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A Schoolboy's War in Tunbridge Wells

by Rod Balkham

Contributed by 
Rod Balkham
People in story: 
Rod Balkham
Location of story: 
Tunbridge Wells
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Contributed on: 
21 April 2004

In July 1939 school broke up for the summer holidays. Within six weeks war was declared and our holidays were extended by ten days to give time for air-raid shelters to be dug. These were like short underground tunnels, two of them underneath the quad at the rear of the school and one beneath the grass at the front.

We Tunbridge Wells’ children had no idea then how lucky we were, for we never had to suffer the ordeal of being sent away from our homes and families as did so many of the young people from London and its outlying districts. We were told that we were to share our school with these refugees, the 'evacuees' who were being sent away from the dangers of the intense London blitz, to take up new lives in the country. When we returned to school we were delighted to find that from now on it would be mornings only for us, so that the boys of Colte's Grammar School, from Lewisham, could attend in the afternoons. Similarly, the girls of Blackheath High School shared with our Tunbridge Wells High School girls. With this influx of fresh youth into our town new friendships were soon made, many destined to become lifelong, and in some cases to be the basis for later marriages.

Everyone was issued with a gas mask, carried in a square cardboard box slung over the shoulder on a length of string. At school we had air-raid practices and gas drills, being made to wear these rubber contraptions on our faces, puffing, snorting and sweating our way through classes, with our masters having to ensure that their lessons did not call for verbal answers. One's voice became very muffled in a gas mask and Milton’s Paradise would have indeed been lost.

It was not until July 1940 that we had to use the school shelters in earnest. Armadas of German bombers thundered overhead, and later the Doodlebugs, on their way to London. When the sirens sounded we disappeared below ground, presenting our schoolmasters with a near impossible task of keeping classes running properly. What with half days, gas drills and hours spent in the shelters, we all suffered in our education. They still managed to provide us with a smattering of the essentials however, and those dedicated teachers, all of them now long in their permanent underground shelters, are to be respected and admired for their efforts on our behalf. In normal times we would have had all of Milton and lots of
Shakespeare, too, but we had to make do with just a smidgen of 'Down to bottomless perdition' and only a taste of 'The Merchant of Venice'.

At home most people huddled under the stairs when the air-raid sirens were sounded. It had been found that the stairway was usually the strongest part of a house and often survived a direct hit. Our concrete shelter at the bottom of the garden had proved to be too small and too damp. My poor father's hard work in digging that shelter had been all for nothing; he wasn't to know that the majority of the population, proud and defiant in their adversity, would prefer to take the chance of staying in the comfort of their houses. Our larder, or pantry as we called it, occupied the space under the stairs. Crawling beneath the shelf, underneath yesterday's cold mutton in its wire mesh cover, heightened the strangeness of an already unreal situation. We were all very scared, especially at first, for it was the fear of the unknown, engendered by the unearthly wailing of the sirens. It was a very loud sound, starting with a low growling which rose to a reverberating scream of foreboding, then dying down only to rise in pitch again - up and down, up and down, a shrieking banshee cutting across the town to warn of the approach of the enemy.

Very soon we youngsters took it as a matter of course but our elders suffered agonies of apprehension on our behalf. We were fortunate in Tunbridge Wells in that the Luftwaffe usually had only a few spare bombs which they unloaded on their way back from London, and not many dropped near us. There were anti-aircraft guns not far away though, so there was always the danger of falling shrapnel. We used to search the streets for souvenirs after the All Clear had sounded. Often we went out into the garden to watch the Royal Air Force Spitfires as they engaged in dogfights in the skies over our county of Kent, shooting down or chasing away the German Messerschmitts which had been escorting their bombers. Thirty miles south of London we escaped the real blitz. We listened gravely to the news bulletins on the wireless which told of devastation in the capital and in places like Coventry where the citizens suffered the greatest anguish of bereavement and destruction.

All of England was united in a fervent patriotism, constantly stimulated by Winston Churchill in his broadcasts to the nations "... We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender". No wonder we sang 'There'll Always be an England' and 'Roll Out the Barrel' as we trooped off to dig for victory at the school allotments. Digging for victory was all the rage. No doubt many people grew plenty of vegetables but, funnily enough, I don't remember seeing anything being planted in our school allotments; we just dug - for victory.

As part of the war effort we had to give up our iron fences and garden gates. All over the country anything made of metal that could be moved was taken away to be melted down for munitions. Some of it returned in the shape of angle-iron struts and large, oblong steel plates. Every household who had not already been provided with one of the outdoor Anderson shelters received one of these kits, which when assembled became an indoor air-raid shelter in the form of a large table with woven steel bands across the base to give support for a mattress. These were called Morrison shelters, after Herbert Morrison, the then Home Secretary. We often slept all night in these dreadnoughts of the living room but usually forgot where we were upon waking in the morning, cracking our heads on the table-top only eighteen inches above.

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