presented by Wilkes Walton 36 and Frank Haslam '59'
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This talk is really about the school in the Second World War, but let us not forget to honour the Old Boys who died in the First World War.
Those who have used the main entrance to Beechurst will be familiar with this memorial.
Ann Jarman talked last year of her uncle CF Morbey who was killed at Monchy in 1917.
WWI names in detail
Much of this talk in based on what was in the school magazine, so let us begin at the beginning.
Life went on amid the preparations for war amid the rumours of war.
The image on the left, [included because George would be present] is of Wilkes Walton at the feet of George Dann, from the 1938 Hereward House team photo "We had purple triangles but no standard way of sewing them on, as you see." [laughter]
Sitting in the centre of the 1939 Sports Day Winners, wearing his thick black band County Colours vest, is John Norman. To the right of him is Cuthie Allen, a fine cricketer, and two along is Wilkes. [At the extreme right of the front row is Don Boyce, later a near neighbour of Frank's in Burwell: two to the left of John Norman is Arthur Bradshaw who like John was killed in action].
Mr BJA Neill, Headmaster since 1930, leaves to become Head of Farnborough GS, a much bigger school.
Mr LG Johnson - Bish/Jugger - who became Second Master in 1938, takes over as acting Head.
The Head’s post was advertised in The Times.
Presumably the new house for the Head that was 'about to be built on the School site' became an early casualty of the war.
Stanley Stubbs, the wartime head who we will meet shortly, had this to say many years later:
1939-45 were no ordinary years and their importance and impact on our lives gave an impression of a much longer period of time, which in fact demanded from all intensity of effort and endeavour owing to the challenges faced by everyone in this time of war.
It was nonetheless a most inspiring period and one felt a surge of purpose and brotherhood, both local and national, which was reflected in the close fellowship of school and town in our sphere of activities and the school played its part well.
The basic quality and variety of the life of the school has, in my experience, never changed, for Mr Armitage has often stated what I myself also had found … that the family atmosphere in work, effort and unity of purpose was one of its treasured possessions.
And it is against this essential background that everything should be seen.
Autumn 1939 magazine
Aerial view of the school and playing field (from the 1951 Soham Grammarian), 'taken by Mr HM Twiselton'.
Air Raid trenches were dug in the playing field along the tree line from the playing field entrance.
From the Autumn 1939 magazine: When we came back to School at the beginning of the term, we were faced with the task of completing our own air raid shelters. More than a fortnight before the actual beginning of this term the whole of the staff had returned, and they, together with as many members of the Upper School as they could conscript, set about the herculean task of mapping out the trenches.
When the rest of the School assembled it was found that there were some eight thousand sandbags to be built up in walls around the trenches. [Wilkes: " ... I reckon I held most of those 8,000 while they were filled."] The digging, filling, and building had to be done by members of the School alone, and the County Architect has seen and praised our efforts highly.
Wilkes: There was a trench for each form under the trees and they were L-shaped. There was an entrance at each end, with a plank to sit on. The walls were built up of sandbags and were roofed over with them. I can't recall that we ever used them in anger. There were practice evacuations and my pal Jeeps Brown recalls either Mr Thomas or Mr Ford timing us to see if we could do it faster.
Magazine: Another innovation in the School routine was the introduction at the beginning of the term of hot lunches on the School premises. We are sure that both the work and health of the School will vastly profit by them.
Wilkes: We used to have to bring sandwiches. I had fish and chips on Thursdays, in Ely, which was market day. It was a great help to have the school lunches.
The Spring 1940 magazine welcomed the new Headmaster, Mr Stanley Stubbs, MA, who arrived in January 1940 from Gresham’s School, Holt.
The house part of the School was opened with a view to creating a library and an art room.
An influenza epidemic had rather a bad effect upon school attendance, both boys and masters being affected by it. Owing to the lack of coal, to make matters even worse the School was in danger of being inadequately heated during the coldest of the weather. It was feared that it would have to close; but the thaw made transport easier and they were able to carry on.
Mr Riley and Mr Lait [Milky] were offered congratulations on their forthcoming marriages. Scouts formed a guard of honour for the Rileys.
The first of many lists of Old Boys in the Forces appeared.
The Old Boys Dinner was held at the Cutter Inn, Ely: in spite of war conditions, it was a merry gathering. The atmosphere, perhaps, as Mr Johnson observed later, was more than usually fuliginous [those taught by him will of course know what that means - laughter]
... "Old Boy George Dann (piano-accordion) was among those contributing to the gaiety of the evening."
