A former Shaftesbury Grammar School pupil has revisited the Town Hall for the first time since he was hospitalised following a firearms incident there. Alfred’s Keri Jones heard his incredible story.
“I’m here because I wanted to see where I was shot during the war,” said Eric Coombs. As a 13-year-old, Eric was on a school trip to a military display in the Council premises when a friend picked up a gun. It was loaded. “By mistake, I was hit in the stomach,” Eric said.
The year was 1943. Ashmore resident Eric and his classmates from Form 3B were visiting a ‘Wing’s for Victory’ campaign event in The Guildhall. Towns across the UK held these fundraising weeks to encourage people to contribute money for a Spitfire, a Wellington or Lancaster bomber. And Shaftesbury residents had been generous. “They collected £138,000 pounds for the war effort,” Eric said with some pride.
He had gone along with his fellow members of the Cadet Force in Shaftesbury. Eric remembers that his Commanding Officer had raised concerns over the safety of some of the weapons on show. “He said, ‘they’ve got live ammunition here’. But they replied, ‘you don’t need to worry because the firing pins have been cut off the guns and so nothing can happen’. We started milling around looking at these guns. My friend got a Lewis gun and pulled the trigger. Unfortunately, the pin hadn’t been cut. It hit me. It hit another boy in the backside and hit a lady in the top of the leg.”
Eric recalls that the bullet went on to hit a brass plate on the Mayor’s table. “There was absolute chaos, as you can imagine. I was picked up by the ambulance and taken to the Cottage Hospital. Because we were in uniform, we were taken down to the military hospital at Guy’s Marsh. We were lucky in that respect, because they had all the surgeons there looking after military people because of the war.”
The doctors told Eric that the bullet had become lodged in his stomach. “They said they couldn’t take it out there and then but after a year it would work its way out and then they would take it out. They discharged me after about two weeks. A year later, I went in and had it removed. It had worked its way into my leg.”
Eric said his school friend didn’t fare so well. “Peter got shot in the backside. He had a satchel on his back with books in it. That helped the situation because the bullet went through the books, but unfortunately it lodged in his rectum. He had a bigger problem than I did. My bullet hadn’t actually damaged the gut. He was in the hospital a lot longer than I was.”
Eric suffered from this physical injury for some time after the shooting. “It damaged the nerves. I couldn’t feel anything in my leg for two or three years. If I was pricked, I wouldn’t notice anything but that’s come back now,” he said.
Eric clearly recalls the rather surreal experience of the gun going off. “I was in cadet army uniform. I remember seeing two holes in my trousers where the bullet went in and where it came out. That worried me more than anything – looking down, realising that I’d been hit, because it happened so quickly. And so suddenly, really.”
Eric said that his parents later took action against the government. “My father took the Ministry to court. We got compensation for the injury to me.”
It seems incredible by today’s practices to think that Eric’s mother wasn’t kept informed about her son’s condition after he had been rushed to hospital. She had to rely on a tenant for information about her boy’s state of health. “We had lots of military around us. Airborne were quite close by,” said Eric. “One of the guys was staying in our house. We billeted people. He had a friend in Shaftesbury in the military hospital. He asked my mother if he could borrow my bike because he’d like to go and see his friend and he said he would find out more about me. He cycled from Ashmore to Shaftesbury. I didn’t know how much he found about me. He never told me. She got her information from him.”
Word quickly spread about the accident and the next day, the Council Chairman, a local stationer, addressed locals with an update. “The Mayor was Mr Pearson. I was told that he went out the next day, onto the Town Hall balcony, to tell people what happened and that we were making progress,” said Eric.
Luckily, he hasn’t suffered long-term physical effects, and 76 years after he was shot, Eric, who now lives in Kent, says he was pleased to be back in Shaftesbury where his close shave happened. He acknowledges his special claim to fame as someone who was shot inside Shaftesbury Town Hall.