‘Sam thought about Grandad being ten or eleven at the end of the war. It was very hard to think of him as a boy’ *
Jane Phillips’ book The Clarendon Boys* was inspired by her husband, John’s childhood growing up in the Clarendon district of Dover.
John Buss was born one month before Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939. That first year, John told me, in a recent interview at his home in Kent, was often referred to as ‘the phoney war’ because not a lot happened. Ships were sunk at sea but there were no bombs on land. It wasn’t until the spring of 1940 when the Germans began moving long-range guns around Calais, closely followed by the retreat from Dunkirk, that the war began in earnest. No other town in the country suffered more than Dover during WWII: 215 civilians were killed and more than 10,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.
The Buss family, on both sides and across three generations, were Dovorians. John’s father, Joe worked as a welder in the Dockyards, a reserved occupation which meant that he wasn’t allowed to enlist. He was involved in several admiralty projects, including the construction of anti-submarine netting in the Channel. In September 1940, after a very large piece of shrapnel landed on the garden path immediately behind his wife and their infant son, Joe decided that Eileen and John should be evacuated to the Midlands. For the next five years, they were billeted with Mr. Read, a delightful man who became my surrogate father explained John. Due to the constraints of war, Joe was only able to visit his family three times a year.
John was six years old when, in the spring of 1945, he and his mother came home to 185 Clarendon Street. The town lay in ruins and while Dover dusted itself down, John and his friends formed a gang. They played on the streets and in bombed-out houses before discovering The Western Heights. This extensive network of fortifications, started during the Napoleonic Wars and completed in the 1860s, consists of tunnels, bridges, dry moats, ditches, pillboxes and immense forts, including the North Centre Bastion, Drop Redoubt, The Grand Shaft and the Citadel, where the soldiers were stationed and guns and ammunition were stored. The boys explored the tunnels, with no idea where they might lead nor whether they were safe from sudden collapse. They scrambled down cliffs to the beach and collected driftwood to build bonfires, carefully sweeping the sand as they walked to avoid disturbing unexploded objects. We read Swallows and Amazons. We drew maps and imagined finding buried treasure. There was a tremendous spirit of freedom and adventure and virtually no constraints, recalled John. All we ever told our parents was that we were going out for the day. I don’t think they worried about us.
On one occasion, the four friends discovered an unexploded mine rolling around in the waves. John knew a boy along Clarendon Street who had picked up a hand grenade which subsequently exploded. He lost his hand and had to wear a black leather glove. He looked rather sinister recalled John. They kept their distance from the mine and reported it to the signalman on the railway line.
At high tide, we used to jump off the stern of the beached destroyer, HMS Codrington, near the clock tower in Dover. At Samphire Hoe we once saw a Heinkel, a German bomber that had been shot down by Spitfires at Hawkinge. It was wedged in the rocks and we could see the bullet holes in the fuselage and the wings.
The boys found all kinds of war detritus on the beach, including dead horses that had been washed or thrown overboard. As their confidence and sense of adventure increased, they extended their explorations to the Warren in Folkestone. One afternoon, they were caught by the tide and decided to walk home through the railway tunnel. These were the days of steam trains so the tracks weren’t electrified but there were no fences either. The father of one of the boys worked on the railways and so they knew about the recesses in the brickwork. They knew too that if you put your ear to the line you could hear the train when it was still several miles away. Shakespeare Tunnel is almost a mile long but it is also dead straight. If the light at the far end was blocked, John explained, they knew that a train was coming and they needed to hurry to the closest lay-by.
Tramps and ‘vagrants’ often sheltered in the tunnels and the boys made friends with a man they called ‘Old Ted’ who used to walk between the Dover and Elham workhouses.
The gang broke up in 1950 when they sat the 11+. Of the four of them, only John passed the exam and went on to Dover Grammar School.
The Western Heights remains pretty much the way it was 150 years ago. The outside space is accessible all year round. There is no entrance fee and, on a clear day, there are fine views across the hills, down the cliffs to Dover Harbour and out to sea. Today The Heights are managed by a preservation society. The Citadel was converted into a Young Offenders unit, an immigration centre and finally a film location studio. As of 2023, there are plans in the pipeline to renovate and repurpose the fort as a hotel and leisure complex.
The Clarendon Boys by Jane Phillips pub. 2015, by Crumps Barn Studios
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, pub. 1930