George, got your squeeze-box this evening? [apparently not ... ]
Mr Stubbs: There were repeated collections of waste-pig food, paper, metal (including the old German trench mortar, a relic of the last war, railings, aluminium for Spitfires); Digging for Victory, harvesting and so on.
Then came the real war with the evacuation of Dunkirk, air raids and the beginning of the long hard slog with stricter rationing, shortages of all kinds and the black-out. Life became grimmer but no less determined in spirit - we felt with others that we were indeed “in the Final”!
After Dunkirk we really did expect invasion, probably begun by parachute drops, so we erected goal posts that Summer to prevent landings and among many other things planned suitable fields of fire for the rifles we expected to receive.
More staff were called up, often to be succeeded by temporary women teachers. Announcements of Old Boy casualties began. The effects of the war on our daily lives became more rigorous and all pervading. Yet the school work also went on vigorously and we all worked practically round the clock in our several ways.
I recall my first intimation of Dunkirk from an airman as I drove him from Ely station to Soham one night (another service we volunteered to do) - and also my astonishment when an Old Boy called at school one afternoon and told me he had been at Dunkirk that morning.
And during the still days and nights we could hear the distant guns.
The blitz followed with its alerts, warnings, and redoubled preparations. There were air raids on the area (Newmarket was bombed by day) and at night the drone of air activity. From the road by the water tower could be seen the flashes of the raids on London.
The new house system was introduced.
Old Boys in the Services visited the school; a Sgt Pilot gave a talk about bombing Berlin. [Frank: This was Bill Hawkes of Swaffham Prior, later to lose his life on my father’s squadron when his Lancaster bomber exploded over Hilversum in 1943, which is why I am proud to wear the badge of No.207 Squadron this evening.]
There were also lighter moments. One meeting was planning events and routes for a war effort march through the town and it was agreed generally to follow the procedures of Jubilee Day. An impasse in a heated discussion on what actually had been done was resolved when a member challenged What are you talking about - that wasn't at the Silver Jubilee in 1935.
No, of course not, was the reply. I'm talking about Queen Victoria's Jubilee!
773 SQUADRON (SOHAM) AIR TRAINING CORPS
Wilkes: On 10 Feb 1941 Mr Stubbs formed 773 Squadron of the ATC in two Flights, No.1 for the Town and No.2 for the School, open to boys over 15
Over a hundred boys joined, some cycling many miles from the Isle of Ely to attend parades and pre-Service training.
There were parades on Sunday mornings as well as week-days, starting with a service taken by the Rev PF Boughey, the vicar, who was also a Governor.
Stubbs was the CO and his officers were Mr Crouch and Mr Copland: drill and technical training was provided by serving Air Force members.
Bernard Collen lived in Stuntney and left Stuntney School at 14. He was great friends with Eddie Fretwell at Soham Grammar School and together they joined the ATC at Soham, Bernard in the Town Flight. He received a lot of encouragement from Stanley Stubbs and succeeded in his ATC exams.
Bernard was awarded the DFM for post war operations in Malaya, was commissioned and retired from the RAF in 1973 and now lives in Norfolk. He has always been grateful for the opportunity provided by the ATC and the consideration shown by Mr Stubbs.
His friend Eddie Fretwell was killed on 178 Squadron in August 1944 on a supply drop to the Polish Resistance.
Wilkes: I have been digging through some of my archives and came across my ATC Cadet's Gliding & Flying Log [see below]. It is signed by the CO, F/O S. Stubbs, OC No.773 ATC Squadron. My mother has signed it to give permission for me to fly ATC gliders and to be a passenger in Service aircraft.
Another artefact I found - I wasn't anticipating any problems tonight but just in case - was my Sergeant's stripes, I didn't want to pull rank on anybody ... [laughter].
images source: Walton
The school magazine reported: “On coming to School one morning, shortly after the 1941 Christmas holidays, we were surprised to see that an aeroplane had arrived during our absence. We were then invaded by a small section of the British Army, who had very kindly agreed to help us to unload it from its carrier. When the initial excitement had subsided the 'experts' set to work to identify the 'plane.
At last it was decided that the 'plane was a Hawker 'Hector' Army Co-operation aircraft, having a range of 400 miles at a cruising speed of 162 mph. Flight riggers from our parent station kindly came to assemble it.
[The Hawker Hector shown is of No.53 Squadron - not the one at SGS, nor is the one on the right which is included to give an idea of what it would have looked like standing on the playing field.]
