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A London Child in Sussex

by Tinklebell

Contributed by 
People in story: 
David Broomfield
Location of story: 
West Sussex
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
01 December 2003


I was five-and-a-half when the 1939-45 war broke out. I have many day-to-day memories of the events of those times but at the time, at least in the earlier days I had little concept of the seriousness of what was going on. I can only remember being frightened on one occasion, of which more anon.

When the war started I lived with a middle aged couple (I called them “Pop” and “Auntie”) who were friends of the family through the local Church and my father, who was a widower, came round to see me a couple of times a week and would take me for a walk on Sundays. I cannot say I remember Chamberlain delivering his speech but I do remember young conscripts training in the local park — “if you take as long as that to aim your rifle he’ll have got you first lad!” A barrage balloon site was established in the park as well. Initially it was anchored to a truck but subsequently to a concrete hardstanding. Huts were built for the crew which included Waafs. I can also recall the adults talking in a huddle at the back of Church after the Sunday service, whispering about missing and captured relations in the fighting in France. One day “Pop” came home from work, he was a postman, with a determined look and wearing an LDV (Local Defence Volunteers — they became The Home Guard later) armband. He’d fought in the First World War. There was no question in his mind where his duty lay, he would do his part in putting “Jerry” straight again and “Auntie” approved but what they must have been thinking they kept to themselves.

I had been going to the local LCC school since I was four-and-a-half but education was soon disrupted with the normal classes being broken up and some of us taught in small groups. I suspect this was in the run up to the evacuation programme. This passed me by as my father had connections in the country and, as I proudly announced to other children, my father was making “private” arrangements! I really had no idea what it was all about or what was about to happen.

The “private arrangements” amounted to shipping me off to a smallholding in the Sussex countryside about five miles south of Horsham. This farm had been acquired some time before the war by a South London Church and was used to give holidays to (mostly poorer working-class) parishioners as a break from life in the Capital. Additional accommodation had been built — known as the hostel- comprising a number of separate bedrooms etc. really a precursor of the prefab. Other buildings, including the 300 year-old farmhouse, were pressed into service and in the Summer season it had been the practice to set up a number of tents. A small barn had been beautifully converted into a chapel by a master craftsman among the residents. The set-up was run as an open religious community led by a charismatic curate who later became the Bishop of Japan. My father was a member of the community, strictly mainstream C.of E., whose members came and went as work and other commitments allowed but there was a hard core of half-a-dozen women who seemed to run things on a day-to-day basis. I suspect they would nowadays have taken up a career in social work. My father left me in their care. He took me down one weekend in a coach full of others going to the farm - a vehicle belonging to Comfy Coaches of Horsham and much inferior in my eyes to the standard London bus - he said we were going to stay for a week but at the end of the week he went back to London saying he would come for me at the weekend but it was a fortnight before he came and then he told me I was staying. I felt deceived and was very upset but it was done for the best. I did not get on with the “social workers” — like most of their ilk they knew about “the child” but little about children. Matters all but came to a head when I attempted to absent myself from the thrice daily washing up which could involve the detritus from 25 people. The leading “social worker” told me that I “was a stupid little boy”. I’d had enough: I replied that “it was not me that was stupid but her!” She was incandescent. Such injustices are very important to small children. The incident has stuck in my mind ever since! I was saved from “expulsion” by the intervention of Mary, a young landgirl who lived on the farm and who agreed to accept personal responsibility for me. She was very kind and homely and there were other good times when other families were temporarily resident. It was a time of constant flux. At Christmas a group of German Jewish refugees came to stay. It was very moving with the singing of German Carols, particularly Stille Nacht, but one of the boys stole my cigarette cards and I was told not to make a fuss as “he had been through terrible times”. I don’t think I had encountered a thief before and couldn’t cope with the idea that nothing was to be done. I remember being told that he had had to run “before the advancing tanks” but it didn’t mean anything to me of course. About this time my uncle was called up into the RAF. After spending some time in “ops rooms” in East Anglia he ended up parading his Section on the Air Ministry roof every day and living at home!

