A Long Walk to Anywhere
by
Lawrence Garner

Part 3. "Who do you think you were kidding , Mr Hitler?"

 

I can't claim that the outbreak of war bothered me that much, although I was vaguely aware that the grown-ups were fussing a bit.   At four years old I had no idea what 'peacetime' meant, so I accepted war as the normal state of things. Just occasionally there would be eye-opening glimpses of another world - it seemed incredible, for example, that the derelict machine on the platform at Lewes station had once dispensed chocolate on demand - but generally I was unaware of the restrictions that preoccupied my parents. It was peace that came as the real shock. For a long time I thought bananas and signposts on the roads were brilliant innovations by Mr. Attlee, and the gradual restoration of peacetime amenities came as a series of surprises.

Nevertheless, in the early months of hostilities I suffered mild frustrations. For a start it was more than six years before I was able to enjoy the twin attractions of the downs and the seaside. Our house had a tempting view of the hills that rise beside the Lewes to Ringmer road, but they were firmly out of bounds.  In 1940 it was taken for granted that a German invasion was inevitable, so the downs became an important line of defence and a military training ground. When I finally started to explore them after the war I discovered gun emplacements everywhere, and overgrown slit trenches were a hazard for years afterwards.

Concrete 'pillboxes' mysteriously appeared in the fields, sited in an apparently haphazard way but no doubt forming a tactical pattern. I remember one on the Newhaven road just beyond Kingston that was prominently labelled 'CAFE', and another that purported to be a public convenience. They may have been examples of army humour.  I hope so, because if they were an attempt to mislead spies someone had seriously underestimated German military intelligence. Naturally the coast was an even more sensitive area, and on rare family outings to the seaside it was a severe disappointment to be barred from the beaches, which were disfigured by ugly steel tank defences. There was a rumour that the beaches had been laid with mines as well, but that story could have been a way of making sure that nobody ignored the red warning notices.

I was far too young, of course, to share the horrifying prospect of being caught up in a German invasion. Photographs and newsreels of Dunkirk had shown long, straggling lines of panic-stricken French families fleeing the battle zone with whatever household possessions they could pile on to carts and prams. My parents, responsible for a five-year-old child and a baby, must have wondered whether we were destined to share the same grim experience, but if they had worries they did not pass them on to me. I recall a snatch of conversation with my mother at about this time;

"Who's going to win the war, Mum?

"We are,"

"How do you know?"

"Because we always do,"

In 1940 this confidence defied all logic, but I am sure she meant it and was not just putting a brave face on things for my benefit. It was all part of a dogged determination to maintain normal life.

When I started school in September 1940 with my dinner bag and gas mask bumping at my side, my mother and I walked beneath interwoven vapour trails and the sudden snarl of fighters as the Battle of Britain was fought out over our heads. At night we were disturbed by the intermittent drooping growl of German bombers on their way to and from London. Searchlights probed the sky, occasionally trapping a plane and forcing it into ponderous evasive action as the anti-aircraft guns cracked into furious life. Often aircraft would drop random bombs nearby, either through incompetence or to lighten their load as they set out to return across the channel, and more than once we were ringed with fires from incendiaries. None of this appeared to upset my parents, watching events calmly from the back door, so it certainly didn't frighten me. In fact I suspect that we children regarded the war as something arranged for our entertainment as we passed round anonymous bits of fused metal that were always confidently identified as key components of a Messerschmidt.

You never knew in those days what you were going to come across in the countryside. For a short time any field that could possibly provide a landing ground for a German paratroop glider was strewn with a Heath Robinson arrangement of poles and wires. One day I went out to find the cows moodily kicking sheets of paper around. They turned out to be smudgy German leaflets threatening us with unspeakable consequences if we did not lay down our pitchforks and surrender when the Panzers arrived. On another occasion the fields ware scattered with strips of metallic foil, dropped from enemy bombers in an attempt to confuse the radar defences. Since it only happened once the experiment was presumably not a success. Anyway we picked up the foil and saved the strips to make Christmas paper chains.