The arrival of the 'plane caused quite a sensation in the School and members of the ATC were the envy of everyone else. The enthusiasm for the ATC which was aroused in the lower school is shown by the fact that a large number of juniors sent a petition to our CO, to ask if a junior 'ATC.' could be formed!
In spite of the intense cold, every member of the ATC had, within a very short time 'flown' Hector and put it through every conceivable type of manoeuvre, shooting down an amazing number of German planes in the process.
'Hector' is of especial interest to the flight mechanic members of the ATC, because they are now able to study their trade practically as well as theoretically.”
Cadets went on camps at an RAF Station – the magazine was not allowed to say where (it was Mildenhall), where they participated in Station life, including the NAAFI, sports, training, even being allowed in the Control Tower as aircraft departed on operations. The ATC officers were allowed to sit in on briefings for raids. Wilkes added that he recalls going back for an extra session on the bomb aiming trainer apparatus
Although inter-school rugger was limited, there was much ATC related soccer and athletics.
Wilkes: Cross-country at school is something we had usually when it was too wet or too frozen to play rugby. We'd shoot off across the Horse Fen, some people broke off for a quick drag (I don't know about that myself) [laughter] up as far as Wicken Church, then went down the road with our rugby boots on. It amazed me that the ATC really got into cross country running. We took part in February 1943 at Mildenhall, in a contest with ATC Squadrons from Newmarket, Mildenhall, Kings School, Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich.
The ATC Eastern Command Cross Country Championship photo is from the Cambridge Evening News, 22nd March 1944. Fred Hardiment is hidden behind the Starter. In there are Hitch, Pete Bedford, me (partially hiding Thorby), Ted Cox, Vincent Martin, and Doug Cranwell, all in our school rugby jerseys. 104 (Cambridge) Squadron ATC qualified for the Eastern Command championship by defeating 773 (Soham) Squadron ATC.
At School for the mechanically minded a Gipsy Engine was provided to work on.
In all about 100 ex-Cadets entered the Services, many in the RAF, finding that their ATC training stood them in good stead.
I am eternally grateful to Stanley Stubbs because when I joined up - we all volunteered for aircrew - he said "What about putting in for an RAF Short Course?". I got it, though I missed the October Course, which meant I had two terms back at school after the Higher School Certificate. I am sure he pulled a few strings because he got me into his old Cambridge college, Emmanuel. I went there for six months and did two days a week on the Air Squadron. It started me off on my academic career as well.
It was said that 15 cadets became aircrew by the end of the war, of whom 5 were commissioned. At least 2 were missing on operations.
773 Sqn (Soham) ATC Pages
The school was a friend to those more directly affected by the war.
The Home was in 37 St Mary's Street, Ely
For example Herman Kon.
His Polish Jewish family was forcibly expelled from Germany in 1938 and escaped to Britain. His parents took over the running of the Jewish Hostel for Boys in Ely. [He at the back of the table on the left, next to the candle]
He started school knowing hardly any English. He says: Mr Johnson taught me English and I taught him German. After a short time, I came top in English and the teacher told the class “It takes a bloody foreigner to teach you your language”. [laughter]
He did well in all subjects and passed his “School Certificate Exam” with Matriculation Exemption. He was made House Captain of Hereward House. He was good at athletics and was made captain of our rugby team. He was asked to represent the school in inter-school sports which were all held on Saturdays. Being an observant Jew, he had to refuse. He was told “You will not have to travel on your Sabbath as we will put you up in a hotel – all you have to do is run”. Regrettably he had to refuse.
He sends us best wishes for this evening.
Another refugee was Harry Singer. He was got out of Czechslovakia by train on what was called a Kindertransport, thanks to a British diplomat Nicholas Winton, later Sir Nicholas. Harry came to SGS, lodging with Mrs Banyard - where Mr Crouch lived. He was in the ATC and took part in plays. He won an essay competition on the importance of National Savings, writing with more motivation than perhaps most “For to save is to fight and as the Prime Minister said: "We shall fight on the beaches, on the plains and in the woods, we shall fight until all good men now under Nazi tyranny are free!" “So let us all save, and, however long the struggle may last, we shall win.”
Having been frustrated in cowing the British in 1940, Hitler's invasion of Russia in June 1941 was another critical world event. Not that you would know it from the school magazine - or indeed of America’s entry after Pearl Harbour later in the year.
