Outbreak of war

Back to the carefree days of summer 1939.They were the last. Our group of friends dispersed as usual to school and college. The war had started on September the 3rd. But this, for us, was overshadowed by the death in a road accident of our dear friend Oliver, at the age of eighteen. He had always been a reckless driver, and it was ironic that he was not the driver when four Loughborough students in a sports-car hit a lorry head-on in the dark. His death was a great shock to us all, the first death we had known of anyone close to us, and we mourned him deeply. It was, in fact, the forerunner of a steady dwindling in our numbers throughout the war. 

Back at school, the war made no appreciable difference to life at first; we had a normal winter term, and for that matter a normal Spring term, 1940, to follow. There was the beginning of rationing, and the blackout, which at that early stage was considered more a nuisance than a safeguard. But during that Spring term, we saw the arrows on the war-maps on our study walls begin to move, more and more ominously, rather like the opening sequence of Dad's Army. But this was not funny -- our army was suddenly retreating. By the time the summer term started, the Dunkirk disaster was about to happen. By this time the school was getting geared up for action. Bristol was getting a visit from a solitary reconnaissance plane nearly every morning; there would be an air-raid warning, a lot of Ack-Ack fire, but nothing came anywhere near us. We had been told to run to the vaults of the Chapel in the event of a warning, but this became an unnecessary waste of time, and so the school sergeant-major, a retired regular soldier who organized the OTC, was instructed to stand on the school tower with a bugle, and only to blow it if the German plane came directly overhead. So the official warning was ignored, and lessons went calmly on. 

One morning, however, the bugle blew, masters were left chalk in hand with their backs to suddenly empty classrooms, as the entire school ran under the Chapel. But we were all so consumed by curiosity that everyone ran straight through and out onto the Close on the other side. We all gazed up at a clear blue sky, and at first saw nothing. Then, as one's eyes grew accustomed to the scale, one could see them -- a vast number of German bombers, at that extreme height tiny as flies, crawling in perfect formation across the sky. The next thing we saw was a small group of spitfires overtake them and dive back into them, shooting the leaders down. It all seemed to us distant, almost silent, and fascinating. But they flew to Filton Aerodrome, and bombed it devastatingly, causing death and destruction, all unexpected on a beautiful summer morning. 

After that, we were sent home early; the school authorities decided that there should be proper air-raid shelters for each house, and we should be sent to safety until these were built. So to my great delight I found myself back in Newquay in late May, with seven extra weeks of unexpected freedom. 

At the same time, the evacuation from Dunkirk was taking place, a worrying and heart-breaking time for everyone. Much of the army was saved, but arrived home without weapons or equipment. A vast number of men had not got away, and had become prisoners-of-war. Britain was on it's beam-ends -- it was said that there was only one field-gun in the land. And yet, once all possible men were safely home, there grew up a great spirit of unity, of a feeling that we were secure in our island. This feeling may well have ignored the true facts, but nevertheless carried everyone along on a spirit of optimistic bloody-mindedness. Churchill's speech that " We shall fight them on the beaches " led and interpreted the general feeling of the people entirely genuinely. 

During the Dunkirk battle, Brad was reported "Missing; presumed killed in action". All through the war, these dread little telegrams could appear on anyone's doorstep. Poor Mrs. Johns showed a wonderful courage and absolutely refused to give up hope, and sure enough, several weeks later, news came through that he was a prisoner-of-war; which he remained for the next five years. 

So this was the time of mixed emotions when I arrived back early from school. Everyone in the household was almost too busy to welcome me. Dad was looking after an increasing number of patients, as younger doctors were called up into the forces, as well as a school-full of evacuees from London. Mum was embroiled in Red Cross work, and our new maid Dorothy was struggling to feed us within the confines of the rationing. My immediate desire at that time was a motor-bike, and Dad said that in that case I'd better earn the money myself, to buy one. I cheerfully agreed to this bit of paternal wiliness, and got myself a job as van-driver's mate at the local laundry. 

