A Day at an English Country School in Wartime

The night has been broken by the wail of sirens, the barrage of guns, the growl of German bombers followed by the whine and crunch of bombs.

I leave home in the blackout to cycle to school.  Cars are a luxury which can only be indulged in by those who vitally need them.  Outside the A.R.P. post, the morning shift of women ambulance drivers are washing down the ambulances and checking them over ready for another day.

Pedalling along the country roads, all seems peaceful and rural in the broadening light of a rosy dawn. Then I hear the sharp orders of an N.C.O. as a squad of soldiers muster on early morning parade, the nails of their boots ringing out on the frosty road. Two land girls are leading out the horses and another farm girl is driving a motor tractor, ploughing up more grassland for our food.

There is a sound of planes and, looking up, we see in the sky, still splattered with the last evening stars, three Spitfires racing toward the river estuary.  Shortly afterwards, the warbling wail of the siren sounds over the countryside.  When I reach the village the wardens with their steel helmets are on Alert Full patrol. I dash into the empty school, seize the register and first aid box then make my way to my form’s shelter at the end of the school gardens.  Half the class are already there with their gasmasks over their shoulders. The boys are comparing pieces of shrapnel and empty shell cases picked up on the way.  It is 9:30, the time of assembly during winter war-time and in a few minutes the Headmaster arrives with a prefect carrying a hurricane lamp and hanging candlesticks to lighten our darkness.

The shelter, similar to thousands of others, is a tunnel dug into the earth.  It is lined with concrete, well-supported with metal bars.  From the outside it looks like a grassy mound.  Inside, there are three long benches to sit on, one at each side and one down the middle.  At one end there is a steep vertical ladder leading to an emergency exit.  The other end of the trench has a partitioned-off latrine.

As soon as the roll is called we begin work.  One by one the long-distance pupils, who were on their way when the warning sounded, join us.  There is a tacit understanding in the class that Fritz isn’t going to spoil our schooling so we work hard at mental arithmetic.  A story and discussion follows.

It is very cold so we P.T. in relays to keep warm.  Outside we can hear the heavy firing of our anti-aircraft guns.  Nobody minds because they are our own and the children are well used to the noise. We sing lustily “Hearts of Oak”, “The Marseillaise”, “Rule Britannia” and “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic”.  At the same time the girls knit comforts for brothers and fathers in the forces.

After about an hour the “Raiders Past” signal sounds – one long drawn-out note – and, after a make-sure wait, we scamper cheerily up the steps. Soon we are all in the classroom with a bottle of milk to suck through a straw.

There is only a short break at mid-day and everyone lunches on the premises. Lessons proceed normally throughout the day unless they are again broken by an alert signal.

Many of the pupils are evacuees from London or the Channel Islands or have been bombed out from neighbouring towns. They are billeted with country people round about. Some have been as long as two years but they are happy and well looked after. Quite a few townies are converted to country life.

School ends at 3:45 to give us time to get home before the blackout. If there is a raid on, we have to stay in the shelters. Then we can take out our tins of iron rations and make merry till the “All Clear”.