck!”

“I am not a duck,” Brenda insisted firmly. “And I still don’t know what you’re on about.”

“He was the best English ace in the Great War,” Will explained. “Seventy three kills and a V.C. decoration. Born and bred in Brighton.”

They were distracted by loud cheering and looked the other way towards the coast. A fighter had copped it in a dog fight high over the sea and was spiralling downwards tracing smoke and clearly out of control. The spectators on the hill cheered loudly; even though the plane was at such a distance that there was no way they could tell if it was British or German. As it was inconceivable that the RAF could lose a fight they automatically assumed such casualties to be German.

§ § § § § § §

Brenda opened the front door. Dad turned around in the hallway. He had just got back from work and was still wearing a dirty boiler suit.

Dad looked her up and down curiously and when Brenda followed his gaze she noted with horror that her thick stockings and dress were thoroughly stained with dirt and grass. Her mouth fell open and she looked at Dad helplessly. Clothing was rationed these days and children were forever being cautioned about being mindful about this.

“Florrie?” Dad called out towards the kitchen. “Did you send Brenda out on an errand?”

“She was a real dear again earlier today,” Mum’s voice called back. “I told her to go out and play for a change, have some time for herself. A bit of fun.”

Dad looked back at Brenda and softly said, “It certainly looks like you did.”

Brenda nodded nervously, awaiting the reaction she knew was going to come. How cross would he be?

“Charlie,” Mum called out. “I need to go to the Bensons later, their lad is ill as well and they were very helpful today.”

“Very well, I’ll mind Edward,” Dad called back and then looked at Brenda again. To her surprise he winked and then said in a low voice, “Upstairs, change into your other dress before she sees you.”

Brenda smiled with relief.

“After that, you’ve got some washing to do,” he added more sternly. “Take more care next time.”

Brenda nodded and rushed up the stairs feeling like she had just crawled through the eye of a needle.

§ § § § § § §

The boys were in high spirits when they got back to Sussex Street. Will had been invited for the evening meal by Jamie’s dad. Mrs. Hall was visiting her sister in Lewes and Mr. Hall had decided to treat the lads to fish and chips.

Mr. Hall greeted them with a clip around the ear each on account of their shorts being exceedingly filthy, something Will and Jamie hadn’t noticed yet. Only now did Will see that he had scraped his left knee and Jamie’s shorts were torn by one of the legs. Other than that it did look as if they had brought half the hillside home, earth and grass had left a mark. 

Mr. Hall then gave them money to go to the chippie and told them to hurry before it ran out of fish.

Jamie and Will walked up Queen’s Park Road. Jamie was muttering about his smarting ear but Will felt rather pleased with the light sting he still felt. For a moment it had been like having a father.

There was almost no advance warning of the approach of the Messerschmitt which suddenly appeared behind them, flying parallel with Queen’s Park Road. Will and Jamie turned around as they heard the loud engine of the plane roaring at them.

“Listen to that Daimler-Benz go!” Jamie had to almost shout his admiration to be heard. “More than a 1000 HP!”

“I think it’s a new 109F!” Will responded in kind.

“You DAFT LITTLE BUGGERS!” A harsh voice violated their ears as a Warden appeared out of nowhere and took a rough hold of their arms, dragging them off the street and almost throwing them into an open shop door before diving in himself.

Will scrambled up to hear the Warden cursing him for being a bloody fool. Outside there were short whistling sounds and then bangs as the Messerschmitt’s pilot shot his cannons before rumbling past seemingly just a few feet over the rooftops.

Jamie got to his feet as well and both lads received their second clip around their ear that day, this time from the Warden. He kept his sermon short.

“You BLOODY well find COVER when Jerry comes.”

Will and Jamie mumbled a thanks and scurried back out onto the street.

“I really think it was a 109E Will,” Jamie continued the debate but stopped when they saw shiny objects on the street.

They made a quick division of labour. Jamie would go on to the chippie with the bob and sixpence his father had given him for three pieces of fish and three portions of chips. Will stayed to collect as many solid brass 20mm shells as he could. He managed to get his hand on a total of nine of them, competing with other children who came running out of shops and houses and then making a quick get-away when a Police Constable cycled up the street blowing a whistle at the children.

Will waited for Jamie at the corner of Sussex Street and they divided the spoils back at the house, giving three of the shells to Mr. Hall who was slightly shocked to hear they had been fired at but pleased with his share of the bounty nonetheless.


