Thursday, 5 March 2009

David Ward's Recollections of WW2

I have, I am very happy to say, been successful in retrieving David Ward's Recollections of World War 2 and take great pleasure in posting it here for all to read.


Doug Clews 05 March 2009


RECOLLECTIONS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR FROM THE VIEWPOINT OF A SCHOOLBOY

By David J Ward

When Britain declared war against Germany on the 3rd of September 1939, I was eight years and ten months old. My father had died of tuberculosis almost exactly one year earlier, leaving my widowed mother with myself and two brothers, twins, younger than me by three years and four months, to bring up unaided. We lived in a three-bedroom semi-detached council house on high ground about a mile and a half outside Winchester City, going in the direction of Romsey. From my mother's front bedroom window we could look south towards Southampton. From the garden side of the house we had unobstructed views across the valley of the river Itchen to the Twyford Downs and beyond. Both city and open countryside were on our doorstep.
I have no recollection of the tensions which would have preceded the declaration of war but I recall the declaration itself or rather I remember my mother telling we boys very gravely that we were at war. I do not think I had feelings of any significance except that thoughts of aerial bombing were conjured, mainly because I had always been fascinated by my mother's accounts of air-raids on the Isle of Wight when she was a teenager during the First World War. I doubt that, at that stage, I had any concept of what to expect.
I was attending Stanmore Junior School, Winchester, a walk of almost a mile, downhill all the way going and uphill coming back and we used to come home for lunch in those days as school meals were unheard of. My first memories of any change in my life, brought about by the war, stem from school. We were labelled with a piece of card safety-pinned onto our clothing and organised into groups relative to where our homes were located. We then formed a crocodile under the supervision of an adult (teacher I think) and went home like that. I cannot remember going TO school in that way although we may have done so. I DO remember that the only confections we were allowed to consume whilst in the crocodile were 'boiled sweets' and inspections to enforce this were commonly carried out although the reason why such emphasis should have been placed on this rule escapes me still.
Sirens to warn of air-raids were placed at strategic points, the nearest one to my house being erected on a tall mast about halfway down the hill towards the school. People started to construct shelters in their gardens. These were usually made of corrugated iron and sunk into the ground, often with earth or sand-filled sacks on top. A good neighbour constructed a small shelter in my mother's garden shortly before he was called up to serve in the army. We had wooden seats along each side and we initially kept blankets and some oil lamps in it. It was completely below ground level so that it was necessary to negotiate a number of steep steps made of timber and packed earth. When it was first made we boys thought it was great and had a lot of fun using it as a play camp although it was supposed to be out of bounds!
Large Communal shelters were built on the school playing field although these were essentially surface-built and formed into long mounds with tons of earth heaped over them. I remember going into them for practise but cannot recall an occasion when they were used for real whilst I was still at the junior school. Air raids mostly occurred at night in any case.
Households were subsequently given the opportunity to have a proper nationally-produced home shelter allocated to them. This would take the form of either an arched, corrugated iron structure which could be put up in the garden known as an Anderson shelter or a sort of steel cage with a solid sheet top and mesh sides for use indoors which was known as a Morrison shelter. Relations of mine on the Isle of Wight had a Morrison which took the place of a table in their dining room and was great for playing in. An air-raid warning was sounded in advance of approaching enemy aircraft. It was a wailing sound which oscillated between high and low notes. Sometimes we would hear distant sirens sounding but our own locality would not be alerted. I remember the first time ours DID sound and the excitement of scurrying outside and into our garden shelter where we waited, without hearing anything else, until the all-clear was sounded (a continuous note). During the entire war I doubt 1 went into a shelter more than ten times, yet I experienced hundreds of air-raid warnings and some very, very noisy activity. Four times, to my knowledge, I went in other people's shelters. If, for instance, you happened to be on your way to school or otherwise out on the street when a warning was sounded, you just went into the nearest house and would, without question, be given whatever protection was available. One such occasion whilst I was out collecting firewood entailed going into a rather large well-to-do house where I was taken with the household into a very luxurious shelter and treated to unaccustomed gastronomic pleasures by the servant staff. As time went by we became blasé with air-raid warnings, or rather taking precautions against them. Winchester was not itself a target for the Germans albeit we were surrounded by vital targets within a few miles. Daylight