The laundry was a vast and steamy place full of vast and steamy women working at great lumbering machines. These women used to tease me in a warm-hearted sort of way, but I took it all in good part because most of my time was spent out in the van. This was a large old Ford, whose cab and superstructure tended to move in different directions at any speed; it had a big wooden steering-wheel, and a very demanding gear-box. The driver was known as Tickety; if I ever knew his real name I've forgotten it. He was an ugly , rather misshapen little Cornishman, with an evil smile, and a tendency to shout crudities at any passing woman of his own class. Tickety and I got on well together; we collected and delivered service-mens' laundry (shirt , socks, vests, pants -- and pretty noisome with it) to military and RAF stations all over Cornwall -- Bodmin barracks, St. Mawgan, St. Eval, and many others, sometimes spending all day on a trip. On several occasions, Tickety let me drive the van; although I was under age, I had by that time learned to drive by various surreptitious means; but with that laundry-van, I can still remember the feeling of disintegration that crept over the old vehicle at anything over 30 mph. It was a glorious summer, and the peaceful countryside, seen from the high cab of the slow-moving van, seemed to point up the background of war and danger with great poignancy. For that job I got £1 a week, and when I had saved £7, I gave up the job and bought a motor-bike. 

It was about this time that a solitary German bomber came down the coast, and jettisoned a couple of bombs on a hut full of soldiers, enjoying a Sunday afternoon rest at Penhale Camp. I was alone in the house and an agitated porter rang up from Newquay Hospital saying that the casualties were pouring in. I rang round and found Dad, and by the time he got there, he found the hospital so full of casualties that the corridors were lined with stretchers. There were many dead, and in the remote peacefulness of Cornwall the threat of war became much closer. 

But I was sixteen. I had motor-bike, and I enjoyed the remainder of my summer holiday. The motor-bike was a 1931 Raleigh ( they stopped making motor-bikes in1932 ! ). It was a devil to start, it had a three-speed hand-change gear-lever on the side of the tank, and it could do 55 mph flat out. I loved it dearly, and I made good use of it in the months to come. 

Returning to Clifton in September 1940, we found that an air-raid shelter had been built for each house. They had brick walls, a reinforced concrete roof, and were lined with three tiers of bunks from end to end, with a central aisle about a yard wide. For all that term we slept in this shelter, reached by a corridor from the house itself. During the day, life went on perfectly normally; but as the nights began to draw in, the air-raids started. At first they were moderate, and confined to Avonmouth and the other side of Bristol. But they became a nightly occurrence, and they were extremely spectacular. They would start in the middle of evening prep, so that if you put your study light out, and took down the black-out curtain, you could have a ring-side seat. One could admire the multiple patterns of search-lights reaching high into the sky from all over the city. The noise was incredible, mostly made by the non-stop fire of the anti-aircraft guns -- a high hollow crack which formed a background to the distant crump of heavy bombs landing; and fires would spring up here and there. This to us was distant and exciting, as we leaned out of our windows, and we only dodged our heads back inside when we heard Ack-Ack shrapnel pattering down, which it did in profusion. In fact, the only alteration in our daytime routine was before any game of rugger, when both teams would walk slowly in line up the pitch, picking up these small sharp pieces of shrapnel so as to avoid injury during play. 

Then, one night at the beginning of December, at about 6pm, a really big raid started. there had been a school concert of some sort, and when the warning went, we were told to disperse to our houses. As we came out of the hall, we saw that the whole skyline of Bristol was on fire from end to end, a very fearsome sight. That raid went on until about 2am, and this time it involved us much more closely. The whole area round about was bombed, and some bombs came very close to the school itself. We had a pretty rough night in the shelter, but we more senior boys had been formed into a house fire-watching party , which gave us something to do. We took it in turns to sit with Sam Beachcroft the house-master; we sat in the entrance hall of the house, listening out for the bang and clatter of incendiary bobs in the roof. They were small things about a foot long, but they would blaze away brightly and were quite capable of starting a fire that could demolish a house. Our only defence against them was a stirrup- pump full of water with a long hose. When not with Sam, we were down in the shelter, playing the role of brave fellows, patrolling up and down and calming the fears of the younger boys. When one is afraid, this kind of role-play, together with even the smallest amount of responsibility, can help one through remarkably well. And there was plenty to make us afraid -- I particularly remember one stick of bombs marching towards us, the prolonged whistle and thudding explosion getting louder and louder; "if this is a stick of six bombs", I thought, "we've had it"; luckily, there were only five. 

