- Contributed by
- People in story:
- James Franks
- Location of story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 March 2004
(personal) Hitler cover
HITLER V. A BRIGHTON SCHOOLBOY
1. Declaration of war
2. Home Front
3. Schoolboy’s war
5. War’s end
Hitler v. a Brighton schoolboy (Personal) Hitler5
It was towards the end of the school summer holidays before I started work at the town hall. I persuaded Alf that this would be the last long holiday I would have and I would like to make the most of it. Like the fond father he was he consented and eventually I entered the town hall in the job he had wangled for me. It was a stop-gap but that was what I needed. As a relatively senior long-time employee of the County Borough Alf had spoken to someone who had had a word … . My School Certificate results included a distinction in Land Surveying, a subject offered by London University’s Board of Examiners, so there was some justification for placing me in the Borough Engineer and Surveyor’s Department.
The war in Europe was in full spate and in 1944 the Allies were having a hard time as they fought their way from Normandy to Berlin. Like most late-teenage boys I was keen to joint-up. It was not a time when one could concentrate on a career, unless one was contemplating the armed services. Earlier, I had wanted to join the RAF; everyone did. Aircrew sounded romantic but by this time the RAF was up to strength and not recruiting unless one was considering a post-war career in that service. I awaited military service and in the meantime made the best of what was available. It was said in the services that the acronym NAAFI, which stood for Navy, Army, Air Force Institute, the provider of recreational food, and drink and other services for the armed forces, actually stood for ‘No Ambition And F**k-all Interest’. In my frame of mind at that time I could have qualified for a job with NAAFI.
Part of my service as junior assistant in the office of the Borough Engineer and Surveyor, Brighton, for which I received £1.3.6d per week, involved me making visits to see progress on maintenance work to the interceptor sewer which ran from west to east along the coast under the cliff to Portobello which had sprung leaks and was being grouted by a team of Welsh miners. It was a job which had to be done at night when the sewers were at lowest flow. I cycled along Undercliff Walk, completed shortly before the war, to enter the heavy door which led to the sewer. Undercliff Walk was partly covered by pebbles, kapok life-jackets, thick black oil and flotsam thrown up by storms. The flotsam included the occasional corpse of a seaman and, more hazardous, un-exploded sea-mines. It was easy to come off one’s bike on pebbles and debris. Then, in the early hours, I would cycle back home. Only the dimmest light could be used. It was no use to see with and I tended to reserve my visits for moonlit nights. I enjoyed the sense of responsibility those exploits gave me and I revelled in talking to the boys about them, particularly, if there was a corpse or mine washed up.
I was seventeen-and-a-half in March 1945 when I registered for military service and had my medical examination. I seem to remember it was in a hall in Ship Street. My main concern was that I would not pass A1. I was fit enough but people were rejected, or down-graded, for flat feet, poor sight or a variety of other ‘defects’. The medical officer examining me suggested to his colleague I had "almost a depressed sternum", but I was passed A1. He was, however, required in his report about their condition to enter ‘distinguishing features’ his subjects might have. He identified ‘scar forehead, mole right neck’ as features to go into my Army Service Book. The scar was the outcome of a stone thrown at me during a skirmish in the field at the top of Barnett Road where as boys we often found lizards asleep under flat bits of sheet iron and stones when I was aged about ten. The cut should have been stitched but wasn’t because I protested at the prospect of stitching so I had a permanent scar. The mole I was unaware I had.
So it was a matter of waiting. No one knew just how long it would be. I had been asked if I had a preference and I suggested the infantry. I had a romantic image of the infantry but the war in France was well advanced and I could not see myself arriving in time for active service. I might, however, be in time for the Far East where victory seemed a long way off.
Everyone knew I had been for my medical as I announced the result casually when the opportunity presented itself. I was the first of our little group. I began to make mental adjustments for the change of life.
