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Some Memories of Schooldays in Swansea during WW2

by Dogmatix

Contributed by 
Dogmatix
People in story: 
Hugh Edwards
Location of story: 
Swansea
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A2669141
Contributed on: 
26 May 2004

In 1939, in order for someone to proceed to Secondary Education, form an Elementary or Primary School, it was necessary to pass what was then called "The Scholarship" - later to become "The 11+" and then abandoned altogether. I was fortunate enough to pass the Scholarship, which I sat in about June, 1939 and I was then able to choose one of the three Secondary Schools for Boys (all schools were single-sex then) which were located in the town of Swansea. After discussion with my parents, I elected to attend Glanmor Boys' School, which was within walking distance of my home.

World War 2 commenced on 3rd September.1939 and, barely a week later, with 50 odd other boys, I duly presented myself at the new school. All of us were naturally slightly apprehensive; we were all properly dressed in our new school uniforms and all carried brand new, shiny but empty, leather satchels over our shoulders. But we each had one very unfamiliar item with us. A prior notice had insisted, under pain of dire consequences, that each boy should bring his gas-mask. Respirators (Civilian), to give them their proper title had been issued to the entire civilian population when war became imminent. Gas-masks came in square cardboard boxes which you had to sling over your shoulder on a length of string. These boxes were in no way robust enough for schoolboy use, and parents soon had to buy stronger, usually metal, containers. At this stage in the war, everybody took their gas-masks with them wherever they went, but as the war progressed and there were no gas attacks, people began to leave them at home. But in school, we had to bring them with us for at least the first two years.

Having been sorted out into our forms, a feature of life became regular air-raid practices. At this early stage in the war there were no proper air-raid shelters, so, at a pre-arranged signal, we would all down pens and troop off in an orderly manner to a butcher's shop across the road. This shop was owned by the father of one of my form mates, and had a large cellar (anyway, it seemed large then), where we took shelter and tried on our gas-masks. We would march off back to class after about ten minutes.

In the following year, 1940, real daylight raids started. The town air raid sirens would sound - a frightening, banshee-yell of a noise - and then we would have to stay in the cellar until the All Clear was sounded. This was a steady note, heard with much relief. The air-raids did not last for long, because the German aircraft of that time were pretty much at the limit of their range when they got over Swansea. Their targets were principally the docks and an oil refinery at Llandarcy, 5 or 6 miles east of Swansea.
The oil refinery was badly damaged on one occasion, and we could see plumes of black smoke from the burning storage tanks. There was one exciting incident in early 1940 when, at lunchtime, a single aircraft dropped bombs on the docks, machine-gunned the town of Swansea and then flew low over the school where we were all out in the playground, because no air raid siren had been sounded. The aircraft buffs amongst us identified the plane as a Heinkel 111, but to some of us the plane seemed to have French military markings, which was very strange. I believe some people were killed and injured at Swansea Docks, but no-one at the school was hurt.
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In France, it was the period known as the Phoney War, where neither side seemed to be doing anything much. But this was soon to change. At home, there were strict blackout regulations at night. There were no street lights and people had to make thick, black curtains to prevent any light showing that might be seen by enemy bombers. Food rationing had started and would become more rigorous as the war progressed. Entertainment came entirely from radio programmes and cinemas and news bulletins were eagerly awaited

So far as domestic matters at the school were concerned, I remember being highly impressed by the school canteen, which provided us with cups of hot cocoa at break. This seemed to me to be a highly sophisticated arrangement, compared with the milk bottles, crates and straws of the primary school. On Friday afternoons there were double games, although the sports field was quite a long way from the school and it took us 20/30 minutes to walk there. We didn't realise then that games and sports would soon be things of the past.

Glanmor School consisted of wooden huts arranged around a rectangular playground of rough stony ground, which had never been properly surfaced. The huts were old, World War 1 army accommodation, which had been converted to a school in the 1920s. The school was located in what was then quite a pleasant, leafy suburb of Swansea. It was light and airy and altogether a nice place to be. But the Spring of 1940 brought the surrender of France and the British evacuation from Dunkirk. Preparations were made for a possible German invasion which would be signalled to the populace by the ringing of church bells. The Local Defence Volunteer Units (LDV) were formed, which later became the Home Guard. The effect on our lives was dramatic. Some time during the Summer Term of 1940, it was decided that Glanmor School would be vacated and the buildings taken over by the Army. We were shepherded in column of twos to an old primary school in the middle of Swansea town. Our march was enlivened by the sound of the air raid siren, shortly after we had left Glanmor and were proceeding along Terrace Road, a leafy, semi-rural road on the side of a hill, overlooking Swansea. We were ordereded by our accompanying teachers to take cover in a convenient hedge until the All Clear sounded.

