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From Schools To University

by davidsaywell

Contributed by 
davidsaywell
People in story: 
John Marsh
Location of story: 
UK
Article ID: 
A2141353
Contributed on: 
18 December 2003

WWII experiences.

I am John David Marsh aged 78. I am a retired surgeon. I have had a myocardial infarct and am on various medications. Although there is nothing very special about my wartime experiences I am responding to the request for historical memories. I am the only survivor of the immediate family I am writing about.

My father Alfred Marsh was born in 1897. He was a medical student in WWI and therefore did not serve. At the outbreak of war he was in General Practice in Chorley Lancashire with a large panel practice, in those days referred to as ‘largely clog and shawl’. He was seriously ill in 1940 with thyrotoxicosis, which was much more of a problem in then. He underwent a thyroidectomy at the Manchester Royal by Professor John Morley and was thought to have done well to survive. He made a very good recovery and after convalescence decided that the RAMC with regular hours, regular pay and regular leave would be a better health option than dealing with a large practice without an assistant as his younger help was liable to call up. He was young enough to volunteer. Passed his entrance medical and served the rest of the war mainly in Western Command, first at Barrow in Furness where he had the care of the AA batteries protecting the Vickers Shipyard and then at Bury in Lancashire where there were a lot of POWs in old cotton mills. Then to his great delight he was posted to a troopship the SS Antenor which sailed to West Africa in convoy to take on board West African troops on route to the Burma campaign. He spent time getting them fit from malaria and other tropical diseases. After Durban they delivered the troops in Bombay. The Med now being reopened after Alamein they then came through Suez and brought back the 7th Armoured Division ready for D-Day. My evidence for that is that he told me they heard Lord Haw-Haw saying ‘We know where the desert rats are but they will be water rats soon.’ However they avoided submarines and got safely home. M y father then spent the rest of the War as one of four medical officers at the big camp at Gobowen near Oswestry where there was a military hospital based on the Orthopaedic Hospital which is still there.
He was demobbed in 1946-I think and returned to civilian practice in Gatley, South Manchester.

He kept a diary of all the places he went to which I believe is against regulations and his grandson now has these.

My Sister. Dorothie Valda Marsh.

My sister was the first into uniform. She was born in 1922. After school at Huyton Liverpool she went to Atholl Crescent Domestic Science College in Edinburgh for a year in 1939. After that she volunteered for the WAAF. There was no conscription for women yet at that time. She served in Fighter Command throughout the war rising from ACW 2 to an Assistant Section Officer. She was stationed at several places, Stanmore, Keynsham and finally in Belfast. Although she told various stories about amusing and exciting things she never really talked about what she actually did and it was only much later that I realised she had been in the so-called Code and Cypher Branch. She was demobbed in 45 and married her fiancé John Turner when he came back from the Middle East. John was a Gunner in the TA He had been on the way to Singapore when the news of its fall came and his regiment was diverted to the Middle East as part of what was called PAI force, (Persia and Iraq) guarding the oils well at a time when it looked that the Germans might come down through the Caucasus. After the war he got a regular commission and stayed on in the Army.

My mother (Dorothy) had been in the WRVS in Chorley but when my father joined up she travelled around and made homes in various places in various rented houses. While in Bury, my father, my sister and myself were all away and she was just young enough to be called up for War work. Most of her adult life she had run a busy household and medical practice. So when asked what was experience of the work place she could only say that in WWI as a teenager she had worked in a Bank. So she went to help in a bank again. This was obviously in lowly clerkly duties but it emphasised a skill she had had from WWI of adding columns of figures quickly and accurately. In her days shops wrote things out on paper with prices. My mother was always able to add the bill quicker than anyone else even when she was looking at the list upside down in the shop.

John David Marsh.

I was 14 when the War broke out. I had just started at Boarding School at Clifton College, Bristol. The first two terms of the war were uneventful but when France fell in 1940 Bristol came within bombing range and we were sent home while air raid shelters were built. I had a very long summer holiday and worked on a farm, helping with the milk round and the harvest. Milk Rounds in those days were with a horse drawn milk float and churns from which milk was served out into customer’s jugs. There were bottles as well. I saw a lot of my father’s patients from a different aspect. Chorley being a small town any unusual behaviour on my part soon got back to my parents. I have recollections of driving the float past the newsagents and the posters outside announcing the score of planes shot down in the Battle of Britain. I think the 186 count was never confirmed but that dates it to September 19th 1940 and we must have gone back to school late.

Various masters had gone off to war. My Housemaster J.Gee must have been in his forties. But he held a territorial commission and went off. He was captured after Dunkirk and spent the war as a prisoner, but came back to school to teach and eventually lived to the age of 100, dying a few years ago.

When we went back to school we slept every night in the bunks in the air raid shelters. Filton Aircraft works were an obvious target and there were some daylight raids. By delaying my move to the shelter I managed to see a Heinkel 111 coming in low over the school. We were all into Aircraft spotting. Then the night raids hit Bristol. There were bombs nearby on the playing fields with some structural damage to the school. We were all sent home. This brings up the memories of wartime communication. The Headmaster sent a letter to all parents asking if they were ready to receive their offspring. Any urgent reply was by telegram. Either there were no phones, or the few there were were busy. In some way I managed to stay at school for 5 days before taking a train home. During that time a prefect organised a party of us and we went round Clifton helping people to move their furniture from damaged house. Looking back I think we did some fairly hairy things.
Again we had a long holiday while evacuation was arranged. In the end the school swapped their buildings with the Army to get accommodation at Bude in Cornwall in summer hotels where soldiers had been billeted. I do not think we ever appreciated how hard the masters must have worked but when we went back to school single bedrooms had been turned into a study bedroom for two. Big wooden stilts had been made and the school beds bolted to them as bunk beds. A floor of a hotel made up a boarding house and the ground floor rooms were turned into classrooms and the school library. The Headland Café was turned into a communal dining room and assembly and everything else hall. The masters found accommodation in the town somehow. A problem was obviously science labs. We shared these with local schools after they had finished for the day. This meant that lessons had to be after five o’clock and so the afternoons were for games. There was no longer a music school with lots of pianos but local residents were obliging and let their pianos be used for practice. No school chapel of course, but the vicar of the nearby Village of Poughill altered his service times so we could that. It meant that we had a three-mile walk to church on Sunday. Some years ago I visited that church and found a commemorative plaque of gratitude.
The Headmaster was in another small hotel the upper part of which was turned into the School Sanatorium. .

