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We're All In It...
A Schoolboy's War

With thanks to Bob Stonnel for providing the below dissertation, originally presented in 2003

The truly monumental moments of history are spaced not in years or decades, but in centuries, and each is marked by nature's timely gift of a man of enormous intellect and sense of destiny. Not since Trafalgar had the nation faced cultural oblivion, as it did at the close of the Thirties when the desperate Neville Chamberlain waived his fragment of wishful thinking to a fearful populace. The subsequent clamour for appeasement carried the country to the edge of a Niagara of disaster. The exhausted peacemaker retired, giving way by the narrowest thread of political circumstance to the perceived warmonger, Winston Churchill. The strength of his leadership was soon manifest, and became the foundation of public confidence throughout the ensuing conflict. While war was to bring suffering and tragedy to many, general morale was maintained by an all pervading humour, through hilarious cartoons, radio programmes, and for us children, comics; wherein the sinister figures of Adolph Hitler, Mussolini, Goebels etc., were presented as figures of fun and derision. Nazi propaganda was broadcast daily on German radio by the Englishman, William Joyce, known as Lord Haw-haw. Beamed at England, in an attempt to demoralise us all with blandishments to accept the Fuhrer, who meant us no harm, etc.; they were dismissed as lunatic drivel, and Joyce was hanged as a traitor when the war ended.

With the storm clouds thus gathered, I graduated from the Turret kindergarten in Station Road where I had won the Bucks prize for hand writing, and distinguished myself on the Triangle. At the Turret it was the custom that before sitting down to begin the day, we were lined - up round the walls, holding our little white hankies before us, like a line of washing, to be sprayed with T.C.P. by Mrs. Graver with her Flitt-gun; she having a 'thing' about germs!

Turret House, Station Road

At the age of seven I was posted to the rough and tumble of Whitehill Junior School at Chesham, which proved to be a fraction premature; as life was indeed rough and my frequent tumbles culminated in my colliding with the iron hand-rail footing the famous flight known as Cox's steps, an event from which I retain the scar to the present day. After returning to the Turret for safe keeping until attaining the statutory age of eight, I was restored to the company of big boys, which I celebrated by taking on a brick wall, gashing a knee, thus incurring further life long tokens of misadventure.

The following year, Stanley Cox, the much celebrated headmaster of Whitehill, arranged on two occasions for his nephew to fly his Spitfire over the school, and accordingly mustered the boys in the playground in the form of a 'V for victory, established by Mr. Churchill as a symbol of the national spirit. To everyone's intense disappointment the warrior failed to show on either occasion, though quite understandably, with aerial dog-fights breaking-out daily all over the South.

The natural resilience of a child's mind resides in the absence of preconception, and normality is established by experience whatever that might be. To imagine that 'wartime life' was a time of constant fear and anxiety for children, would be a misunderstanding of that fact. To us, as children, the reality of the time began when the big sliding doors of the old bus garages, now B&M Motors, were opened to reveal trestle tables set-up and surrounded by boxes of stores, to which the citizens of the old town were summoned, to be issued with gas-masks. Thus was the schoolboy's burden of obligatory school-cap wearing increased by unfeeling authority adding the considerable inconvenience of WE'RE ALL IN IT.. lugging a gas mask around at all times. The requirement was grudgingly but diligently observed in avoidance of the calamity of being sent back to get it, when left at home, on the bus, in the shelter, in the woods or any of the countless inadvertent repositories the day occasioned. While responsibility for gas-masks was not to be avoided, we were spared the irritation of nursing identity-cards and ration -books, by the fact that we would never be trusted with them except for the all important sweet -coupons which could be detached, and it was deemed that it would serve us right if we lost them.

B&M Garage, Old Amersham

One of the darkest days of the war occurred when I was on the way to school, and there appeared on the pavement outside the sweet shop in Chesham Broadway, a notice proclaiming that "Due to the shortage of butter fats, there would be no more Ice-cream obtainable after Monday". Thereafter, schoolboy's comforts were systematically withdrawn from the shops as rationing took effect, and the range of interesting comestibles gradually diminished to a pitiful selection of sweets. Fancy biscuits disappeared leaving practically nothing but digestives, and icing was no longer seen on cakes. At school, discussions on this state of affairs concluded, as always, that the blame was squarely laid to Adolph. Those feeling most deprived, were resolved to 'join - up' as soon as possible.