warnings became few and far between whilst after-dark warnings became almost a nightly event; sometimes two, three or even four in just a single night. We would quite often get up, if we had gone to bed, and come down stairs and we would listen to the distinctive drone of German diesel aircraft engines as planes passed overhead. We had a cat called Tom. Tom loved it when we all came down in the middle of the night and would purr appreciatively. Many of the 'German planes' we were convinced we heard were in fact attributable to Tom's throaty contentment. The most alarming noise came from the anti-aircraft guns which could be quite frightening. A battery of about five of these guns was situated less than a mile from our house and their exploding shells over our heads denied any sleep even if we chose to ignore the siren. Fall-out from the shells took tiles off our roof and most others too. Anyone outside would have been in great danger without a helmet. I had a valued collection of shrapnel. Our own garden shelter fell into disuse fairly early on. It was damp, uncomfortable and entailed a hazardous night-time venture into the scary outside. The steps down into it became eroded and treacherous (for adults anyway) and we boys were eventually tasked to fill it in. We did fill in its entrance and levelled off the ground but, in later boyhood years we relocated its roof, cut a hole through it and I personally made a disguised trap door down into it. The trap door idea didn't work, at least not in its disguised configuration because all the earth and turf fell out of the box when the trap was raised!! I cannot remember what we actually did with the old shelter apart from covering it over again so nobody would ever know it existed. One day it might be rediscovered along with the 'treasures' like coins, badges and shell cases I hid in tins in it! I was a great one for making secret caches.
Gas masks were issued early on in the war. The sort we all had came with a cardboard box to contain it and a string to loop over your shoulder. As time went by we dispensed with the box and carried our mask in a home-made case shaped rather like a gun holster with a more substantial strap. The transparent piece that you looked through was a single piece of celluloid, unlike the goggle-type which military and other essential people had. I remember having to attend a centre where an additional circular filter was taped onto the original filter. The tops of the round letter boxes were painted with a substance that would turn a different colour in the event of a gas attack. At junior school we had a daily gas-mask exercise. Teacher would blow a whistle and we had to put on our masks as quickly as we could. Correctness of fitting and strap adjustment would often be checked by teacher and we would have to sit with them on for about ten minutes or until teacher could no longer put up with the increasing level of snorting which we all contrived to make. It is probably as well there was never a need to put our masks to the test because they were given little respect by we children. By the time almost everyone had converted to more suitable carrying cases (which you could buy if mum couldn't make them herself although I didn't know a mum who couldn't) we had learned to exploit the advantages of this mandatory 'weapon'. Gas mask containers were swung, hurled and generally abused in the true expertise and inventiveness of children. 'Gas mask fights' were not uncommon a licence to inflict pain!
Identity cards were issued to everyone. I remember my number still ... EDVB/86/2. The 2 was something of a status symbol as it indicated I was, without a father, second in the family. We also wore a tag, medallion or bracelet with our name and identification number on it. I recall we all had a wrist strap with a metal name plate.
Householders were required to have equipment for the extinguishing of fires. Apart from high-explosive bombs the Germans often dropped large clusters of incendiary bombs. These were relatively small something like half a metre in overall length and about 8cm in diameter. I had the tail of one of these for years. My adult son has since acquired it.
I remember Mr. Freeman, who was the only male teacher at my junior school and who had the top class, giving a demonstration of how to deal with an incendiary bomb. He had received training in air raid precautions (ARP, as it was known). As I recall, you were not supposed to throw water onto an incendiary bomb as it would be likely to explode and spread fire further. You had to use a water spray for the surrounding fire and put sand on the device itself. Stirrup pumps were issued to households although we never had one for some unknown reason. This pump was to be kept in the porch just outside your front door along with a bucket of water and another bucket of sand. Everybody complied with the buckets at least. Later in the war I had a live incendiary demonstration from which I learned much respect for the weapon.
Being within visual range of Southampton gave us something of a grandstand impression of the bombing aspect of the war. From my mother's bedroom window we could not actually see the buildings, which would have been about ten miles away, but we could clearly see the sky immediately above the town. Southampton, of course, took enormous punishment from air raids and we knew members of the Winchester fire services who frequently attended the destruction. In fact one friend of the family was himself killed whilst fighting fires during a raid.