My grandmother had an Anderson air-raid shelter in the garden of her house in Lewes. It was basically a hole in the ground covered by curved sheets of corrugated iron, and was so uninviting that nobody ever set foot in it.  (Perhaps the real deterrent was the fact that it was supposed to be shared with her neighbour, with whom she was at daggers drawn.)  Our family was issued with the Morrison variety, designed for interior use.  It was a cumbersome steel contraption about the size of a double bed and with a top that could serve as a table. Ours had to serve as a table because we had to move the table out to get the shelter in. My brother Richard and I would sleep beneath it at night after eating our meals at it during the day, and it became so useful that we were quite sorry to see it go.  These shelters were named after Herbert Morrison, the Minister who had implemented their production, and it was a pretty impressive achievement to manufacture them in huge numbers when steel was precious. They would certainly have been effective in the event of anything but a direct hit.

In spite of the panoply of war unfolding around us, the  precautions at school were perfunctory to say the least.  We were supposed to carry our gas masks at all times and practise putting them on quickly, so once a week the classroom would resound to a grotesque roar as we donned them and chanted our tables and other less mentionable things. Occasionally we practised scrambling under our stout, iron-bound desks just in case Ringmer should be selected by the Luftwaffe for blanket bombing. On the one occasion when this precaution might have come in handy we had no time to put it into effect - we just sat there in a state of bewilderment as machine-gun bullets ripped into the tiles above us. Miraculously no-one was hurt. The imperturbable Mr. Self came in to soothe us, explaining that it was unlikely that Hitler had it in for us personally and that it was probably just an unfortunate accident. It is likely that the German pilot had spotted the trucks and soldiers at Elm Court, the big house next door. In retrospect it seems an unwise decision to have stationed an army unit next to a school, but we thoroughly enjoyed the military comings and goings, and at the end of school each day the unfortunate sentry at the gate would be surrounded by a chattering and inquisitive crowd. At a later point in the war Elm Court housed a Canadian unit whose army-issue cigarettes called 'Sweet Caporals' were responsible for a novel craze. Each white packet had on the back the silhouette of a German tank or aircraft.  If the authorities hoped that the soldiers would carefully preserve these and study them in their leisure moments they must have been disappointed because the empty packets were strewn all over the village. For us they replaced cigarette cards as valued collectors' items, leading to a thriving trade in swaps. We got quite ruthless about this, rushing up to soldiers in the street and demanding that they produce their Caporals. Occasionally we were ordered to " --- off", but most of them took it in good part, often stowing away loose cigarettes in their pockets and carefully tearing off the back of a packet for our benefit.

Farm workers were in a reserved occupation and not liable for call-up, but when the Home Guard was formed my father was quick to volunteer along with his colleagues. Thanks to the immortal sitcom Dad's Army  (the heading of this chapter is taken from its signature tune) the Home Guard has acquired a reputation for bumbling inefficiency, but there was nothing funny about it at the time. In the more northern areas of England it may have been taken less than seriously, but for some months it seemed highly likely that the Home Guard in our part of the country would be involved in a bloody fight to contain the first hours of an invasion.  It should be remembered that these men had to be prepared to leave their families to an unknown fate, in the sure knowledge that they themselves would either be killed or taken prisoner.

Even when the immediate danger was past it required exceptional dedication to work a long day and then put on uniform for duty as an unpaid soldier. Not that my father didn't enjoy it - in fact I suspect that the day he was promoted to full corporal was one of the happiest in his life - but there is little doubt that the combined physical stress of hard farm work and strenuous Home Guard exercises aggravated the heart condition that was to lead to his early death after the war. Incidentally the Ringmer platoon was fortunate in its commander, Captain Taylor, a fine man who was later to reappear in my life as a classics teacher at the grammar school.

