Distant War - recollections of boyhood during World War II in Southern England

My childhood largely coincided with World War II, the effect of which was only indirectly evident to me, mostly in a lingering sense of occasional gloom shrouding the anxiety that affected everyone. My father's face was grim as he shushed me to be quiet during the one o'clock news on the wireless with its daily count of planes down and missing, which was beyond my full comprehension, but which still felt ominous of things dark and awful beyond my horizons. 'The war' was for me but a disjointed and incomprehensible tale of distant goings-on. I might as well have been in Tolkien's shire, and the Cotswold countryside and its traditions around me made it all the more like that. Up among the galleon clouds ever sailing in from the West I would sometimes see the pretty streamers that were said to be from 'dog fights with the Huns'.

In relative security from bombing, uniformed officers and men came and went at our house, some billeted on us in our largish newly-built home near Cirencester. Convoys of khaki and greenish vehicles, soldiers sometimes waving to me from tank turrets, or from field guns on the endless lines of lorries all blend in my memory with richly-hedged lanes out of which opened sudden broad landscapes outlined in curving rows of elm and oak or with walled villages and flower-filled cottage gardens. As the war years passed, I would run off to watch such troop movements more and more. Prior to the D-Day invasion of Normandy, I stood beside the road and waved and saluted endlessly to the impressive columns of camouflaged lorrys, tanks and guns. They were often at a standstill and a soldier might say 'Hi' in American or crack some joke I didn't understand. By that time I was eight and I knew well that they were going to go into battle and might never come back and my heart tried to go with them.

Memory holds various disconnected and detached scenes reflecting the experience of wartime, such as a woman suddenly bursting into tears with terrible cries of anguish from the heart, from whom adults hurried me away with reassurances about her that I doubted were genuine yet which I wished to believe in. I can see the grave faces of teachers and sense underlying sadness and bravery that I could only understand with the heart, not the head.

For some months I shared a private tutor of the son of a local lord, who was probably acting in the wartime spirit of help and make-do. Then I entered Cirencester junior grammar school, where the war meant for me that I had to chew all the gristle on the meat ration at school dinners and swallow it! Many a poor and starving war refugee child, we were always told, would have been glad of it. This may not have improved the main course, but it was an extra reason to appreciate the dessert, which was often tapioca, sago or rice made with dried milk to which cocoa had been added to make 'chocolate pudding'.

Something also made me think of the children of 'the enemy' and that they surely had to be just like myself and other children. Or could they? It was unimaginably terrible that they had to be on the wrong side under the hellish 'heel of Hitler's jackboot' (a phrase current at the time). I soon knew enough to thank my lucky stars that I was born English under the cover of Spitfires and 'Winnie' (i.e. Winston Churchill), whom I tended to mix up with Winnie the Pooh.

Unless the War had made my mother's parents come down to us to Cirencester from Tyneside, seeking safety from the very heavy bombing there, I may never have known these grandparents. Old Pa Flint got a fresh lease on life, learning to drive so as to be able to help out in the war effort with deliveries of produce and the like. I was allowed to go along on a few occasions. Petrol was saved by letting the van freewheel down all slopes and hills, but Pa put his foot on the gas once when we found we were running parallel with a fighter that was taking off from a grassy airstrip.

Several moves of school and home meant that I had just time to get settled in somewhere before I had to leave again. Those unstable times caused me many partings with friends, none of whom I was ever to see again. My father moved on ahead of us from Cirencester Hospital to a new position at Addenbrooks Hospital in the middle of Cambridge. The main danger of bombing was over by then and East Anglia was teeming with U.S. airmen. My cousin Leonard and I heard how generous and also how wasteful they were, one had thrown out a pair of shoes only because they needed polishing (unless it were really a subtle form of charity?). Leonard and I tried to cash in, practicing their twanging Yank accents on the phrase "Gotanygumchum?' and calling each other Max and Bill in honour of two G.I.'s who had once 'come up wid de goods' when we confronted them on the streets of Cambridge.

In later years I realised that in 1943 I actually heard about the secret research in America that was later to be known as the Los Alamos 'Manhattan Project'. It was all due to an attack of the German measles (not of the Germans themselves). I was attended by a lady doctor who happened to be a distinguished specialist in leukaemia and who my father presumably knew from the hospital. From her we got to know that she was leaving directly for super top secret war work that might save Britain. She was to live and work somewhere in a desert in America. I clearly recall how impressed I was by that news, for my parents were as if filled with excited hope by it. I wonder if that lady's knowledge of the dangers of cancer from radiation improved the war effort.