In the mornings we would look across towards Southampton and see a long line of barrage balloons in the sky. These were tethered with wires and sometimes connected to each other as a barrier to aeroplanes. Raiders would necessarily fly in below cloud in order to see their target and the object of the balloons was to make them climb hopefully above cloud.
By early evening on most days there would be columns of smoke where the balloons had been. Fighter aircraft would come over in advance of the night-time bombers in order to clear the way. We commonly heard the distant wailing of Southampton's sirens and would watch the sky glow red from the bombing.
It was a serious offence to allow light to show at night. It was called the black-out. This was so that raiding aircraft would not know what was below them. There were no street lights, vehicle head lights had to be painted out or screened so that only the barest minimum of light went down onto the road immediately in front of it and only essential vehicles were in any case on the road. All buildings had to have shutters or heavy curtains which completely prevented light from escaping outside. We had two sets of curtains to start with and later used boards as well. If the least chink of light was visible from outside a warning shout or knock at the door would soon come from the constantly patrolling wardens. Boards were more sensible in regard of possibly flying glass. Some people stuck tape in strips across their windows as a precaution. We did not do this. Kerb edges were painted white and sometimes had a slope added because walking at night without the benefit of a moon could be very, very dark.
Rationing was probably the greatest imposition placed upon our domestic lives although as children we suffered minimally. I was aware that my mother was very often worried about things although we never went hungry. I would be upset in sympathy with her. We each had our own pound pot of jam which, I now assume, would have been our monthly ration. On reflection, that seems quite a substantial amount, so perhaps it was for a longer period. Nowadays I wouldn't get through a pound in a month but in those days of course, there wasn't much else to have. Anyway, we had our personal jar and woe betide anybody who dared touch that which wasn't theirs. One of my brothers would not eat green jam, so his twin often chose that colour on purpose! It was during the war that we all gave up having sugar in our tea. Eggs were scarce to come by but powdered egg was available. I loved this stuff when it was turned into scrambled egg. I well remember the Saturday when Mr. Unsworth, our greengrocer with a horse drawn cart, actually had some bananas and allowed my mother four of them. By then we would have been at least three years into the war during which I had not seen a banana. Sweets were understandably in very short supply although not initially rationed. They just weren't to be had. A short distance from my junior school there was a little shop that we had to pass and known as The Blindman's, because the proprietor was. Every so often he would have some sweets in and a queue of children would form instantly, almost as if we had crystal ball insight. He would restrict us to no more than two-penneth (less than one penny of today's money, but who had more than tuppence anyway then?). During the final stages of the war I recall being on the Isle of Wight with my mother and brothers. We were at the end of an aunt's garden which terminated against the cliff top path at St. Lawrence and we had a packet of puffed wheat. Not the sweetened variety, just plain puffed wheat which my aunt had somehow managed to acquire. It was to me the most deliciously edible thing I had tasted. We ate it by the handful straight from the box. My mother said with profound sincerity that, when the war is over you shall have a box each. Of course it took a long time after the war to do away with rationing and I think that by then 1 had certainly discovered other compensatory delights!
Before leaving the subject of rationing it is worth recounting the tale of Tom. Meat was stringently rationed and Tom, whom I have already identified as our cat, was, in common with the vast majority of his species, a carnivore. Tom LOVED raw meat. so just now and then we would give him a sliver from the newly delivered entitlement, as a treat. Tom also liked to stay out late and terrorise the neighbourhood dogs but we always had him in before going to bed. My mother would stand on the back doorstep calling 'TOM, TOM,TOM!!' with never a sign of the creature. If however she said one word 'MEAT' Tom would be instantly at her ankles. I also recall illicitly cutting off a small piece of meat one day when Tom was in the deepest of cat-sleeps on an easy chair. I moved the meat slowly towards his nose and never have I witnessed an animal galvanised into such utter animation! All his fur stood up on end and he leapt frantically up with the loudest of feline exclamations. The cabaret was well worth the castigation I subsequently got from my mother.