The War in Europe ended in May 1945 and two atomic bombs led to Japan’s surrender in August so hopes I had of heroism in Burma battles about which I had read so much came to nothing. In later years I was to joke that two months after I registered for military service Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered unconditionally. I always rejected suggestions that there were causal links between my registration and Germany’s downfall.
Outside my own close friends news of my call-up filtered through. George Croucher, the Theatre Royal house manager and a regular in Snowy’s the business-mans’ restaurant where Alf and I had lunch, bumped into me in the street shortly before I departed for military service.
"I hear you are being called up", he said.
"It will be good for you but your Dad will miss you very much", he said.
I said nothing but knew he was right.
George Croucher was right, Alf was going to miss me. He had this great love and no one else on whom to lavish it. Last thing at night, until I went into the army, when he thought I was asleep he would come into my room and kiss me good night and say how much he loved me.
VE-Day, 13th May 1945, was for me an anti-climax. I felt cheated and let down. I had been looking forward to taking part in the war and they finished it without me. I was in the position of one of the ‘gentleman in England now abed (who) would think themselves accursed and hold their manhood cheap’ because they did not have the opportunity to fight with Henry V at Agincourt upon Saint Crispin's day.
There was talk of revelry in town that evening and I took a trolley bus to Palace Pier and walked to the Clock Tower which was regarded as Brighton's focal point at such times. There was drinking and spontaneous dancing in the street. Lots of kissing and cuddling, mainly, service men and women but anyone could join in. The local girls were well to the fore and everyone was jolly but I was on my own.
Soon after VE Day, there was the story of two prostitutes comparing notes of their VE Day, or more specifically, night.
"You know"; says Daisy, "my room is on the fifth floor?".
"Yes"; says Gert.
"Well, if I went up them stairs once I must have gone up and down them 20 times".
“Oh Dais, your poor feet", says Gert.
If Dais and Gert were busy in Brighton I didn't meet them; perhaps they were walking up and down the stairs
There was nothing in the celebrations for me. I was an observer not a participant. I think I joined in a hokey-cokey or something similar but I was home before midnight. I felt cheated out of the war.
No-one took much notice of the Japanese surrender.
I sold my hockey skates to one of the younger scouts in my patrol as military service loomed and gave my plimsolls to another, he told me years later.
The cost to Brighton of the war in terms of damage sustained can be seen in Cluett's little booklet published in 1946 which includes a map showing the locations of high explosive bombs dropped on the town - there were too many incendiary bombs to locate them.
Captured German documents record that Brighton was among the places considered for the Nazi invasion of Britain but the majority of air raids were indiscriminate and of negligible military importance despite Brighton's 'front-line' status. However, lines of communication, particularly railways, sustained a significant number of hits one of which, when I was en route to the fish and chip shop, has been discussed earlier.
Other towns, writes Cluett, suffered much heavier damage but not many were subjected to such a prolonged ordeal - almost continuous raids from 1940 until 1944. There appears to be statistical support of our schoolboy belief that we spent a lot of our time in the shelter. The statistical evidence explains, too, why we would forget that an ‘alert’ was still in progress.
A total of 381 high explosive bombs were dropped and sirens sounded 1058 times, not to mention 685 local alarms. There were 988 civilian casualties of which 198 were killed, 357 seriously injured and 433 slightly injured. 5000 houses were damaged of which 200 were demolished and 894 seriously damaged. 14,232 houses were slightly damaged. A stick of six high explosive bombs was dropped parallel with and two streets (and some 200m) west of Stanmer Villas.
Call up came in October. I was to report to the Kings (Liverpool) Regiment Training Regiment in Lytham St. Annes, Blackpool on the 4th November, no doubt the nearest training establishment to Brighton.
The war was over, even in the Far East. I had thought I might be in time for that zone. I was unsettled and going into the services saved me from having to make decisions. During the weeks before departure I said good-byes to the scouts, to Geoff, (who bought out my contribution to our jointly owned copy of Joy’s Beetles), and the girl friend. Someone among our friends was leaving for military service most weeks. We all promised to write. I had some idea that I might make a career in the army.
Copy right oldbrightonboy
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