Old boys wrote to the school and many visited. For example the athlete John Norman wrote from the USA about his training as a pilot in the USA, under the Arnold Scheme, this before the USA entered the war:
“As you see, I've landed in the New World and I am not at all disappointed. Our trip across the Atlantic was uneventful except for the two days of complete misery at the beginning, and the close proximity of the Bismarck later on ... Nothing more happened to us, however, and we docked after a week at sea, and that night, saw a lighted city for the first time in two years.”
In the Autumn Term of 1941 the departure of Mr Riley for war was recorded. He sent a letter to the Scouts;
You will be pleased, I have no doubt, to hear that your erstwhile tyrant is being properly put through the mill; his old bones and sinews being tortured with P.T.; while he spends his days on the barrack square forgetting which foot is his left, and trying to cope with an elusive rifle which will creep all round his neck and which weighs at least two tons. His evenings are spent "spitting and polishing."
The war will be over when Hitler knows how well I can do the slow march and when he sees the beauteous polish on my spare boots. However, I shall have done with infantry training in another fortnight, and shall begin training as a wireless operator with a view to a job inside a tank, or with an Artillery Regiment or some thing of the sort. In the Signals we never know what kind of a unit one will be posted to.
So much for myself. I hope you are all carrying on under Tommy's supervision, and keep the flag flying till I come home again. Carry on with the Morse; you will all be Signallers yourselves some day.
Best wishes to you all from your S.M. who would have liked to stay with you, but like many others has, begging your pardon, a more important job in hand.
Ministry of Information films were shown, such as Four Corners with Leslie Howard and from the USA came Bomber an American film about the building of a B-26 Marauder bomber. John Norman came to give a talk about his Air Force training.
Sub Lieut Bert Covill RNVR was awarded the British Empire Medal for "great and calculated courage" while in charge of the Anti Aircraft defences of a 6,000 ton collier. He swam back twice to the sinking ship to rescue comrades. He was also awarded the Royal Humane Society Medal for lifesaving and received his commission.
The lists began to grow of those injured, missing and prisoners of war. The full horrors facing those in Japanese hands were yet to emerge.
The school magazine was beginning to respond to the effect of paper shortages by doing without some pages.
Benjamin Britten performed at the school, with Peter Pears.
Mr Stubbs: Again I have to report that there are more boys in the School than ever before and our accommodation is taxed to the utmost. More candidates than ever before also sat for examinations. There were three candidates for the Cambridge Higher Certificate, thirty for the Cambridge School Certificate and two for the Isle of Ely Intermediate Scholarships and - a rare and fortuitous occurrence - every boy was successful!
To appreciate this in its proper perspective, it should be realised that every boy in the Upper V Form takes the Certificate examination whatever our estimate of his chances, and that Staff and boys take the fullest part in out of school activities and the many branches of wartime duties. I do want to stress that this result is in no way due to "cramming" - in fact, the still more important side of true education has been emphasised more than ever during the past year. It is rather the very pleasing result of liberal education and sound instruction.
The Staff is to be congratulated very heartily on these successes. In addition to normal school work, each member cheerfully plays his part in many duties, wartime and otherwise, in School and out of School, from wartime crops to aircraft recognition, from hotel management to clothing coupons, from rest centres to air navigation.
The School Dinners have passed well beyond the 'scheme' stage of three years ago and play an integral part in the general life. Almost every boy now has a well cooked and well served meal each day.
Taming of the Shrew - Wilkes: The cricket book shows me opening the innings (for the first time ever) on 25th July 1942; we were playing the Old Boys and we were batting second and I had to dash off (after flailing about for eight overs or so) to get changed for the performance. I can't recall if I managed to get my box off! [laughter]
You didn't have to have any acting ablility to be in the Taming of the Shrew, the main thing was that you weren't taking exams, and that included my old mate Norman Sneesby. We took two of the main roles. I have recently been in touch with Peter Nicholls, who was in the cast, who is in the same billet in Burwell as Stan Darby, who also took part.
I recall something Ann said last year, about her Dad [John Ford] going over to feed his chickens and so on. Why should that remind me of the Taming of the Shrew? Let me take you back to Act III, Scene 2 - I had to look it up:
BIONDELLO: Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old jerkin, a pair of old breeches thrice turned, a pair
of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled, another laced, ...
Mr Crouch dressed me up in all sorts of weird things, including one of Mr Ford's rubber boots - a subtle touch, not two, just one [laughter]. I don't know whether Ann still has those gumboots. If so, I think that they can be presented to the Old Vic.
