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Archbishop Tenison's

Church of England High School

Archbishop Tenison's CE High School
Selborne Road

Chapter 7 -  The Realities of War

Compared with what was happening back in Croydon, Crowborough was relatively untouched by the physical aspects of the war. Nevertheless, we were not denied exposure to the air battles overhead. One day during the height of the Battle of Britain, I was returning to the Queens Road billet from a solitary visit to the Millpond when I became aware of the sounds of gunfire overhead and an unusually large amount of condensation trails in the sky. Later that day, we heard on the BBC news that an exceptionally large number of enemy aircraft had been shot down during the battle. Although the number was later shown to be very exaggerated, it did indeed mark the turning point of the war.

Debris from air warfare was to be found all over the southern parts of England. Crowborough had its share and we were able to collect cartridge cases and spent bullets from all the different sizes of weapons being fired overhead. The German bullets were copper sheathed and easily distinguished from the nickel covered Allied varieties. John Medcalf and his billet-buddy "Mitch" Mitchell, dug some well-preserved German small-calibre bullets from the lawn in front of the entrance to Craigmore Hall. The fact that they were relatively undamaged suggested that they were pretty well spent when they hit the ground. Not many 20mm shells were found in one piece and those that were, needed to be treated with great respect, as they were probably unexploded.

About 8 o'clock one morning, as I was leaving the billet on Crowborough Hill for school, the sound of unfamiliar aircraft engines above the low clouds caught my attention. Suddenly, a Dornier Do 215 descended from the murk a few miles south of the town and as I watched, the bomb doors opened. It dumped its cargo in the fields and scurried back into the protection of the cloud cover. Rumour had it that the only casualty was a cow. Considering the weather conditions, the crew were probably quite lost and just wanted to get back across the channel. I wonder if they made it.

On another occasion, as I was heading back to the same billet after school, There was the unmistakable rattle of machine guns and the roar of strained aero engines from the direction of Stone Cross. Very quickly, a sky full of 'planes appeared, headed by a Messerschmitt Me 110 just a few hundred feet above the ground. It was being pursued by 12 Hawker Hurricanes in a most undisciplined formation. They were attacking in line-astern and peeling off to loop back into another attack. The line-astern formation was typical of Polish squadrons flying with the R.A.F., so I assumed that that is what they were. They were relentless in pressing home their attack despite the danger of accidentally shooting down into friendly territory. The rear gunner of the German machine was firing back until the circus passed in front of me and headed northwest. His gun went silent at that point but not before one of the Hurricanes peeled off, leaving a white trail of vapour behind him - probably glycol from his radiator. The Messerschmitt was obviously not going to last long as bits and pieces were flying off in his wake. He managed to stay aloft for a few more miles before finally crashing.

But that was not the end of the story. Someone who had been watching the event from the High Street claimed that he had seen the crew of the doomed machine release a carrier pigeon as he passed over the town. The observer followed the flight of the alleged messenger until it landed on the roof of a building in the High Street and perched there, waiting for things to develop. Which they did. Despite the improbability of the foreign crew having time to write messages and launch a pigeon in the final stages of a dog fight, a shot-gunner was summoned and the poor bird duly dispatched. When the carcass was examined, there was of course no secret signal heading for the Fatherland. The poor bird was a local, who had the misfortune to take flight from the ruckus as the combatants passed by, and was a totally innocent bystander - or byflyer if you prefer. There were embarrassed faces over that and no one wanted to talk about it.

At the beginning of the war there was great fear that we would be subject to poison gas attacks. Gas masks were supposed to be carried everywhere but as things dragged on, the worries subsided somewhat and we became rather blasé about the whole business. The yellow, treated boards that had been placed at strategic places in the town, ready to change colour when subjected to chemical warfare, showed signs of deterioration to the extent that it is doubtful that they could have performed their function adequately if required to do so. But about a year or so after the outbreak of hostilities, the authorities decided that as issued, the gas masks would not provide protection against some gases. Consequently we were required to take our masks into appointed centres to have supplementary canisters attached to the existing ones. The civilian population was given the option of testing the masks in mobile chambers filled with tear gas. Cadets and probably the paramilitary organizations as well, did not have an option; testing was obligatory.

One reason that gas attacks did not materialize may have been that the Allies were evidently equipped to retaliate. When I was at Mrs. Mead's, a Hawker Hurricane flew low over the house one day with 12 nozzles protruding from the trailing edges of the wings. I suspected that they were gas jets but it was not until a very long time after the war that the Air Ministry admitted that it possessed aircraft so equipped.

The Home Guard had become a viable fighting force once it had been supplied with adequate equipment. They generally held manœuvres at night so that the effect of letting off their "Thunderflash" firecrackers would be most noticeable. Apart from the interruption of our sleep, Tenisonians were not affected by these activities.

Things in Croydon were a lot noisier however. The Harvey sisters, part of a small contingent of Tenison's Girls School that occupied separate premises in Craigmore Hall, had their house bombed. Shortly after that, at 10 o'clock of an October night in 1940, my home in Stafford Gardens was modified substantially by a bomb that landed at its back. The family was in the Anderson shelter at the time so they were not injured. The same could not be said for the house however. It was rendered uninhabitable until the following March, by which time it had been patched up with makeshift repairs. Half of the windows were re-glazed and the other half filled with sheet steel. That was the norm. I don't know how many others in our school may have been similarly inconvenienced.

© Archbishop Tenison's CE High School