The spirit of camaraderie during the war years was superb. Everyone I knew helped everyone else. Many families in our neighbourhood had menfolk away in the fighting services. Whilst nobody would have wished widowhood on my mother, we had no one to worry or fret over. We were a complete and united family. What is more, none of our closer relatives were called up to fight. They were either in reserved occupations, like ship-building, or else they were age or health exempted. All were engaged in war work of some sort on a full-time basis as well as being involved with part-time duties such as fire-watching, first aid and rescue. My mother worked part-time at Vickers-Armstrong's Hursley House where aircraft design was carried out. She also helped make flying suits and was a member of the WVS. We had lodgers with us throughout the war mainly design personnel from Vickers-Armstrong. Some of our neighbours had families who had been evacuated from bombed areas. In the house adjoining ours lived an Austrian lady, Mrs. Jenvy, who was married to an Englishman. I remember being egged on by my school friends to view Mrs, Jenvy as a German spy. There was nothing malicious in this just fantasising. In fact she was a delightful lady on whom I would practise my German when I subsequently went to Secondary School. She had two commandos billeted on her for a short time. We would watch fascinated as these soldiers sat in her front garden cleaning their guns and knives. Both had been released from jail on condition of their special service as commandos and they seemed quite happy to talk about this. It stirred a boy's imagination.
Nothing was wasted. Collections were periodically made for scrap metal. Aluminium in particular was sought as it was then a far less common commodity than it is now. We gave up our saucepans and vacuum cleaner pipes to the war effort. Cast-iron railings which were so common along the fronts of houses before the war were everywhere cut down for munitions.
As boys we would wheel a hand-cart around the houses to collect paper, jam jars and bones which we then took down into the City for recycling. The fact that we might earn ourselves as much as a shilling if we had sufficient was a clear incentive.
In the cul-de-sac outside our house, which was always known as the Square, were several bins in which unwanted food had to be scraped. The bins were marked to receive different offerings but it mostly went as swill to feed pig production whilst bones were extracted for glycerine.
Cultivation of every available piece of land was encouraged. Even the golf links on the downs nearby us was ploughed for food production except for the tees and fairways themselves, although golfers were a rare sight and the links were mainly used as a playground by children. Two of the few bombs dropped in the vicinity of Winchester fell on the golf course. I remember standing in the craters.
One of the great delights for we boys during the war years was watching troop convoys. The Romsey Road (A3090 as it now is) was only a matter of 150metres or so from where we lived and carried a large amount of the military vehicles bound for shipment out of Southampton. Winchester City itself was bypassed along a route which offered plenty of tree cover. We would hear a rumble and excitedly yell 'TANKS' whereupon we would all dash up the remainder of the hill to the main road. There would be lots of other children all waving at the soldiers and receiving varied return gestures. These convoys would sometimes go on for hours on end. Guns, tanks, lorries all bound for overseas locations. After the Americans entered the war we started to see convoys of their vehicles too and, much to our added delight, would throw out packets of gum and other goodies. Sometimes the American convoys would stop overnight on a wide link road, Chilbolton Avenue, where they were well screened beneath high kerb-side trees. This would be a real bonus for us when we would join the small horde of children bent on greeting our allies with the dreadfully repetitive words 'got any gum chum?' The Americans were most tolerant not to say accommodating. We always returned home (later than we were supposed to) loaded with all sorts of hand-outs but dominantly gum. They seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of goodwill offerings and I recall no occasion when I received a rebuff from soldiers who, when I now think about it, must have got a bit tired of so many kids pestering them. Conversation was itself fairly shallow.
Winchester was full of uniforms of every conceivable sort and many nationalities identified by shoulder patches on which the name of a country was often woven. I had, and may still have, an autograph book which is filled with totally unknown names of soldiers whom I asked to sign. Mostly people from other lands which always held an interest for me primarily, I believe, because I grew up during a time when travel was drastically restricted and foreign places inaccessible. I thirsted for them. I remember walking on the broad grass strip bordering the Romsey Road. We called it the common and it was a favourite adventure area. I was with my two brothers when we came upon a soldier sitting against the trunk of a beech tree. Conversation was initiated by either he or us from which it became clear he was seeking something to eat. We ran home and returned twenty minutes later with sandwiches and cake which he gratefully accepted. In retrospect I am convinced we aided and abetted a deserter but at the time we felt really good about helping someone. On a later foray across a field of long grass near some woods we found a rifle which must have been discarded by someone. We toyed with taking it home but did not for fear of evoking displeasure and we never told anybody about it.
