Highfield Wartime History Walk

The information here was produced by HighfieldHistory in September 2010 in order to help Highfield School illustrate the impact on the area, to the children there. It has been edited to make it suitable for the website. Personal memories are in italics.

Walk up to Southampton Common (section adjacent to Furzedown Road)
Trenches had been dug alongside the roads through and surrounding the common in anticipation of invasion. This area also contained an American military camp (north of the present path) that after the war became known as ‘Squatters Camp’ as people needing housing moved in.

P.L. remembered as a child watching dog fights over the Solent from here. He remembers seeing the dog fight where the only RAF fighter pilot winner of the VC won his award during the Battle of Britain. (Flt Lt James ‘Jimmy’ Nicholson was shot down over Millbrook and badly injured that day)
He also remembered the that there was a search light camp on the Old Racecourse,on the other side of the Avenue (as were receivers for primitive radar equipment) and Anti-aircraft guns and a barrage balloon overhead. The soldiers used to practise street fighting around the streets of Highfield, trying to move around stealthily, without being seen etc

Walk across to Little Common
Before the war, training exercises relating to defending from invasion and air attack were held.
In 1939 the whole Common was requisitioned by the military. They mainly used the area to the north of the path running from the Bellemoor to Highfield Road as an embarkation camp for soldiers, tanks and equipment stored etc as troops grouped ready to walk into Southampton, to the docks and onto boats. The early camps on the Common were tented camps but as the war progressed pre-fabricated buildings/Nissan huts were erected. 
Little Common contained a German POW camp (area between Highfield Avenue and The Avenue). There were not many POW, mainly aircrew who had been shot down. Prior to D-Day German POW were placed in Tauntons as a staging camp before being sent onto other camps. After D-Day, the largest POW camp in the south was created on Southampton Little Common. 4 huts from this camp later became school huts/rooms for children at Highfield School.
The camp also used to house French refugee soldiers who retreated over the channel rather than be under the occupying German forces.

Walk to Tauntons
The school was evacuated in 1939 and the children went to Bournemouth. The building was used as a hospital and German POW camp. The building was sometimes used as overnight billets prior to moving on, but as D-day approached Tauntons was used as Barracks.

D-day and the whole area around the common out at least as far as Church Lane, Grosvenor Road, Shaftesbury Avenue, Granby Grove and Ripstone Gardens.
As D-day approached troops, lorries and armoured cars started to arrive to be near the Ports, there were so many they had to park wherever they could. 

PL remembers that he and his brother would take jugs of hot cocoa out to them to fill their flasks, the troops were very grateful. They would appear, and then disappear overnight for a day or two and then there would be more. The civilians discovered they had gone to France to assist with the operations at Dunkirk from the ‘wireless’ [radio].

Walk through Omdurman Road and up Heatherdene Road
This area was heavily attacked as the enemy targeted the camps and equipment on the Common. Look for houses that are missing in comparison with the bomb map (available from Southampton City Archives).

At the top of Heatherdene Road facing Highfield Lane
Mainly two types of bombs were dropped, large bombs that exploded and created huge craters and everything was destroyed or a second type that were mines dropped with parachutes and exploded on contact. This type created a sideways blast that tended to damage buildings rather than destroy them.

On 21st June 1941, at 2:00am, Southampton and the surrounding area suffered one of its heaviest air raids when over 100 German bombers dropped bombs on the city for 2½ hours. There were 19 deaths in Southampton that night, 2 in Highfield after bombs hit Highfield Lane. The Highfield Hotel was very badly damaged (later replaced by The Highfield).

B.S. lived in a house on Highfield Lane close to the top of Heatherdene Road (to the right hand side when facing The Highfield). She explained that the family had gone to their shelter in the garden but had to leave their parrot in the house. It was in a cage covered by a blanket. Their home was hit by a parachute mine and when they left the shelter their house was very badly damaged. They could see inside and the blast had caused the cage to fall but landed upright and parrot was fine when they came out. The house was so damaged that they had to move to Highfield Road.
Also destroyed by the blast was a shop named Sinclairs, in the same style as the newsagents, on the opposite side of Heatherdene Road.