The farm itself was very small, about twenty acres I was told, nevertheless I had close acquaintance with the ways of cows and chickens and enjoyed helping to “do” for them, as well as with haymaking, harvesting and digging potatoes, experience of the countryside that has stayed with me ever since. There was also a donkey called “Molly” which I was encouraged to ride.

West Sussex was right in the front line — one might question the wisdom of taking anyone there — and we had a grandstand view of the Battle of Britain. Day after day we could see the vapour trails and the German planes coming steadily on while the RAF attacked them. I well remember one occasion when a “flying Pencil” - a Dornier 17 or one of its variants — flew past ever so low with several Hurricanes lining up behind it. I subsequently learnt that the Germans called this tactic an “idiotenreihe” because only one of the attackers could get at the victim at a time and each in turn presented themselves as a single target on which to concentrate — we could see the German crew and the attacking pilots quite clearly. The German appeared to crash and we set off to look but found nothing. Lord knows what we would have done if we had!

While I was on the farm the ladies, most of whom had met at University, attempted to continue my education but my father had to make some more solid arrangements. The curate had become the vicar of Lodsworth, between Petworth and Midhurst but still in West Sussex where he had met Miss.O. who ran a small private school. My father was put in touch and it was to Miss O. that I went.

Miss O. ran The Studio School, Lodsworth. It was called that because it had been built as an artist’s studio. Although it was a substantial two-storey house it was noteworthy because one wall was filled with an enormous window. This had provided the artist who was famous — but I cannot trace who it was, not Winnie the Pooh’s Shepherd as I thought — with the light he needed for his work. The school had about twenty-five pupils most of whom seemed to belong to one well-off farmer’s family (well, at least six of them did!) and the sons and daughters of local professional people. One or two of them were quite important and held imposing military rank (my father reached Lance Sergeant while I was with Miss O!)and wore elaborate uniforms, one girl’s mother appeared to be an Admiral at least but couldn’t have been. I don’t know what Miss O’s. qualifications were but we received a good education judging by the standards of the boys I encountered in secondary school later on. She had lived in India and South Africa and, just prior to the war, in The Channel Islands. She was a firm believer in Britain and its Empire and had numerous young relations serving in the armed forces. Sadly, her niece who assisted her for a brief while, had lost her husband when his ship was sunk at Dunkirk and another young man who visited us from time to time was shot down and lost over Plsen in Poland. Her favourite nephew fortunately survived the war in submarines.

My own family suffered its own war casualty about this time when my father’s cousin disappeared in the retreat from Burma. He was subsequently presumed killed and his parents never recovered from their loss, immersing themselves in the Red Cross until they died in their eighties. He had just “come down” from Oxford and was destined for the Church but had volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was last seen searching for wounded. His father had been a junior officer in the trenches in the First World War.

When I went to Miss O. there were three of us resident with her but in due course this dwindled until I was the only boarder. Besides Miss O. and her pupils the household included the Irish cook and her daughter but we didn’t mix with them and they were confined to the kitchen. The cook’s husband would call sometimes but as he would not join the army (being Southern Irish it was his choice) he was really persona non grata and clearly Miss O. regarded him as a coward.

We were very much aware of the war and the village had its own-super refugee, a Polish Count with a funny name who had taken over a mansion. We followed the news on the radio avidly. There was a large chart on the wall shewing all the ships of the Royal Navy and when one was sunk it would be sadly noted. At that time most of the action was in the Western Desert (North Africa) or Russia — Stalingrad - but I recall the horror with which the loss of HMS Hood and the fall of Singapore were received.
West Sussex at that time was swarming with troops, many of them Canadians and we frequently got mixed up with exercises when out for our daily walks. These often took us through the woods which were being cut down “for the war effort”. There were also many patriotic flag days and collections such as “Dig for Victory”, “Wings for Victory” and “Salute the Soldier” weeks. David Langdon’s cartoons reminded us that “Careless Talk Costs Lives” and the Squander Bug encouraged us to be thrifty. All small boys at the time were experts at aircraft recognition and begged “Sweet Cap(oral)s” cigarette packets from passing Canadian soldiers as these had aircraft silhouettes on the back. There were plenty of subjects to practice on as the air was full of planes. Fortunately these were mostly British but we heard about German sneak raiders which shot up anything that took their fancy from time to time. One such brought the war home to me very forcefully: I was walking up the Studio stairs which crossed the the picture window when an aircraft flashed overhead and I was showered with glass. As I looked out it dropped something and there was a vivid flash about a-hundred-and-fifty yards away and a pigsty collapsed in a cloud of dust and smoke. This was the occasion when I was very frightened: I rushed down stairs and hid under the table shouting “the Big window’s gone”. It hadn’t but we did find a pane smashed and a machine-gun bullet embedded in the wall opposite. I must have been right underneath it! The next day there was a heavy raid on Midhurst, only a small market town, and much damage done. Apparently this was one of the Baedeker Raids. Later a school in Petworth received a direct hit and many children were killed. The ruins of these places presented a horrible sight but people just accepted these things and carried on.

