It’s time to spike a rumour that’s been floating about for 70 years: the Borstal Gun.
Correspondents have often referred to this piece of ordnance in mystical terms, as First World War tommies might have spoken of Big Bertha, one of the huge German howitzers that could fire a 1,800lb shell nearly 10 miles. Even recently, it was mentioned again, in a charming letter from Mrs Rebecca Dean, now a “well-advanced nonagenarian” from Frindsbury.
Mrs Dean had been working away and wrote: “From the relative peace of Worcestershire, we returned to the mayhem of raids day and night and to the almost comforting sound of the Borstal Gun.”
Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you all, but the Borstal Gun didn’t exist. Alan Rose says so.
How does know? Because he was an anti-aircraft gunner at Fort Borstal, posted there as a half-section of the 166 (City of Rochester) Battery HAA RA TA. He writes from Maidstone: “May I scotch once and for all, the rumour about the Borstal Gun? There was none. It just seemed that there was a big gun, which occasionally fired.
“This, was, in fact, when the gunners responsible for firing their gun hit the firing lever in response to the order to fire by the GPOack [gun position officer’s assistant] at the exact same moment. This would happen when the guns were turned towards the command post and the firers could not see the GPOack, (who would be masked by the gun shield) give the order to fire, they would all therefore hear the command at the same time.
“However if the guns were pointing the other way the firers could see the GPOack, and in their eagerness to ‘get theirs off first’ would anticipate the order (just as a sprinter anticipates the starting gun in a race) the result being a straggling burst of fire. It was bad gun drill, yes, but understandable, as with the adrenaline flooding through their veins, these lads were eager to protect their mothers and fathers, little brothers and sisters who were at the mercy of an enemy that knew no mercy.” So, now we know.
A burst of cannon – and one of our fighters fell to earth
Other correspondents have mentioned a Spitfire or Hurricane crash in the Battle of Britain near Fort Borstal. Others though it might be nearer Valley View Road. Mr Rose knows. He saw it happen and has written about it in his memoirs:
“Though the weather during the summer of 1940 was usually fine and dry there were other days when the sun remained behind cloud: heavy hazes or overcast, for days on end. It was all very frustrating for us gunners as we could hear the bombers passing far above but as our gun site was not equipped with radar gun direction, there was little we could do.
“There was the day when we could hear not only the enemy passing overhead but a battle being fought right above us. The unforgettable and most distinctive ripping sound of the eight Browning machineguns of our fighters and the thump! thump! thump! of the enemy’s cannon, could be heard as well as the change in the notes at the engines as they dived and twisted in the upper air.
“Then there came the last burst of cannon fire followed a few seconds later by the sound of an aircraft engine screaming down towards us. I looked frantically about, the clouds were down to only about 2,000ft and made the sound seem to come from every direction. Suddenly over to the south about 400ft away, I saw an object come into view. Black, now flying along level with the cloud base.
“Something fell from it and it whipped over reversing its direction and turning and diving towards me. As it did so I could then see that it was a Hurricane, but it had no tail.
“The plane was coming straight at me. It was so close I could almost feel the propeller boss in the back of my throat. Suddenly it flicked over again and crashed 200 yards away alongside the wall of Borstal Prison. The relief was unbelievable. But what was it that fell from the aircraft as it came out of the clouds? Could it have been the tail?
“No — it was the pilot. I don’t know whether he fell from the aircraft as a result of his own struggles or whether he simply fell out when the plane first turned over. To have fallen as he did, he must have opened the canopy but couldn’t manage to get out. When examined it was reported that one side of his face was terribly burnt and his right leg had been driven up into his body.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t attend to him right away as we became busy manning the guns but as soon as it was possible, his body was recovered and removed on a hurdle into the fort where he lay till he could be collected by the proper authorities.
“I later learnt that he was Sgt RA Ward. He was 23 years old and he is now buried in Mitcham Cemetery, near Croydon. Plot DD, Grave 284725.”