P.L. remembered that as a result of this bombing there were no habitable buildings left between Glebe Court and Hawthorn Road.

Walk down Highfield Lane to …

Glebe Court
In the grassed area was a large concrete reservoir tank used for putting out fires. SWSP was painted in the road to indicate the site of a Static Water Supply.

P.L. remembered that the public air raid shelter at Glebe Court was immediately behind the long holly hedge and there was a gap in the hedge to allow access. 

If you look hard under the bushes you may see the remnants of the concrete path that led into the bunker, there should also be no tree trunks at this point of the hedge.

William Christmas lived at 14 Glebe Court. He was one of two people from Highfield killed when Cunliffe-Owen Aircraft Works at Eastleigh (now the site of the Ford Transit factory) was bombed. The factory was a target as it was next to the airfield (airport) and repaired Spitfires and Hurricanes for the RAF. The factory came under a surprise daytime attack and there was no air raid warning. Workers had not left for the shelter when it took direct hits. 52 people died including another person from Highfield, Ernest Lynch of 30 Brookvale Road.

In the back garden of one of the properties is the original bomb shelter. This type was built of bricks and earth mounded over the top to protect from blasts. It was usual to share with neighbours and it is believed that they did.

Church Institute
During the war the Church Institute was used by the church to offer help to the community. At times it was used to house parishioners who had lost their homes. It was used as a “rest room and canteen” to provide a social venue for soldiers billeted on the Common. They could “obtain light refreshment, sit and read or write letters and play various games”. The parish also tried to help the war effort by meeting as groups to knit for the RAF.

The Church Institute was badly damaged by a bomb on the night of March 1st 1941, when 8 high explosive bombs fell in a tight group around the church. The rear wall of the building (on the two storey section) was destroyed.

Highfield Church
On Sunday March 2nd 1941 Highfield Church held its regular Sunday service even though it had been damaged in the night by bombings (as the Institute). 

P.L. remembers singing in church even with the windows blown out and rain coming through the missing tiles on the roof.

The parishioners formed a “fire-fighting party” who watched the church and were prepared with sand, water and ladders to put out fires should a bomb hit.
Throughout the war there were people in the Church at all times in case of fire. There were camp beds in the Vestry and one member of the team was awake and patrolling at all times.

Inside the church there are two memorials relating to WW2. 
The first is by the main entrance and is a memorial to all those lost but without names and commemorates new windows installed in 1953. The East windows of the church are the large visible, stained glass ones in the chancel. The one on the right contains the badges of the Civil Defence, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, United Nations, Army and Merchant Navy.

In the South aisle, by the entrance to the tower, is the memorial to Flt. Lt Owen Chave.

Highfield School (Infant Department)
The events taking place during the war and their impact on the school can be seen in the school diaries.

The children were first evacuated from Southampton on Saturday 2nd September 1939, to the area around Andover. Over 100 pupils met at Highfield School, not later than 6am, and were told to bring their gas mask, a packed lunch and just one bag with a change of clothes. The children then left for the train station. Children were evacuated by school and some teachers went with them. Only mothers with children under 5 could accompany them. 
Not all the children were evacuated – some parents chose to keep their children with them and school in Highfield continued. On November 29th it opened to provide a “part-time” education of an hour a day and give out homework. Teachers could also visit children at home.

By February 1940 the school had installed its own air raid shelters in the playground. These ran the length of the playground perpendicular to the road. They were large “Anderson shelter” style ones and meant that school could start to open on a more ‘normal’ basis. The School Log Books show that the estimated accommodation of the school shelters were; playground shelter 60 scholars and 4 adults, Institute shelter 75 scholars and 4 adults and 70 scholars and 2 adults in the Vestry. The school air raid shelters finally got their own electricity Mar 18 1941. 