Miss O. used to take me into Midhurst or Petworth most weeks but there was little to buy with my threepence pocket money, just aircraft recognition postcards: the toy soldiers that boys craved were unobtainable. We used to go to the cinema in Petworth to see the latest films such as “Target for tonight”, “One of our aircraft is missing” and “In which we serve”. Miss O. was worried that I would be frightened but I loved them, I was much more concerned by the gangsters in the B movies. There was a Royal Observer Corps post right next to the cinema and you could see the crew watching for aeroplanes. Apart from that one occasion, the war was very thrilling.

During my time with Miss.O we received a telephone call from my father. He told me that he had been called up, he had been in a reserved occupation as a hospital clerk until then but they were casting the net for soldiers wider. I was very upset but should not have worried as he was hardly likely to be put in the front line being about 35 at the time and wearing glasses. Initially he had trouble with army boots! He used to write to me weekly telling me of his experiences and I felt very proud of him. He spent the war in orderly rooms in ammunition depots in Shropshire and Warwickshire and earned modest steady promotion. It was only when the war had ended that he was sent to Germany where he was engaged in a sort of inventory of the war’s left-overs.

But I am racing ahead. After about three years with Miss O. the time was coming to move on to secondary school. In any case Miss O. was closing her school down. She disposed of the Studio and we lodged in the rectory (with the aforementioned reverend and his family — he really did fancy himself!) and school was held in a Tudor house owned by the family of one of the other pupils. This obviously couldn’t go on and I spent a term in a village school - full of “rough boys” and girls — near the farm prior to moving on to Grammar School. The war continued apace and we continued to be surrounded by soldiers. The Americans gave us a Christmas party with lantern slides — probably Mickey Mouse - and goodies.

The Grammar School was Steyning Grammar School founded in 1614 and still retaining some of its original buildings and still in West Sussex. I was to be one of about 80 boarders, the rest of the three hundred boys being day-boys. I was very homesick when I arrived which might be seen as a bit surprising since I didn’t really have a home! It was not very surprising really, I knew nobody, was in a strange situation and the only adults were rather remote. The matron was somewhat austere and her deputy a “Dolly-bird” who it turned out had an eye for the older boys! The housemaster was a big extrovert outdoor type — an ordained priest but not practising, apparently. Many of the boys came from large families among the gentry and were suitably over confident. I soon got the hang of things though, made friends and found my own niche although I still tended to have a day or two’s homesickness at the beginning of each term

We lived in a variety of dormitories of varying size, some in the original school buildings and others in adjacent Victorian houses that the school had acquired. When I first arrived I was rather ashamed to be allocated to one called “Junior dorm” which housed half a dozen delicate flowers one of whom used to have to inhale from a tray of burning embers for his asthma every night. Another had a rather flashy mother with a senior American officer in tow. We used to be moved around at the beginning of most terms and I slept in most of the houses. Towards the end of my time at Steyning I occupied a rather elite cottage called No.7 where we started to appreciate the luxuries of life like ordering our own daily newspaper. There was little bullying, the one serious thug lost all his credibility when he ran away and was brought back in disgrace. At one stage there was a scarlet fever outbreak and many boys were taken into the sick room. After it was over I was suddenly ill and was promptly removed to a sanatorium in Brighton. After a week in absolute isolation I was brought back to school. It seemed to have been a false alarm.