Next day, there was a fair amount of chaos -- a different sky-line, with gaps in the houses round about, and a missing church tower. The school itself was untouched, but our water supply was cut off. So parties of boys were organized; to go with hand-carts to fetch water; to help people who were still wandering dazedly round the remains of their ruined houses; and occasionally to help the Fire Service by listening for possible survivors; and by forming chains to remove bricks. It was a very long and busy day. 

That same evening, the Germans struck again, and this was a worse raid even than the one before. The gunfire and bombing all round us was increasing, and obviously more concentrated than the previous night. At about 1am, I was taking my turn with Sam in the hall, and with us were Ian Bishop and Gerard-Pearse; we three had shared a study in our first term. We heard a bang upstairs, and went up to investigate. To get into the roof one had to go through a hatch in the ceiling of the top floor, and this ceiling was about ten feet high. So G-P and I clambered up somehow, and sat in the hatch with our feet dangling down. Sure enough there was a large hole in the roof, and in the rafters there was a foot-long incendiary blazing away; so Ian Bishop pumped away at the stirrup-pump on the landing below, and we sprayed the thing until it went out. All this time, G-P and I had an alarming view through the hole in the roof, of a night-sky blazing with searchlights and exploding Ack-Ack shells, and the noise of falling bombs. Just as we'd put out the incendiary, there was the unmistakable sound of a big bomb coming down, like a train coming at you. We certainly thought it was coming at us, and G-P and I jumped down in a great rush and landed in a heap on the floor. At that moment the bomb (a thousand pounder which demolished the squash courts completely) arrived with an explosion and impact which made the whole house shake. Sam was lying on the landing floor, and a large piece of plaster ,just his size, fell on him from the ceiling; Sam groaned and thought his time had come -- but then we all felt like that, and after such an unnerving experience we fled downstairs to the dubious safety of the shelter, which was filled with ashen-faced boys. 

The next day, the entire school was sent home. Daylight showed considerable bomb damage to the school buildings and grounds, and one very large bomb had sheared off the side of one of the boarding houses, narrowly missing the house shelter full of boys. But before we went, Peter Brook the padre said he would stay on and firewatch the school buildings, if he could have any senior boys as volunteers to help him. There was, on average, a far greater likelihood of a building being destroyed by half-a-dozen incendiaries, than by a direct hit by a high-explosive bomb. Although I had been pretty frightened the night before, or perhaps because I had been, I volunteered; rather on the principle of getting straight back on a horse after a fall. So I arrived home early yet again, announcing that I was going back to Bristol for a week's firewatching after Christmas. 

This, needless to say , was not a popular idea. I was after all not yet seventeen. Mum thought I was mad, and got very upset. Dad on the other hand , I think understood my need to go back and be part of the team. Going from the relative safety of Newquay to a city under blitz conditions was not exactly wise. But I was stubborn about it, and it is a measure of those wartime days, when all ages and both sexes were embroiled, that the idea was considered at all. 

So, I went -- on my beloved motor-bike. I remember a last-minute protest from Mum because blizzard conditions were threatening, and in fact she was quite right; the journey took me two days. The snow fell, the roads were icy, and I travelled in bottom gear with my feet sliding along the ground on either side. If I accelerated, my back wheel caught up with me and I fell off -- five times altogether, once in the middle of Taunton. But I didn't get hurt, as I was going so slowly, and anyway was wearing two pairs of trousers, innumerable sweaters, and two macs. I only got to Exeter the first day, having gone over Bodmin Moor very slowly in driving snow, a solitary dot on a white landscape, as there was no other traffic. The only traffic that came my way was a large RAF truck that followed me down the long hill into Okehampton, both of us skidding on the ice, and me with my hair standing on end in case I fell off in front of him. In the afternoon of the second day, I reached Bristol, and can remember very clearly parking my bike at the kerbside at the top of Park Street, opposite the university. The whole area seemed derelict and lifeless, with few people about, no traffic, and buildings missing every where, some of them a heap of rubble still smouldering. 