From the Soham Grammarian ... For the Summer Shakespeare Play, this year "The Taming of the Shrew," we were again favoured with excellent weather for the two evening performances, very ably produced by Mr Crouch in the ideal setting of the School Lawn. The cast was confined to boys of the School, who gave a very successful and enjoyable entertainment to the many parents and friends who were able to come. A collection for the RAF Benevolent Fund amounted to twelve guineas.
All our other activities have been continued with keenness - the Scouts and their Camps, Salvage, Harvest work in the holidays by most boys, collections for good causes, help in local events, the School Magazine.
The Savings Group under Mr Hunt has almost doubled its last year's record result. It now numbers 120 members who saved just under £1,000 in the year [that’s about £24,000 in today’s money.]
Wilkes: I became the editor of the Autumn 1943 Magazine, only because Jeeps Brown had gone off to the Air Force. Yet more cuts in the magazine, single instead of double line spacing! When you think that the daily papers in those days were just four sheets.
As you may recall, I inherited the Grammarians bow-tie I am wearing from my old friend Norman Sneesby who died in March 2007. He and I were the only two from the 33 boys who started here in 1936 who lasted through to take the Higher School Certificate in July 1943. The Upper VIth was two people, Sneesby and me. We only just took the exam because we had signed on the dotted line the month before - the Call-Up age had eventually been brought down to 17y 3m. When I hear Dr Taylor say there are 200 staff here now, there were 200 boys in my day.
The other thing was the female teachers who came. On the 1937 photo I noticed how fearsome Mr Riley looked. In fact he and I got on quite well from when he was our Form Master in the second form, when we discovered that I had been born in a Yorkshire mining village a few miles away from the mining village where he was born. Then he went off to wreak havoc with Hitler and we got Miss Goodison for French, a charming lady. Sneesby and I thought that she was better doing French Romantic Literature than Mr Riley might have been! We had had Miss Franklin the year before.
Miss Goodison got Sneesby and I to write an article in French for the magazine, we had been to see a French play at Cambridge. I was reading it last week, it was amazing how good it was, Kate must have helped us.
That was the effect the war had on our careers - as the man once said we had greatness thrust upon us and it did us no harm.
Wilkes produced a Cricket score book for 1942-43, and talked about wartime matches and some of the personalities.
In the 21 games played in 1942 and 1943 in no innings was there a score over 100, which perhaps reflects the standard of the cricket and the standard of the pitches; in only one game was there a draw - because the other team had to catch their train!
One match was very strange. It was against the RAF Hospital, at the hospital, on a Friday evening, on a matting wicket, which we had never seen before, and it was 8-ball overs. We had a guest player, Steve White, our previous year's Captain who was on leave from his Army Short Course in Belfast. He got the first three batsmen out, and then their number 7 batsman came in, and there was something funny. We realised it wasn't a batsman, it was a batswoman. I think it was Eric Fordham who found out about this - well he was walking out with Steve White's sister Myrtle, and knew more about these things than we did [laughter]. I took Steve off, he was a windmill and I didn't want him rattling balls around the WAAF's earholes, or anywhere else for that matter. She stayed in with their Captain, they scored 88.
We were going great guns until their Captain came on to bowl. He bowled 7 overs, 3 maidens and took 5 wickets for 6 runs - Wing Commander Armstrong, who had played for Leicestershire before the war and was a leading light in Combined Services cricket.
Sgt Pilot JB Norman; 'Johnny' Norman will be long remembered for his prowess in the world of sport when he was here at school, and his record for the Mile at the March Inter-School Sports still stands. We offer our heartfelt sympathy to his parents; we mourn the loss of a man.
A pilot with 27 Squadron, he died on 17th May 1943, aged 23 and is buried in Bangladesh. The 16/17th May 1943 is usually remembered for the Raid by 617 Squadron on the German Dams.
On the 1937 photo [see extract above], standing behind Johnny is Ken Turner, also RAF, who died in 1944. On the same photo, is Edgar Reader, killed in 1943.
Soham Station: via Gwyn Murfet
Mr Stubbs: And so we come to the school's greatest test when our preparations became active service. On the night [early morning] of Friday, June 2nd, 1944 a train of over 50 waggons each loaded with some 44 x 500 lb bombs, en route for the East Coast, stopped to investigate a smoking axle in Soham station and a vast explosion occurred in two of the wagons. Two railwaymen were killed and others injured but mercifully civilian casualties were few and slight.
