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Shalom and Sheiks: 6 - Tonbridge School At War

John Powell has haunting shcool-day memories of wartime dramas and unsung bravery.

1939 saw the 'phoney war' start with little activity. We did duty at night, fire-watching, but in 1940 came the Battle of Britain. The flight path of the German Luftwaffe was over Kent and I recall events very vividly:

* Standing in the yard of Manor House, a group of us craning our necks to stare upwards towards the sound of the steady drone of German bombers, all in immaculate formations, heading towards London.

For one moment low clouds obscured them, but there they were again, droning steadily onwards: then the half-heard remarks of the others,
"Where are our fighters, for God's sake?"

"London's going to get plastered."

"They're heading for London all right."

"My God, there's nothing to stop the bastards."

"Hell, just look at them, hundreds of the sods...." and I felt a gut feeling of utter despair and dismay, to realise that my folks at home would be on the receiving end of it all and there was absolutely nothing that I could do about it.

* A group of us were standing outside the Grubber when we heard the sound of roaring engines and the rattle of gunfire. It was close, getting closer, rapidly - too damn close.

"LOOK OUT!" came the shouts. Then we saw them streaking across the playing fields behind theschool, at tree-top level, heading straight towards us, a German Dornier bomber with a Hurricane fighter on its tail in full chase, all guns blazing from both of them.

Suddenly they were straight overhead. The noise of their engines and the rattle of gunfire were deafening. Some boys threw themselves flat; I, and others, ducked involuntarily. Then they were gone in a flash.

We all stood looking at each other and asking the same inane question, "Did you see that?"

Some of the boys ran out onto the playing fields and picked up empty shell cases as souvenirs.

* Two of us were going to play squash and were threading our way through the concrete anti-tank traps outside the school when, once again, we heard the roar of engines and gunfire overhead. Looking up, to our dismay we saw a Spitfire fighter come spinning out of the clouds.

We watched, transfixed. Then there was the white puff of a parachute as the pilot bailed out, while his Spitfire spun away into the countryside. The pilot drifted downwards, slowly, towards the town of Hadlow. It was an incongruous situation: one person fighting for his life while two
schoolboys go off to play squash rather like switching TV channels from one to another.

* A Hurricane fighter, flying low over Manor House and heading north, does a slow 'victory roll': or was it? As it disappeared over the hill we heard the engine revved with a roar, followed by a loud explosion then silence. It crashed just off the London Road.

The following Sunday, we set off for the crash site but the RAF had cleaned up all the debris; alt that remained was the crater where it had crashed and exploded.

Jessy suddenly bent down and said, "Oh look, here's a bit of a knob or something."

We gathered round to look; we all saw it at once and Jessy threw it down quickly, for we saw, hanging from the knob, a small length of skin with a piece of flesh attached to it.

Shocked by the realisation of the tragedy, we departed in silence, thoroughly ashamed of our ghoulish curiosity and we hardly said a word all the way home.

* A Day Boy on his way to school stopped as a Spitfire came in low and, with engine spluttering, missing badly and billowing clouds of smoke, did a wheels-up belly-landing in a field near him. The boy ran across to the still-smoking aircraft and helped the dazed and shaken pilot out of and away from the plane. It was a brave act by the boy, which went unsung, for the smoking engine could well have burst into flames and exploded.

* Twitch comes back from a Sunday walk carrying a large piece of the fin from a bomb. Out in the countryside, flying low, a German bomber, again chased by a fighter, jettisoned its load of bombs as Twitch and another boy flung themselves flat.

* Later in the war, a V1 flying bomb was chased by a fighter and damaged. The bomb veered off course and headed straight for the school. The fighter pilot flew alongside the bomb and, with his wing-tip, flipped the wing of the bomb. The bomb banked downwards, missed the school and exploded behind it in an area called The Pantiles. Some flying! The pilot's quick action averted what would have been a terrible tragedy.

The pilot visited the area later for a souvenir; he was a Canadian teenager, barely 19 years old.

* Another V1 flying bomb was attacked by a fighter and, badly damaged flew over the school and continued on, wobbling from side to side as it went. The fighter, when clear of the town, gave it another burst; the bomb climbed and went into a half loop, then, upside down, headed back towards the school. The fighter pilot, no doubt scratching his helmet in bewilderment by now, closed in as the bomb suddenly turned sideways off its course, whereupon the pilot gave a final burst and it crashed in the countryside.

* Anti-aircraft guns were moved to the Tonbridge area to combat the V1 flying bombs. An unexploded shell crashed through the roof of Manor House, finishing up in the boiler room. The boys were on holiday: Manor House was empty.

*******

But then the V1 launching sites in Europe were put out of action and at last the dangers of war were over for the school. High-flying rockets, passed overhead towards London, but left Kent in peace. By that time we had all long since left Tonbridge School and were all in uniform.

My memories are mostly of the early war days, especially where two lists were placed on the notice board in 'Big School'; a list of those who had received decorations for bravery and, so tragically, another list of those who had paid the supreme sacrifice. The second list was the longer and there were always a number of boys standing in sober silence, looking at them. At the top of the decoration list was the name of Victoria Cross winner, Right Lieutenant E.J.B. Nicolson, who had remained in his blazing Spitfire and, badly burnt himself, had continued to engage the enemy.

Surprisingly, he was the only fighter pilot in the whole war to receive the highest award for bravery. From what we had seen of them, there should have been many more. Then tragedy struck again when his name appeared on the list of those who had lost their lives.

When I joined Manor House as a Novi, there were 45 boys in the House: of these, 42 served in the armed forces; 38 of them obtained commissions; 7 of them were killed in action. In the whole school, over 300 of them gave their lives in action and many were wounded. At that time, there were only 340 boys in the school, so, really, it is as though the second world war claimed the lives of a complete school complement.

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