Dover College at War
by Gerald Williams on June 20, 2011
Through illness I flipped the competitive entry exam to Dartmouth – the normal way to a naval commission which was taken at 13 in those days. I had however already secured an Astor Scholarship to Dover, still then with a strong military tradition. The fees were also discounted for the sons of Colonial Servants – most welcome to my father. The plan was for me then to join the Navy by the alternative ‘Special Entry’ as it was called, post-public school.
While I was making the most of my first exposure to enemy action at my home on the Sussex coast – we were casually bombed within days of the outbreak of WW2 – the college, deemed to be too close to the front-line in the coming air-war, was making hurried evacuation plans (we gained an extra week or so’s holiday while they were cobbled together – which was why I was still at home to be bombed).
So my first contact with public-school life was on a darkened platform at Tiverton Junction where harried masters with lists and tiny torches in their hands were trying to marshal us in the blackout onto the ‘Tivvy Bumper’, the local push-pull to Tiverton Town Station. For we were moving in on Blundells School until we could find a roof of our own.
It would be difficult to bed together two more disparate versions of the public-school ideal of 1939. Dover College – when last I visited it 30-40 years ago? – has changed out of all recognition. No doubt Blundells may too have suffered a radical sea-change (although somehow I doubt it) in the last 70+ years. In common of course we shared with them the general background concept that all such foundations existed to man and uphold Britain’s place in the sun, at a time – for the last time – when a third of the countries of the world were still coloured pink in our atlases, and ‘the sun never set etc. etc.’
Blundells appeared to draw its boys largely from the more affluent members of the West Country farming community; and while we were properly in awe of its prowess at rugby, we saw its style as belonging to an earlier age and its members as uncouth and parochial.
Dover on the other hand was in its last phase as the poor man’s Wellington. It was proud of the string of generals – even Field Marshals – it had produced, some of them not undistinguished. Membership of the OTC was compulsory; our bugle band was famous – and practiced noisily at all times of the day and night. We still had a large Army Sixth form – though truth to say by the time I entered it there were far more destined for careers in the Navy than the Army. Which is why I was there myself.
Though we may have differed in style and outlook, Blundells took us in charity; and turned their school and timetables upside-down to host us. Sharing classrooms was a cox and box scramble; we played games in the morning and had lessons far into the evening. We were billeted out: as the junior and smallest house Leamington (named from the evacuation of WW1), was billeted upon Halberton, a village a hilly 5 miles or so out of Tiverton, dependent upon our bicycles for getting in and out. Did it really rain every day that winter ?
I do not know whether or not it was the result of any warlike activity but it was on one of those lonely wet rides from Halberton, sodden school-satchel on back, that I first encountered the hazards of air-travel, fortunately vicariously. In archetypal West Country winter weather, low cloud-base, driven rain dead on the nose as head-down I stood on the pedals against the gale, I heard a large aeroplane slowly bumbling low overhead invisible in the murk. To my right, bunkers and tees only discernable faintly in outline, was the Tiverton golf-course. A smudge at the limit of visibility slowly took shape as an Imperial Airways Hannibal, the jumbo of pre-war luxurious flying, looking like an airborne egg-crate, lurching into a wind half as fast as itself. It sat sedately down and trundled in dowager majesty down the fairway into the boundary fence where, as if in slow motion, it noiselessly fell apart.
Ditching my bicycle I raced across the squelching links to save life, arriving in time to see the white-coated steward handing out the passengers down the steps, all scatheless, amidst sang-froid murmurings in upper-class accents.
By the first Easter term of war the school authorities had found us a place of our own, Poltimore House , the erstwhile home of the Lords of the village of that name, Bampfyldes by family surname, now somewhat decrepit after various unsuccessful institutional uses (I refer to the house, not the baron, and as the house was then in 1939; for, as those that watch the Antiques Roadshow on television will see, the present peer is in fine fettle).
It stood about five miles out of Exeter, out of sight at the end of a (mile-?)long drive – a gravel track across parkland gone to pot – and was a square Regency-style stucco wedding-cake-without-frills placed snuffer-like over an earlier more modest Tudor home. Leamington, was apportioned the Tudor remains.
The estate’s derelict glory was two long parallel avenues of limes, the broader bordering the remains of ornamental gardens flanked by laurels and the occasional rhododendron, the narrower a green tunnel of limes framing Poltimore village church at the far end – half a mile away to my 14-year old eyes – beautiful beyond words in early summer.
The park was substantial and included a large wood (to be the scene of a grislier plane crash later in the war), and in front of the house itself a level area upon which rugby posts were erected – to little purpose because most of the season it was under two inches of water- while to our Leamington side of the building were tennis courts on what was reputed to have been a Tudor bowling green – graced by Sir Francis Drake we liked to imagine.
The lands marched with those of the home of Sir Richard Acland (a pious baronet often in the religious news of the times), Killerton Park, soon to become the wartime home of Battle Abbey girls school. Whence was it surprising how often our OTC exercises, whichever direction they took off in, would wheel about in the throes of mock-warfare to end up in the triumphant capture of the Killerton Park perimeter?
