Old Uffingtonians Association (1994)

   Willesden County Grammar School                         Ex-Pupils 1924-1967                    


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Some Wartime Memories at the School
(Edward Brown)

I have just surprised myself on recalling that a powerful combination of nervous parenting and the Second World War led me to be a pupil at no less than eight successive schools between 1939 and 1945.   It began with still vivid memories of neighbours' burning houses in Longstone Avenue quickly followed by my happy days at Furness Road school being abruptly terminated in conflagration one August night in 1940.  Now we were on the march!  Exciting and sometimes battering times followed whilst at school in Devonport.  (Yes indeed, why on earth Devonport of all places?  Well ... we had many relatives thereabouts; a consideration that, seemingly, outweighed the tactical folly of move to a prime military target.)  Two years and four schools later, I tardily first experienced the well-remembered warmth and liberality of Mr. Wallis' WCGS.

We all have experience of the vagaries 0f recall and my memories of the school are no exception.  However, I can still recollect a broad, shallow crater where about two classrooms had been earlier destroyed in the older part of the school in 1940.  It must have been a small calibre bomb but it would have been devastating had it fallen during school hours; not that such gloomy thoughts seemed to enter the minds of school children at the time.  General morale seemed, on reflection, amazingly high.

The Blitz was now well over but the night raids were still frequent in 1943.  Apparently stimulated rather than intimidated, we schoolboys would arrive at school with out latest trophies of war, usually shell splinters (frequently found by trawling a magnet on a length of string in the gutter.)  My greatest acquisition was a supposedly deactivated German 1.5 kilo incendiary bomb.  I cannot describe the kudos this would have earned me at school had not my treasure been discovered on the very evening of my triumph by my justly alarmed parents, although I did not see it their way at the time.  As the war progressed the variety and splendour of war materials proudly displayed soared.  By 1945 "liberated" bayonets, bullets and Wehrmacht medals and badges became commonplace.  There was a persistent and thrilling rumour that an unknown God-like figure in the fifth form had a German pistol but as with all the best rumours, nobody had actually seen it, of course.  This insatiable schoolboy hunger for war trophies was to reach dangerous proportions, I am sorry to say.

I wonder how many Old Uffs remember the enormous quantities of sand deposited next to the school in the park?  Speculation was rife, and I for one was convinced, that the school was to be swathed in thousands of sandbags, such was its importance if Hitler was ever to be defeated.  Humiliatingly the sand remained untouched until well after the war ended, but to the delight of the local children it must be said.  Sand, we were instructed, together with a stirrup pump and shovel were necessary to extinguish German incendiary bombs and I have fond images of some of our staff thus preparing for the fire-watch rotas they undertook at the school.  The fortuitous sight of a steel-helmeted Miss Edgill with stirrup pump was more than normally intimidating.  Clearly this had its effect on the enemy for after its earlier wounds the school remained largely undamaged.

There were tragedies, of course.  Both parents and members of the school were killed but I cannot remember very much being made of it.  Common sympathy was not absent but grief and personal loss were still very much a restrained and essentially private matter, nevertheless.  Perhaps it was not feasible to do otherwise under the circumstances.  As the war dragged on the strain did begin to tell, however, and a general weariness began to communicate itself even to we still high-spirited youngsters.

1944-45 was the time of the "V-weapons" and for the first time since 1940-41 the dangers now came during the day in addition to those of the night that we had endured for so long.  Gone were the times when we were able to come to school with excited tales of the noisy, sleepless night before but with the likelihood of an undisturbed school day before us.  Now the routine of the school began to be seriously disrupted.  I believe that Kilburn Grammar School had been damaged and for some time we shared our school with them, each attending half a day.  Surprisingly, this curtailment of the school day caused us somewhat ungenerous irritation, I recall.  Obviously the commencement of this resumed daylight attack was of concern to the School and although there was no talk this late in the war of evacuation, as far as I remember, but certain safety measures were taken.  I recall Mr. Wallis coming into our class to inform us of these and in his usual gentle way to reassure.  Then, as I recollect, distinctly flimsy blast walls of breeze blocks were built at the entrances to the main hall and we were given instructions to assemble in the adjoining main corridor if a raid warning was received.  It was a mighty crush as I remember and I clearly recall how dark these new walls made that corridor, lending a somewhat Dante-esque to this bizarre intrusion on what little was left of the school routine.

I well remember the times when flying-bombs fell on Queens Park station and on the edge of King Edward's park in All Souls Avenue, both with serious loss of life.  I was at home when the latter incident occurred and although a mile away the explosion raised a dense fog of dust in the house.  This produced within me a strange and new sense of unease.  Many bombs had fallen in the borough but one that exploded behind the Odeon cinema in Craven Park killed one of the school's girls and some of her family and this, too, raised new-found feelings of concern.  Perhaps we were now beginning to lose our schoolboy hilarity of only two years previously.

At a more light-hearted level we were buoyed-up by more humorous experiences, however.  The early establishment of a searchlight battery in Roundwood Park met with my unqualified schoolboy approval.  In my innocence I revised my somewhat prejudiced view of the opposite sex on seeing that many of the older local girls also displayed a healthy interest in searchlights, clustering around the emplacement apparently engaging the rude soldiery in earnest enquiry about their work.  It was in this same park that later in the war I had the first (and last) opportunity to put on a steel helmet in anger, so to speak.  This headgear was my pride and joy having been loaned to me by a wounded and discharged Dunkirk survivor.  With my garish air-modelling paints I immediately camouflaged it to a standard worthy of the Fuhrerbunker itself, painted a smudgy school shield on the side and proudly slung it beneath the saddle of my bicycle (I should mention that the facial expression of the kind soldier when I returned this much decorated helmet remains with me still.)  Coming home from school one lunch time just by Roundwood Park drinking fountain, a flying bomb roared low overhead.  Active service at last!  I frantically tore at the helmet but it remained fast.  Another frantic pull served to throw me over the bicycle and my great moment had passed with nothing to show but a few grazes.  On sad reflection, this amusing personal episode epitomises so many wartime experiences where humour often goes had-in-hand with tragedy.  That bomb fell in Harrow, undoubtedly causing disaster to someone.

Very late in the war, my now oldest friend and Old Uff (who shall be nameless) and I, suffering the aforementioned and terminal lust for war trophies, noticed a veritable Alladin's Cave of practice shells and assorted ammunition through an open window of the now abandoned "Hub" or ARP headquarters in Harlesden Road, near the school.  Yes, I'll come quietly!  We loaded ourselves with this ordinance and half fearful but exhilarated by this coup, we carried it to my home nearby.  Mercifully we were immediately caught red-handed with our spoils laid out on the kitchen floor by my normally easygoing mother.  Her instructions were nothing if not explicit!  We loaded ourselves again with our booty and promptly returned it.  How ironic it would have been if we had been caught returning the loot to its rightful owners.  The mitigating plea of "Acting under wartime adolescent insanity", common to so many of our generation, would not impress the bench even in these more tolerant times I fear.

A final, strange memory for me was a curious sense of gloom that unaccountably assailed me as I rode past the school on the day of capitulation of enemy forces in Europe ("VE Day").  I noticed with a new and depressing clarity how tired and shabby our familiar old building looked.  There was every good reason to rejoice so why this strange and unaccountable sorrow?  Perhaps this was only the true beginning of adolescence.  But it had been a long wartime childhood; in a curious way, a privilege but it was, nevertheless, a strange and trying time in which we lived some important formative years.

Edward Brown
November 2001