Wilkes: The bare facts are that early on Friday 2nd June a train of 51 open wagons containing 400 tons of US aircraft bombs, fuses and detonators loaded two days previously at Immingham Docks, was bound for Ipswich. It left March at 15 minutes after midnight and was approaching Soham Station when the driver noticed flames coming from the leading wagon. He brought the train to a halt about 100 yards from the station and instructed the fireman to uncouple the wagon.
They drew the wagon forward and had reached the station platform when the wagon containing ten tons of 500lb bombs exploded. Fireman Jim Nightall was killed instantly in the engine cab, and Signalman Frank Bridges died later that day in hospital. The Driver, Ben Gimbert, was blown off the footplate and was not expected to survive, but he recovered after 6 weeks in hospital.
Five other were detained in hospital, including the Station Master, Mr Oliver, who had been asleep in bed when his house was wrecked. Thirteen houses were destroyed and 36 others rendered uninhabitable. The Gas Works and gas holders were damaged.
Mr Stubbs: Over 750 houses were damaged, however, and the school, although damaged by blast and like the rest of Soham without gas supply became the Rest Centre as planned (this was another of the hats I wore) under the authority of the Regional Commissioner, Sir Will Spens.
We housed and provided for up to 250 people and workmen at a sitting, helped by the Queen's Messenger Service which erected field kitchens on the Lawn and we slept up to 100.
All services, local and national were involved and the Rest Centre ended its duties on Sunday afternoon, was cleaned up by staff and volunteers and school was resumed without a break on the Monday morning of June 5th - one day before D Day, with its tremendous air activity and exciting events.
Wilkes: There is a book on the subject - But For Such Men As These - words from the sermon given by the Vicar on the Sunday following the explosion - which was given to me by our old friend Richard Watts several years ago. There are acknowledgements in the front to Ann Jarman and to Pat and Les Seal who came here in 1932 [Les's wife was the daughter of the Station Master]:
"Mr Ford, the Biology and Chemistry master awoke in the belief, like many others, that this was a bombing from the air, inexplicably without a siren warning. As ARP Post Warden he pulled his trousers over his pyjamas and cycled down Clay Street over glass without getting a puncture, to join the helpers. For a few days he was apt to be known as 'Bluey' for the colour of those pyjamas showing below his trousers. There had to be moments to ease the strain."
[Last year in her talk on her father Ann Jarman née Ford recalled: "I remember it very well - the most enormous blast. My father leapt out of bed. He had blue pyjamas and he put his ARP uniform on top of them. He came into our bedroom and said he had to had to go and off he went on his bike. I was so embarrassed, because two inches of blue pyjamas protruded below his ARP navy-blue trousers. I thought he would never be able to live this down. I think he had more important things on his mind. I remember him saying he biked his way up to the station and the whole street was covered in glass, but he didn’t get a puncture."]
One of Fred Eden’s brothers, George, was a Soham Fire Brigade Runner during the incident. There are many stories the boys from Soham could tell.
The devastated cab of engine WD7337 of the 2-8-0 British Austerity heavy goods type and the tender wheels: via Gwyn Murfet
The crater was 66ft wide and 15ft deep; both running lines were destroyed for 120ft: via Gwyn Murfet
June 2nd 1944, 5pm. The crater has been filled (and with it the forensic evidence of what happened): via Gwyn Murfet
June 2nd 1944, 8pm - both tracks relaid with the help of 100 US Engineer troops: via Gwyn Murfet
Ben Gimbert GC, Buckingham Palace, 10 October 1944: via Gwyn Murfet
Jim Nightall was posthumously awarded the GC.
[ Official Report on Incident at Soham Station http://www.railwaysarchive.co.uk/documents/MoT_Soham1944.pdf ]
[Soham On-Line History http://www.soham.org.uk/history/trainexplosion.htm ]
Frank: I was sitting tonight opposite Ralph Dunham from my year. He said "I had an uncle who came here who was killed on D-Day". I said that I knew who it was.
Staff Sjt Duncan Wright who left in 1935 died on D-Day. His glider crashed killing the Senior Divisional Intelligence Officer and Duncan’s co-pilot.
Duncan and other survivors were apparently murdered after being taken prisoner.
Ralph told me that the family were first informed that his uncle was a POW and then that he was dead. As far as he knows, they were unaware that he was apparently murdered. It is not the only war crime of which a Soham Grammarian was a victim.
