BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site

Contact Us

The Lost Years 1940 to 1945: Childhood Memories of London and the Home Counties

by Peter Auliff

Contributed by 
Peter Auliff
People in story: 
Peter Auliff
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
05 April 2004

Before the war I lived in a 'Round House' on the Hertfordshire/Bedfordshire border. This house had been built some centuries earlier as a tollhouse on the A1 highway from London to Edinburgh. My brother Eric (two years older than I) and my mother and father had moved here when I was about three years of age to get away from the 'Great Depression'. We were fairly isolated with only a few farms in the immediate vicinity. The locals did not mix much with us because we were outsiders from London. This put my brother and I at quite a disadvantage later on when mixing with other children.

When my brother brought home the Whooping Cough from the village school I contracted it and compounded it with 'Double Pneumonia'. I was at one stage declared dead by the doctor and was bedridden for three months. I ended up a walking skeleton and I could make my front ribs touch my back ribs! I very occasionally went to school, but only for a few days before I would become too sick. I have memories of bigger boys in the class carrying me around the playgrounds on their shoulders like Tom Cratckett in A Christmas Carol. I had many other childhood illnesses when I was very young and spent a lot of time in bed where I educated myself learning to read and play chess etc.

When I was six I vividly remember the family sitting around the battery-powered radio listening to Adolph Hitler making his speech. My parents seemed happy about it, but I burst out crying and when they asked me what was wrong I told them that this man was bad and was going to do a lot of bad things.

Some time later my mother worked in the parachute factory at Letchworth and my father worked in the R.A.F. stores at Henlow. My father had had a difficulty getting work after being wounded by a 'Minnie' having lasted two years in the trenches. (He passed his diary on to me)

"The Day War Broke Out". To use a contemporary comic's catch phrase; I was in the garden at the Round House and I heard the air raid siren go off. My mother did not believe me until she later heard the all clear. I, of course, had better hearing as a child, but my mother's hearing was not the best after working in the munitions factories during the First World War.

Shortly after this, my father transferred to another R.A.F. stores at Woodley near Reading. The family followed him and set up home there. It was from here that my evacuation experiences began.

Somewhere about mid 1940 I was sent to the Peppard Hospital Sanitorium near Reading. I was still very sick and my mother later told me that the doctors only gave an expectation of life of two weeks. I think it was a 'kill or cure' situation. Although I had previously been away in hospital for several months in Battersea, this was the first time that I had to really mix with other children. The nurses ran the medical side of the hospital but, like a prison, the inmates really ran the wards. The ones who ran the wards were the 'East Enders'. They were a tough bunch of kids who bullied everyone else; especially kids like myself who were 'misfits' because they had been isolated with their illness.
I quickly gained their respect by not 'squealing' when caught stealing food for them and not giving in under pressure.

During the winter of 1940-41 I caught chicken pox and was put in a mixed ward. It was a very memorable time. The first, is the memory of seeing the horizon lit with a huge glow like a great orange setting sun. This was the East End of London burning. The second, was my first contact with girls. I remember them as very pleasant, with a but! When it came to I'll show you mine if you show me yours. They cheated!

Just after returning from Peppard my father was again transferred, this time to London. We all moved into London: First to Kelvedon Road, then Crondace Avenue, Fulham and finally to Hesper Mews in Earls Court. We had no sooner settled in, than I was on the move again. My mother, who was now working in a government office at the Imperial Institute, had advance warning of the coming German vengeance raids and 'Doodle Bugs' flying bomb campaign, which were due to start in a few months time. My brother who was nearly fourteen, and about to leave school, stayed at home and I was evacuated again some time in the middle of 1943. Things happened so fast that I have no recollection of how I was selected; all I remember, is that all of a sudden, I was in a large room with other children and a lady, (I thought she might be a doctor) was feeling my testicles and asking me to cough. Then I was on a train at Euston and transported to a railway station near 'The Camp'.

We were put off the train, I think at Boxmoor and marched for ages until we eventually came to the school. As we had not eaten since breakfast and this was afternoon by now the staff fed us. The meal was about twenty currents put in our hand. I well remember the first meal proper that we had, because after the miserable main course a pudding was set on the table in front of one boy and he was told to share it around. He took a spoonful off the top for everyone then kept the rest for himself sparking a near riot, which caused the staff to intervene. There was no doubt that we were on 'starvation rations'.

The school song (supposedly written by 'Jonsa') went: -

There is a rotten old camp, far, far away.
Where we get bread and scrape three times a day.
Eggs and bacon we don't see.
We get sawdust in our tea.
That's why we're gradually,
Fading away.