Oxford Street School, which was to be our new home seemed like a step backwards for most of us. After the better part of a year in pleasant surroundings, with the classrooms all on one level, we found ourselves in an oppressive, Victorian primary school building with dark classrooms, stairs and corridors, such as many of us had been glad to leave the previous year. Furthermore, it was in the middle of town (a factor which became very important later) and far from any games field. Anyway, we had to get used to it, but we never found out what had happened to the previous inmates. Oxford Street School had an annex called the Parochial School, about half a mile away, on the southern, seaward side of Swansea, to which we had to make our way for art, woodwork and metalwork lessons.

On a personal basis, this was an even more traumatic period for me, because my father had died, I was an only child and my mother had to find a job so that we could survive. There was a very scary episode when my mother woke me up to say that the church bells were ringing - as indeed they were. Fortunately, this was a false alarm and the threatened invasion never materialised.

There were now perceptible changes at school. There were no longer any provisions for sports and games and many of our younger teachers disappeared to join the Forces, to be replaced by older men called back from retirement and - insult upon insult- women teachers, previously unknown in "boys' schools". Remember this was an era of single sex education! Parents were given the choice of having their sons evacuated to the Gwendraeth Valley, in Carmarthenshire, where they would be placed with foster families and attend a local school for the duration of the War. Several took this option and we lost some of our classmates. I did not wish to be evacuated as it would have meant leaving my mother alone.

The Battle of Britain was fought and won in the late summer of 1940 and then the night bombing raids started. Swansea, a port which received Atlantic conveys with supplies from the U.S.A, was a prime target for the Luftwaffe. Night air raids became a regular feature of our lives and rarely a week passed without one or two attacks with the odd daylight raid thrown in for good measure. We had no proper air raid shelter at home, but during the raids, my mother, my grandmother (who was then living with us) and I, together with my fox terrier, used to take chairs and our valuables and sit in the space under the stairs. It was an old Victorian terraced house and under-the-stairs was generally regarded as the safest place to be. The air raids would take place at any time during the hours of darkness and last for up to three hours. At this time, Swansea was protected by batteries of anti-aircraft guns and searchlights. The searchlights would try to pick up the enemy bombers and the guns would try to shoot them down. The noise was often deafening, causing Gyp, my dog, to add to the din by barking fiercely. The Germans would often drop flares to assist their bomb-aimers, and these, together with the searchlights, would light up the sky for miles around. It was all very frightening but also very spectacular. The engines of the German bombers always had a distinctive throbbing note and we could tell when they were overhead. A falling high-explosive bomb would make a high-pitched whistle, from which we were able to tell if it was likely to drop near. Some of them had delayed-action fuses and did not explode immediately. Incendiary bombs were smaller, dropped in clusters and made no noise in falling.

The morning after a raid, we school boys would search for shrapnel from the AA guns and for bomb fragments. A thriving market for these souvenirs developed in school, with the fins of incendiary bombs being much sought after. But the most highly prized souvenirs were parts of German aircraft, because a few were brought down. It was almost impossible to acquire such a fragment, because the crashed aircraft were always well-guarded by the military. However, some of the boys in my school became expert con-men because it was difficult to identify, with any accuracy, the fragments of metal or fabric which they were selling.

The night bombing raids reached a crescendo, as far as Swansea was concerned, in what became known as "The Three Nights Blitz". These heavy air raids took place on the nights of 19th,20th and 21st February, 1941, a time which no-one who was there could ever forget. There was widespread destruction of property and great loss of life in Swansea. The centre of the town was almost completely destroyed by explosive and incendiary bombs. Streets were blocked by heaps of rubble and unexploded bombs were an ever-present threat. Swansea Docks, which were clearly the main target were largely untouched and almost all the damage was to civilian property. An incendiary bomb, which hit our house on the third night, fortunately, did only superficial damage before it was extinguished by Air Raid Wardens with a stirrup pump, but some windows and roof slates were broken and curtains and some furniture were burnt. We were very lucky. Some of our friends lost their houses and all their possessions. One family whom we knew, had to leave their house hurriedly because of an unexploded bomb and had to move in with us for several weeks until it was dug up and defused..

The other two Swansea secondary schools were almost completely destroyed with the rest of the town. Oxford Street School, where Glanmor School was housed, was damaged and its laboratory building gutted but the annex, the Parochial School, was left merely a pile of rubble, under which were at least three pieces of woodwork of which I was very proud.
All schooling was abandoned for a week or so until the authorities could sort things out. What happened in the event was that other buildings were taken over for schools and parts of the badly damaged schools were repaired as far as possible and brought back into use. But for six or eight weeks we were able to attend school only for half days - mornings one week and afternoons the next. We were still attending Oxford Street School on this basis, but they were interesting times. I used to cycle to school with a friend and on several occasions we had to make diversions because of fallen buildings, broken gas mains and unexploded bombs. I can remember vividly that Dillwyn Street, which was on our route, was totally impassable for several days because of an enormous crater.