In Woolworth’s, down in Winchester, there was a great big bomb case on which people were invited to stick savings stamps. I think you could buy sixpenny and half-crown savings stamps although I never knew anyone who had a half-crown one. Normally of course you stuck your stamps on a card with a view to cashing them in at a later date so, to stick one on a bomb which would drop on Germany (so you were led to believe) was sacrifice indeed. The bomb was well plastered.
Aircraft held an abiding interest for me. There were plenty to see –and not only in the skies. I watched dog-fights take place between British and enemy fighter aeroplanes, I saw aeroplanes coming down with smoke trailing and parachutes in the sky and I even managed to get bits off the occasional aeroplane that crashed in adjacent fields. Souvenirs, mostly consisting of unrecognisable bits of metal, bullet cases, shells and parachute webbing were a primary source of barter amongst schoolboys at a time when swapping was a consuming occupation. If you had managed to obtain the tail of an incendiary bomb, as I had, you were in an enviable trading position. Cap badges too were eagerly sought and exchanged.
I had a huge shell head – the bit that comes out of the gun and explodes – except mine had no explosive in it. I cannot remember how I came by it. It was heavy and as big as a saucer in diameter. I expect an adult neighbour gave it to me, knowing my interest. My mother always hated the thing and made me get rid of it, so I buried it at the end of our garden. It is likely someday someone will unearth it and may even be inclined to call in the bomb squad!
We had several ornamental trees in our garden – not huge but bushy with branches strong enough to support the odd rope for swinging on or for going hand-over-hand between one tree and another. I was keen on making platforms amongst the branches where I would spend happy hours with my make-believe anti-aircraft gun shooting at the incredible wealth of aircraft criss-crossing our airspace. I was also inclined to keep a log of all the different types I saw. My mother retained for years the exercise book in which I kept my log and other writings but it vanished with her move to another address.
Most exciting of all was to see an armada of heavy aeroplanes passing over. Winchester was surrounded by airfields, most of which no longer exist as such. We would hear a steady drone getting louder and louder. I have seen the sky almost literally filled with aeroplanes heading toward the coast. A very stirring sight was to see dozens and dozens of heavies (Halifaxes and Stirlings, as I recall) all towing gliders. Later in the day we would see them fly back over in the opposite direction in much less of a compact group and with just tow-lines trailing behind them.
Quite late into the war I remember cycling to Chilbolton aerodrome with a secondary-school pal for a very rare opening to the public. We were enthralled and actually allowed to go inside a Lancaster bomber right up to the cockpit. Oh how I envied the men who flew such machines! Little did I know that within eight years I would in fact myself fly some of the few remaining operational Lancasters whilst undergoing a Maritime Operations course at St.Mawgan in Cornwall. (As a point of interest based upon personal experience, the reverence and aura of nostalgia in which the Lancaster’s name now basks must surely stem from its wartime exploits and outward appearance. Those of us who have flown it will know that, whilst its handling characteristics were not unpleasant, its noise, vibration and comfort levels left much to be desired!)
Petrol was available only to essential users during the war. There were few cars in private ownership anyway and I knew of only one boy in my group whose father had a small car which he had chocked up onto piles of bricks under the axles and removed the wheels. It stayed liked that in his garage for the duration of the war. Occasionally I saw cars with a voluminous gas bag on the roof or else towing an attached gas bag on a trailer. This was a cumbersome alternative to the use of petrol. Steam-driven vehicles were still quite common for road haulage. I had seldom, if ever, even had a ride in a car until I was well into my teens.
My personal means of transport was an upright Hercules bicycle which had belonged to my father. Bicycles were obtainable only as second-hand and many of my friends did not have their own. You scanned the newspaper advertisements and had to be quick off the mark which is how my brothers eventually got their first ones. The crowning glory of my bike however was that it had a three-speed gear fitted. This placed me in a superior ownership stratum and engendered many offers for sale of my bike. Living. as we were, in a steep hilly environment, gave my gears premium value. I personally cycled a great deal.