I cannot remember the food other than that we called the bread “slogs” and were issued with our own pot of marmalade or jam each month which we marked elaborately and eked out with things like Marmite and Beetox which were not rationed and which we could get in the local shops. My father used to send me food parcels, with Mars Bars and digestive biscuits, from the army especially after he was sent to Germany. We used to be taken on a daily walk by the duty master — one of whom, an American, used to walk the legs of us. One day he took us four miles and back to Shoreham to see the Flying Fortresses that had attempted to land at the small aerodrome there. He was also translating Beowulf and would pay 3d. an hour if you would sit and “hear” him. There were adventures, one day the entire party narrowly escaped annihilation by a runaway horse and cart which crashed through a shop window. When we got older we were allowed to take our walks unsupervised in small groups of twos or threes. Frequently this meant going down to the railway to watch the “Steyning Express”: most of us were avid trainspotters. I have been a railway enthusiast ever since and to my eternal shame I can remember some of the numbers of the regular engines even now.

We also learnt how to take ourselves to the local tea rooms, I think one boy more versed in the social graces would suggest it to two or three friends and off we’d go. Another attraction was the freak museum at Bramber — full of little tableaux made of stuffed animals and birds dressed in little clothes and depicting nursery rhymes. In the winter the River Adur would flood and there would be skating (or sliding) if it froze over. The housemaster was an avid birdwatcher and would shew us his extensive collection of slides and involve us in the comings and goings of some new species or other. He also organised tobogganing: when one boy crashed into a concrete water tank and was seriously injured he was removed to hospital and we carried on. No enquiry and no Health and Safety Inspector.

I think the education was typical of the time: we read The Iliad and The Odyssey and took Chemistry sitting in strict alphabetical order. The aged master - there were many such, the younger ones having gone to war - would suddenly point to someone who was engaged in mild misbehaviour and announce “that boy, disappear”: the boy would leave the room. Initially I received French from a master who was reputed to be a First War flying Ace. His lessons were good but behind the level I had achieved with Miss O. His greatest achievement was to introduce us to Biggles who he would read to us after the exams at the end of term. Alas, in my second year I was put back because I was too young, my grades fell alarmingly (bored?) and the French teacher was an elderly, crusty old man who had us grunting phonetics at charts shewing a vertical cross section of the human mouth appropriate to each supposed French sound. French lost its previous charm, that old fool has something to answer for. One of our English masters had returned after being shot down and disabled. He insisted on giving us all Air Force ranks, the ignominy was to be designated an ACW (Aircraftswoman) and appointed to the knitting circle. He also took over the House and I learnt another of life’s lessons when he said it was pointless to investigate the destruction of a book of which I was rather fond although I thought I knew the culprits.

I was introduced to school plays at this time and proudly helped front-of-house for “She stoops to conquer” and “The importance of being Earnest”. I also much enjoyed the school Boy Scout troop, being in the country there was much opportunity for outdoor activities over a wide area and I became a dab hand at semaphore — I think I would have done the Navy proud. We did a Gang Show and I had a speaking part as an ancient brit.

Steyning was in the centre of the build up for the invasion and there were soldiers everywhere. Aircraft recognition still held much of my attention and I had a subscription to a weekly journal with the local newsagent. One Sunday when we were in Church we heard several loud explosions. On coming out we found that the town had been mortared accidentally by Canadians. Several houses had suffered some damage and a party of Home Guards, who were nothing to do with Canadians, had been hit on our school playing field. One had been killed and another injured. By pure chance he worked on the farm were I stayed. He was a nice old boy, a veteran of the First War, and often kind to me. Fortunately he made a full recovery. We later watched the disposal of some unexploded mortar shells from a safe distance. About this time England started to receive V1 Flying Bombs and, for the first time we slept regularly in the brick air-raid shelters which stood in the playground. When the V1 sites were overrun we returned to the dormitories, nothing had come near us. The older boys were enlisted into the school’s army cadets and some also served in the local Home Guard. I suppose some went off to war while I was at Steyning and some probably made the final sacrifice, but none of this reached us and at 11 years old I don’t think we ever gave it a thought. We did, as boys do, invent elaborate conspiracy theories about spies. One designated several masters as agents of the Germans and the Head, who we were afraid of - that was until we saw the other side of him when several of us couldn’t go home for half-term and he was very kindly — was definitely in the pay of Marshall Tojo, the leader of Imperial Japan. We were allowed to listen to the 6 o’clock news every night to keep up with events. Otherwise we were restricted to a weekly dose of ITMA. To augment this, an entrepreneurial and very likeale lad called Simeon set up a Comics Club to which we subscribed. This brought us weekly helpings of The Rover with “Rockfist Rogan, RAF”, a sort of second rate pugilistic Biggles and The Wizard with Sexton Blake, an imitation Sherlock Holmes, not to mention Desperate Dan and many others.

