Chapter 6 (1938-1939)

Leaving School

That September, after the Munich Crisis, we returned to school as Fifth-Formers, preparing to take our Schools Certificate examination in the following June. We realised we were almost men by then. Our voices had broken and adults had strangely become the same size as ourselves. The new term's boys, awed by their metamorphosis into a new life, were looked down upon with tolerance rather than as contemptible little weeds. We read widely, studied hard, went on long and testing bike rides, experimented with the odd puff of pipe or cigarette. While we were intensely social and visited each others' homes, and of course were curious about the opposite sex, we were nevertheless much less sophisticated than young people of around 15 years of age today. We didn't drink alcohol at home or have mixed parties; and while one or two of the more dashing fellows boasted girl friends whom they met and walked home with, the majority looked on with interest rather than envy.

There was actually a Selhurst Girls School, built alongside ours but, in the tradition of the day, totally screened from us and with no normal contact whatever. However, at the end of the Autumn term in 1938 it was announced that there would be a Dance for Fifth and Sixth Formers to which some of the next door young ladies would be invited. Chaps with sisters could bring them too if they wished. This occasioned enormous interest and speculation and from what little I remember it was quite good, though inordinately respectable. I met a young lady whose twin brothers had been in my form at Ecclesbourne and actually visited her home a few times afterwards. The house was later destroyed by a bomb but fortunately she and her family were in their air raid shelter. Although, in company with two friends, I had daringly taken lessons with a private lady tutor, few of us could dance with any degree of grace or proficiency, a somewhat severe limitation in days when dancing meant Ballroom dancing and demanded disciplined foot routines. Anyone trying to "do their own thing" in the uninhibited fashion of today would have been hustled off the floor pretty smartly; that sort of behaviour was for less civilised people in faraway lands.

vivian leigh ann todd

In general, however, romantic interests were subordinated to the need to work, though Derek and I were deeply intrigued by two film stars, Vivien Leigh (left) and Ann Todd (right), whose photographs we purchased from one of the film magazines.

The World Around Us
We also accepted the world as it was, much more than did later generations. The Britain of our youth was more stable than today's, its national institutions firmly respected and the BBC dedicated to preserving them, with newspapers critical mostly in arguing for a stronger and more positive role for the country. 

There was nothing resembling the crusading "investigative" television programmes or newspaper articles which today delight in finding deficiencies in every facet of our national life. Our attitude was one of supreme if, as events proved, rather optimistic confidence in ourselves and our historic role, unlike the universal suspicion of authority which has arisen since the war. History will say whether the former was a source of strength or a ridiculous delusion, and the latter a healthy awareness or a self-destructive folly. Either way, we were rarely invited to criticize the world of our elders.

Certainly there were social matters which ought to have been aired more strongly. People in the South had been disturbed by the hunger marches of a few years previously but such public agitation as there was directed itself more to the antics of Germany and Italy and the apparent spinelessness of Britain and France. Oswald Mosley and his uniformed fascists regularly paraded through the Jewish quarters of London's East End, provoking fights and police intervention which helped stir British public opinion belatedly into realising what was happening in Germany, though the full horror would not be revealed until after the war. I remember that a particularly wealthy lady cruised up and down the English Channel in her private yacht with the words "WAKE UP ENGLAND" emblazoned on it in bright lights. An ordered world is a comfortable one, but with hindsight I can see that ours involved an acceptance of practices and injustices which later generations would want to correct.


Oswald Moseley

What Sort of Career?
A few boys had ambitions to go to University but this was hugely expensive. There was a small number of scholarship places but the competition for them nationwide was immense and even then one needed reasonably well-heeled parents. So for most of us University simply wasn't an option and the question of a job began to exercise our minds. We had hardly any vocational guidance but conventional wisdom suggested a bank or insurance company as offering the most favourable career. One or two people thought about the Armed Forces, Colonial Service or Merchant Navy but I do not recall any wildly adventurous ideas. It must be remembered that society was just emerging from a period of devastating unemployment when the crucial need was to have a job at all; if it was reasonably secure, that was a huge bonus, and if it was also interesting one's cup was full.