At the age of eleven and with the war about two and a half years old, I won a scholarship to Peter Symond's School at Winchester. Peter Symond's was, in those days, a fee-paying establishment with two houses for boarders. Provision was made (rather reluctantly, I always felt) for a number of 'boys from poor homes, under the charitable bequest of the school's founder, who also had provided alms-houses near the cathedral. At the time of my acceptance the provision was for a very few boys per year. The number was subsequently expanded and both my brothers (twins) gained scholarships.
Some of the school's facilities, in particular its games and sports amenities, had to be shared with the boys of Portsmouth High School who were semi-evacuated to avoid the bombing that Portsmouth was getting. In consequence we had no school on Wednesday afternoons but had to attend on Saturdays up to 12.30. I cycled the two miles each way between home and school in all weathers. I am aware that I took a lunch box during a brief phase but mostly I cycled home.
There was a barrage balloon in a corner of the school playing field. Silver skinned and usually a bit saggy. I saw it in the air a few times but generally it was tethered close to the ground and I never discovered its purpose.
We had wood-work classes where we participated in the construction of Horsa glider wings. Mr. Laverty (known as 'Bogs' for fairly obvious reasons) was the handicrafts master. He was good-natured, rode a bicycle and lived just down the hill from me on the council estate. He held a commission in the Volunteer Reserve of the RAF and, as such, helped to run the school's Air Training Corps unit. I would sometimes ride home with him and he did much to encourage my interest in both wood and flying. Interests which I have retained and exploited.
I am not convinced I got a particularly good education at Peter Symond's where you were streamed into Science, Literature or General. 1 started off in 'Lit' in consequence of which, at the age of eleven, I had three languages to cope with, French, German and Latin. I slipped subsequently into the general stream where I did a lot better, having dropped French.
All the teachers went around in gowns and mortar boards but consisted largely of men brought out of retirement or women who would not otherwise have taught at an all-boys school. This is not to denigrate them, many of whom were very, very capable. However my first maths mistress had no control whatsoever over her class with the result that I lost a valuable year in which I should have catapulted from just doing sums, at junior school to the individual mysteries of algebra geometry and trigonometry. My second year of maths was not significantly better when Mr. 'Beaky' Bishop, who had been salvaged from a very long standing retirement, battled for our attentive interest. His favourite saying was 'Yip, right. Now watch the board while I run through it.' This always raised subdued amusement as we tried to imagine him vanishing into the square on the hypotenuse which he had drawn. He was in fact a lovely old man who knew his subject all right but had just lost touch with irreverent boys.
Our French master, whom I only had to suffer for two years, was a sadist ... Mr.Barratt, whom we called Vichy. He lodged at the home of one of the other scholarship boys in my form and we all thought how awful this must be for our classmate who also dropped French as soon as he could! He found every opportunity to use his cane which all other teachers, apart from the headmaster, declined to use. The very least you could expect to get from one of Vichy's lessons was a detention. Only the prefects were more prolific in their use of the cane. They were also adept at handing out detentions but generally preferred to give us the cosh, as we called it, which was delivered in their own room with a maximum audience of other prefects.
Miss Pugh was our German teacher. She was haughty, very good looking and had TOTAL control over all in her class. She always wore nylons, a rarity in those days and, usually, attributable to friendship with an American serviceman. We all fancied her a bit and did anything she demanded of us. Most importantly her lessons really were learnt and I owe much to her for my subsequent use of the language.
Whilst these reminiscences of teachers has little to do with the war other than to portray the reliance the school had then to make on stop-gap staff, I may perhaps be excused for recalling the odd humour which has lodged in my memory. All the classrooms at Peter Symond's were named. Two of them, which were accessed from the central hall, could be converted into one large room by means of a folding partition. I never saw it thus converted but there was a door in the partitioning which made it possible to go from one room to the other without first going outside. One of the classrooms was named Nicholas and the other Bigg. A school joke concerned Miss Pugh who, in the company of a perversely identified paramour, fancifully I went in Nicholas (knickerless) and came out Bigg!! Nuff said, I think.