Dear Poltimore: Dover, not being too barbarian or uncultured a school, did its best to minimise the wear and tear of educational usage, keeping it up as well as could be under wartime shortages of material and cash. It has suffered – how it has suffered! -further metamorphoses since the war and further periods of empty abandonment: now its remnants an be seen – open to the subsequent Bristol-Exeter motorway – sporting a hideous and incongruous Mansard roof, relic of transient medical usage.
[In connection with a BBC television programme a plan was made to try and save it in 2003(?). Together with a party of Old Dovorians a visit was arranged. What desolation! The magnificent gilded and mirrored room that had been our 6th Form Common Room, one of the finest examples of a saloon of its period, it was said, setting for the surrender of Exeter in the Civil War, all stripped – everything vandalised, holes in roofs, even the swirling banisters from the main staircase looted………………………]
Back to 1940 – that spring holiday back on the South Coast – the ‘invasion coast’ – was a strange deserted time, an area forbidden to all but established residents, our outlet to the shore a couple of hundred yards away barred by barbed wire, the shingle mined. Occasionally there would be an explosion, a wave, a straying dog, sometimes an incautious person would set off one of the mines. I remember one day a red setter passed our front gate carrying a human hand in its mouth.
I remember also a tiny figure in a dark cloak gazing out to sea at the grey blur of horizon one wet day; he was more blue than tan in the cold, the exiled Emperor Haile Salassie of Ethiopia – dreaming of African sun and nubile slaves perhaps.
Then with the summer holidays the weather became glorious and it was the Battle of Britain. For a 15-year-old, to be living only a few flying minutes from one of the most famous of the fighter stations, Tangmere (with lesser emergency stations – Coolham et al all around), during that summer was like Jorrock’s description of foxhunting “all the glory of war with only five-and-twenty percent of the danger”.
The dog-fights often came down nearly to the rooftops, empty cartridge cases tinkling on the tiles, leavened by occasional splinters from flak shells. We would cheer and wave if it was a Hurricane, dive into the flowerbeds for cover if a guns-blazing Messerschmidt.
This was not intended to be a ‘war reminiscence’, a series of gee-whizz anecdotes; but it may give some flavour of the times; because it brought experiences which nowadays would be called traumatic and lead to counselling and psychiatry; but from which I have never detected any after, side or hidden effects whatsoever, either in my own case or my contemporaries’.
So to return to Dover College in Devon as 1940 waned. Schooling during wartime did have rum aspects, apart from the more obviously warlike which I shall mention in a moment. The first impact was upon the staff, particularly on ours with so military a history and aspiration. A majority of the housemasters were retired soldiers – de riguer? – of field rank and still on the Reserve of Officers. These included my own, Major Bruce-Johnson – universally adored. Soon most of them had been recalled to their regiments; and the school was scouring the retirement homes for replacements.
One I remember, still in keeping with our military tradition (though in his case it may have been of Boer rather than of Great War vintage) was a Major Belcher who ostensibly taught us geography but whom I remember better for becoming incandescent on hearing some wretch among my contemporaries refer to ‘golf’; ‘goff’ – it’s ‘goff’ roared the scandalised major. Other elderly gentlemen did their best to inculcate scientific mysteries – with marked lack of success in my case I fear.
Public school matrons were a race apart in that barbaric age. Regardless of the degree of Spartan ruthlessness – and I believe some College houses had matrons who were comparatively humane – they were universally known as Hag: Hag This or That according to their spinster name. The Leamington Hag, short, stout and malign of mien, was well known to outdo all the Hag sisterhood in ferocity.
Any boy misguided enough to go to her complaining of any distemper whatever would be given the rough side of an abrasive tongue and an aperient of excoriating impact. No other cause or remedy was permitted entry to her cosmos.
As the winter progressed a pain under my ribs intensified. Finally, thinking nothing could be worse than the level it had now reached, I went to her room. Having been admonished (a suitably polite word for the paint-stripping earful I received from her along with the depth-charge to the bowels) as an impertinent malingerer, I was directed straight out onto the rugger field. At some stage I collapsed with double pneumonia and pleurisy, to awake after a period of delirium in the make-shift school sanatorium and the surprising kindliness of its sister.
I achieved fame not usually accorded so junior a boy by having an announcement made by the headmaster at morning prayers that “a boy is seriously ill in the sanatorium so the school will keep as quiet as possible” – as if one could silence the natural riot of schoolboys however well-meaning!
With very few exceptions my contemporaries were indeed at all times well-meaning, as amiable and civilised as nature and a benign school ethos can make young males together (“There is only one School Rule. A Breach of Common Sense is a Breach of School Rules” – is that still the legend?). By and large it was a happy enough school and unfashionably I was happy enough there.
