War Heroine Returns To Castle

TRACKING enemy aircraft on the primitive, flickering radar screens in the early days of the Second World War was all in a day's work for Avis Parsons.

Thursday, 17th October 2002, 4:21 pm
Updated Friday, 8th June 2018, 1:08 am

But pinpointing the room where she stayed in Arundel Castle, while working on the secret installation at nearby Poling more than 60 years ago, was an altogether more difficult mission.

Returning to the castle last week for only the second time since the war, Avis enlisted the help of a small army of guides and behind-the-scenes staff in her search for the bedroom which was her home.

And after much head-scratching and wandering along corridors and up staircases hidden from the public gaze, staff led the way to the small room where they believe Avis, now 86, was billeted, in a large, round tower with a view over the old town.

But then, Avis deserved the efforts taken to retrace her footsteps. As a radar operator at Poling, she was awarded the Military Medal for staying at her post while the base came under attack from German bombers. Only five other women were Second World War recipients of the medal.

Earlier in her visit, Arundel mayor Bill Beere, who is among the team of castle guides, took Avis on a tour, showing her places she had not known during her wartime stay.

"I only knew the part where we were billeted. The rest of the castle I never saw. When we came here in November, 1939, the Duke was in France, but he came back when France fell.

"We didn't see a lot of his family I just saw one of his daughters, who was only a baby, and I remember the Duchess at a dance on New Year's Eve in the Barons' Hall.

"We came back from our shifts at Poling and went straight up the stairs to our rooms in a large, round tower. Sometimes when we arrived after a late night shift, the porter would be waiting with a jug of hot soup for us.

"We were very well looked after, with butter, milk and pheasants off the Duke's estate. The room was very comfortable and we even had our own butler at the beginning."

Even in wartime Britain, life had its lighter moments. Avis recalls taking part in a concert party at a Littlehampton cinema, performing The Quarter-master's Store, playing darts at the old Bridge Hotel in Arundel and watching films at the Arun Cinema in Arundel.

"I was more nervous about going on the stage for the concert party at Littlehampton than I was about working at Poling."

That was all to change, however, one fine, summer's day in August, 1940, when, to her horror, Avis picked up the first signs of a 100-plus bomber raid heading across the English Channel to the Sussex coast. The wave of German aircraft split into three, for raids on Gosport, Ford and Poling.

The radar station was one of a chain along the south coast and was hit by 90 bombs. In spite of the pummelling the base took, Avis continued to monitor the German bombers until an officer wrenched open the buckled, blast-proof door and told her the site was being evacuated.

"I never thought for one moment I was being brave. As far as I was concerned, I was doing the job I was trained to do. If I had run away when I was needed most, that would have gone against my training.

"We walked back to Arundel Parish Church and I have never fallen on my knees and prayed so hard, thanking God we were still alive and praying that our country would survive."

Avis' service in the WRAF led to her moving, six years ago, to the RAF Benevolent Fund's Princess Marina House at Rustington. Peter and Ann Blake, two of the home's staff, wrote to the castle asking if Avis could go back again, and accompanied her on her visit.

Three years ago, I took Avis on her first visit since the war, but we were unable to find her old lodgings, so mayor Bill Beere was all the more pleased by the apparent success this time.

"It's been delightful trying to solve the mystery of where she stayed. We are not absolutely sure we have got it right, but we think we have."

Deputy head guide Susanne Holloway was also pleased. "She has been a pleasure to meet. Her story is part of the living history of the castle."