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A Schoolboy's War: In Folkestone, Dawlish and Dumbarton

by Weepeter

Contributed by 
People in story: 
peter john west
Location of story: 
UK various locations
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
27 February 2004

Although I was only six years old I remember a good deal about the outbreak of the second world war. My Father was a regular soldier, a QMSI (WO2) in the Army Physical Training Corps. he was stationed at Shorncliff Barracks near Folkestone and our married quarter was a Victorian terraced house quite close to the cliffs, so not a good place to be as we could hardly have been closer to France without getting wet!!

My Mother was busy with my young sister who was eighteen months old in September 1939. We were sitting in the living room with Mum and Dad listening to the wireless. I can still hear Chamberlain's voice intoning the oft repeated "..this country is at war with Germany". At my tender age I of course had no idea how the coming events would change my life.

Initially the effects were limited. Dad was very busy training the hundreds of new recruits to the Army and I often saw him running along nearby roads encouraging the squads of men under training. For my little sister and I life seemed to continue unchanged although we did have the occasional scare when air raid alarms were sounded. Strangely we did not have the traditional wailing siren at Shorncliff, rather ours was a two toned horn with an eerie: Bah-boo bah-boo higher and lower notes. My sister was terrified when she first saw a soldier wearing a gas mask and was, for some time, inconsolable.

My first experience of the reality of war did not come until late May or early June 1940. My Mother took my sister and I to a nearby railway station. There we joined crowds of women and children handing out food and cups of tea to hundreds of soldiers packed on a train. These men, who were in a most dishevilled state, were all straight from the beaches of Dunkirk. I was greatly excited and thought them most heroic. They all seemed in high spirits and their broad grins have stayed in my memory. Several of them spoke to me and this made me very proud. One gave me a penknife with a broken blade. I treasured this for a long time until, like so much in ones childhood, it disappeared, becoming part of the detritus of war.

After Dunkirk the war came to us in a sudden and dramatic way. The Germans were now only about twenty two miles away and they had positioned big guns on the coast of France facing Kent. Shells landed not far away in the barracks. I don't know if anyone was hurt but the authorities, sensibly, decided that we families had to go. We were given thirty six hours to prepare for evacuation. The difference for us was that whereas most children were sent away alone we had our mothers evacuated with us. I cannot be sure what the date was but I do remember that it was a hot summer's day so assume that this was in late June or early July 1940. We were allowed one suitcase and each child was restricted to one toy. I've no idea which toy I took but I do remember that my sister took her Teddy bear with her, a toy she kept for many years. We were put on a train and had an uncomfortably hot and long journey to south Devon. We ended up at Newton Abbot where we were billeted on local families. The people were kind to us and it can't have been easy for them as conditions were very cramped. After a few weeks we were relocated to a small hamlet called Holcombe near Dawlish. This, we were assured, would be our home for the duration of the war. We lived in what had been the servants' wing of a country house owned by a widow named Lavis. She had a teenaged son known as 'Boisie'. We saw little of them although I recall that my mother was distressed at how often Mrs Lavis would pop in and ask for extra money to pay for 'luxuries' such as when she saw my mother was ironing!! I was enroled at a school in Dawlish but I have little recollection of it other than that I had to cycle there and back on a tiny fairy cycle and the journey was very hilly! I must have been fit as I was only seven years old.

We hadn't been there very long before we moved away. It was at this time that we heard that my Uncle Frank had been killed when his ship, HMS Galatea, had been sunk in the eastern Mediterranean. My mother later told me that she had been very unhappy at Holcombe so wanted to get away. In the meantime my Father, who had been posted to Bonhill Barracks near Loch Lomond in Scotland, asked that we be allowed to move to that area, so that is what we did. Our new home was a small semi in the village of Renton near Dumbarton. We shared this house with a large family so once again conditions were cramped and far from ideal. Only a few months elapsed when, unbeknown to my sister and I, our parents' marriage started to fall apart. My Mother decided to move back to her family home in south east Essex. Our next door neighbours in Renton, a delightful family named Houston, were horrified at the prospect of our moving to such a dangerous area and pleaded with my Mother to at least let me stay with them. This she agreed to and I was left alone for the first time in my life. It was sad to see my Mother and sister leave, but I was very excited at the prospect of living with the Houstons. They were a wonderful family. David Houston worked long and hard at a local Torpedo factory, his wife Mary was an auxiliary nurse working at the barracks and Granpa Houston sat by the fire and kept it going! The Houstons had two sons, York aged sixteen and Peter fourteen. I also being Peter earned the prefix 'Wee' and Wee-Peter I was to remain for the rest of my time with that lovely family.