Life seemed suddenly deserted by all things colourful and shiny. At Christmastime the exotically coloured decorations could only be replaced by pale rough textured paper versions. Silk articles gave way to cotton, and all suits were grey. Everything was stamped or labelled with the black and white circular symbols bearing the word Utility. Raw materials such as rubber became exclusive to the war effort, and lack of essential supplies such as catapult elastic led to recourse to the inferior substitute - knicker elastic which became incredibly difficult to steal, since it had become prime currency to female authorities, whose ingenuity of sequestration became a further topic of playground discourse. Acute shortage of metals led to improvisation of boy's necessities such as twigs for cowboy and gangster guns. Meanwhile fathers were not immune to such concerns. Car tyres were only discarded when the canvas showed through, and good second - hand tyres being easier to get, cost more than new ones.

My time at Whitehill served to mark me out as challenged, academically as well as vertically, despite the fact that my brother Graham had preceded me and gained a Scholarship to Challinor's. About the only thing I learned, apart from the 'Twelve -Times Table, was to distinguish the Amersham boys from those of Chesham, by the fact that the former wore shoes while the latter wore boots. The cultural difference between the two towns was constantly reflected in such ways, but those of us who were from 'Up the Common' as Chesham people called it, were scarcely conscious of being any more than a bus ride apart. Amersham was perceived, no doubt, as where people spent their time sitting in trains going to and fro to work, while Chesham people were there and getting on with it, and wore boots because their feet were firmly on the ground. When the distinguished Chesham historian, the late George Piggin, held that "Chesham and Amersham people should never marry, because they would never agree about anything", which I found to be true. Furthermore my wife insists that it's Chessum, not Chesham. During 1940 we moved from the Broadway when my father had a shop and house built at Little Chalfont, between Lofts the ironmongers and a small plantation of birch trees, many of which lost their lives when father took the liberty of building a rustic pole fence to span the garden. When ultimately covered in roses it looked very pretty indeed. A service road ran round the plantation from Barton's lane to the rear of the shops, and here it was that Graham taught me to ride a bicycle. A strange orgasmic sensation swept over me at the moment of triumph when my feet stayed on the pedals for the first time, and I wobbled away to an enriched future.

Here again, as we had been at Amersham, we were put to digging a shelter; this time making several steps down before turning under the wall of the house. We had recourse to it on several occasions when the war came a bit close, but any excitement we might have derived from it was nullified by the extreme discomfort of the whole business. There was no form of lining to the bare earth interior, no flooring to stand on and certainly no furniture of any sort. As far as Father was concerned it was somewhere safe to stand until the 'All clear' sounded, with no call for refinements. The pungent pong of dank earth and stinking yellow clay was suffocating - we couldn't have rented it to a badger.

The new house had the advantage of a small oriel window on the landing, from where we were able to see the London Blitz beyond the horizon. Above the orange glow of the fires, the low sky sparkled with bursting anti-aircraft shells, and the clouds were swept by dozens of searchlights which would spring together in groups when one of them picked out a bomber.

When a stick of bombs exploded progressively along the Misboume valley, one night, we laid in bed quaking as the explosions grew increasingly louder and the seconds between afforded conjecture as to whether the next would cancel the future. By the time the noise stopped, heartbeats were so painful that it took several minutes to be able to speak again. Sunrise was viewed with some enthusiasm. Much gossip ensued, as to the enemy pilot's motives for releasing the bombs where he did. Some held that they were humanitarian, trying to avoid populated areas . Others believed that he had missed his chance over London and could find no alternative target in the dark, while the rest were inclined to read nothing into it beyond the routine necessity of lightening the load for a quick escape and safer landing, it being very dangerous to land with unreleased bombs. These considerations were based on the acknowledgement of two kinds of enemy - Germans and Nazis.

The war engendered a new vocabulary of common expressions such as "One of ours", or "One of theirs" according to the sound of an approaching aircraft which would have a smooth drone, in the case of a friendly plane, or a heavy, rapid modulation in that of an enemy. It seemed apposite that the former was a relaxing sound, while the latter was menacing and pulse quickening. "We're all in it", was another regular phrase, indicating that whatever our station in life the same rules and conditions applied to us all. Similarly "There's a war on you know" was the frequent anguished retort of suppliers and retailers with inadequate stocks to satisfy demanding housewives. A couple of sausages from 'Under the counter', would make a woman's day when favoured by Percy Welch, or Doug Pusey.