Eddie got well again but developed the urge to visit the toilet more frequently in the evenings and Brenda would walk him to the outhouse at the back of the yard. Although the walls surrounding the little yards behind the terraced houses obscured a wider vision the night sky was often spectacular. The searchlights of the 70th Sussex Searchlight Regiment would be sweeping the sky over Brighton’s seafront close by and further off they could see the beams at Worthing to the west and Ovingdean to the east. Sometimes the ack-ack guns would be spitting their anger at Luftwaffe bombers far overhead and once Brenda saw the tiny flashes of machine guns as British fighters intercepted them.

§ § § § § § §

There had been talk of evacuation again. Mum and Dad were increasingly coming around to the idea that Brenda and Eddie would be much safer in the countryside. Brenda overheard the talk in the evening while she was doing her homework and she had to restrain herself from interrupting the conversation. 

She strongly disagreed with the notion of evacuation. Brenda couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to be sent away from home to live with strangers. She didn’t want to leave Brighton. That night she knelt at the edge of her bed and prayed that her parents would give up on the horrible idea.

§ § § § § § §

St James Street was busy with people doing their Saturday shopping. Mum had got her shopping done and led Brenda and Eddie to the sweet shop opposite St Mary’s Church. She had promised them some sweets.

Eddie was wearing his cowboy outfit and Brenda had brought Margaret Elizabeth out for the walk. She usually left the doll at home, feeling a little bit too old to be seen with one on the street but poor Margaret Elizabeth had been pining for some fresh air.

The air raid warning went off as they approached the sweet shop but even before it had reached its first peak there was an ominous rumble. Brenda could see along the whole length of St James Street here, all the way to the Steine Gardens and it was there that a Messerschmitt had appeared and was now coming up from the bottom of the street, flickering lights on its wings showing that it was strafing the street.

Mum pulled Brenda and Edward into the shop hurriedly. Once inside she let go of their hands.

“Hat!” Eddie suddenly shouted and ran out again.

“EDWARD! NO!” Mum looked horrified and seemed frozen to the spot.

“Hold her,” Brenda shoved Margaret Elizabeth into Mum’s hand and dashed outside.

She saw the hat lying on the pavement outside, Eddie must have dropped it when her mother pulled him into the shop. 

Brenda ran after Eddie. In the handful of seconds since they had run into the shop and out again the Messerschmitt had come much closer, engine thundering and blazing guns barking harshly.

Brenda tackled Eddie rather roughly, throwing him onto the pavement and then diving down too to land by his exposed side. She grabbed hold of her brother and pressed him down as close to the rough surface as she could, nearly wetting herself as she heard the sequence of thuds which told her the impact trail of the machine gun bullets was sweeping straight at them.

Her back was to the plane, all Brenda could do was tilt her head towards the church. She looked straight at the now tattered gull feathers on Eddie’s hat some five feet away and then there were loud cracks and fountains of grit and dust as the machine gun bullets impacted a line that passed right in between her head and the hat. Brenda could actually see the bullets bouncing off the pavement and then heard them ricocheting off the walls of nearby buildings.

The pilot of the Messerschmitt increased his altitude and then was gone altogether, leaving behind an odd silence.

Brenda scrambled to her feet and then helped Eddie up.

“You hurt me!” Eddie was astonished.

Brenda laughed much too loud. She turned to look at Mum who was still frozen in the doorway of the shop. Then mum dropped Margaret Elizabeth and rushed towards Eddie to scoop her son in her arms.

Brenda’s lip began to tremble, she had heard a distinct crack. She made her way to Margaret Elizabeth and when she picked up her doll she saw that a long ugly rent ran diagonally on Margaret Elizabeth’s face, there was also a chip off her nose. Brenda stared at her doll in disbelief and then looked at Mum.

“Brenda hurt me,” Eddie said with a long face. 

Of the whole strafing attack that had made the biggest impression on him.

“That was because you were a very silly boy,” Mum tried to sound stern but relief was still evident in her voice. She had seen the bullets strike the pavement mere feet from her children’s heads. “You should never leave cover under fire, Edward, Never!”

Eddie lowered his head. He said softly, “Never, ever.”

Mum looked at Brenda, shaking her head in disbelief. “Brenda, that was…that was…”

Brenda looked at Margaret Elizabeth’s disfigured face and began to cry. 

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Previously released chapters (1-6) can be found here:'s-war-in-brighton-(serial)

Previously released chapters (7-12) can be found here:'s-war-in-brighton-chapters-seven-to-twelve

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