- Contributed by
- Conal O'Donnell
- People in story:
- Mrs Vera Tolman and the children of West Tofts school,Norfolk
- Location of story:
- West Tofts,Norfolk,1942
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 November 2004
Vera Tolman loved her picturesque tree lined cycle to work at West Tofts school in the early 1940s.She escaped the horrors of the Coventry blitz for the peace of the Norfolk countryside.But soon that too disappeared as tanks like this started manouevres using live ammunition.
In 1942 about a thousand men , women and children were compulsorily evacuated from Stanford,Tottington and West Tofts in Norfolk.They lost their homes to make way for the Stanford Battle Area where troops prepared for D-Day using live ammunition.After the war the army kept control despite wartime pledges that the villagers could return once hostilities ceased.The MOD retains the Stanford PTA to this day and there is little likelihood of it ever being de-militarised.
In 1975 Vera Czeres, the former headmistress of West Tofts school in 1942 ,wrote me a letter detailing her memories of this unsettling experience.She was then a Mrs Tolman ( nee Westwood.)The story of the evacuation is told in some detail elsewhere(Breckland exodus-the forced evacuation of the Norfolk Battle Area 1942:Part 1 (A3258362) and Breckland exodus-the forced evacuation of the Norfolk Battle Area 1942:Part 2 (A3258407) but I thought her vivid ,reflective account deserved reproduction in full
Memories of Stanford Battle Area
"During the beginning part of the war I was in the Midlands-spending long hours down shelters and crawling through artificially created smog which was to camouflage those cities when Jerry came over.
It was the Coventry raid that finally decided me to return to Norfolk with my child as my husband had been called up.After a nightmare journey of many hours I stepped off onto Brandon station and took in long gulps of the heady Norfolk air.
I prepared to settle down to just mind my child and occasionally help in Mundford school where my father was headmaster.
However one day as I was busy hanging out nappies on the line in the playground an H.M.I. called at the school and persuaded me to take over West Tofts school.I didn't need much persuading as I had often stayed at the rectory as a child and loved every minute of it.
Having found a girl to mind the child while I was away I bought myself a bicycle and proceeded to pedal to West Tofts each day. As it was late summer when I commenced no one will ever re-live those wonderful autumn mornings through the beech woods and fir trees.It was really peace.
I suppose time sorts out all the pleasant things in our memories-I have forgotten the winter days when I when I was forced to walk but arrived glowing and healthy.I remember the spring days when the children ran to meet me with their hands full of the primroses and violets they had gathered by the wayside as they waited for me to appear round the corner.
They were like that those children,kind,helpful,cheerful,not so bright or "smart-alicky" as the children of the towns in which I had taught but they painstakingly absorbed all I could give them and I'm sure some retained it longer.
However there was a leaven among the evacuees,indeed we were quite a polyglot lot .We even included Fritz,an extremely clever German boy .However he came to be there I don't know but we all accepted him and no one made any comment -we were all too happy for that.
I mentioned the children were kind and helpful-so were the parents .The fathers came and dug us trenches to which we rushed when "Jerry" made a daylight sortie.It seemed more fun than anything as we jumped into them and peered up through the beech branches as he droned by.
There were two rooms in that school heated by open coal fires with guards round.On wet days we all draped our clothes round to dry on them.I never smell drying clothes even to-day without that nostalgic memory returning.
There were no school dinners in those days and we all brought our sandwiches.We had a large black kettle which we set to boil on that fire at playtime and which made us all hot drinks at dinnertime .
I'm afraid many a family history came out during those "talks over the tea pot" but I loved them all too much to pass on any of it.
I was lucky in that I had two splendid assistant teachers. A Mrs Cross, a farmer's wife who brought her five children with her and seeded them in among the various classes.Then when she left a Mrs Ladell who cycled from Croxton with her child.
Indeed that became the pattern for as my young nurse maid got called up I was forced to do the same myself so the school became more of a family than ever.Since both these ladies were good and enthusiastic teachers I flatter myself that we had a good school and our results were good.
We had plays and open days .Indeed many parents popped in and out.The refreshments they provided on wartime rations on these occasions was astonishing.
We were all so happy there that I decided to "move in".I had been living with my parents but decided that "The Chantry" was for me.It was built like a miniature castle -a dream place.
I could not understand why my application for it was refused.I ferreted around everywhere but
got no definite reply until that fatal day when we were all called to a meeting which was addressed by a General Anderson under those lovely beeches in the playground.
He gave us the fatal news .He didn't have to ask for silence,we all stood there stunned-even the babies and children were hushed.I don't think I really absorbed all he said-I vaguely remember his promise that we should all return -that we should be having a visit from some person who would "assess our damages".
I don't think we even discussed it with one another.We just went home too unhappy to speak.The war had taken our husbands, and now our homes, and our way of life was to go.
Perhaps that wasn't so much amongst all the carnage and loss, but it was too near to home for us to ignore.
Next day an inspector came and instructed me to pack up all books etc and send it down to Mundford school where the remaining children were to go.Many of the evacuees returned to London, the rest were scattered all over England.
Some of the children wrote to me for a while but soon that stopped.After the school had been closed for about a month someone remembered that there was a ton of coal in the shed still up there.
I was asked if I would go and meet the coalman who was to take it away so I cycled up there.
I never want an experience like that again.It was all so eerie and quiet.It wouldn't have been so bad if the place had been derelict but the gardens were still full of flowers and relatively tidy.
People had still left some curtains at the windows.All the ghosts of all those happy people seemed to walk along those streets with me.But not even a bird sang for I stopped to listen.Even the begrimed coalman noticed it.I have never seen a coal shed emptied so quickly.
I locked the door and gave one last glance across the park.There stood a great antlered deer.He just gave me one stare from his gentle brown eyes then we turned our backs on each other and left West Tofts forever."
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