War and Evecuation
People can usually remember where they were when an item of world-changing news breaks, and I am no exception. We were on our annual family vacation at a holiday camp in Kent, near the symbolic white cliffs of Dover, While I and my sister were playing with our new-found holiday friends our parents were listening anxiously to BBC news bulletins assessing the likelihood of war.
People of our parents' age-group knew war from experience; some had even lived through air-raids on London by the German zeppelins during the 1914-18 conflict. Our prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, had thought he had made a deal with Adolf Hitler which would avoid war. It now became increasingly clear, as German troops crossed the border into Poland, that he had been mistaken. And on one bright morning towards the end of our blissful fortnight at the holiday camp I noticed people gathering round radios listening anxiously, and heard the fateful words:'. .. consequently this country is at war with Germany'. Fateful words which changed our lives. Immediately plans were made for us all to return home, which we did the following day. Gas masks which had been issued some time previously were got out and prepared for use, blackout curtains were rigged hastily to avoid tell-tale light patterns for navigational use by enemy bombers, air-raid wardens braced themselves to assist during raids, hospitals opened special casualty wards.
And nothing happened. The 'phoney war' - the period in which neither the British nor the German forces facing each other on the Franco-German border waged war in any way that affected basic lifestyles in the British Isles-was on. Nevertheless, knowing what might happen, the government decreed that the plan for the evacuation of British schoolchildren from cities considered vulnerable to air attack should go ahead immediately. And that of course included London. And London of course included me.
And so on a duly appointed morning, with a small suitcase packed with the barest necessities and a gas mask in a cardboard box slung across my shoulder, I reported with hundreds of others to the railway station -for an unknown destination. My mother waved me a tearful farewell and we were off.
In London we changed trains, then streamed off anew in a different direction, stopping eventually in a small market town, Ampthill in rural Bedfordshire. Eventually we were distributed around the surrounding Countryside and allotted accommodation in houses and cottages in a number of villages and their outskirts. I was in a little place called Lidlington, the guest of an elderly couple. Their five-year old grandson lived with them - l: never found out what had happened to the boy's parents - and for a while he and I were room-mates, in a cottage with one toilet (at the bottom of the garden) and one source of running water (the kitchen tap).
Our lessons continued sporadically and somewhat chaotically in the village hall, or the church, or anywhere that could be grabbed for use by our harassed teachers. But we were at the very most half-operational during those times, with no equipment and no proper school premises to work from. Moreover, nothing whatsoever was happening in London, other than food rationing, to upset normal everyday life. Yet the schools were empty.
It was not surprising then, that after a month or so many youngsters, including me, started to drift back to their London homes. The scheme had never been compulsory, and the lack of war activity made evacuation seem pointless. But hardly had I got accustomed to my own cosy bed (instead of the straw-filled mattress of my digs) and re-established myself as a member of the family when the war began in earnest. The Nazi war machine overran Holland, Belgium and finally France, the British army was driven into the sea and ( what was left of it) back to England, and the enemy took up positions only twenty-odd miles away from Dover and began to shell our hitherto unassailable island.
And the air-raids on London started. Quickly we were redispatched to the safer areas, parting from our parents amid hasty and sometimes emotional farewells and leaving them to face the music in a beleaguered - and later badly battered - city.
The Battle of Britain and the severe bombing of London in 1940 and 1941 came and went, as did other attacks during the course of the war. I was sent first to Colchester, where the Monoux shared premises with the city's grammar school, an amazing choice for a refuge, since Colchester itself was a potential and indeed likely target - it was in fact a garrison city. We were eventually moved on to Leominster in Herefordshire, where we adopted a similar pattern of school-sharing with the grammar-school boys.
Life in Leominster had its interests. One of my hosts was a railway signalman, and we lived in a railway-owned cottage by the line itself at a place called Ford Bridge, just outside the town. I spent hours in the signal-box, helping to pull the enormous levers that manually operated the wires connected by hundreds of pulleys to the 'semaphore' signals themselves, as the express steam-trains roared through, belching their smoke in all directions. Occasionally I was allowed to pass on a bell signal to the next signal-box, or even to enter into the log-book (with a nibbed pen which was periodically dipped into an ancient inkwell) the time of a passing train.
But during the next lull in the London air attacks homesickness got the better of me once more, and I sent a telegram to my parents. 'Coming home on next available train', it read, and none of their pleas could persuade me to do otherwise. 'If you're going to be blown to bits I'd rather be blown to bits with you', was one of my first remarks as I presented myself on the doorstep. So from now on all of us Dankworths were in this together.
In the event, my return to the battle zone turned out to be a good move. Schools had been reorganised, and about one in three was open again. Monoux was not among them, though, and my educational activities were relocated to the nearby Leyton County High School for Boys - I was a 'school guest' yet again. It meant a long bike ride to school, but at least my daily life returned to one approaching peace-time normality. The war was not by any means over at this stage - and it was to have a sting in its tail that was to surprise us all - but the Germans were doing badly on the Russian front, and air-raids had virtually stopped. As for an invasion of Britain, that seemed almost impossible now, since Britain was jampacked with US forces, armed to the teeth and preparing to invade Europe.
And then-joy of joys-the Monoux reopened, and all its evacuees, staff and pupils returned to the unscathed building and proceeded to establish anew all the school traditions of good education. I was by this time ready to join the sixth form, the five-year course having finished, and this I duly did. .
Things started well enough, and without a doubt I had the best of intentions. When the war appeared all but over, however, a new factor came into our lives. First came the pilotless plane bombs known as Vls; they caused major disruption and considerable loss of property and life. Moreover, they were bad for morale, since those that got through the cordon to the inner-London area were extremely visible (during daylight anyway) and quite frightening at times. Much less effective in this respect were their successors the V2s, quite simply because nothing could be done about them at all. There was no way of predicting the arrival of these explosive rockets, with the result that the only possible course of action for us Londoners was to go about our business pretending that no such thing as a VZ existed. It was essential that you adopted a philosophy about the thing- if it had your name on it then it was going to get you, and if it got you, you wouldn't know much about it anyway!
Such events led surprisingly to a feeling of normality in 1944 in London, which, in spite of the Vls and V2s, continued to function. At this point came the event that cast the die for my lifetime. I discovered jazz.
It had been all right when I left the house five minutes earlier, but now it was beginning to drop down quite thick and fast - I could hear the tell-tale sounds on the rooftops around me. I reluctantly realised that it was time to shelter in someone's front porch until things eased off a bit. I didn't want to be late for the jazz record night at the youth club, but such conditions didn't usually last too long. This current shower, and the thundery sounds that accompanied it. I knew from experience would be followed by a lull which would probably last long enough for me to reach my destination in comfort and without too much of a hurry.
The downpour was likely to inflict far more discomfort than a soaking, however. What was in progress was not a rainstorm but an air-raid. On nights like this one, when the sirens had wailed their baleful warning of an impending raid, life frequently went on as if nothing had happened. It never occurred to anybody of my age that there was any danger involved in walking the blackout streets of the eastern suburbs of London while the enemy planes prowled the skies immediately above. The tinkling of falling metal sounded deceptively harmless for something so lethal. Funnily enough, it wasn't the Nazis that were causing the shower of unpleasant materials to descend from the clouds; it was the shrapnel from our own anti-aircraft guns that forced me to take shelter.
But the object of the journey - to compare notes with other young jazz buffs on the merits of Louis Armstrong's Weatherbird or Duke Ellington's Harlem Airshaft- was uppermost in my mind. There was absolutely no question about the wisdom of the whole expedition: the risk involved in getting there was well worth it.