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The 1939-45 War in Spennymoor by Lt Col. F Phillips TD.DL.

by Darlington Libraries

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

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Lt Col. F Philips
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31 May 2005

I remember the declaration of war very distinctly. I was a choir boy at St. Andrews Church, Barnfield Road and attending the 10.30 am Holy Communion Service. The Vicar, The Reverand Samuel Moore, made the annoncement to the congregation and the church bell was tolled for the last time. The choirboys could hardly contain their excitement and wait for the service to end. En masse, we went straight up to the Drill Hall, to watch the assembly of the local Territorial Army and the Reservists.

Sgt. Allan, the boxer, who lived in the Blocks was always very smart in his 6/DLI uniform (black and red embellishments) who I used to see frequently, on his way to the Drill Hall. I knew the Drill Hall quite well, as one of my school friends was the son of the resident Permanent Staff Instructor and we used to play in the Hall. Little did I think, that 15 years later, I would be the Company commander there - but more of that later.

These wer anxious days before the actual Declaration, all the 'thinking people' knew that was enevitable, and extra food was bought and stored, and their gardens were tended more carefully, and even extended. Preparations were made for the black-out and the Voluntary Services were expanded. My father joined the Special Constabulary and it was with great pride that I handed him his steel helmet and truncheon when he went on duty. Saturday night was a family foray along Cheapside and up to High Street, to the Bridge and back. It was an interesting walk up to Defty's, to buy some wool, visit the indoor market at the Town Hall - I bought an American comic, and Mother bought her favourite Wenslydale cheese from Renee Forbes' stall - pop into Petty's (Andy Hunter's) where Father ordered his leather - next was Marsh's biscuit stall, their marshmallow biscuits were really delicious. The new and unique Belisha Crossing was at this point and was a quite a feature at this time. The corner of Queen Street (Howard Pearson's shop) was the local 'speakers corner' and on average, once a month, the Brown Shirts and Black Shirts, used to take the platform. Often the meeting was very 'heated' - then it was time to move on - this was my first introduction to Fascism and Anti-Semitism. War came to Spennymoor very slowly. People thought that once the (B.E.F.) had arrived in France and got into action, the fighting would continue wher it ahd left off in 1918, when the Allies would give Hitler a quick bloody nose and it would be all over.

However, precautions were still being taken and the evacuees arrived in Spennymoor in their hundreds from Tyneside. The day after war was declared, I started at the Alderman Wraith Grammar School. What a time to declare war. On the arrival of the evacuees, we went on to half days. We were taught for half a day and given a substantial amount of homework for the other half. The Warden and Assistant Warden (Mr Jack Maddison) ran the Boy Scouts and as there were a number of Grammar School Boys in the Troop, some in my year (Alan Walton) and his brother John, the Outhwaites and the Welch's, it was not long before a group of us (ex King St. Council School Boys) now Grammar School Boys joined. The Scouts made their contribution by helping the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) by becoming highly proficient in First Aid, which we never had to put into practice and by collecting old books for recycling. We collected thousands of books in our hand cart and stored them in the old Ringtons Tea Depot, in High Grange Road.

Dunkirk, when our BEF was driven out of Europe in 1940, was a traumatic time for the whole country, even for Spennymoor. We housed a lot of soldiers, particularly in the schools and a lot of men wearing hospital blue uniforms were seen. The Alderman Wraith was taken over by the Army and there was no school for six weeks. However, it was a wonderful summer weatherwise, we spent most days, bathing in the River Wear, either at Croxdale or Tudhoe.

Air raid sirens went frequently after that and most times you could hear the different tones of the German Bombers. Fortunately, Spennymoor was not a target, but you could see the flashes of the bursting bombs and the searchlights over Stockton and Middlesbrough. The hot slag from the coke ovens became a peoblem, as it was thought that their glow was a marker for the enemy. The Auxiliary Fire Service spent many hours damping down. I remember, there were two occasions, when the Germans gave us cause for concern. The first one was a single German Bomber, which dropped a lot of incendiary bombs (target the factory at Merrington Lane, or the A1 Road). They fortunately fell in a line from York Hill Cemetary to Tudhoe Village. Quite harmlessly, but what a scramble for the tail fins. The second raid was much better - a V1 Rocket, probably launched at the factory, but actually fell and exploded in Tudhoe Cricket field. The blast was reputed to have moved the corner of the stone built vicarage in St. Charles Road and the only casualty was Mr Bill Sumner, head Master fo the Grammar School, who was dressing in his bedroom in St. Charles Road and was hit in the face by glass from his bedroom window, blown in by the blast. that caused a stir at morning assembly at school, to see Spennymoor's first and only casualty.