One boy, John Heap, a natural leader and Surrey Schools swimming champion, caused concern to teachers and amusement to us by announcing that he had obtained a place in a barber's shop where he would not actually be taught much but could pick up the trade from customers who were rash or impatient enough to allow him to practise on them. In the event, he became a distinguished fighter pilot, a Squadron Leader, and was sadly killed in 1944. Another friend, Rex Cotterell, started work as an apprentice at the Monotype Printing Works which built machines for converting typed letters directly from molten metal into a printing block, a quite staggering advance on the traditional printer's art of picking letters out of a box (hence Upper Case and Lower Case), but one which also seems archaic against modern computer and photographic technology. Rex too became an RAF pilot but survived to become Chief Pilot of United Airways.

Derek had in the meantime left school and taken the Civil Service Clerical Officer examination. I never knew what inspired him to do so but possibly his school gave better vocational guidance than mine. He was appointed to the old Board of Education as it then was, and he urged me to follow suit. I accordingly took the Civil Service examination in the Spring of 1939, somewhat to the surprise of the school, to whom the Civil Service seemed to be a closed book. The examination was highly competitive and of a standard comparable with, if not slightly higher than the Schools Certificate. Out of 5,000 entrants, only 1,500 were accepted and I was surprised to find myself No 504.

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The Admiralty, and a Decision Which Determined my Whole Life
I duly applied for a post at the Board of Education but was disappointed and rather mystified at being told to report to somewhere called The Admiralty, of which I had never heard. Also to my surprise, they wanted me to start at once. I explained that I was about to take my Schools Certificate examination and asked if I could have a few days off for that purpose, only to be told rather sniffily that I could not. They added reluctantly that if I wished I could defer my entry until after the exams but on pain of "loss of seniority". As I had no idea what such loss might entail I decided it would be safer to start at once, thus losing both the Schools Certificate and the matriculation exemption which I would certainly have gained. The loss was later inconvenient and irksome though not serious, but that one decision determined the area of Admiralty work which I should enter and set the whole of the rest of my life on its course.

admiralty arch

Admiralty Arch, London

I discovered that the Admiralty was in fact the office for administering the Royal Navy. It provided for the vast array of material, men and services needed to run a modern Navy, and through it Parliament furnished the necessary money and exercised political control. Its Head was the First Lord of the Admiralty, a Cabinet Minister, of whom more later. But the Admiralty, unlike the War Office for the Army and the Air Ministry for the RAF, also acted as an operational Headquarters exercising direct control over naval affairs all over the world. As such it had large Operations and Intelligence centres manned by naval officers, and an extensive high-powered radio network which transmitted orders to ships and listened to their messages in all the oceans of the globe.

This dual operational and administrative role was facilitated by a curious mixture of civilian and naval elements working closely together - a singularly British arrangemnt. Thus warships flying the White Ensign were manned and operated entirely by uniformed Royal Navy personnel; but they were supported by a world-wide fleet of Navy tankers, ammunition and other supply ships sailing under the Blue Ensign, manned by Royal Fleet Auxiliary personnel recruited from the Merchant Navy, but controlled by the purely civilian Supply Departments of the Admiralty. Both were distinct from the Merchant Fleet proper, whose ships flew the Red Ensign - the old "Red Duster" which at one time adorned one quarter of the world's entire mercantile tonnage. The Merchant Navy was owned and operated by private companies but the Admiralty kept a very close interest in it through a Trade Division.

War Registry
However, all this was beyond my ken when I presented myself at the Admiralty Offices in Whitehall on 5th May 1939. I was told to report to somewhere called War Registry. In keeping with the odd practice just described, it was a wholly civilian unit handling naval messages ("signals" we called them) to and from the Admiralty and working in conjunction with a Navy-manned Wireless Station and a Naval Operations Room. Its task was to encode and decode signals, decide the means of transmitting outgoing signals and see that copies of all signals were sent to the right people in the vast Admiralty organisation. Its unexciting name was intended to divert attention from its significance in Naval operations.