The Houstons made me feel very welcome and I thought of myself as part of their family. I attended Dumbarton Academy which was a good school but, like all educational establishments of the time, was very strict and liberal with the use of corporal punishment. My misfortune, and that of the other English evacuees in my class, was that our Teacher, a young woman whose name I have long ago forgotten, was pathologically anti-English and, despite our tender years, she seemed to delight in tormenting us. We were frequently given a taste of the tawse, a leather strap with tails at the end, which stung when it was brought doen across ones palm. My 'family' never knew of this. I did not want to tell them as they would have been upset and, as patriotic Scots, ashamed at this bigotted attitude.

I only stayed with the Houstons for about a year as, in late 1941, my Mother sent for me to join her and my sister in our Grandparents' home in Shoeburyness, Essex. Although I was sad to leave the Houstons, with whom I have kept in touch ever since, I was excited at the prospect of living with my beloved Grandparents. I had always adored them and felt enveloped by their love, a feeling which is so important to a child's well-being.

Whilst in Scotland the war had seemed a million miles away, although during my time there Clydeside had been badly bombed, but this was far enough away from us not to be in danger. All this was to change when I went to live in Essex. Our town was at the mouth of the Thames and the Luftwaffe flew right over our heads on their way to bomb London. If they were chased by our fighters they would often jettison their bombs near us. Air raid sirens were, or so it seemed, a nightly occurrence. For silly children like me these were times of great excitment. In our house we had a Morrison shelter in the living room. This was a large steel box with caged sides in which we could shelter during the raids. Inside it was made up as a huge bed with plenty of blankets. However, whilst my Mother and Grandmother were busy attending to my little sister I, together with the equally silly boy from next door, would sneak out into the garden, climb on the shed roof and watch the bombers being caught in the searchlight beams. Ack-ack guns would go off all around us...all great fun to a small boy. Our adventure was invariably short lived as Mum would rush out to grab us and bring us into the relative safety of the shelter. Mums did not have a good war! They were, in my opinion, heroic.

School was pretty much as normal although we did have always to carry our gas masks. What we did not realise at the time was that most of the male teachers, and some of the females, had been called up for military service. The gaps were filled by auxiliary teachers or elderly ex-teachers recalled to service in the schools. Inevitably standards suffered and although they, for the most part, did their best, I believe that the children of that period had a poorer education than they deserved. We didn't appreciate this until in 1946 large numbers of young men were released from the armed forces and many entered the teaching profession. I was by then at a local Grammar School and the effect was electric. The introduction of these new, enthusiatic and inspired young teachers was like a breath of fresh air blowing through the education system. They were no soft touch of course and, being used to discipline themselves they insisted on this from us. But it was all done with good humour and we felt refreshed by their presence.

School, during the war, had its moments of great sadness. For example, when in 1944 I moved to Southend-High School, each morning at assembly the Headmaster would announce the names of any former pupil who had been killed in action, an all too fvrequent occurrence. This was then followed by our singing the hymn 'Oh Valiant Hearts'. Whenever I hear that hymn nowadays I still feel sad to think of all those young lives lost. On a brighter note the Head would also announce th names of old boys who had been decorated. This always engendered a feeling of great pride. If my memory serves me correctly I believe that former pupils from my school won, amongst other medals, fifty-seven DFCs.

Looking back on those days I am amazed at how much has changed since then. We were full of pride in our country and had great belief in the Empire and Commonwealth as a force for good in the world. I cannot ever recall anyone expressing doubt that we would eventually be victorious. Even in the dark days of 1942 we had no doubt that we would win.
Also, although there was always danger from the enemy, we could walk the streets in safety, even at night when the blackout meant that one could not see at all! People were kind to one another and the spirit of the nation was memorable.

Food was scarce but I don't remember ever being hungry. We could not get imported foods such as tropical or out of season fruit, there was little sugar and we had to rely upon growing what food we could at home. We managed to fill up on potatoes and other vegetables, home grown apples and pears as well as soft fruits, always in season. Grandad could occasionally snare a rabbit and this meat, not often seen these days, became part of our staple diet, and very tasty it was too. Preserving techniques were perfected and, as ever, our Mothers made sacrifices to ensure that we children had enough nourishing food to keep us healthy.

