17 April 2013

Doodlebug Days

We recently received the following from one of our members who grew up in Forest Hill. If you have any childhood memories you would like to share, please email email@foresthillsociety.com

I was fifteen years old, a schoolboy in South London, and about to sit my General Schools Exams. It was late June, and V1s had been dropping on London for a couple of weeks. The school - The South London Emergency Secondary School - which operated in the buildings of Alleyn's School, Dulwich, which had been evacuated to Rossall School at Fleetwood, Lancashire - had been closed down because of the flying bombs, and we fifth formers, who were just finishing our secondary school years, were only in the school because we needed to take our exams.

The exams were held in our form room, which was on the second floor. It had big windows, and nothing much in the way of blast protection. Before each exam, we were instructed to continue to work even after an air raid warning sounded; should a doodlebug be heard approaching, we would be instructed when to duck under our desks and wait for it to - we hoped - pass us by.

The exams stretched over several days. Each day without fail the sirens would go, and each day there would be several occasions when we'd hear the two-stroke drone of a V1 heading in our direction. The invigilating master would give the signal, and under our desks we went. We were too preoccupied in praying that the buzzbombs would keep going, to have time to exchange notes on how we were doing with the English Literature or Latin paper, and mercifully - for us at any rate - they all did, though a few crashed close enough for us to feel the room shake.

One of my vivid memories is of our English teacher, one William Hutt, whose nickname was 'Polly'. He was about six foot three, with straggly hair and a shaggy moustache which gave him a very lugubrious expression. He was also a brilliant teacher, and cultivated in me a love of the works of Hugh Walpole, Tennyson and Matthew Arnold which has stayed with me to this day. He was our invigilator for several exams: when the first sounds of a doodlebug were heard, he would stand up, slowly and deliberately, extend a very long forefinger toward us and then downwards, with the admonition "Down!". Down under our desks we went. Polly, meanwhile, would step to the side of his desk away from the windows, and lower himself down so that his back was against the desk, with his legs stretching out for what seemed like yards and yards, toward the classroom door. This exercise he somehow completed with his hands in his pockets.

Once Hitler's latest unwanted present had buzzed by. Polly would elevate himself, and extend the imperious pinkie toward us and upwards. "Up!!", he'd say, and up we'd get, and on we'd go with our exams. His whole manner was so calm and reassuring, that it made this bizarre routine seem perfectly normal. I don't recall that we were given any extra time to compensate for these interruptions. I do remember that some of us took the trouble to learn the French words for things like "air raid", "siren" and "bomb", in case they came in handy during our oral French exam, but as luck would have it, they took place without an air raid to disturb our syntax.

And so the days passed, the exams finished and we ended our school years with no graduation ceremonies, no farewell parties, but just quick goodbyes. I heard later that one of our number who had taken the exam with us, was later killed by a flying bomb on his home, but I suppose that that was the law of averages catching up with us. He had, I remember, carved a beautiful model doodlebug out of balsawood: maybe that was one graven image too many.

Studying for the exams hadn't been made easier for any of us by the advent of the V1s. I personally was a Civil Defence messenger, and was on duty many nights and weekends leading up to and during the exam period. On Friday June, 23rd 1944 my father, my uncle and I were standing outside our house watching the bombs coming over, and when one of the horrid things not only seemed to be coming straight overhead, but its engine suddenly cut out, the three of us tore down the basement steps and skidded along the hall on top of one another, as the earth shook and our ears were shattered by the sound of the explosion. The bomb had fallen on Forest Hill Station, three hundred yards down the road, and we were soon down there helping dazed victims off the platforms, and carrying stretchers – of the dead and the living -away from the scene to waiting ambulances. Three people were killed, and 18 injured.

Many, many years later, I learned that the authorities had calculated, after about a month of flying bomb attacks, that the 'ground zero' aiming point for the bombs had been Tower Bridge, but in fact a plot of where the bombs had all fallen to date put the real 'ground zero' right on my school, in the Alleyn's school buildings in Dulwich! And not only that, but those same authorities went to great lengths to try to convince the Germans that their bombs were in fact falling where they were supposed to - so that, by their keeping the same distance settings, the bombs would fall short of Central London, and thereby cause less loss of life. Somehow I'm glad I didn't know that at the time!

Pip Wedge

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