I don't want to give the impression that we children never contributed to the war effort.  In fact we were a public-spirited lot, well aware of the need to Keep Mum about military secrets and to watch out for spies.  According to the posters the latter could be easily recognised by their black trilby hats, turned-up coat collars and contemptuous sneers, but although Ringmer had its quota of dubious characters none of them possessed this particular combination of attributes.  It was disappointing because in the comics that we passed round, groups of resourceful children quite often captured spies and were rewarded with public votes of thanks and special medals.  Never mind. At least we could Avoid Waste, a theme with which we were constantly bombarded, not only by the posters, but by no less an authority than Auntie Ivy.

Auntie Ivy produced the weekly children's column in the Sussex Express and County Herald, a cunning wheeze to promote youthful reader loyalty. By sending in your name, address and date of birth you could become one of the Elkins, who were dedicated to courtesy, public service, good citizenship and insistence that their parents buy the newspaper every week. I have no doubt that the column was hacked out by the current junior reporter, but although no-one had actually set eyes on Auntie Ivy we firmly believed that she was a kindly grey-haired lady with twinkling eyes. Did she not always remember our birthdays and print our names in the paper in the appropriate week? Anyway, she thought avoiding waste was a good idea so we avoided waste.

With or without the exhortations of Auntie Ivy we were often called upon to serve the nation in more specific ways, although on looking back I feel a certain cynicism about it all.  I distinctly remember sacrificing my afternoon bun from the baker's in order to swell the funds in Ringmer's 'Buy A Spitfire' campaign. According to the bulletin board erected on the village green we succeeded, but did we actually Buy A Spitfire? I never saw it. We spent whole afternoons toiling in the school garden, urged on by Mr. Self, who assured us that we were Digging For Victory.  But we didn't have hot dinners at the time, so where did all those vegetables actually go?

Then there were the Drives.  The great Rosehip Drive had us scouring the hedgerows for berries which, we were told, could be used to make a life-enhancing drink for deprived children.  Hundredweights of the things were stacked up in the playground, but was anything useful ever done with them? Even more dubious was the Nettle Drive.  Covered in painful red rashes we would lay out rows of nettles to dry and bring them into school by the sackful, but what on earth were they used for? Could it just have been an exercise to boost our morale?  [Actually, I recently heard a fascinating radio programme in which it was asserted that the Germans made underpants from nettles during the war. It doesn't bear thinking about really, but it's just possible that British intelligence picked up some insane snippet of disinformation from the office of Dr Goebbels and decided to try an experiment....] Particularly memorable was the Book Drive, because whoever dreamed it up had hit on a surefire way of kindling our enthusiasm. We had to bring discarded books and magazines to school for the purpose, they said, of providing reading matter for the troops. In return we got a cardboard lapel badge denoting a military rank. One book made you a private, ten promoted you to lance-corporal, while with 250 you could become the Ringmer School equivalent of Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Given our fascination with all things military it was a brilliant idea. With the knowledge that we all had a Field Marshal's baton in our knapsacks we descended like locusts on our families and relations. Call me embittered if you like - I never reached commissioned rank - but I firmly maintain that things were not as they seemed.  Did my mother's spare copy of an Ethel M. Dell novel really comfort some Desert Rat in his North African foxhole? It is far more likely that the whole lot went for pulping.

My evidence for a severe paper shortage at the time is the fact that for a month or so we did our sums on slates.  Some far-sighted educational official must have forbidden the destruction of these Victorian relics on the grounds that they might come in useful one day. Well, the day came. It was an amusing novelty for us children but hell for the teachers, who spent their days trying to subdue the cacophony of shrieking slate pencils.

At the height of the blitz a London primary school was evacuated to the village complete with its teachers.  In addition to finding accommodation for them it was necessary to continue their education, so the village hall was put at their disposal. But there must have been some intense negotiations about teaching conditions because an exchange scheme was eventually hammered out, with the result that once or twice a week we would leave our familiar surroundings and march to the village hall for sketchy lessons with minimal equipment while the evacuees enjoyed the luxury of a proper classroom.

