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Pensioner Denis Llewellyn from Gravesend shares Second World War memories

By Jenna Dobbs

Denis Llewellyn, of Stonebridge Road, Northfleet, has lived in Gravesham all his life.

The 89-year-old watched the Second World War unfold in the town, and has never forgotten the things he saw as a child.

A former tugmaster for the Port of London Authority, Denis is now president of the Gravesend Aeromodelling Club, having never lost his passion for aircraft.

He has shared the latest instalment of his wartime memories, after deciding to write down his story

Denis Llewellyn with his book
Denis Llewellyn with his book

Rationing was in place, and there were no oranges, no bananas, or any fruit that came from overseas.

We got 2oz of sweets each week, but there was very little meat - if you wanted a joint you had to save coupons for a long time.

Mother would make a meal out of nothing, and there was no waste in our house.

Dad loved his cups of tea and was lucky that, having to live aboard a dredger for weeks at a time, mother could get her hands on a tin of it.

The war dragged on, with the odd raider droning round.

One day, I was in the garden with Terry Gammon, and we heard a plane coming from the south.

Terry asked me if it was one of ours - I wasn’t sure, but it had two engines, like a Blenheim.

The next thing we knew, things started coming out of its bomb bay, but we weren’t in any danger.

The bombs were going towards the river, and I’m glad to say they went straight into the Thames.

Gravesend Airport during the war. Picture: Denis Llewellyn
Gravesend Airport during the war. Picture: Denis Llewellyn
Gravesend Airport before the Second World War. Picture: Denis Llewellyn
Gravesend Airport before the Second World War. Picture: Denis Llewellyn

Later, I heard another bomber droning round, just after I had got into my bedroom.

It was overhead, and I still had my clothes on when bombs started whistling down.

I jumped down the stairs when the two bombs hit, and opened the kitchen door.

The ceiling was coming down and the kitchen windows had blown in, along with the blackout curtains.

I turned the light off, and this made my mum scream out, “your brother’s outside!” - I found him laying on the concrete, but he was okay, though covered in glass.

I remember the weird sensation, the way the blast seemed to suck out the air like it was in a tunnel.

Dad and I put the blackout blinds up again, and went out to see if we could be of any help.

We bumped into a warden, who told us to go back home, but it was Friday night and I had to do my butchers round.

Turning into Park Avenue, I started to push the bike down the hill, where lots of people were gathered in the road.

The house I was meant to deliver the meat to had been hit by one of the bombs.

I found the lady who lived there, and said I was sorry for what had happened.

Thankfully, they were all okay, but I heard about a boy scout I knew, digging his brother out of the bricks and mortar.

After many nights in the shelters, the raids seemed to die down and you could go to the pictures at the Majestic Cinema in King Street.

If there was an air raid warning it would come up on the screen, and you could go to the shelters if you wanted.

By this time, I was a little older and getting ready to go to work.

I wanted to go to the Port of London Authority (PLA) with my dad, but you had to be 15, so that was out.

Told I was good at art, I started at the printing press - not a good idea for someone who could not spell.

Eventually, I realised it wasn’t for me and a former school mate mentioned they needed a new boy on the ferries.

The old ferry between Gravesend and Tilbury. Picture: Denis Llewellyn
The old ferry between Gravesend and Tilbury. Picture: Denis Llewellyn

So, I went to Tilbury the next morning for my interview, in a little wooden hut by the river front.

The man inside did not beat around the bush. I was asked about three questions and I had the job - starting on Monday morning at 5am.

It was January 1943 when I stepped aboard the London Midlands and Scottish Railway’s goods ferry, Minnie, at West Street Pier, Gravesend.

By the time it was breaking daylight, cars and lorries had started to come on board, and I was told to keep well clear for my own safety.

As the vehicles drove onto the ship, the boat would roll - tilting to one side and the next - which made me feel a bit sick. I had not got my sea legs, as they say.

It was while working on the boat that I had my first meeting with Americans.

They were driving a lorry or truck and two jeeps with trailers, and decided to park up and have a look around.

While I was looking at one of the jeeps, one of them looked at me, and said, “what are you doing on this boat?”

“I’m one of the crew”, I replied, but he didn’t think I looked old enough, and shouted “hey Mack, this kid should still be at school!”, before giving me some gum.

All the Americans that came over on the goods ferry gave me something. They were always very happy, and nice to me.

Many of them were stationed in Essex, so they came to Gravesend for a good time and Bill, the head rope man, would always tell them if they went too far.

By the time I was a few weeks into the job, I was beginning to like the work.

I was supplied with part of my uniform - a pair of “sea boots”, trousers, a waistcoat with silver buttons and a cap with the HMS badge.

A cruise ship on the Thames. Picture: Denis Llewellyn
A cruise ship on the Thames. Picture: Denis Llewellyn

It was around this time that Hitler decided to have another go at us with “flying bombs” - the V1, or to us, the Doodlebug.

They came over two or three times a day, and were the noisiest thing you ever heard.

But, when the engine stopped, and it went quiet, you knew it was going to come down somewhere.

Once, we were concerned one was coming up the river - the engine stopped over the Terrace Pier, and it dived into the cliffs near Rosherville.