J.R. remembered that one day as the pupils came out from the air raid shelter after the all-clear, they could see the British planes still circling in the sky, causing great excitement amongst the boys.

By March many of the children who had been previously evacuated had returned as parents believed it was safe, as the expected attacks on Britain had not happened – yet. It had been nicknamed the “Phoney War”. 
Following the bombing that damaged the Church, the children had to be given several days off school because the schools drains were also damaged and sewage was in the water running into the infants department. When they returned to school they were taught in groups for an hour at a time because until the toilets were mended children weren’t allowed to stay for more than an hour!

Because of the bombings, a second evacuation to villages around Blandford took place in June 1941 for 43 Highfield pupils and part-time teaching continued at the school for those that stayed behind.
In 1941 the headmaster, Mr Leggett received an MBE for his role as an A.R.P. warden. During an air raid High Explosive bombs wrecked some houses and a woman was trapped in one of them. Mr Leggett immediately led his wardens in rescue work. He directed the removal of the debris and then crawled into the demolished building, the walls of which were liable to collapse at any moment. After working for one and a half hours he succeeded in releasing the victim. His outstanding courage and coolness were an example and inspiration to the men under his control’
Source: London Gazette

In 1942 Mr Leggett’s only child, son Flying Officer Richard Leggett was killed.

M.D. remembered “Miss Bennett taking them all into the big room to let them know they must be sympathetic and nice to Mr Leggett as he had just learnt that his son was escaping from Stalag and was shot “


Walk back up Highfield Lane to return to school via Highcrown Street

On Highcrown Street lived Mr William Fisher. He was the ARP who was awarded the first George Medal in Southampton for his bravery. On August 13th 1940 bombs were dropped in a Cold Store at the docks containing butter and meat. The fat burnt for weeks creating a strong smell across the city. During the fire, Mr Fisher hauled himself to the roof on crane in order to rescue an anti-aircraft gunner who was stuck there. He only managed to get down himself by hanging from the crane hook while shells were exploding around him.
Source: Parish Newsletters and Children of the Blitz

Outside of the walk or extensions

Sherborne Road/Merton Road
On 15th May 1944 6 bombs were dropped in a raid on Portswood. Bombs hit Sherborne Road and 4 residents were killed. The curate who lived at number 9 lost all his belongings.

J.R. whose aunts lived in Merton Road told how they lost their home that night. They were in a shelter they shared with their neighbours in their garden but were still badly injured. They were in hospital in Southampton before being moved to Alton.

University Road 
At the junction of University Road and Church Lane is Hilldown Road. Mr Robert Sedgeman, the ARP warden lived in Hilldown Road, who died in service at 5 University Road. The bungalow on the left replaces the house destroyed by the bomb that also killed Sedgeman. 

Donnington Grove/Richmond Gardens
On 22nd June 1942, shortly after midnight, in just over an hour, 71 bombs were dropped over Bassett, Portswood and the area to the East of the Itchen. 
9 residents, including a 2 year old child, were killed in bombings of Donnington Grove and Richmond Gardens. A letter from Dorothy Montgomery,  a survivor of that bombing can be found here

Portswood Road
There were large communal air raid shelters for everyone to use under the buildings in Portswood Road.

Path running from Brookvale Road to Orchards Way
During the war an ARP station was located here (around the site of the current scout hut).

Oakmount Triangle
Due to city centre bombings during the war, some businesses relocated from Southampton into some of the houses in Highfield. Numbers 2, 4 and 6 Blenheim Avenue became a depot for a wholesaler. 9 Westbourne Crescent became a builders, whilst number 17 became a nurses home for the Royal South Hants Hospital. Number 19 became an office for the Ministry of Works. Rooms at 14 Oakmount Avenue became solicitors and number 12 became a training venue for the Home Guard after it was damaged by a bomb.
Several houses were damaged or completely destroyed by bombing. The effects of shrapnel could still be seen in the garden walls at 29 and 31 Blenheim Aveune (2004).
Source: OTRA Conservation Area – Toward an appraisal document