Autumn 1944 ... arrangements have been completed for a new block of pre-fabricated buildings to be started in the very near future. Donald Boud says that there was great excitement when holes began to be dug, he and a few others thought it might be a swimming pool. They were sadly disappointed.
This is a reminder of what the new huts - sorry, classrooms and dining hall and kitchens - looked like, taken in the 1980s:
Mr Stubbs: To all Old Boys and members of the Staff away on duty we send our warmest greetings and good wishes and assure them we are always glad to have their news. There is nothing we like better than such Common Room talk as "I see Smith minor's a Major and Smith major's a miner."
I wish to record our gratitude to Mr and Mrs Arthur Norman and family of Haddenham, who have very kindly founded a Trust Fund to provide prizes annually for the Cross Country Race in memory of their son, Sgt-Pilot John Norman, killed on active service last year. John consistently won this race when he was at School and was a fine all-round athlete and sportsman. His life and example we remember with pride, and we express our thanks for the gracious tribute to the School he loved so much.
Wilkes: I won the Norman Cup on my last day at school at the eighth attempt to win this race.
I don't know where the Cup is now, but I do have this miniature which was supplied, there's no writing on it, it has been on my mantlepiece and sideboard for 66 years in memory of one of my heroes.
Mr Stubbs: Games continue at a satisfactory standard in all branches, considering the many war-time difficulties and distractions, and the curtailment of travel for inter-School matches.
Indeed, the standard of Athletics proved to be the highest for many years, for from the Inter-Schools Meeting at March the team returned with the Junior Shield and three records, and finished second in the complete aggregate.
... Clubs and Societies had a new arrangement which gave additional time for their activities on wet half-holidays. The Scout Troop had increased numbers and enjoyed many meetings and a summer camp.
Mr Stubbs: Dramatics, if not attaining the standard of our Summer Plays on the lawn, are kept very much alive in the short Christmas House Plays;
the War Savings Group has brought its wartime total to over £14,000 – [that’s about a third of a million in today’s money];
harvest work was done by practically every boy in the School; collections for good causes have been made most generously;
the School Magazine is adequate though slim, and now has to be confined almost entirely to records of activities;
and the Library, though robbed temporarily of its fine room, is used extensively.
I must give a special word of praise to the garden, kitchen and secretarial staff for their production of over 200 dinners daily (not to mention cwts. of jam) with the present inadequate facilities.
Meanwhile, the School has been reorganised for a two-form entry, additional Staff have been appointed, and every inch of space is being utilised to the best advantage to cope with the greatly increased number of boys.
Soham Grammarian: Towards the end of the Spring term we were delighted to see Mr Riley, who was on a week's leave from the Rhine front.
[It is understood that Tom Riley was in one of the first British radio vehicles into Belsen Concentration Camp. He never really spoke to his family of his wartime experiences.]
Unfortunately, we are saying several sad "good-byes" this Summer term, first and foremost to the Headmaster. We heartily congratulate him on his new appointment as Headmaster of the Perse School, Cambridge, but we have, at least, the consolation that he will not be too far away from us.
Mr Stubbs later recalled some particular wartime episodes:
A vivid experience will surely be remembered by many. A crippled German bomber flew over the playing field where games were in progress and everyone stopped to watch as guns from a following old-type aircraft rat-tatted into it. Suddenly from high above a fighter swooped down to join battle but a waggle of wings indicated 'My bird, Sir' and the three aircraft passed from view. The bomber came down in a Fen and the remaining air crew were taken to Soham Police Station and ultimately collected by the RAF.
And then of course everyone had his bomb story. One night I was on duty with two members of the staff in Tanner's Lane when a bomb thundered near us like an express train travelling through a station, to land with an earth-shaking bump not far away. We had automatically hurled ourselves to the roadway and then thankfully and a little shamefacedly arose to count our bruises, scratches and torn clothing.
On another night we wardens were investigating a stick of bombs in the Shade area which had failed to explode. We had evacuated the houses we felt might be in danger, had discouraged those who wished to return for sundry personal belongings, such as teeth, medicines, food, etc. (which Hitler was not going to deprive them of!) and were smoking a contemplative cigarette, having made our report to H.Q. We did not know the number of bombs in the stick and suddenly discovered by torchlight that the end one was very near to where we were standing and we beat a hasty retreat. The bombs did not explode and were subsequently dug out by an Army Bomb Disposal Unit and taken away to everyone's great relief.