We played Rugby in a farmer’s field some miles along the coast. Hockey was on the sands when the tide went out. The local cricket club lent their ground for matches. I think the boys took all this in their stride, after all there was a war on. Masters used to good facilities in Clifton must have found it hard work. But the school thrived. I was doing Botany for what was then Higher School Certificate and we had the moors and the seashore and a riverbank to explore and we had great field days out botanising.
Of course the OTC got turned into a Home Guard and I learned to fire a sten gun, while the School Sergeant Major an ex Marine soon rose to a majority in the Home Guard.

School in evacuation was a happy place but the journey home got worse and worse. Bude was at the end of a single-track line that is not there anymore. The school special left about 7 a.m. My father meanwhile had been posted to Barrow in Furness. In the war you could be sure that schoolboys stood in the corridor so I always took a solid suitcase on which to sit. The problem was that a solid case was heavy and was a pain to lug about especially if you had to go from Birmingham Snow Hill to Birmingham New Street when there was no taxi or public transport.

This was before the days of British rail so I started from Bude on the Southern, changed at Exeter onto the GWR. Then you might get to Birmingham or Crewe where you changed again to The LMS and up to Carnforth. Here you changed on what had been the Furness and Withy Line. By this time you probably had a seat and chugged round the estuary to Barrow. My worst journey arrived in Barrow at 2.a.m the day after leaving Bude. One tried to make sure that you had a bar of chocolate as well as a book as there was nothing to eat on the train. The general rule was to get on a train going in the right direction and not worry too much if it was diverted. All the station names had been cut to a little notice you could not read passing through, but over time you recognised where you were and if you had been diverted.

The school did very well academically in evacuation. My time in Bude came to the end in 1943 when I got a Minor Scholarship to Cambridge. It was always assumed that I was going for Medicine, which I did, but like many I had a crisis of conscience and wondered if I should just join up. Appealing to the Head of Science for advice he told me that he was sure I was meant to do medicine. That year I was 18 and registered for call up. As a Medical student you were technically in the Army but deferred. And so I got to Wartime Cambridge, which deserves the start of a new chapter.

An Undergraduate in Wartime.

When I with others registered for conscription at the age of 18, those of us who were heading for various occupations were given deferred entry. This meant that we had to have regular certificates from the College authorities that we were still there and working. So we signed in for lectures and if we failed our exams were called up. This happened to a friend of mine who was called to the air force.

Cambridge was therefore very different, but of course we knew nothing of any other. Nearly all the students were medics or engineers. There were a few who were medically unfit or able to be there for other reasons. I had a good friend who was profoundly deaf. Ironically this was because he had been a keen member of the OTC and lost most of his impaired hearing when he went on a weapons training course. So he was one of the very few who were reading architecture. Another friend was doing Mathematics but he was technically already in the Navy which he later joined in the scientific radar section. There were also RAF cadets who were allowed to do a six-month course along with basic training while in uniform. This gave them the right to come back to the University after the war.

Some of the colleges had wings given over to the military and the celebrated Backs where rendered grassless by rows of RAF lorries parked under the trees.

The medical course was compressed to two years by having an extra fourth term in the Long Vacation. There were lectures almost every day at 5 pm.
In addition to this the old OTC or STC had been turned into a battalion of the Home Guard and we had to do two sessions a week in training. So I learnt to do stoppages on the Bren gun and throw a hand grenade as well as others things. It was run by regular officers and sergeants and was all quite serious. We were going to guard the Railway line to Bletchley if there was an invasion. We only had one all night exercise as far as I can remember. As well as this there were fire-watching duties. So no Footlights, and not much else. The Medical Society the Music Society, the Union and the Christian Union continued and there were still the facilities for sport but otherwise there not much. The college got our ration books and allowed us the student milk ration, the dried egg ration and some of the bacon so those of us in suitable halls could cook in our little kitchens. Cambridge is a cold place and I think we had 6 sacks of coals a term for our open fires. My architect friend discovered a timber yard on the outskirts of Cambridge, which was willing to sell offcut logs for firewood if you collected it. So we borrowed the college luggage cart and trundled through the town with a load for the term. The other answer was to share rooms in the evening and take in turn to light a fire.
One of our great blessings was the British restaurant. It was in the buildings of the exclusive Pitt Club, which was taken over. For a shilling you could get a generous lunch. The other boon was a Health food shop where peanut butter and nutty health foods could be got off the ration.
We had distinguished and excellent teachers. It was only some time afterwards that I realised that some of the foreign lecturers were distinguished European scientists who had been given jobs so they could get visas to get out of Germany before the war started.
When the war ended I was given the opportunity of having a third year after all to do a Part II in Physiology. This was an enjoyable and profitable year and I finished with a good degree. During this time ex-servicemen were beginning to come back and alter the appearance of Cambridge but it was not till after I went down that the flood of mature students who had been staff officers and the like revolutionised the situation. I went off to finish my medical training in London but the war was over.

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