Before leaving the long suffering (although I'm sure she loved it) Miss Pugh and it must by now be obvious she made no small impact on my teenage life, I have one more anecdote. Our school desks were old, made of heavy wood and carved to the point where I doubt there was a surface on which it was possible to write without substantial backing in the whole school. Most of them had sunken inkwells and a deep groove for pens. Every so often somebody would be given the job of mixing fresh ink from the powder supplied. Miss Pugh spoke in German most of the time and moved continuously up and down the corridors between the ranks of desks (we were usually fairly big classes, in excess of forty pupils). As she passed we would drop our pens immediately behind her and bend low to retrieve them. We would kid ourselves we had seen right up Miss Pugh's legs but, with her long scholastic gown, I doubt anyone saw much above her ankles. Whatever, there was a constant clatter of pens being dropped in Miss Pugh's class and the corridors between the desks were permanently defined blue-black. Miss Pugh herself must have had a reasonably bountiful source of nylons or else she was a glutton for washing them because they were invariably ink splattered. I never saw her give the least indication that she knew but she was for ever giving out replacement nibs!!
As soon as I could I joined the school army cadet force. You had to be fourteen I think, before you could join the ATC. Just before I left the school they had formed a combined cadet force but I was not part of that. The uniforms for the army cadet force at the time of my joining were leftovers from World War one quite literally. The country could not spare up-to-date military uniforms for kids when the demand for the fighting services was so great. For all that the kit available to us looked quite ridiculous we nevertheless queued daily during the lunch recession outside the store in the hope of getting an issue. I well remember the thrill of getting mine after numerous frustrated queuing sessions. It fitted where it touched, was shabby, very old and took ages to put on, especially the putties. I felt GRAND in it and nobody ever laughed. At some stage we DID get an issue of the conventional updated soldier's uniform which, of course, was an even greater thrill (although I'm not so sure it was). We drilled with very ancient carbine rifles which was one up on most cadet forces who then only had bits of wood.
When I was old enough I joined the Air Training Corps where drills gave way to things like practising the morse code and learning the rudiments of navigation. I had my first ever flight in an aeroplane during this involvement in the back of a Canadian Dakota out of Odiham aerodrome. I subsequently had about four other flights and a week's camp at Middle Wallop (then RAF operated) which served to strengthen my wish to be a flyer myself.
It was whilst at Peter Symond's school that I saw bombs actually drop from a German aeroplane. The school buildings are on elevated ground above Winchester City with a wide sweep of grass playing field extending down hill from them. The air raid shelters were at the farthest extremity of this field which, although never used in my time, would have entailed no small exposure to hazard if it had been necessary to get to them in anger. Anyway, on the morning of Tuesday, 9th February, 1943 I had cycled to school as usual and arrived early. I was standing with a group of other boys just outside a line of classrooms at the highest point when the air raid siren was sounded. Almost at the same time an aeroplane appeared roughly on a level with us and seemingly following the railway line in the dip from the direction of Southampton. When almost directly abeam our position it dropped its bombs (17 of them according to my note written at the time). It then turned ninety degrees left to head straight for our school, at the same time climbing to get over the rising ground. Foolishly none of us took cover. The aeroplane passed almost directly over the top of us at something less than a hundred feet whereby we could see the bomb aimer/gunner with total clarity in the transparent, domed nose. We waved to him and I can see him in my mind's eye to this day waving back at us!!! Of such foolhardiness are children made.
We did not hear the bombs explode, I believe they were small ones anyway. It transpired that one of the bombs went through the roof of what was then the Royal Cinema in Jewry Street. It came out through a window, bounced on the pavement and exploded, killing a man waiting for a bus in City Road. Other bombs fell at the top end of North Walls and Hyde Street where another man was killed and the greatest amount of damage evident. I know for some years afterwards there was a bath and piping visible high up on an exposed wall where the rest of the building had been destroyed. There was talk of somebody being in the bath at the time but I cannot vouch for its accuracy. It is likely the bomber was anxious to get rid of its load and may have aimed for Winchester railway station and marshalling yard.