We certainly didn't resent this makeshift operation, with all its opportunities for anarchy, but we were a little nervous at first of these aliens from London. On my solitary walk home I was particularly vulnerable, and I would usually have to pass groups of strange, pallid boys sitting idly on walls and regarding passers-by with narrowed eyes. But in fact they seemed a rather listless lot, understandably bewildered at finding themselves so far from the pavements and traffic of home.  In any case I had an escort before long in the form of a London cousin, who had come to live with us as our personal evacuee, and he spoke the language of the enemy. Once the novelty of country life had worn off he was glad enough to return home. So, I imagine, were the other evacuees, who soon departed, leaving us to settle back into our familiar routines.

I hope that refugee school settled back too. The children were no doubt resilient enough, but the evacuation must have been an ordeal for their teachers. It is a reminder that the service rendered by teachers in wartime has never been adequately recognised.  Mainly women, together with men who were unfit or too old for war service, they coped with situations that were well beyond the call of duty. Those of us whose primary school years coincided with the war should, by all the odds, have emerged as a scrappily-educated generation with serious psychological problems. The fact that it did not happen is entirely due to our teachers' success in maintaining a disciplined normality and shielding us from the disruptive effects of the war.

As the war progressed the atmosphere lightened perceptibly. By the time I had reached Standard 3 the threat of invasion had evaporated, and when I stood outside the house with my parents on summer evenings it was to watch the hundreds of allied bombers streaming over our heads towards Germany.  At around dawn I would half wake to hear the steady drone as they returned.  We were not concerned then with the morality of bombing; all we knew was that the allies were hitting back, and we cheered the aircraft as they proceeded with their nightly task of laying waste whole German cities.  It is something that one cannot even begin to explain to a younger generation.

One sign that the war was turning in our favour was the arrival on the farm of Italian prisoners of war, drafted in to help with the harvest.  We had seen pictures of them being rounded up in their thousands, so we turned out to study them curiously. Expecting to see the gaunt remnant of a humiliated army, we were astonished to find a cheerful and healthy-looking bunch jumping down from the lorries, whistling at the landgirls and generally behaving like Eastenders down for the hop picking. I don't think the grown-ups entirely approved at first - it seemed wrong that soldiers should be quite so happy at being relieved of their military responsibilities - but they soon became accepted as a welcome addition to the labour force.

The prisoners wore drab denim overalls with large coloured patches sewn in on the back and the knees to make them instantly identifiable if they tried to escape. Not much chance of that.  None of them was sufficiently devoted to the memory of Mussolini to want to get out the vaulting horse, and the ceremony of counting at the beginning and end of the day was a bit of a joke, much enjoyed by contented Italians and British soldiers who knew they were on to a cushy number. So the prisoners revelled in the August sunshine, working to a noticeably Latin tempo as they stacked up the sheaves into stooks.  I soon became used to their company and they seemed to like having us bambinos around, although they exploited us shamelessly, cadging tea, sending us off for water or even dispatching us to the village shop to buy traditional British delicacies like individual fruit pies and Camp coffee.

Since they were not paid it may seem surprising they had money, but my father quickly discovered the reason when he was invited to buy a variety of objects that the prisoners had made from odd materials in their spare time. The guards turned a blind eye to these enterprises, and as a result I acquired a fine wooden model of a lorry, very welcome at a time when toys were difficult to come by. Later on, after the invasion of Europe, we had German prisoners on the farm, and although they were friendly enough there was never the same warm-hearted rapport.  How could there be?  The Italians knew that for their families the war was over, but the Germans were helplessly inactive while their country was being relentlessly bombed and threatened by invading armies.  Nevertheless I did strike up a brief friendship with one young man who knew a little English, and we would chat amiably as he worked.  Perhaps a very elderly German pensioner still has distant memories of an eight-year-old lad who spoke in a thick Sussex accent and brought him cold tea.