Life at school during the war years was not usual for a school of this type. The young Masters went to war, the ones who should have retired were kept on and others were brought out of retirement. discipline was strict, but the teaching was still good and life was still enjoyable. Games coaching was not as it should have been, but team games were played against other schools. getting to Wolsingham Grammar School for a Saturday morning game was a test of patience and ingenuity. However, home games were something to look forward to, as Maude, Cook in charge and her staff, always came to make lunch for both teams, and for wartime, what a slap up lunch it was.

As I progressed through the school, the more responsibility I was given. In the fourth form, I was Lab. Assistant in the Physics Lab. In the fifth form, I took over Lab. Assistant in the Gen. Science Lab. from Charlie Kane. He and his twin brother Jack, were very popular students, both of these were paid jobs. As the war progressed, so the number of boys in the sixth form diminished. It had got so bad that the Senior Master Mr Peberdy, had to appoint Prefects from the fifth form. I was appointed and besides my run of the mill Prefect duties, I had to ring the hand bell for the lesson changes. I was very popular, because, when a lesson became tiresome, I soon got vibes and signals from my classmates, to get out there and ring the bell early.

School Firewatchers were app from the fifth and sixth forms, 3 girls and 3 boys were on duty each night. Duty usually worked out, 3 times a month. The boys slept in the Domestic Science flat and the girls in the Senior Mistresses room. Again, it was a paid job. Miss Cleary, the Domestic Science Teacher, always came up trumps, leaving out for the firewatchers, plenty of cocoa and sugar (then rationed), for their refreshment. The war restricted the extra curriculum activities, such as games, visits, holidays abroad and social occasions. Coaching for games was limited, or even non existent, but when necessary, someone would volunteer to blow a whistle. I was secretary for the soccer team and made all the fixtures and paid out expenses. I also played cricket and my best achievement was 31 not out - very creditable in a limited over, Saturday morning game. I was also the wicket keeper. We had a very good fast bowler, George Wilson - I remember him bouncing the ball off the batsmans middle stump. The bails and the ball sped all ways; I caught a bail, and the ball hit me in the eye. My black eye was a talking point for staff and students on Monday morning. We played mixed tennis against the staff and I remember, with pleasure, that with my partner Jean Rutherford, we beat Mr Corbridge, a regular and accomplished player and Miss Thompson. Mr Egglishaw came up trumps, by organising a sixth form club on Friday nights. It usually started with mixed hockey. Mr Nattras, who succeeded Mr Howard (deceased) as Chemistry Master, was a great help here and occasionally we played outside teams. We once travelled to Darlington to play against a team from a Forces Administration Office. I cannot remember who won, but we were given tea, brown bread, sliced cheddar cheese and strawberry jam. At first, I could not believe it, but having tasted it there, it is still one of my favourite sandwiches.

Mr Peberdy, what a charcter, deserves another mention. He was a strict disciplinarian. Towards the end of the lunch hour, when casual games were in full swing, a cry would go up, "Pebs coming". In 5 seconds flat, the playground would be empty, and all you could see of the boys,were, the faces of the boys who had courage enough to peep further around the corners. Alas, there would always be one innocent first former standing aghast, wondering where all his mates had gone. "Come here boy", Pep would shout, waving his stick at him.Then, when a victim had been chosen, the boys would come out of hiding, and life in the playground would be normal and the victim would ba accompanied to the outside toilets, to pick up the litter. I do not know of anyone who was caught twice. In the classroom, he was unforgiving. He taught Maths; he would solve a specimen problem on the blackboard and leave you to get on with it. On completion of every sum, it had to be marked by him. Any distraction in class and you were kneeling in front of him, with your hands on your head. He would then take a ruler and hit you on the fingers with the edge. It hurt and the natural reaction was to remove your hands - the last three blows landed on your head. I learnt my Maths very quickly and thoroughly. One memorable incident happened in my first year at the Alderman Wraith. There was, even in those days, a little bullying and horseplay occasionally by some of the more senior boys towards their juniors. One first year, a particularly lively and loquacious young man, found himself in the cycle sheds, standing on the caretakers wheelbarrow, with a noose around his neck and the rope suspended from the cycle shed beam. One fifth former, irresponsibly, took the wheelbarrow away. He was saved. Next morning, the culprits, at morning assembly, were brought to the front of the hall. The Head, who was short and portly, harangued them for sometime, in front of the whole school and then 'blew his top' and gave each boy a 'clip on the ear' but, to reach the leader, who was in the order of 6ft-4inch tall, had to jump to reach. It took several attempts before he was successful.

