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U3A Writing: “The Weekly Review”

...I had spent many nights with my parents and sister in the dark, damp Anderson shelter dug into the ground in our back garden. It was routine to hear bombs fall (we knew by the whistling effect). The tinkling of shrapnel from our anti-aircraft fire was commonplace. We’d emerge bleary-eyed in the morning when the raids ceased, my father to go to work and we children to school...

Dick Dyerson brings this vivid account of his boyhood during the war years.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 I was due to take my place at Aske’s secondary school. Most schools had emergency plans in place to evacuate their pupils away from London and the anticipated danger from enemy bombing. Some parents didn’t want to send their children into the country but to keep them at home in the hope that the dreaded bombing raids would not materialise. The London County Council had determined which schools would be kept open for this purpose. The school that I attended was known as the South East London Emergency Secondary School for boys – SELESS for short. It was my destiny never to attend my chosen school Aske’s.

Like many children I was evacuated immediately but after a few months of unexpected quiet I, like many other children, was brought home. Aske’s school had already been evacuated to the country so I was enrolled at SELESS, the emergency secondary school where boys from some half dozen or more schools were already in place. We were housed in the Colfe’s grammar school building at Lewisham. Our only distinguishing feature were the caps we wore from our original and varied schools. It wasn’t easy for our teachers to instil allegiance to the school since we felt like refugees. We duly took advantage of the situation.

When in late 1940 Germany’s ‘Blitzkrieg’ campaign started in earnest many of us were quickly whisked away again by our parents to the country. I had spent many nights with my parents and sister in the dark, damp Anderson shelter dug into the ground in our back garden. It was routine to hear bombs fall (we knew by the whistling effect). The tinkling of shrapnel from our anti-aircraft fire was commonplace. We’d emerge bleary-eyed in the morning when the raids ceased, my father to go to work and we children to school.

Many times on the journey by bus or tram to school the air-raid siren sounded. It was the signal for all transport to stop and we were shepherded to street shelters. Often the Headmaster would announce at morning prayers the names of schoolboys who had been killed in overnight bombing.

This was the period when France had fallen, Britain had won air superiority and the anticipated invasion did not take place. A year or more later it was considered safe to return once again to London. Back at our emergency school the mood was buoyant, we were all intensely proud of ‘The Few’, the RAF fighter pilots who had inspired Churchill’s famous speech “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few”. As schoolboys we were buoyed up with the realisation that we, too, might soon be old enough to ‘join up’.

Now fourteen years of age, I was in the third form and in this spirit ‘The Weekly Review’ was born and circulated solely to members of the form. Not surprisingly, I think we all felt an allegiance to our form which we couldn’t foster for the school. Many of us had joined the Armed Forces cadet movements, overcoming the formality of a minimum joining age of fifteen. My choice was the Air Training Corps – I couldn’t wait to be a Spitfire fighter pilot. This certainly appears evident in the magazine where this predilection is interwoven in the contents. Not every reader shared my enthusiasm as becomes obvious in later issues.

Other form magazines were also planned and the stance adopted by ‘The Weekly Review’ was clearly influenced by the national newspapers: “We’re the best”, “Largest circulation” and, by the fourth issue, even a front page story diarising our history. At this distance it looks frightfully pompous but was then of course typical schoolboy fun. Other boys wrote specific pieces and all contributions were collated into one single copy. This was ‘loaned’ to boys on payment of one penny. Other co-operative boys shielded this precious copy from those would-be readers who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. All monies were donated to the Red Cross and the absolute conviction of our efforts and intentions are self evident.

“The Weekly Review” published just nine issues and at the end of that term in July 1942 ceased to exist. This probably reflects the temporary nature of many of our interests at that time. I would have moved into the Fourth form and by then I was working part-time after school at the Connaught Rooms and had learned to type (as the last issues attest.).

My parents had also passed to me the responsibility of looking after our two chickens that had been bought as chicks to ensure we would be regularly supplied with eggs. I became an avid reader of ‘Poultry Farmer’ albeit I accidentally trod on the first chick and we sold the remaining chick that had so far refused to lay the promised eggs. Naturally the precious chicken did so once a more experienced neighbour took charge.

The Air Training Corps was absorbing most of my time since I’d now learned to throw the mace and, as drum-major proudly led the massed bands of Lewisham youth movements on fund-gathering marches. The national mood encouraged anything and everything to help win the war. More excitingly I spent a week with my ATC squadron at Biggin Hill aerodrome in that hot summer. Sitting lazily in front of their briefing huts I watched the fighter pilots scramble when warnings of enemy sightings were made over the loudspeakers. One of the French pilots was designated to take each of us for a short flight in a Tiger Moth. When my turn came I was strapped in the front open cockpit. We rattled so quickly over the grass field, turning fast enough to drag the lower wing tip along the ground that I’m sure he thought he was still piloting his Spitfire. At a thousand feet he signalled that I was to take over the controls.

In 1944 I sat for the Matriculation examination. That was the year of the invasion that would lead to the defeat of enemy forces. It was also the time when Germany fought back with the introduction of the ‘Flying Bomb’, a pilotless ‘plane’ that indiscriminately targeted London. It was soon followed by the V2, the first rocket propelled bomb that silently fell on many built-up areas in London.

After the first week of the examination we returned to the School only to find that it had been destroyed at the weekend by a flying bomb. We were instructed to go home and await instructions on where we were to resume the examination.. This gave some enterprising boys an opportunity to try to determine the answers by asking boys from other schools who’d already sat the remaining exams. Such was the fragility of maintaining some semblance of normality.

In my own case I managed to break my leg in a bicycle accident. I was later marked as ‘retired from examination’. The war was shortly over. By the time I was called up for National Service flying crew were no longer required. I elected to join the Army. The short publishing experience however served me well and I subsequently made publishing my career.

Today few of those secondary and grammar schools exist. Although the school building of Colfe’s was so badly bombed, the school itself survived in buildings by the old playing fields. Today it is a thriving and magnificent school of some 1,000 pupils, both boys and girls from ages as little as three years to eighteen years of age.


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