I stayed at Steyning until the end of Summer Term 1946, after my father had been demobbed and was able to take me home where we lived with my grandparents in London.

During school holidays while at Lodsworth and Steyning I usually went back to the farm. As I grew older I became too heavy for “Molly” who bolted and threw me off rather painfully but my relationships with the “women” improved and in any case one or two men appeared including the aforementioned farmworker. The others were, I think, conscientious objectors of quiet convictions. The bloodthirsty small boy must have been a burden for them! On several visits I was sent to play with another boy who lived nearby. We covered the house with soldiers and filled it with the sound of war oblivious to the presence of his mother who had no so long before lost her husband, the boy’s father, a career naval officer and Gunnery Officer in HMS Hood.

During the Flying Bomb period we had a grandstand view of these horrors and I well remember the occasion when I vacated the top of a haystack which I was helping to build in double quick time when one appeared closely pursued by a Spitfire which was firing at it. It crashed with a mighty explosion about four miles away. I saw several others but it was more alarming when you heard one but couldn’t see it and then it stopped. You waited for the bang, if you heard it o.k. One morning at about this time a tearful Mary told us that she had dreamed that her dear brother who was a “wopag” — wireless operator/air gunner - in a Lancaster bomber had been shot down over Germany. It turned out to be true but she was sure he had survived. Strangely and happily this also proved to be true. He later told her that, finding himself trapped as his plane went down, he had given himself up for lost “hoping that it wouldn’t hurt” only to find himself in space with a voice shouting in his ear “pull the ripcord” (on his parachute). He had no recollection of leaving the aircraft. On landing he found himself among The Resistance who took him with one other survivor to the funeral of the rest of his crew. In due course he returned home.

After the Blitz it was considered reasonably safe to return to London and I made a number of short visits during the school holidays. It was then that the full extent of the damage was revealed and familiar sights noted by their absence. During one of the earlier visits I remember being taken to an enormous exhibition of war paraphernalia which included tanks and planes, guns and everything else you can think of, which was set up in the ruins of John Lewis in Oxford Street. On another, I remember having to spend several nights in the brick shelter which my grandparents and their neighbours had had built between their two gardens. We heard the droning of the German bombers — said to be quite distinct from the noise made by British planes — many explosions and some shrapnel but this was later said to be from falling remains of anti-aircraft shells. If you ventured outside you could see searchlights but not much else because of the intense blackout which was imposed with almost obsessive zeal. I don’t remember seeing any planes.

Although my grandparents’ house had suffered only superficial damage - windows blown in and ceiling plaster down, a terrace of four houses directly opposite had been completely destroyed. There were other gaps further down the road. When the V1s came followed by the V2s the visits to London stopped and my grandparents who had stayed throughout the Blitz had had enough. They also came to the country staying on the farm for a short while and then going to other relatives.

Looking back on those times I have to say that the early days on the farm were not very happy and I think I felt rather bewildered. My time with Miss O. was a different matter, I became very fond of her and I think she of me and I kept in touch with her for many years after the war until she died. Steyning I view with mixed feelings. There was some good fun and I learnt many useful lessons in life and a good deal of self-reliance.. I do attribute to it, however, learning how to dodge the column: it came from the lack of close parental supervision and has put me against boarding schools ever since. Clearly the war made a marked impression on me and left me with many memories but it has taken the years since to bring home the dire situation we were in.

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