A new breed of trader emerged known as a Spiv. He was adept at avoiding call-up, and acquiring absolutely anything denied to the public at large - at a price. While there was probably one to every town, he was more at home in the relative obscurity of the cities where, in his wide shouldered and high collared coat with trilby pulled down, he would slip in and out of dealing places, and navigate the streets like a fish. Precisely portrayed by Walker in Dad's Army and the forebear of Arthur Daley, he was no myth. At the time he was characterised in the Music Halls and on the wireless, by comedians such as Arthur English.

As with most other towns. Old Amersham showed few outward signs of war that raged elsewhere, apart from all the windows being laced with sticky tape to reduce the effects of flying glass; and being blacked out at night. Shop windows were no longer a blaze of light even at Christmas time, and in some trades there was virtually nothing to display in any case. Plate-glass windows were constrained from both sides by diagonal steel wires, stressed to hold anti-deflection pads at the centre. The method had its limitations however, as in the case of the double-fronted showrooms in Whielden Street, where the front windows were blasted out leaving just the side window intact. This was their condition when my father bought the building at the end of the war. It took Darlingtons months to get the replacement glass which was obviously at a premium. Many people remember the war as a time of continual depressing darkness, without street lamps or illuminated signs. Traffic lights were heavily shaded, as were car headlamps. It was, however, of benefit to the business as we sold great quantities of torches, and even more batteries. Everyone of every age needed and possessed a torch. In similar circumstances today, sales would outstrip those of 'mobiles' and 'calculators' several-fold.

Rationing imposed carefully controlled diets which ensured that everyone acquired at least a minimum subsistence. While some felt hungry some of the time, no one starved and no-one could over-eat, so very few remained 'overweight' for long. The general good health of the nation was thus achieved and maintained, perhaps to a greater degree than it has been since. The men of the merchant navy risked all to bring us God-sends like dried egg powder, an invaluable supplement, especially for marooned schoolboys, who could make an omelette in seconds, as I frequently did with the utmost relish - surely the simplest dish ever conceived. Corned beef was a great luxury, though bearing no resemblance to the homogenous, greasy mash sold today.

But, what of the schoolboy's progress? From Whitehill, I passed in due course to the Secondary School at Germains Street, also in Chesham, where I was introduced to the mysteries of algebra, science and woodwork. In the case of algebra, the first lesson seemed full of appeal and promise. I missed the subsequent two lessons through measles or some such disorder, with the result that I never quite caught-up again and it was never my best subject. However, both science and woodwork, being practical matters made more sense, and I progressed very well therein.

Social status was determined in a variety of contexts including the playground, where I revelled in such activities as the ever popular 'British Bulldog', where the ability to dart and dodge often left me the last to be caught. I also shone in the game of 'Release', or 'Free me', which called for high speed running and great dexterity in touching without being touched.

The entrepreneurs of the school would set-up their shoe boxes against the wall, prepared with assorted openings along the bottom edge of the box and variously marked from one to six according to size. This invited those with marbles to try their luck from a marked distance, in rolling their marbles into the box, to be rewarded with a halfpenny, penny, twopence etc., according to difficulty. Alternatively, winners might be rewarded with one, two, three or more marbles. Conkers, played - out here and there illustrated the remarkable degree of integrity that prevailed at the time, as no one would claim that his embattled conker was a 'niner' if it wasn't. However, the converse did arise on rare occasions, such as when the owner of a stamp album innocently allowed his pages to be browsed by someone practised in the art of turning the pages with his right hand to cover his left, with which he would peel-off and 'palm' selected stamps without detection. The empty spaces are still there in my album to prove it.

Esteem could be accrued by having the right illness. Unlike today, there were few disorders to choose from. Chicken pox was statutory and usually the first to be caught. Few escaped it, so it carried no respect. Measles usually came next with little more distinction, unless it was the German variety. Tonsillitis was admired in view of the acute discomfort involved, and was a preoccupation of the medical fraternity, who would seize any excuse to remove tonsils, as they were thought to serve no purpose, and were best removed before it became necessary. Being taken to the doctor's was fraught with the near certainty that his first question, irrespective of the complaint, would be "Has he had his tonsils out yet ?" As far as I know, mine are still intact. Greatest reverence was bestowed on anyone who had flirted with Scarlet Fever . That was better than passing your Scholarship, though cases were rare and patients who survived it became school heroes.

Diphtheria was all the rage, with government posters everywhere, exhorting that all children be immunised without delay. My mother warned us not to go near the drains because that's where diphtheria lived.

