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A Young Boy's War: Chapter 5

by Graeme Sorley

Contributed by 
Graeme Sorley
People in story: 
Graeme Sorley
Location of story: 
England
Article ID: 
A2127665
Contributed on: 
12 December 2003

A YOUNG BOY’S WAR — 1940-1945

CHAPTER 5 - SCHOOL DURING WARTIME

Within a couple of months after my father was killed, I was scheduled to go to a boarding preparatory school called St. Piran's on the Hill, outside Maidenhead, with the intimidating motto “Without Fear or Favour” run by a naval family. Because of my father's death, I was given some form of bursary to help my mother pay the fees. In addition, an anonymous benefactor gave my mother one hundred and eighty three pounds to help with my education, in memory of my father.

Off I went in January 1942, with the striped school cap and gray flannel shorts for my first term. I was incredibly homesick. Looking back, I suppose a psychologist would say that I suffered from the trauma of being taken away from home at a time when I had just lost my father. I had always had a stammer which did nothing for my self-confidence. The Germans did not help by regularly sending bombers to fly right over my bed en route to bomb factories at Slough and then those that had not been shot down, repeating the performance on the way back. And my bed was on the top floor of the school with only the roof between them and me. The first night that this happened I was very frightened. Sleeping with only bedclothes over me the air raid warning went shortly after dark. The planes flew over and soon there were a series of explosions which I took to be bombs. I could not understand why the other five boys in the dormitory did not appear to be in the least frightened. After a few evenings like this it dawned on me why they were so unconcerned. The explosions were not the noise of exploding bombs but of our own “ack ack” fire. When the raid was over the longed for "all clear " siren would sound. As the war continued the raids seem to diminish, at least the planes stopped flying directly over me.

When the air raids got really bad all the boys slept under the school in a very large basement in bunks made with wooden supports and wire netting. I enjoyed this as it was cozy, warm and one felt safe. My confidence in the defense of the nation was not bolstered by watching the Home Guard drill on the cricket pitch. The only thing that looked at all military was the fact that they wore army uniforms and tin hats. They drilled with broomsticks and the "grenades" they tossed were potatoes. Fortunately, Hitler had called off the invasion and no parachutists landed other than pilots who had baled out and Herr Hess.

On Sundays, we had morning and evening chapel. Morning chapel was preceded by eight handbell bellringers standing on the stairs which curved up to the dormitories on the first floor. I hated the Remembrance Day service held on the Sunday closest to November 11. We would always have the poignant hymns "O Valiant Hearts" and "For Those in Peril on the Sea" and I would be reduced to tears, feel miserable and very embarrassed.

Wartime food at St Piran's was reasonable. The highlight of each day was "Big Tea", which was somewhat spoilt by the fact that we always seemed to have apricot jam. On Sundays, we normally had a boiled egg, strawberry jam and a slice of fruitcake. This explains my enthusiasm for the latter three, and the reason I have never liked apricot jam.

One week after D.Day 1944, the Germans launched the first V-1 “Flying Bomb”- nicknamed the “Buzz Bomb”. It was the summer term at St. Pirans. In front of the school were two large cricket pitches. I was scoring at the top of the second pitch, the furthest away from the school, beside the scorer for the other team. On the pitch were eleven fielders, two batsmen and two umpires, all appropriately dressed in white. After each ball was bowled, we scorers, seated at our desks, entered the result in a large scorebook and then looked up to watch the next ball being bowled. I looked up and saw what looked like a very large bird behind the school flying straight for us. I thought no more of it and looked down to record the next score. When I looked up again the "bird" was falling straight down. It was not a bird but a V-1 - a “buzz bomb”. I yelled to the players to lie down, and did so myself putting my hands over my ears. It looked as if it was going to hit the school. As it was, it landed about 400 yards behind the building and made an awful mess of a St. Martin's Jam Factory, besides blowing out all the windows at the back of the school. V-1 “Flying Bombs” were pilotless bombs powered by a pulse-jet engine whereas V-2s were rockets. Another minute's flying and the “Buzz Bomb” would have landed on my head. Psychologically, V-1s were far more frightening than V-2s because you could hear them “buzzing” until they were timed to dive. If you heard the buzzing overhead, you prayed that it would keep going, at least well past you. If it stopped, you became very frightened indeed. V-2s were nothing like as frightening. If you heard them explode, you were probably all right; if you did n't hear them explode .....it hardy mattered. Occasionally, the “Buzz Bomb” could be flipped by a fighter’s wing tip and sent back from whence it came.

Older boys used to be able to read the morning papers in the common room at the mid-morning break. On July 9th, 1945, I picked up the Daily Mirror to see a full page photograph with the title "The End of the Barham" and "At last we can show this photo", or words to that effect. It was the now well published cataclysmic photo of HMS Barham blowing up. I remember being very shaken by the horrific image of what had been my father’s ship.

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