During 1943 the traffic of war had died down a little in our part of Sussex, but the spring of 1944 brought it back with a vengeance. It started with the commandeering of local mansions and the installation of small batches of military personnel. Then the identity cards, issued at the beginning of the war and largely unused since, had to be searched out and carried at all times. The bus taking us into Lewes for our weekly visit to my grandmother would stop at the top of Malling Hill while every passenger's card was checked.

We were never in any doubt that the invasion of France was imminent, but no-one was quite prepared for the influx of an international army. The generals' problem was obvious. A massive force of men, equipment and vehicles had to be transported across the Channel in successive waves.  They could not all be lined up at the docks, and in any case some attempt had to be made to conceal the size of the build-up.  As a result, the countryside behind the Channel ports became one giant marshalling area.  Engines would be heard in the night as units moved to their allotted places under cover of darkness, and we would wake to find our quiet lanes suddenly lined with tanks and lorries, parked close against the hedgerows and covered with branches. Staff cars sped along the roads.  I found it enthralling. A troop of bren gun carriers had taken up residence in the machinery shed at the farm, where their crews would sit around smoking and chatting, making the most of the brief interval of inactivity.  Like soldiers everywhere they took each day as it came, and to my young eyes they did not have the steely look of heroic resolve that they ought to have if the films were anything to go by, but I shared their lumpy rice pudding and felt part of the action.

There were other encounters too.  My grandmother's house in Lewes was directly opposite Southover Manor School, where the wealthy young ladies had been replaced by Canadian troops.  Bored and under tight restrictions, some of them got into the habit of popping across the road to relax in front of the fire and drink tea.  One sergeant in particular was a regular visitor, and my grandmother exchanged letters with him long after the war was over. Human contact of this kind gave a special significance to the coming event that was on everybody's mind.

May turned to June, and one afternoon I returned from school and ran off as usual to visit my friends in the barn. It was deserted, apart from an unserviceable bren gun carrier parked round the side.  I worried about this, but I don't think its absence affected the outcome of the war. On the following day I stood outside Mac Fisheries in Lewes High Street and heard over a radio General Eisenhower's official announcement of the invasion.  In the afternoon, outside my grandmother's house, we watched and waved as an interminable procession of tanks thundered along Southover High Street and away down the Newhaven road.  On the side of one of them a member of the crew had scrawled a radio catchphrase; "We go - we come back!"  My grandmother had memories of young men going off to fight in France. "Let's hope they do," she said.  And we went in for tea.

There was to be a sting in the tail.  Just when we thought it was all over and nobody took the blackout seriously any more we had to adjust to a new kind of nerve-jangling attack from the air. The V1 rocket was a very nasty weapon indeed. Not much bigger than a large bomb, these missiles burbled their way across the channel at a high speed and low altitude, their spluttering engines sounding like an unreliable lawnmower. They worked on a simple principle; with just enough fuel to get them from their base in Belgium to London they fell from the sky when their engines stopped. Officially we were not on their route, but their lack of an efficient guidance system ensured that they quite often wandered our way.  Although the rockets were quickly given the cosy name 'doodlebugs', this random targeting and the eerie feeling that the machines had a malignant life of their own generated a psychological effect quite out of proportion to their destructive capability. They could be heard and seen from a distance, and the strain of listening for the engine to stop could reduce whole crowds to hypnotised immobility. I once stood and watched a Spitfire explode a V1 in the air with machine gun fire, but the depressing fact was that defence against the rockets was unsystematic and chancy. They were fast enough to make pursuit difficult and presented a small target, and no pilot could afford to shoot at very close range and risk the results of a mid-air explosion.

Hitler's final fling certainly took the edge off the euphoria that followed the success of the invading armies, but victory in Europe was only a matter of time. When VE Day came in the spring of 1945 a children's 'treat' was organised on the Priory recreation ground in Lewes, with rather watery ice cream as the highlight, but what really marked the end of hostilities for us was the final parade through the streets of the town by the local Home Guard platoons. Corporal Garner marched proudly in their ranks, while I did my best to embarrass him by scampering along beside the parade trying to catch his eye.