World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                          Hugh Smylie 

Memories of Evacuation in WW2

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Hugh Smyllie
Location of story: South London, Hertford, & Worthing, England
Background to story: Civilian



Hugh Smyllie

Plans for evacuation must have been announced in 1938 because I distinctly recall my fright at the prospect of leaving home followed by relief when Chamberlain signed the Munich pact in September of that year. One year later, the idea of evacuation did not seem to bother me at all. All boys and teachers of our South London Grammar School were packed into a special train whose destination was Worthing. There. we were met on the platform by local worthy citizens who gave each of us a carrier bag containing some snacks and a bar of chocolate. We were split into small groups and set off on foot, led by one of the worthies, to find a billet. Next morning the school assembled somewhere in the open air. The headmaster's opening words were "stand in front all boys who have not had breakfast". I was one of them and was duly found another billet that was a bit more orientated to feeding schoolboys but their extramural activities were a bit shady. I eventually found a super billet where there was a daily help called Flora who served me with afternoon tea on a tray when I came home from school. Clearly this was too good to last, Adolf Hitler had other plans. Who would have dreamed that, within a year of the outbreak of hostilities, the German army would have reached the Channel coast and be within gunshot of the evacuees.

Once more the whole school boarded a special train destined, this time, for Hertford - the county town itself. To begin with two of us were billeted in a three bed roomed house where the young mother couldn't really cope with two lads entering adolescence. I moved to a very satisfactory home where I stayed for the rest of the war.

Our school shared premises with Hertford Grammar School. We also had the use of a large house nearby. It had a fairly large garden that was duly cultivated for vegetables by the boys under the watchful eye of the headmaster. In retrospect, we were very fortunate in having such a dedicated, able, no-nonsense Head. He kept a fairly large school together throughout the whole of the war and spared no effort to maintain academic standards despite losing some of the younger teachers to the forces. He encouraged his pupils to do their bit for the war effort by digging for victory, by helping on local farms and doing forestry at week-ends for four pence ha'penny an hour (2p approx). Adding this bounty to my pocket money, I sold my staid old Raleigh bike and bought, second hand, a racer with drop handlebars, aluminium frame, fixed wheel and only one brake located on the front wheel. This dream machine saw me through grammar school and medical school and was eventually stolen from the bike shed at the hospital where I did my first House jobs. Throughout my stay in Hertford I frequently cycled home to Streatham Hill in South London, about 30 miles each way, for the week-end. Admittedly this exposed me to air raids But it was nice to see my parents and my mother liked to check and wash my clothes.

As most of the air raids were at night, my parents decided to bring their bed downstairs to what they called the drawing room, away from the window, with a canopy of corrugated iron over it. This was instead of an Anderson shelter in the back garden. Other than this and the blackout, they made few changes to their way of life. Every summer I would join them for their annual holiday, away from their favoured South coast beaches, somewhere near a golf course in Surrey or Kent. In 1941 we found ourselves in the centre of Guildford when the air raid siren sounded. We thought to shelter in a shop doorway, surrounded by plate glass, and stood there riveted by the spectacle of the Battle of Britain being fought out in the clear blue sky above us. Three years later, we found ourselves walking on the North Downs when a V 1 (doodlebug) flew over, 200 feet above our heads, hotly pursued by a Spitfire trying to shoot it down. Doodlebugs were, in my opinion, worse than air raids, land mines by parachute and V2's. They caused moments of trepidation when their noisy engine cut out and you waited for the explosion not knowing where it would be. Worse still they had a very sensitive detonator so that the effects of the blast would cause a greater area of damage. My worst doodlebug experience was at harvest camp, under canvas, in rural Hertfordshire. One evening shortly after we had settled into our sleeping bags we heard the unmistakable roar of a doodlebug. Worse still our tents were illuminated by its rocket glare. Finally, its engine cut out creating a fearful silence which was immediately broken by the voice of the camp master calling out "Its OK boys" followed by a bang as it dived harmlessly onto a field some distance away.

V2s came later in the war. One or two fell out of the sky near Hertford but caused little damage. They were recognised by their double bang. We understood that the first bang was due to the rocket passing through the sound barrier the second, was the explosion of its considerable payload on impact. One morning in 1944 I was sitting with other boys attending a lesson on physical chemistry which, suddenly, came to life with a single bang. Framed by the classroom window we saw a V2 explode in mid air, presumably as it broke the sound barrier.

The school required all its boys to join the Cadet Force. I was an enthusiastic cadet to begin with but became less so as I approached higher school certificate. There were, no doubt, many reasons for this but one off putting episode comes to mind. A special parade was held in a local disused quarry where the cadets were to witness manoeuvres by the army from the town barracks. We were crowded on top of a small knoll to observe a smoke screen being laid with mortar smoke bombs. One of their officers stood with us to commentate. The target was 100 yards away and we duly saw some smoke arising in that general direction. Suddenly the officer shouted, "look up" as a mortar bomb, weighing several pounds, descended towards the top of the knoll. The crowd parted and the mortar fell harmlessly to earth, its smoke, if nothing else, brought a premature end to the demo.

Not far from Hertford Grammar School, located in a rambling old house, was the H.Q. of the county Civil Defence. Schoolboy volunteers, including me, were given a perfunctory training in riding a motorcycle to act as despatch riders for the civil defence. The idea was that, should telephonic communications break down, we should take messages around the county. We took it in turns to be on duty, which would not normally interrupt our schooling but we had to spend our duty evening and night at the HQ. In the evenings and weekends we would be sent on practise runs to other towns in Hertfordshire. To my recollection about half of these practises would fail due to the bike conking out en route. If we couldn't get it started again we would phone HQ who would arrange for a pick up for our bike and us. Thank goodness the phones never failed. At the end of the war I received a letter of thanks for my services from the Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire-no less.

Fortunately schoolboys are a healthy section of the population although there are inevitable exceptions. I cannot recall any formal arrangements for dealing with the health problems of evacuees except that we did have occasional dental checks. A small caravan would be parked at the school for this purpose. It contained the necessary equipment for the dentist to pursue his profession but I recall that he had to pedal like mad to get the drill to turn fast enough. Now and again it would jam, usually with the drill bit stuck in the tooth. On the medical side I attended a GP's surgery one morning because I had woken up with pain in my right lower abdomen. It was not severe but we all knew about appendicitis so I thought it best to see the doctor. The waiting room was packed when I arrived, but, when I told the receptionist my symptom, everyone looked very concerned and I was ushered to the front of the queue. After examining me the doctor advised that it was not appendicitis and discharged me. I therefore proceeded to school. On learning why I was late some teachers felt that perhaps the examination should be repeated and one of them, who taught French, got me to lie on a table so that he could examine my abdomen. His opinion coincided with that of the doctor so I was allowed to resume my studies.

The end of the war coincided with sitting my Higher School exams. As far as I can remember, the school's move back to its undamaged premises in South London was a piecemeal affair. I do not remember any train journey like the one that evacuated us from London. Once our exams were over we left our billets and went back home. I was living in London on VE day when my school friend and I walked from Kennington Oval to Trafalgar Square to join the celebrations.

Presumably evacuation must have preserved many young lives, my own included. Did it do any harm? I cannot recall any problems that could be attributed to it. On the positive side, my parents had peace of mind that I was out of London. My "billet mum" had the dubious benefit of my company while her own son was away in the RAF. I achieved a good result from my education and learned about farming and gained a love of the countryside - experiences not easily acquired in the metropolis