Following Dunkirk, the Home Guard was called into being by Churchill (‘to fight them on the beaches…etc’). Originally they were the Local Defence Volunteers and wore LDV armbands over civilian clothes and were armed if they were lucky with 12-bores and even pikes – yes pikes – against the expected invading panzer blitzkrieg. All the senior half of the College OTC, that’s to say those over 16, were converted at a stroke into the Mobile Reserve Platoon of the Bradninch Company, 3rd (Cullompton) Battalion of the Devon Home Guard; how delightfully it still rolls off the tongue in its bucolic military splendour!
That this should happen was explicable on two counts: as a school with a military tradition our OTC armoury already had more real weapons – standard army issue Lee-Enfield .303 rifles, Mills bombs, Thompson sub-machine guns of Chicago fame, even a Vickers heavy machine-gun – than the rest of the Devon HG put together; and secondly the ‘mobile’ bit meant that the masters could have petrol for their motorcars. A true win-win situation.
As a result, Sundays, the day proclaimed by Holy Writ to be for our recuperation from a dawn-to-dark week of work, prep and games, became a doubly exhausting as defence training exercises similarly filled out the daylight hours.
Of course we loved it. Particularly when frequently we had mock battles with the local static HG units, the Bradninch Company or the Silverton or Broadclyst Platoons or the like, we acting as German paratroops intent on capturing their headquarters, because (oh illicit joy) all the local units’ headquarters were invariably in their ‘locals’. The local Home Guard units would charitably roll over at the end of these weekend ‘battles’. I thus acquired a good working knowledge of the better public houses north-east of Exeter.
I also wangled myself the appointment as the unit’s Armourer Lance-Sergeant. This was a splendid wheeze as firstly I acquired that most desirable of retreats in any such community but most particularly beloved of fighting men as I later found out in the Navy, a private caboosh. It was beneath the foot of the Tudor staircase; that is to say my armoury, packed with lethal weapons and demolition charges, grenades, sticky bombs, anti-tank projectiles, was virtually at the dead-centre of the building.. Here, sitting in inviolable seclusion on an ammunition box, I could toast bread stolen from the kitchens before a blazing grate – stamping out the occasional flying spark before it made a Guy Fawkes’s benefit of both the Poltimore seat and a minor public school.
The unlimited access it provided, secondly, to most unsuitable weaponry meant my familiars and I could supplement our scant rations – schoolboys are reputedly always hungry and wartime rations coupled with warlike exertions made them trebly so – with a welcome rabbit spitted over an open fire in the woods.
For, as part of our field-toughening, our enlightened headmaster, Dr ‘George’ Renwick who had instantly promoted himself CO of our HG unit, encouraged us to bivouac in the grounds in strictly active service conditions, rather than sleep prosaically in our dormitories.
Many a dawn rabbit fell to a Lee-Enfield, small-bore tubed for target practice, thanks to my guardianship of the armoury keys.
Another break from desk routine was when the local War Agricultural Committee, having had some marginal mountainside ploughed up for food, would find a precious crop rotting in the field from a surfeit of rain and a scarcity of labour; and would send the school an SOS for emergency help in lifting it.
One such appeal, larger and more urgent and further away than any of the others, resulted in all the senior half of the school being embussed before light, breakfastless, and heading for a huge potato prairie near Torrington. We were promised food on arrival, to be provided by the Women’s’ Voluntary Service.
Bitter rain slashed. We had no waterproofs but as hardened farm-hands by then, we made poke bonnets out of spare potato sacks; and addressed the rotting crop. Those spuds that were not already visibly deliquescent exploded at the first touch into a nauseous stinking mush. No breakfast arrived. The war-time fervour of patriotism began to wear thin.
When finally early in the afternoon two elderly souls, brave in their WVS green, with one small tea-urn of thin soup appeared through the downpour, whispers of disgruntlement could be heard. By dusk when a halt to the profitless fiasco was called, we were chilled to the bone, soaking, thirsty and famished.
Our glum homeward buses took us eventually through Cullompton. Frantically as we came into the town centre we banged on the drivers’ cabs to stop.
It must have been at the beginning of the week as we still had our ‘Saturday Shilling’ weekly pocket money – or most of it anyway. And a shilling in those days bought two-and-a-half pints of scrumpy.
There is a pub (I really ought to try to seek it out someday, if only for nostalgic reasons) there in the centre in which I – for the first time in my life – along with the entire senior half of the school from Head Boy (a most upright citizen) downwards – poured pints of that wicked liquor onto empty juvenile stomachs and got totally smashed, plastered, legless, whistled.
I do not know if it is the same now (I suspect not) but in those days all the routine of day-to-day public school discipline was in the hands of the prefects – of which high caste I was myself by then one – who praised, rarely, and punished (including with a cane) – less rarely. According to the code of the day; masters were at a remove, mostly living away in separate houses, and only became involved in exceptional matters. Imagine then when all we roaring boys – we pillars of school discipline – returned to the school: one glorious anarchic night of revelry; small boys traditionally in awe or worship of their elders gazing at scenes of levity, their mentors in disarray, the staff powerless.
Next day we were heavy-headed but authority’s hand was light.