Saturday, May 11, 2013

A schoolboy in action



I hadn’t begun school when WW2 started but when I did I was a war veteran. OK I didn’t wear a uniform unless you count the Gas Mask in its box that I was required to carry over my shoulder as I caught the bus to school each morning. If the air raid siren sounded its urgent but mournful call during class we were very disciplined. We kept quiet and followed our commander (or teacher) in an orderly fashion outside across the playground and into the air raid shelters that were a few yards from the school buildings. There with hardly a chatter we would sit on the timber benches and quietly did what we were told to like good little soldiers. I don’t remembered being frightened but when we all packed in we were allowed to talk while the teachers would stay near the baffled entrances to listen for the all clear siren that signaled that the danger from the aircraft flying overhead was passed. However the school was never bombed which some boys thought was rather sad.

At home such a warning would be less of a concern. Our house was in a street close by to farmland and we didn’t have a shelter to hide in. If the siren sounded at night we would stay downstairs and sleep there. For small boys this was an adventure that I can hardly remember as I still needed my sleep. I just let my parents worry themselves sick should any bombs fall close by. Some more concerned people had shelters in their back garden where they could escape from the house collapsing around them. My grandfather had put a corrugated iron Anderson shelter in his garden half sunk into the ground and to me it smelled of mould and damp. We were going to get a Morrison shelter for indoors which with a table top over it could be more useful when the bombs weren’t dropping but for some reason that never eventuated so we just slept under our normal dining table or huddled in the space under the stairs. I guess we were just lucky as most of the streets near us escaped any damage. At the end of our garden was a field and copse of trees and at the end of our road was a very large field indeed so no bombers wasted their bombs on us.

War is a terrifying time for parents but a very exciting time for children. This is because the main streets were filled with army vehicles, trucks, Bren gun carriers and most exciting of all tanks that roared menacingly like huge beasts looking for prey which of course they were, or would be once they had crossed the channel and started chasing the enemy.

Man had not yet been flying for forty years but now the skies were full of planes taking off and landing at a myriad of newly constructed airfields to house them and their crews. Boys like us were in their element spotting the planes with sharp eyes and identifying them by wing shape, sound and number of engines. As I was the younger brother my elder sibling had grabbed ownership by choosing the Supermarine Spitfire as his favorite so I was left to attach myself to the Hawker Hurricane which I liked best in any case.

Once or twice at school assembly an announcement would be made that one of our classmates had been killed in an air-raid we were sad for one day but continued fighting the war our way the next. We boasted of what our fathers and uncles were doing and what service they were in or what countries they had visited as war was with us day and night.

On one of the last days of the summer 1940 our family spent the afternoon on the Hampshire downs and in that glorious setting we all watched a dogfight overhead. There high in the sky above us almost out of sight except for young boys’ eyes a battle was being fought by tiny planes droning and firing and circling and falling on that dying day of summer. It was the culmination of the Battle of Britain, a deciding point in the war. The action that day was proof to the British people that we could win the war despite the odds.

Later as the war wore on we were playing cricket in the field adjacent one day and heard the drone of a doodlebug or V1 guided rocket launched from enemy occupied territory. We paused in our game and listened carefully and waited as it flew overhead. The droning of the engine did not stop so we were safe, so like seasoned heroes we continued with our game of cricket as the rocket would fall to ground when the engine stopped.  It was all part of the action.

4 comments:

  1. And of course, the Hawker Hurricane did more to win the Battle of Britain than the Spitfire did. Not many people know that, but it's true nevertheless. The Hurricanes went for the bombers while the Spitfires handled the ME.109s. Great reminiscences. I haven't got round to it yet with my 'A Kind of Life' series - but it's coming!

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  2. Wow. War was far more up close and personal for you than it ever was for me. For me, it has always been something on TV, and a certain grimness on the faces of those who came back alive.

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  3. My generation had nothing that exciting to try to live up to. We had to seek our own drama, which may be why we and the generations since are a little more off-kilter and deranged than older generations.

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  4. I don't have those kinds of memories, but I've read a lot of books about WW II. What a clash of superlatives there was. Everything was at stake. Such evil, such suffering, such bravery, such loss! Unbelievable insanity, apathy, kindness and risks...people were truly put through a fire and I think the survivors gained something not available to those of us who grew up without that fear and challenge. Not that I would ever want to see it happen again. Peace is wonderful even though it has its hazards.

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