I happened to keep one of my few persistent diaries in 1943 and the entry regarding this event is interesting, if only for its utter brevity. Here is a (correctly spelled) transcript: Damp. Took a model boat I made for woodwork lesson. Saw a load of tins of household milk drop off a lorry. Air raid siren went. I watched a Dornier Do 217 dive out of clouds and go hedge-hopping then I saw it drop 17 bombs. Damage in Winch. Too wet for cross-country running. One other siren.
That, in a way, summarises my war as a schoolboy. An event which today would make banner headlines merits no greater measure of newsworthiness than can be squeezed between tins of milk and cross-country running.
War of course is dreadful. It is hard to condone although I have personally had involvement in two lesser conflicts.
For me, living where I was and with no member of my family away fighting, I had the benefit of a partially abstracted view. For me it was an exciting time, of little money but enormous neighbourliness. We were encouraged, through our comics, to ridicule rather than hate our enemies. I encountered many German prisoners of war. Groups of them were used for labouring work on our roads and I would talk to them in German. They were just ordinary men.
In the final stages of the war, by which time air-raids had diminished dramatically in their frequency, we were threatened with two types of unnerving automated weapons the V1 and the V2.
The V1 flying bomb, or Doodlebug, as it was commonly known, was fundamentally a small, pilotless aeroplane with a high explosive bomb forming part of its fuselage. Propulsion came from an impulse-jet housed in a tube-like arrangement mounted above the fuselage and supported by the tail fin. Every schoolboy could draw a Doodlebug with accuracy.
Many hundreds of Doodlebugs were launched against Britain from sites within occupied Europe. I heard many and saw several. Those I did see were usually as a result of the glow from the jet pipe at night. They were unguided and glided to the ground when their propulsion unit stopped which might be absolutely anywhere. This was the scary bit. After a while we accepted that, if you HEARD a Doodlebug, there was nothing to fear, even if its noise suddenly stopped, on the basis that it would glide sufficiently clear of you. Many Doodlebugs were shot down or often tipped, into the sea by intercepting fighter aircraft which could flip over the wing of a flying bomb with its own wing.
The V2 was a rocket against which there was no defence interception. Knowledge of their existence was in itself frightening and lurid stories were rife at school. There would be no warning just an explosion. However, as with most things, we fairly soon became blasé with the V weapons which, in any case, we did not have to endure for very long.
The ending of the war I recall as no great surprise. It had been looking increasingly that way for enough time to have developed a personal feeling of inevitability and with victory in Europe it was only a matter of time before Japan too would capitulate although the far eastern war affected me only inasmuch as the news I read or heard of it.
We had school as well as street parties although, perhaps surprisingly, they have left no lasting impact or remembrances. I have greater recollections of menfolk coming home often enough to larger families than they had left behind, thanks to Anglo American hospitality! 'Demob suits' were everywhere evident as newly civilianised soldiers donned their clothing issue.
The war was over, my family and I were unscathed although an aunt at Newport on the Isle of Wight had been injured when her house had suffered bomb damage. I was still at school and under some persuasion to prepare for an adult working life in the Church of England or else as an officer in the Indian Army by my educators. The careers department of Peter Symond's in those days limited its advice to those two callings. I opted out of both but that is another story.

David J Ward January, 1995

2 comments:

  1. Read once and will certainly do so again, what a great set of recollections and similarities to one's own youth, well done.

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  2. David ward's recollections of WW2 are quite similar, in many ways, to my own, although there are of course differences due to location, if for no other reason ...
    I feel I would like to add a comment of my own relating to the German Raider and the bombs that fell in and around Hyde Street, as I also recall the event quite vividly, but from a very different perspective ...
    I was attending Nethercliffe School, in Hatherley Road, at the time (Nethercliffe backed on to the playing field of Peter Pips, located behind a brick wall) ... the students were all assembled by the Principals, Mr. & Mrs. Russell and advised that one of the students, whilst on his way to school, had been injured by flying glass from the City Road windows of Murray's shop on the corner of City Road and Jewry Street as a result of the bombs and was in Hospital ... it was several weeks before the student returned to school having received severe injuries to the lower part of his face ... I remember the students at Nethercliffe were 'stunned' by this news and all of a sudden war became 'personal' and took on a whole new meaning !!! ...
    The student concerned, later became a Symondian, as did his younger Brother ...

    Doug Clews

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