The intensity of the night raids dwindled somewhat after this, but they carried on sporadically, depending on weather conditions, until 1942, when a squadron of R.A.F. night-fighters was based at Fairwood Airfield (now Swansea Airport). The AA guns would never fire when the fighters were operating, and the R.A.F. certainly seemed to have greater success against the bombers.

But the summer of 1941 saw the end of Glanmor Boys School, whose pupils were dispersed in several ways. In my case to Swansea Grammar School, which, although its buildings, apart from the gymnasium, had been destroyed, was reconstituted in a another building and in a hut in the grounds of the old, ruined school. I spent an interesting year in this Hut, preparing for the Central Welsh Board Examinations (later to become 'O' Levels and then GCSEs). Conditions were not altogether ideal. There were long gaps between lessons whilst teachers travelled from other locations and the only form of heating was a free-standing, metal, coal-burning stove in the middle of the room which emitted choking fumes. Great amusement was caused one winter's day when the History Master, in a lapse of concentration, sat on this stove when it was hot and leapt up with a shout of pain. But the main diversion from our studies in the Hut was the fact that a barrage balloon was located immediately outside.. Barrage balloons were used make enemy aircraft fly high to avoid hitting their cables. Filled with hydrogen, they were winched up and down depending on weather conditions. But of even more interest with our balloon, was the fact that it was crewed by W.A.A.F.s (Women's Auxiliary Air Force). Watching these young ladies working provided a welcome relief from studies for 15 year old boys, but I doubt if it did anything for our exam results.

Because Swansea is a seaport there were always interesting things happening in the Bay. Ships that had been damaged by mines and torpedoes were towed in and beached; warships were often seen and in the weeks leading up to the D Day landings, the bay was full of invasion craft of all types and sizes.

Towards the end of the war, long after the threat of air raids was over, the Home Guard were equipped with anti-aircraft rocket launchers, based near the sea-shore. They would fire a large battery of these on Sunday mornings, out over the Bay. The noise was deafening, but the activity was of great interest to the younger generation of school children.

Amazingly, despite all the interruptions and diversions, I did reasonably well at the Central Welsh Board Examinations in the summer of 1943, but immediately, made the first of many mistakes in my life by leaving school, when I should have stayed on in the 6th Form. It seemed a good idea at the time, because, like most of my contemporaries, I wanted to get into the forces. Patriotism was the keynote in those days. Also it was important that I should help my mother by earning some money. Careers Teachers and Advisers did not exist in 1943 but I got a job at the Oil Refinery at Llandarcy, which I had seen burning a few years before. When I was old enough, I joined the Navy. The war with Germany had been won by the Allies in May 1945, but the war with Japan was still in progress. However, before I had completed my Navy training, atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan and that war ended in August, 1945, so I was never called upon to fire a gun in action. Although the nuclear bombs were terrible and cruel weapons they probably saved many British and Allied lives because the next stage of the war would have involved the invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Long years after the war, when Swansea was rebuilt, the old Glanmor School hutments were demolished and the site became a housing development. A new school was built to replace Swansea Grammar School. The new school is Bishop Gore Comprehensive, which is in a western suburb of Swansea. The third of the wartime secondary schools, Dynevor, was repaired and brought back into use, to some extent, but it has since been replaced by Comprehensives. The old Oxford Street School was used for some years after the war, but has since been demolished and the site is now a car park.

Hugh Edwards, April, 2004

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Message 1 - Swansea schooldays and blitz

Posted on: 27 May 2004 by elviraberyl

Dear Hugh,
I have just read your piece about Swansea and your life in WW2. I enjoyed it very much and parts were similar to my own experiences there. ('A starry night in Swansea 1941.' It comes in two parts... the third is at the editor's desk... hopefully to be added on.) It's under blitz and bombing.
I thought your reminiscences were beautifully written, bringing back the times and particularly life in Swansea.
I think we must be similar in age as I took the scholarship in, I think, June, certainly in 1939. Unlike you I failed and ended up in elementary school. I lived almost at the top of the hill and went to Townhill School, leaving at 14. I left home in 1947, aged only 18 and have lived a fulfilling and happy life in London since then. Sadly I was widowed 9 years ago after 41 years.
I still visit 'home' at least once a year but most of my relations have passed on.
You didn't mention which Infant and Junior school you attended. I went to Gors Road. I sent a school photograph to The Evening Post in the early 80's asking, "Where are they now?" I was delighted to receive about 8 replies. I am still in touch with 2 'girls', one of whom went to Glanmor Girls. We meet up each year.I also met and corresponded with an Alan Jones until he died several years ago. He went to Dynevor, then became a teacher, a charming man, much missed.
I am mystified about Swansea Bay being full of ships pre D Day. Someone else has also mentioned this but even though I lived high on Townhill I can't remember it.
I must apologise about rambling on but I was so interested in your article and needless to say I love writing.
Hoping for a reply to this epistle I send best wishes.
Elvira

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