We moved to Sussex and I stayed at the one-time country house of Beedingwood, near Horsham. The huge brooding beechwoods made the atmosphere there damp and dark and at first it felt just as threatening to me as any dangerous forest from Grimm's Fairy tales. After some weeks we moved into a renovated lodge not far away in the huge deserted and overgrown grounds of a one-time great country house, Roffey Park in St. Leonard's forest. It was as if I had come to Nutwood itself, now at the very home of Rupert Bear and his pals, into whose otherwise pedestrian lives the magical and marvellous regularly intruded. I hoped against hope, as the puzzling phrase has it, that after all some figure from Rupert's Sussex-like environment would turn up within some wooded thicket or beyond the rise of the next hillock. Never were my intense prayers for Rupert adventures to happen to me fulfilled, not even the odd-looking Chinese girl Tiger Lily did I meet. Never, never was I lucky. I almost wished I had never even heard of these 'people' and the perpetual store of the unattainable wonders they were party to but which never intervened in my own humdrum doings. But then streamers of silver did at last begin to fall from the sky daily and I thought the magic was beginning... until I learned the truth. It was tinfoil to deceive enemy planes' radar.

I remember one day when the daily picture and story strip with Rupert Bear failed to appear in the Daily Express... and that it was somehow taken as ominous by my parents. But the World War only stopped Rupert in his tracks for two days during the worst air attacks of the Battle of Britain, the Daily Express had to reinstate him straight away due to massive complaints by phone and telegram from the entire country. These familiar and loved thumb-nail sketches of an utopian timeless and peaceful England disturbed people so much that it was seen to be of national significance to recontinue them immediately. The England of arcadian Nutwood was threatened and, of course, it was succumbing to major new social and technological changes... which was somehow more relentlessly effective than the previous generation had experienced when their 'Great War' removed by the million the flower of British youth and brought the relatively timeless Albion they knew to its denouément.

Roffey Park Manor served at that time as a wartime rehabilitation centre for mental war casualties. The war was at its height and my friend Christopher's father was a designer of advanced aircraft, called the Saville-Sneath after him. We were surely being shielded as far as possible from knowing about it, both at home and at our schools. This may only have fed our fantasies, and I recall a long excited talk we had after lights out at our house about tank warfare, with gory details and tactical tricks. We agreed that being a tank commander was the peak of possible achievement, and Christopher declared that he would become one. He tried to get me to make a pact with him that we would both do that together. I know I could not quite take that step, but he was determined on his own account. Is it possible that, as a seven year-old, he really somehow knew what he was to become? Many years later I heard that he had been to Sandhurst and was a major in a tank corps!

My father hardly ever spoke of the war, for he had been in the Great War of 1914-18. He would only tell me little about his experiences in the First World War, doubtless not wanting to disturb my mind with such awful things. Having been in the front line, he can never have been the same as before, as could no man. So I never came to know what it took away or gave him in perspective or meaning. I know that he was an unusually sympathetic man and I remember him shedding tears about the fate of others. He had joined up at seventeen, still under age, partly on account of that terrible public enthusiasm that ruled the country even when the flower of British manhood was being slaughtered uselessly in hundreds of thousands at a time and partly, my mother later thought, because he saw his chance to get away from his father's autocracy and an oppressive household.

He'd had to carry a machine gun for many days on end, hardly stopping with the enemy close behind through a strategic retreat near the end of the war. At the end of the ordeal, he found that the soldier who was supposed to be carrying the ammunition for it had only been carrying an empty box without telling him so. Shortly thereafter he had been gassed and then blown up by a shell which buried him alive. A passing Cockney had seen a hand sticking up from an earth mound and decided to take a chance on digging to see if the owner might be alive. His hair had turned white literally overnight and his parents, who went to Folkestone to see him in hospital where he was recovering from shell-shock and gas-poisoning, had not recognised him. However, I was not told of these things until many years later. To me the Great War was some very heavy volumes much illustrated in sepia and brown photos and etchings put out by The Times in which one could see famous guns like Moaning Minnie and Big Bertha on rails.

The current war was still an almost-unnoticed background to my life. One evening I was taken by my mother to the nearest village Faygate, where a concert was being held by E.N.S.A. in a large corrugated-iron roofed Nissen-type hut in a yard beside the one-line railway for a few local R.A.F. forces. I was flabbergasted at the courage and hilarious but naughty wit of the men in the cast who dressed as women, but best of all I recall the great waves of emotion with which the wartime songs White Cliffs of Dover and We'll meet again were sung by the tearful audience at the end. Only two other wartime incidents really left an indelible mark in my mind. I came across a brief mention of this RAF camp which stated "Faygate's notable contribution to the war effort was to house a small RAF unit. They were accommodated in huts, with a hangar type building, but, no planes. In fact the site was much too small for aircraft. The job this unit was established for is unknown." Incidentally, the village of Faygate was later named as the place where the famous 'Dad's Army' series was sited.

One morning I was playing near the house at Roffey Park when a whistle and a truly tremendous bang in the distance, which I soon learned was a V2 that had hit the centre of Crawley, demolishing rows of houses near to the famous 14th century post-house hotel The George (which survived). I later recall seeing the front page of the Daily Express with its photo of the mushroom cloud, printed directly after the bombing of Hiroshima. At the ensuing VJ-day celebrations, I received my first real sweets I could really remember, a bar of Crunchie. Thus came vistory to me!

(Footnote: I always savour Winston Churchill's words to the effect that there were no non-combatants in England during WW2, the entire population was under attack!)

See also Window tape or 'scrim' used in WW2 to stop splinter danger

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