My introduction to life at Nettleden L.C.C. School was quite brutal. In fact I was welcomed into Lister House by a boy from each side of the doorway leaping down from the top bunks onto my back and flattening me. Shonick and Grodner (I hope I have their names right) later became good friends, but initially I had to buy them off with some foreign stamps. Mr Dann was the housemaster, but never seemed to be around or take any interest in us. I was later transferred to Gordon house where one new housemaster showed too much interest. I found that when he asked me to fetch his towel, that the manner in which I gave him the towel, cured him of any desire for me!

The houses at the school were called after leaders of various professions. There was, (in order from top to bottom) Shaftsbury, Lister, Wren, Gordon and Shelley. Each house had about sixty boys in the one room on double bunks. We all had a preference for the top bunk in case the boy above was a bed-wetter! At each end of the dormitory there was a small bedroom for a Housemaster and a boot room/store. The houses were arranged in two sets of three either side of a grassed recreation area. The third house after Shelley was not named, as it was a classroom. Mr Jones (Jonsa) had his room here which gave him the privacy he needed for his activities. Sometimes we would sneak in and listen at his door and have a good giggle at the sounds being made by the boy concerned. We all tolerated Mr Jones, but knew not to accept a seat on his lap if the bus was crowded. Otherwise we would get a surprise! Jonsa was always prepared to take bath night supervision, (even if it was not his turn) and he took particular care to make sure that we were clean down below.

The masters at this school seemed to fall into two categories. The loving, or the sadistic. Mr Ernest E. White was the Headmaster and without doubt the most sadistic person I have ever known. In one session he gave out several hundreds of strokes of the cane. And what I witnessed as the worst example for me, was a boy who had run away from the school and been brought back. I was with other members of the Boys Brigade in the Assembly Hall when the boy was brought in. Mr White could not wait for Assembly to start punishing the boy and came from his office in the Hall to where the boy stood and demanded that he put out his hands. It was normal practise for the 'run-away' to be given about two hundred strokes of the cane. This victim, who was only dressed in running shorts and singlet, was afraid and stood rigid, not putting out his hands as ordered, so Mr White began whipping him from side to side with the cane from top to bottom until the boy was a mass of wealts as if he had been burnt with a red hot poker. After about a hundred strokes the boy put out his hands and got the first ten strokes of the day.

Any excuse was enough for Mr Ernest E. White to give the cane. He had a long rack in his office from which he would select the most suitable cane for the occasion ranging from thickest bamboo sticks down to very finest. On one occasion when a new boy did not want to eat his 'greens', someone put a small amount of my pickle on it to make it palatable. Mr White had wanted to get this boy, but without an excuse he then dragged me off and gave me six of the best in his office. On one occasion I was given six of the best for climbing trees. I had been watching the cricket match and reached up and touched a tree branch!

Our fear of Mr White was so great, that, when one day we heard a 'Doodle Bug' approaching. (And we were told it only just cleared the Assembly Hall roof by a few feet). Mr White who was conducting the school choir gave us such a look that we kept on singing instead of dropping to the floor, like we all wanted to do.

Schooling was very basic. The main interest at the school seemed to be to get greater and greater production out of the garden and livestock. Either the afternoon or the evening, (depending on the season) was spent producing food for the school. There were about six pigs, two hundred chickens and about the same number of rabbits. And acres of vegetable gardens. We were also sent out to work for local farmers, shifting 'muck' or picking potatoes. We were always promised money, but told that the farmers had refused to pay up. We were always on starvation rations, yet when being marched out of the school for the last time I looked back and saw the cold store open and it was jammed packed with sides of bacon etc.

We were always marching. There was a Boy Scout Band and a Boys Brigade Band. I started as a drummer in the Scouts then changed to the Boys Brigade because they had a better drum. The main advantage of being a leading drummer came on Sundays when marching down the very steep hill to Great Gaddesden Church. Almost invariably the cows going to milking had preceded us and one false step could mean chaos in the ranks!

A book could be written just on the boy's adventures at this school, because in order to survive, the boys had to have their own pranks and adventures.

When it was announced that Hitler was dead and the Germans had surrendered, I cried again.(I had not cried for about ten years). My friends said I should be happy, but I told them I was crying for the millions who never saw Victory! Seven days later we were gone; back to schools in London.

Because I had done a lot of reading at The Camp I was well self educated. The school in London was so backward that the Headmaster gave me my leaving certificate even though I was only thirteen. And I was able to start work on my fourteenth birthday at the Metal Box Co in Langham Place.

The separation from my parents for this period of time and their refusal to believe the stories that I told them of the school created a rift that was never healed. My father left home the day I turned fourteen and I joined the Air force at sixteen.

It was a hard learning time for us all, but some of us survived. I am now a war disabled ex-serviceman; fit and active. Having worked all around the U.K., N.Z. and Australia in Civil Engineering. And now retired in North Queensland. I have a wonderful wife and daughter (a Solicitor) who never tire of my stories from the past.

Peter Auliff (Prof)

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

Childhood and Evacuation Category
Berkshire Category
London Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy