You have to arrive at the office early in the morning to meet Peter. He arrives at 5am and by 8:30am he’s gone. Peter has been a cleaner here for several years. He is 80 years old today.
Peter was born only a couple of km from our office in Cambridge, England and was for many years an Engineer for Pye Electronics. I’m lucky enough to arrive in the office early enough to catch Peter, dressed smarter than most of us in shirt and tie, and he tells stories of how Cambridge was years ago. He says the site of our office is on land between what would have been a prisoner of war camp (camp 1025), and a few hundred metres North, a camp of American allies.
In February 1944, Peter was 13 years old. One night, a Dornier Do 217 heavy bomber heading towards London was hit by anti-aircraft fire and the crew of four parachuted from the plane. The plane however, continued on autopilot for over 50km. Gradually dropping lower and lower, narrowly missing the spires of Cambridge, it eventually came to land, largely intact, in allotment gardens by Peter’s house near Milton Road. He told me that he was quick to the scene, along with some other young lads, and grabbed parts of the plane as souvenirs.
It’s one of many tales that Peter recounts, but I happened to discover a chapter about this particular plane crash in a history book called the War Torn Skies of Great Britain by Julian Evan-Hart. It reads:
‘It slid to a halt in the allotment gardens of Milton Road. The cockpit ended up crumpled against a wooden fence and several incendiary bombs that had broken loose from their containers in the ruptured bomb bay were strewn over the ground behind the Dornier.’
I smiled when I read the following line:
‘Many residents came to see the Dornier in the allotments. Several lads made off with souvenirs’
It seems a young Peter has been captured in print! For his birthday, among other things, we gave him a copy of the book.
Working for a software company and rushing headlong through the 21st century, it’s easy to forget even our recent history, or what feet stood on the same ground before us. That aircraft crashed only 700 metres from where our office now stands. The disused and overgrown railway line that runs down the side of the office closed to passengers 30 years ago. The industrial estate the other side was the site of a farm, Trinity Hall Farm, as recently as 60 years ago. Roman rings and Palaeolithic handaxes have been unearthed nearby.
I suppose Peter will be one of the last people I’ll ever hear talking first-hand about Cambridge during the war. It’s a privilege to know him. Happy birthday Peter.