High in the status league, was the possession of war souvenirs. In this critical area I was 'under the table', having no close 'serving' relatives to fulfil requests of sons and nephews for shell cases, bullet cases, cap badges etc. Shrapnel was prized according to its size, and similarly remnants of incendiary bombs, acquired by those with cousins resident in London, who being truly 'in it', could themselves gain legendary repute thereby.

During the war years. Little Chalfont was policed by the admirable Albert Mead, who became my good friend and patron for many years. He once recalled for me a curious incident concerning the army dispatch rider who rode through Amersham every night, passing along the White Lion Road at about one o'clock in the morning. The stretch of road by the industrial estate was prone to periodic flooding, as indeed it still is. Such was the case one wet night, when Albert, realising the hazard presented to the intrepid rider, stationed himself at the end of Pineapple Road to await his arrival. Seeing the red police light waving ahead, the rider chose to treat this display of local officiousness with disdain, and hurtled past Albert, calling out 'arse-holes'. Seconds later the inevitable result took effect. Thus mortified, the furious Albert remounted his cycle and rode along to where the saturated trooper lay beneath his spluttering machine Albert dismounted, leaned over his bike, and gazed down at the hapless form, who's plaintive "Give us a hand mate", was met with "Arse-holes", and the vindicated Albert rode away feeling much appeased.

The Home guard, it has to be said, was regarded by much of the public with the same credulity as a child viewing a Father Christmas wearing trainers. My closest experience of their activities was two-fold. The professional army, I suspect, viewed the Homeguard principally, if not solely, as a convenient source of makeshift enemy in course of their own exercises. In this context I recall the sudden appearance of two members of the local Company equipped with a Lewis gun which they set up behind a short lateral hedge at the beginning of Burton's lane, with the object of thwarting the advance of the Sherwood Foresters whom I understood to be involved though I never saw them materialise. Nevertheless, the defenders commenced battle by opening fire on what seemed to me to be an imaginary foe. They were somewhat embarrassed on two counts. Firstly, by the immediate presence of an obviously sceptical boy spoiling their illusion of taking cover, by standing over them, and secondly, that the unwelcome third party was witness to the fact that they were bereft of ammunition, blank or otherwise. The gunner's mate had instead been issued with a deadly wooden clapper which alternated between barking his knuckles and emitting a sound like two pieces of wood knocked together.

This disappointing simulation, coupled with an urgent desire to escape the attentions of their unwelcome critic, led to a strategic decision, and both leapt up to rush across the main road where they attempted to scale a wooden fence with a view to making a fresh stand from the far side. Unfortunately the fence was backed by a thick laurel hedge. Realisation that each required the assistance of the other to mount the fence, added to the difficulty of discovering that when one gained the top he was impeded from further progress by the dense laurel. When the stratagem was finally abandoned, the disconsolate defenders wandered off in the direction of Amersham, whereupon I too lost interest.

My second experience was of an indirect nature. The father of my principal school friend was the manager of a petroleum depot on the railway at West Wycombe, while being, by night, the Captain of the local Home Guard Unit. The family lived in Manor Drive, Chesham Bois, where I was a frequent visitor. On one occasion my friend and I were alone in the house and he offered to show me the Home Guard weapons; newly received by the unit, and kept in the tight security of the captain's bedroom. There were two guns. One was a beautiful gleaming new sub-machine-gun, with polished hardwood stock and furniture, which proved to be of a tremendous weight, and seemed more a work of art than a weapon. The second was an even more astonishing revelation to me. It was the first time that I had seen a real revolver, which I had, until that moment, truly believed to be an object of fiction, created solely for films and quite unrelated to the real world. The blinding reality of being handed what had, hitherto, been known to me as a 'piece', or 'gat', privy only to such figures as George Raft or Edward G. Robinson, was marked again by its incredible weight. The shiny black monster 'Thirty-eight' dragged both of my hands down, and with two fingers pulling on the trigger I found it impossible to fire. Had I succeeded, with it loaded, I would have found myself in the garden.

The Sun Houses

As the war dragged on we were to move house again, from Chalfont to Number One, High and Over, the first of the series of ' Sun-houses' as they were sometimes known. In fact we had the dual address of 'First Sun House', or number one High and Over, Station Road. These houses represented the world's most advanced architecture and at a cost of 1000, living was ultra modern, with the novelty of central heating and other unique features. Sometime before, a small bomb had exploded in the road outside, blowing both back and front doors in simultaneously, to meet in the middle of the hallway.