It came as a shock to us first formers, that the last lesson on a Friday afternoon was ballroom dancing. The thought of us 12 boys, dancu=ing with girls, was just horrendous. We were not allowed to rebel, and just ahd to get on with it and formally and graciously, had to ask partners for a dance. Years on, the Head was right, and the many Xmas parties and other social occassions were more enjoyable. After all, you cannot have egg & spoon races for ever. There were two severe winters during my five years at the Alderman Wraith and this disrupted the normal timetable. Pupils from outlying districts were bussed in every day, by six United buses and after one particular heavy snowstorm, which blocked the roads, the buses did not run for most of a week. Mr Sumner went shopping, and came back with a load of games - table tennis - chess - monopoly and many others, which kept us, the local pupils, occupied for the school hours.

Careers advice was almost non existent at school during the war years. There are only two lectures that I remember, one was for the Civil Service and I was asked to give the vote of thanks to the Speaker. The second was my making. An old retired Indian Army Cavalry Colonel, gave a talk offering Commissions in the Indian Army, so I took it and volunteered. The Colonel wanted to see my parents, so I took him home. Wisely, my parents agreed with me, realising my other choices were not so good, so I signed up.

A 3 day War Office Selection Board was next. It was held in the Great Western Hotel in London - a huge hotel, which had been taken over by the Army, as a collecting point for for soldiers transferring yo other units. It had been stripped bare of all of it's furnishings and fittings, so it would be cold and unwelcoming, but the food was exceptional, so much and so good. What a teat after 5 years of severe rationing. Over 3 days, we had test in English, Maths, Intelligence and P.E.. There were also a number of interviews. A hard time, but enjoyable and no air raids.

I was very pleased to learn that I had been accepted. Now that my immediate future had been settled, I could get down and revise for my School Certificate Exams which were coming up.

During the summer holidays that year, two of the younger female members of staff organised a weeks walking holiday in the Lake District. About 12 of my year went, an equal number of boys and girls and we had an enjoyable time, staying in youth hostels.

The School certificate results arrived - great - a most satisfactory result. More than enough to join the Indian Army, or I could continue at school, to work for the Higher School Certificate. The remainder of the holidays was spent playing tennis on the new courts in the Jubilee Park, with my school friends, finishing up with a leisurely cup of coffee in the Briadway Parlour.

The new school year started, the Indian Army Colonel had brought me some text books to learn Urdu until I reached the embodiment at 17 years 6 months. I had been enlisted at the Durham Army Careers Office and received the Kings shilling.

Unfortunately, my Father died on New Years Day, and as an only child, I had to give some thought about leaving my Mother when I joined up. I was committed to the Army and had to go and on the 8th March 1945, I was embodied into the Queens Regiment in Maidstone. I was exactly 17 years 6 months and 2 weeks old.

The start of my Army life was difficult, but it was the same for the other 35 ex school boys who joined with me. Recruits training lasted for 6 weeks, it was physically hard and there were a number of the 35 who did not make it, physical injuries, sickness, or who were not good enough. The Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant Hardy, was avery fair man and a good instructor, which is more than could be said for the Corporal and L/Corporal, who lived in our own barrack room. At the end of 6 weeks, we were given a long week-end leave, and had toreport back to the 14th Infantry Training Centre, Invicta Lines, Maidstone, for corps training. Now we had an Indian Army Platoon Commander, first one from the Tochi Scouts. He was succeeded by a lieutenant in the Indian Army Tank Corps. We did a lot of firing on the ranges and became familiar with all the Rifle Platoon weapons. I was pleased to be classified as a first class shot. During this time, our pay was 3 shillings per day, but at the weekly parade, we got 15 shillings on 3 weeks and one pound on the fourth week. the balance was retained for my 'barrack damages' which might have occurred or might occur in the future. Pay was small, but so were the prices in the NAAFI, one penny for a cup of tea and one penny for a substantial slice of the NAAFE currant cake. Most welcome during the morning NAAFI break, because, the Army food in camp was awful. At the end of this training, we were classified on our ability and military knowledge and I was amongst the 5 who received a blue ribbon to wear on our epaulette, indicating a first class soldier. Again our number was reduced in size for various reasons.

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