The doodlebug was a very unsocial type of bomb for its light was visible as it sped overhead and went out as it dipped to fall. It was naturally willed onwards as it passed! One night at the Warden's Post at the Fire Station our enquiries were answered by a report that one had dropped near Burwell. 'Has it done any damage?' 'Yes, indeed, old So and So has lost most of the apples in his orchard' was the indignant reply!
In so many ways we were fortunate to escape major damage in all our 'incidents'. Surrounded as we were by airfields we might well have suffered heavily but we were spectators of much and we anticipated and prepared for more and felt truly in the picture.
Frank: Fred Eden provided information on a number of incidents of aircraft colliding or crash landing near Soham. Very often it was a race between the local children and the authorities in getting to the scene first.
I asked a number of wartime old boys about the nitty gritty of life, carrying a gas mask, rationing, travel and so on. By the time they were coming here, these things were just part of everyday life “I suppose we did carry a gas mask, because you had to, but do you know I don’t really remember”.
The 15 year old Roger Sykes kept a diary: here are his entries around the time of the end of the war in Europe:
Fri 4th May 1945 - In the afternoon had games. Did not win anything. In junior tug team
Mon 7th - Might write to a pen friend in France. Germany’s total surrender. Everyone happy.
Tues 8th -VICTORY DAY Thanks giving. Holiday
Wed 9th - V+1 day Went for a walk with Scotty, and a long walk in the afternoon with Grandpa.
Thurs 10th - Went to school and had a Thanks Giving Service.
Wed 23rd - Technical Drawing and cricket
Fred Hockley's story
Fred was in the Fleet Air Arm aboard HMS Indefatigable off the coast of Japan, flying a Seafire fighter, the Navy version of the Spitfire.
On the morning of 15th August 1945 [which later became VJ Day] he and 6 others were flying as part of one of the last British sorties of WW2, to escort other aircraft attacking airfields in the Tokyo Bay area. Fred’s radio was not working. 12 Japanese Zero fighters attacked them. 7 were shot down. And then the Seafires realised Fred had gone down, but at least he was parachuting over land, not the sea.
He was well treated. The CO of the unit holding him listened to and the noon broadcast by the Emperor announcing that the war was over. HQ was phoned to ask what to was to be done with the airman. "You are to finish him in the mountains tonight".
And so that night Fred was lead up into the mountains, forced to stand blindfolded, hands bound, by a hastily dug hole. He was shot several times and finished off with a sword. It was nine hours after the Emperor’s broadcast.
Despite attempts to hide the crime, eventually the truth came out because one Japanese officer refused to keep silent. Fred’s murderers met justice. He is buried in Yokohama War Cemetery.
50 years later the British officer who prosecuted the Japanese in Fred’s case began putting an annual message in the Daily Telegraph to draw attention to this tragedy. In 1999 surviving relatives of Fred tracked him down and for the first time learned the appalling story of Fred's death.
Very quickly here is a refresher on some of the wartime staff:
There were others who came and went quite quickly. Some of the ladies, one of whom at least who was a ‘dollybird’ ["Miss Margaret Lawson" called out an admirer], did a great job as did some of the men, especially the local curate Rev TV Hurdle who taught maths.
Stanley Stubbs went to the Perse as Head, retiring after 24 years in 1969 having turned that school around. He never lost his affection for this school. It was said that he was selected for the Perse because of what he had achieved here.
Edward Armitage, fresh from a senior role in Radio Technology and Training with the Services, replaced him in Autumn 1945. He was perhaps fortunate to be able to bring his strengths to build on what Mr Stubbs and his staff had achieved.
On Thursday, June 6th, a Speech Day atmosphere crept into the school for the second time this year.
The occasion was the ceremony of distributing certificates from the King, congratulating all school children on playing their part so nobly and stoically throughout the war years.
WWII Book of Remembrance
On Speech Day 18th July 1952 the War Memorial Gates were dedicated. They stood at the entrance to the playing field. Now they are half-way down the old drive.
SGS WWII Roll with links to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database
We stood to observe a minute’s silence to honour those who "gave their today for our tomorrow".
Wilkes then read Binyon's words:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Response by all: We will remember them.
Please look at these SGS School Photos to see if you can add names to them. One or more may include those who died:
Fully detailed account from the Soham Grammarian school magazines of the wartime years
see also Alan Diver's wartime recollections
back to 2010 Dinner
images: from SG archive or Haslam, unless otherwise stated
If you have WWII memories of Soham Grammar School, please contact the editor.
page created 6 Oct 2010: last updated 17 Oct 11