So on I went to the school, where I found a much more cheerful atmosphere. In the empty school buildings, living in the cellars, was this dozen or so volunteers, all friends and contemporaries from various houses. We were a faintly piratical band, given freedom to roam, to drink the absent house-masters' sherry, free to do anything by day. It all had an attractive lawlessness about it. But as darkness fell, the atmosphere changed; we got geared up for action, wearing steel helmets and OTC greatcoats. Peter Brook the chaplain, a genial leader, became much more serious and organized us into pairs to patrol the various parts of the school -- the cloisters, the science school, the library roof and so on. There were raids every night, but we were lucky in that no HE bombs came our way, though we dealt with incendiaries every night ; they were sent down in showers. One could lurk in a doorway, watching the vast display of searchlights and bursting Ack-Ack shells, and hear the distinctive sound of the bombers overhead; it was a curiously fluctuating rumble, as Dornier bombers had two unsynchronised engines -- a very ominous and recognizable sound. One soon learned to recognize too the light whistle of a falling incendiary, and to dodge back into a doorway until it arrived. 

One particularly freezing night there was a very heavy raid, and at about 1am there was lull, and the All Clear sounded. Peter. ever keen, saw a fire on the Clifton sky-line which he swore was a house he'd promised to watch over. So we piled into his open car, with a heap of hoses and stand-pipes, and arrived at the house like the American Cavalry. But the Fire Service had arrived first , so our glory was diminished to the role of helping them. The house was a tall Georgian building in a terrace near the Suspension Bridge; there were flames coming from the roof, and the poor appalled owners were standing outside trembling in their night clothes. We helped the Fire Service men by standing on the stairs and feeding their hose up to them. Fire crackled above, men shouted orders, and water cascaded back down again onto our heads. It was so cold that when I came out the water on my helmet had turned to ice. The raid started again, and finished at dawn -- a long night. Later that morning some of us walked down a ruined Park Street to an even worse Centre. The whole Centre was an area of fire and destruction; underfoot , there was ice from the fire-hoses, so thick that the hoses themselves were frozen into it; people were wandering around in forlorn groups, trying to find a familiar land-mark; and there had been a direct hit on a public air-raid shelter, so bodies were laid out in rows on the icy ground. We walked back to school in a very sober frame of mind. In due course, my week of voluntary duty came to an end, and I returned to Newquay, a quite experienced sixteen-year-old. 

After all that, Clifton was evacuated to a row of hotels in Bude, North Cornwall. Again this was a new freedom, with wider horizons, glorious beaches, and a general freeing of rules. There was opportunity to explore the countryside and cliffs, to bathe in the big breakers, and to become part of the quiet little town. By this time I was in the History side of the lower sixth. This came about because after my School Cert in 1939 I went into the so-called Military Side, following a long-held desire to go into the army. The Mil was geared to getting boys through the far from demanding entrance exam for Sandhurst, and was regarded as a refuge for dim-wits. After one term, I began to notice this myself; the work was dull, and the company even duller. I talked it over with Dad, who pointed out that as I would probably go in the army anyway, at the rate the war was going, I might as well change to something more interesting in the meantime. So I changed to the History Side, which was much more interesting and absorbing, and by the time we reached Bude I was preparing with some enjoyment to take Higher School Certificate ( A level ) in History and English. 

One of our activities at Bude was the Home Guard. The whole of the OTC became part of the local Home Guard, and had a definite role to play. There was nothing comic about this -- there were no Captain Mannerings or Corporal Pikes -- we were given live ammunition, a stretch of coast to guard, and were expected to do so properly and seriously. And such was the climate of the times that I have no doubt that we'd have turned out against German parachutists, and would have been wiped out in the process. We did anti-invasion exercises with the local troops, and I and another boy who also had a motor-bike, acted as dispatch-riders, which gave us a free run of the "battle". 

In the summer of 1941, I took and passed my Higher Cert, and after that had two rather idle terms waiting to go into the army when I was eighteen. It was during this summer that Pat Schneider was lost at sea on an Atlantic convoy, as well as Ian Young, in whose father's woods we had tried unsuccessfully to shoot pigeons with a .22 rifle. Neville's two older brothers, Bill and Pat, were both killed, flying in the RAF. Altogether, it was a very sad year for our group of friends. In spite of this, we took it cheerfully for granted that at eighteen we would go into one of the services, Army, Navy, or Air Force, and with the optimism of youth we looked forward to it.

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Peter Mitchell’s Memoirs


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Early Years

Clifton College




Essex Yeomanry