We became closely acquainted with the Ashmole family who lived in 'High and Over' House itself, and I got to know that remarkable residence intimately. The owner, Professor Ashmole, was an archaeologist, and was away for most of the war, working for the Air Ministry on what was known in those days as 'Hush-hush' work. Philip the young son was our frequent companion when home for school holidays. His sister was also mostly away in London training as a ballerina, leaving Mrs. Ashmole, a delightful lady, very much on her own. We had the use of the circular swimming pool, which my father kept in good order. To describe the magnificence of the house and grounds at that time, would require a full essay, though sadly its original splendour has long since vanished.

When life seemed, in many ways idyllic; as though to redress the family's fortunes, our worst tragedy struck, when Graham borrowed sister Grace's bicycle to go down to the Old Town to collect some modelling materials. As he rode out from the Griffin archway into the Broadway, he was struck by a lorry and killed instantly. The event was worsened by my mother's arrival at the scene within minutes, while on a shopping expedition. He was thirteen years old, and I, being in Chesham hospital with appendicitis at the time, was not told the full facts until about two weeks later.

We continued life at the Sun House, for what it was worth, for a further two years. Father had his musical evenings on Tuesdays with his friend Bill Ward who came with his violin to accompany the 'baby grand' beating up their repertoire of Ivor Novello and The Desert Song etc. Members of the Black Watch, encamped nearby, were invited to parties at the house, until they were suddenly invited to Arnhem from where most failed to return. I recall one such party getting underway, when mother, being the soul of discretion, came up to the bathroom as we were going to bed, and whispered intensely 'Wee-wee ' on the side of the pan!

At the age of twelve I passed that most important milestone in every schoolboy's life when I moved into long trousers, and developed my curiosity in regard to girls. My sister acquired a new school friend with a mesmerising figure. Her name was Jeanette, and her brother John was a prefect at Germains Street. She became a famous actress, and he can be credited with arresting me in the playground for fist fighting.

The Misboume valley continued as the amphitheatre of War interest. When a Messerschmitt fighter came down there, the host farmer, immediately and characteristically threw a marquee over it, charging a shilling to view it until the Military arrived to claim it. Not far away, a Mosquito bomber flew into the power grid lines close to where it was made, at Dancer & Heame's. The most awe inspiring drama of the war, was the vast Armada of planes and gliders that literally filled the sky as they passed overhead for most of one morning, to play their part in the greatest military campaign of all time. Occasionally a glider would accidentally become detached from its mother craft. One such stray made a landing in the fields, where else but the Misboume valley. Even the Doodle Bugs, that began to appear about that time, seemed to prefer that route, after overshooting London.. They sounded like broken exhaust pipes, but sudden silence was bad for the heart. One of them wiped out two houses in New Amersham.

By the end of hostilities, the Sun house had been sold for 2000, High & Over house was on offer for 13,000, and we had returned to Chalfont to open another shop, and live in the attached flat. At that point my father decided on a last ditch effort to have me civilised . Accordingly, after preliminary private French lessons twice a week, at the home of a charming elderly gentleman in Chorley Wood, whose neat handwriting was the smallest that ever I saw in my life, I was deemed sufficiently rounded, to undertake The Public Schools and Dartmouth Entrance examination.

The eleven papers to sit, were duly received by Sam Thirtle, the headmaster at Germains Street, who was to oversee the conditions stipulated. With the two papers, on Latin and Greek, nullified by agreement, I embarked on the task before me without the slightest anticipation of success. Being placed for each paper in whichever classroom was empty at the time, I was left alone by the kindly and sympathetic Mr. Thirtle, to get on with it for the allotted periods. In some cases I was, for want of a classroom, left in the library of all places. With the French paper I was at least able to understand the questions, and the science paper consisting of two parts, was tailor made for me. Firstly to name the parts on a diagram of the eye, which we had covered only the week before. The second was to draw the circuit of an electric bell, which I could do with technical exactitude being, so to speak, in the business.

All in all, the results were presentable enough to persuade academia to attempt a silk purse from a sow's ear, and I was duly conveyed to the nominated outfitters in Regent Street to be equipped with all necessities as listed, for public school life in the cloistered confines of Highgate school. Thus my war was concluded, and subsequent experiences belong to a different chronicle.

Copyright R.A. Stonell November 2003

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