One big bang and it was gone. None of the factories were hit.

While working the late shift on the goods ferry, a lorry used to come onboard at about 10.30pm, from the Wellington Barracks.

They did this run every night, to supply cocoa and slab cakes to the gun sites in Essex, and the soldiers on the ferry would always give me some.

After mooring for the night, the rest of the crew got their heads down and I would go up to the upper deck to watch the flying bombs coming over Kent.

Looking down the river one particular night, I could see one coming up along the way, with flames coming out the back.

For the first time, it was heading straight for us - I wondered if I should call the crew, but thought better of it.

The guns opened up, and I could see sparks flying out of it.

The next thing I knew, they’d made a direct hit; one big, white flash and it was gone - all of the bits falling into the river.

It was about this time that my brother, who was in the Navy, came home from Scotland on leave.

He got to London Bridge to catch the train, when everyone laid down on the platform and shouted at him to do so too.

Coming from the North, he had not seen or heard a Doodlebug before.

Denis Llewellyn as a young man
Denis Llewellyn as a young man

On another occasion, I watched a balloon come down over the fields near the Tollgate while out flying my kite.

It didn’t hit anybody, thank god, but went down right across Swanscombe woods. What a sight.

I dropped my kite and ran to find a piece of it, but all I could see was a great big hole, with a piece of pipe smoking at the bottom.

Once, when my dad had been doing lots of extra hours at work, he got the weekend off, and we went to Maidstone Zoo.

We had a great time, until we spotted a Doodlebug, or as we used to say, Hitler coming over on his motorbike.

It was some way off when it came into view, and had three RAF fighters on its tail.

It was about two miles away when the nearest plane gave it a short burst, but it didn’t come down.

The next moved over and did the same, and down it went like a brick.

I wish I could tell you what type of plane they were, but they were a little too far away to see.

Later on, my brother came home again because his ship was in the Royal Docks - he did not know why.

It was only for two weeks, and I went to watch when it sailed.

He said, “keep an eye out for me”, but as HMS Ravage passed the town pier, I could not see him among so many of the crew.

When it passed the lower reach, I cried my eyes out, wondering if I would see him again.

It was all happening on the river by this point - ships, landing craft, navy boats - one of our boats even had to be fitted with a gun.

After leaving work at one o’clock one afternoon, one of my mates told me a plane had gone down at Cobham.

I was soon looking at a Mosquito, crashed on take-off, halfway through one of the haystacks.

A plane after it crashed into corn fields near Gravesend, killing two land girls. Picture: Denis Llewellyn
A plane after it crashed into corn fields near Gravesend, killing two land girls. Picture: Denis Llewellyn

None of the crew were hurt, but two land girls were killed.

The planes were stationed at the RAF air base in Gravesend, and I used to go down there to watch them.

Around this time, something happened that took the wind out of my sails.

I was on my way to Cobham, travelling alongside Coldharbour Road, when I heard the engines of a plane behind me.

I peddled harder so I could see it land and as I reached Watling Street.

I looked up, and could see smoke coming from one side of the plane, breaking through the clouds.

I have been dreading the next part of my story.

It hit the ground, near the Toll Gate Pub, and exploded in a mass of flames.

I was the first person to see what I did, then I could hear a woman screaming “where are my girls?”

I was frozen to the spot, loose ammunition was going off in the flames, and a bullet hit the lady in the hand.

I walked closer, and saw two big holes in the ground - one where the engine went, and another containing the remains of the airman, all burnt up.

The next thing I knew, a man grabbed me by the back of the collar and dragged me back, shouting that I was going to get myself killed.

As a boy, Denis Llewellyn saw an RAF DeHavilland Mosquito crash, killing the two crew, near the site of the Tollgate Motel, Gravesend
As a boy, Denis Llewellyn saw an RAF DeHavilland Mosquito crash, killing the two crew, near the site of the Tollgate Motel, Gravesend

I went back some way, and by this time lorries and trucks arrived from the air field. I turned around and went home.

The man who dragged me back was too late, I had seen it all.

Back on the river, and it was now cram packed with every mooring full.

Because now we were getting ready for an invasion - even the Katherine had a gun mounted on, and it was great to see real sailors on board.

Then one night we heard a big bang coming from Gravesend, and I said to my mum that I’d never heard any bomb whistle before.

The next morning on the early shift, I went down on the pier and noticed some people looking at the ferry on the end of the pier.

I walked along to see what they were looking at, and could see that a lot of the windows were broken.

I asked what had happened, and the answer soon came back - it’s was the rocket that came down at the terrace near the Fort Gardens, and the blast had done the damage.

So when I had finished my shift, I went and had a look. I couldn’t get too near it, but I could see all the damage.

Poor old General Gordon’s house looked a sorry site, I can’t tell you how many people had been hurt or died, only one name comes to mind.

Well, Mr Hitler had given us something to talk about – thank god no more came our way when daylight came, there would have been even more ships and landing craft.

Days later, all the ships had gone, as the threat of invasion began to fade.

Soon I turned 15, and was working for the PLA with my dad, but that’s another story.

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