Taking a look at Uckfield today, you would be forgiven for not thinking that this Town once held important links to the military and the defence of our nation. (writes Duncan Bennett)
In times of both war and peace, Uckfield and the surrounding area has played its part.
The great 19th Century military strategist and leader, the Duke of Wellington was a regular guest of Lord and Lady Shelley at their nearby estate of Maresfield Park.
Unfortunately, although a great strategist, he was renowned as being a terrible shot.
During one shoot, he reportedly injured a dog, peppered a gamekeepers legs and then shot an old lady who was in her garden hanging out her washing.
Lady Shelley quickly went to the woman and said “you should feel honoured, you have just been shot by the great Duke of Wellington!”
The old lady was given a gold coin by the Duke and presumably maintained her pride in the event.
Another notable local military resident from the Victorian era was General George Calvert-Clarke, whose home was at Church House in Church Street.
His illustrious army career included service in the Crimean War.
He served with the Royal Scots Greys and took part in the Siege of Sevastopol (1854–55), including the battles of Balaclava , Inkerman and Tchernaïa. He died at home in Uckfield in 1901, aged 86.
This period of conflict is particularly well commemorated in New Town, with terraces of Framfield Road houses named after Crimean battles and even the local pub being called The Alma Arms.
Returning to Maresfield Park, by the early 20th Century, its ownership had passed into the hands of the German Count (later Prince) Münster and his family.
Münster was a true Anglophile and loved the village – and the village loved him.
He was a benevolent squire and donated much to the Village.
In the run up to the Great War, his position as an attaché to the German government was unfortunately incompatible with his English lifestyle and he returned to his homeland and his estate was confiscated by the War Office and much of it was turned over for use as a substantial army camp and Uckfield became a garrison town.
Maresfield camp was an important military feature along side the various camps at Crowborough, and Training Grounds upon the Ashdown Forest and the area saw many young “Tommy Atkins’” trained and mobilised on their way to the nearby coast and hence to the terrible trenches of France and Belgium.
A little known local fact from World War 1 is that we did once have an active fighter station nearby.
Known as RFC Blackboys/Uckfield, No. 78 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps operated Royal Aircraft Factory BE2 and BE12 fighters and used Blackboys as a Home Defence landing ground between 1916 and 1917.
The camps remained in place, albeit quieter, for the two decades of the inter-war period.
The outbreak of hostilities in 1939 saw the camps reactivated and the ensuing conflict saw them joined by new camps, such as the one at Isfield.
The darkest hour of the early part of The Second World War saw England and her empire standing alone against the Nazi threat and imminent invasion was a real threat.
Where Germany had had the Siegfried Line and France the Maginot Line, England had the GHQ Stop Lines, our last defence against the might of Hitler’s highly mobile Wehrmacht, which had effortlessly driven through mainland Europe in the wake of its blitzkrieg.
The General HeadQuarters Stop Line was essentially a concentration of pillboxes, tank traps, earthworks and defensive emplacements, which was designed to contain and delay an invasion force.
A major part of the GHQ Line passed through Uckfield.
Had the worse happened, the area in front of the Stop Line would have effectively been sacrificed after a terrible battle, with forces falling back to the defences to protect London.
Thank god (and the RAF) this defence was never tested in reality.
Our town was also at the heart of a friendly invasion, with the area used for training and accommodation by Canadian units throughout the war.
Large local houses were requisitioned for military use, one of which being The Rocks (or Buckswood Grange). As well as the house being used as officers quarters, the grounds were extensively used for training purposes. Graffiti carved into the rocks of Lake Wood remind us of the young men who once passed this way.
Uckfield was the hub for entertainment for these soldiers, s far away from their homes.
It was from here in 1942 that many Canadians left to take part in the disastrous Dieppe Raid.
The terrible lessons learned from the losses of this tragic operation were said to have been instrumental to the success of D-Day, two years later.
Again, the Uckfield area played a vital role in the Normandy Invasion.
The local Canadian forces were marshalled into what was known as Force J and gathered together at Buckham Hill, with men and machinery encamped along the tree fringed roadside in what were known as “Sausage Camps” due to their presence upon maps looking like strings of sausages.
They remained here awaiting notice to move to their ports of embarkation, mainly Newhaven.
One day in early June 1944, they were gone.
Follow up forces from further up the country soon followed in their footsteps.
The sight and sound of so many men, fighting vehicles and supply trucks passing through our local roads can barely be imagined.
The war’s end was not the end of Uckfield’ s links to the military.
National Service saw Maresfield still in active use and the camp at Isfield fulfilled the role of stores depot for blankets and other supplies.
The end of National Service saw the closure of Isfield Camp and Maresfield followed suit after a few years as a Signals Depot.
It had a brief reprise as a reception camp for refugees in the 1970s.
The Ministry Of Defence saw a need to provide new Married Quarters for troops stationed at Caterham Barracks and their search ended at Uckfield when they purchased a large number of properties on the new Manor Park Estate at the end of the 1960’s Army families were an important part of the community for the next twenty or so years and many school friendships were made before kids dads were posted elsewhere.
It was common to hear tales of life in Hong Kong or Germany in the playground.
So, that is the story of just some of Uckfield’s links with the military and I’m sure that there are many others.
I’d love to hear them! – Duncan Bennett
Image by Ron Hill of the Remembrance Day Parade. (Uckfield FM will be reporting details of this years forthcoming events soon)