The only car I remember seeing in Shoeburyness was that owned by Dr Ryan our local GP. For the rest it was only buses, military and police cars on the roads. Our milk was delivered by electric float and the bread by horse and cart...oh that wonderful smell of fresh bread and horses! Birthdays and Christmas were still great fun. We had few presents, toys were scarce and we mainly had home made items or books and clothing as gifts, but it didn't matter. We were, after all, all in the same boat. Water had to be conserved so we were encouraged to use as little as possible, no great hardship to a small boy! We bathed once a week and even then the bath was never more than six inches full. There was no way of checking but we were on our honour to help the war effort by economising so we did our bit. We may have been smelly but we were honourable!

few people went away on holiday. These periods were spent at home and were, for us children, always enjoyable. We made our own entertainment but did love a weekly visit to the pictures (cinema) and the dear old wireless (radio)Thank you BBC! Only two channels, Home and Forces, but wonderful programmes, Childrens' Hour with Uncle Mac and great stories. The comedy and music shows were always well received and did a great deal to keep up morale. I hated the news, boring, boring! But for the grown ups this was essential stuff and we children had to keep very quiet when it was on! There was, of course, no TV.

We didn't, then, realise that we were seeing history unfolding around us. On one occasion, for example, we had noticed that all of the streets of our small town were crowded with parked military vehicles of all types. They were, I believe, only there for a few days. One morning I awoke, looked out of my bedroom window and they had all gone! I had heard nothing during the night; mind you that is hardly surprising as I always slept very heavily and had it not been for my Mother I would have slept through the air raids too!! The morning in question was, I think, the 4th of June 1944. Two days later the skies above us were filled with aircraft, some pulling gliders. D-Day! We knew without being told that the day we had all anticipated had at last arrived. That was one time when I enjoyed listening to the news! On another occasion in 1944, I can't be sure of the date but I know it was summertime, my friend Bob and I were walking home late from school having stayed behind for sports practise. We had been told about a new German weapon called the V1 or 'Doodlebug' (a primitive form of cruise missile). Our teacher had explained that if we heard its throaty roar we were safe, but if the roar stopped then the bomb, because that is what it was, would fall and explode. Well, to our fright Bob and I heard the dread sound and then it stopped! I have never run so fast in my life. Goodness knows where I thought I was running to, I only knew that I wanted to get away. The bomb exploded some miles away but by that time I was back home, exhausted but safe.

On another occasion during the summer holidays my friends and I were playing in the local brickyard. This was an excellent playground as we could mess about climbing on the piles of bricks. There was never any watchman about so we had free rein. On the morning in question we had decided to build a large den by removing bricks carefully from the bottom layers in the hope that we could eventually produce a room. After only a few bricks were removed we came across a pile of metal boxes hidden underneath the bricks. Closer inspection of the boxes showed them to be ammunition, masses of it! We had been playing in a concealed ammunition store! Someone up there must have been looking after us. And why no guards? Needless to say we got out of their PDQ.

Living in Shoeburyness we were very close to the sea and this should have offered us some excellent opportunities for fun. Well it did, but not officially. All beaches along the south and east coasts of England were closed and blocked off with barbed wire. This didn't stop us of course. We quickly found ways of getting through the wire and spent many happy hours swimming or playing on the beach; always on the lookout for the police of course! There were rumours that the beaches were mined, but if so we didn't care. Nothing was going to happen to us was it !!!

It may seem to the younger reader that we children of WW2 had a pretty good time of it even if there were few sweets, no ice creams and absent Dads. Well maybe many children did not have much fun and many were killed in the bombing or lost their Dads in the War, but I was lucky. The war did cause my parents marriage to end and that was a trauma for me, but in most other respects I enjoyed the excitement probably because I was too innocent and ignorant to appreciate the danger. When the war ended I can clearly remember saying to my Grandfather: "What will we do now that it's over? Life will be boring wont it"?

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Message 1 - A Schoolboy's War

Posted on: 23 March 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Hi Weepeter

I very much enjoyed reading your story of a schoolboy's life in WW2. A well-balanced account full of excellent detail.


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