At the time, it consisted of about 40 people occupying a small suite of rooms overlooking the Admiralty courtyard in Whitehall, but it was in process of rapid expansion. Five other young men joined at the same time as I, and we were put to work amending code books. These reminded me of schoolboy games with their references to Squadrons and Flotillas of Battleships, Battle Cruisers, Aircraft Carriers, Cruisers, Destroyers, Submarines and many other craft whose functions then meant nothing to me. Many of the amendments concerned the renaming of RAF airfields as Royal Naval Air Stations, reflecting a recent decision to restore the Fleet Air Arm to Naval control. The Royal Navy had pioneered the use of aircraft launched from ships but after the First World War control of all Air matters was transferred to the Air Ministry, an arrangement which ensured that the special needs and unique advantages of ship-borne aircraft were ignored. As a consequence, the Fleet Air Arm entered World War II with slow and cumbersome Fairey Swordfish biplanes which their pilots called "stringbags" and was unable to play its full strategic role until the later stages of the war. For the same reason, most Royal Navy Officers had acquired very little experience of air matters and some took a blinkered view of the use of Naval Aviation, with tragic results. Fortunately for us all, the Americans had arranged things better; but that is now History.


The Fairey Swordfish, or “Stringbag"

After a few weeks, we were initiated into the mysteries of codes and cyphers, the difference being (in our case) simply that the latter were of higher security. The code or cypher books themselves remained in force for several years but the actual figures were changed by the use of Tables of random numbers, which were renewed frequently. In case the reader is interested, the method was to subtract the number in the code book from a number in the table without "carrying" the tens; this gave a third number quite unlike either of the others. When the recipient reversed the process using the same place in the same table (indicated by a keyword), the original code was revealed. For example, 1654 subtracted from 6925 gives 5371, which was the figure actually transmitted; 5371 subtracted from the same 6925 miraculously gives 1654 again. Each number was called a "group"; operational codes and cyphers had four-figure groups but there was a ponderous administrative code of five figures. The subtracting was done from left to right and we learned to do it at lightning speed, but it played havoc with our normal mental arithmetic.

London was a wonderful place to me. When quite young, I would be taken by my mother at Christmas time to Gamages, a huge department store with an incredible toy section, now sadly demolished and replaced by an impersonal office block. Now, in my lunchtime, I could if I hurried reach it on foot, race round the many delights it offered and get back more or less on time. In those pre-war days no-one could pretend that the Civil Service was hard-worked. The Admiralty's hours were 10am till 5pm, which meant that we could make a leisurely journey to and from the office, avoiding the scurrying, downtrodden shop and business staff who were expected to work from 8.30 or 9am till 5.30 or 6pm or even later. "Real" workmen - manual workers - normally started from 7am onwards and special cheap fares were available for them. After the war, when things had changed beyond recognition, I would myself often leave home early to catch the Workman train or tram. My salary was thirty nine shillings a week, equivalent to œ1.95 at the time of writing. This was good: the family of five who lived opposite us in Berne Road subsisted on fifty shillings or œ2.50 a week. I was able to live at home and paid only a modest amount for rent and board but many of my colleagues came from the farthest corners of the British Isles and after paying board and lodging had very little left for clothes and journeys home. But one could get a good lunch in the Admiralty canteen for sixpence (=3p today); and as a special treat we would go to Lyons Corner House in the Strand, where a three-course meal served by a waiter in black tie and jacket to the accompaniment of music from a real orchestra would cost a mere one shilling and sixpence, or 9p today. The Strand Corner House and its companion at Piccadilly Circus have needless to say long gone.

A School Trip
By July 1939 I had acquired an entitlement to some leave and notwithstanding their niggardliness over my examination the authorities allowed me a week off to go on a pre-arranged school trip to Annecy in France, with a night at a Paris hotel on the way. It was the first real journey abroad for most of us and we all set off by train and boat in very high spirits, visiting the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre and Sacre Coeur and sampling the famed Metro before travelling overnight to our tented camp in the beautiful French Alps. We were accompanied by Smiler King, the History master, and some Sixth-formers and began to enjoy ourselves wonderfully. However, after a couple of days a mysterious telegram arrived addressed to me saying "Leave cancelled, return at once: Admiralty". This caused some concern, not only because we were blissfully unaware of a sudden worsening of the international situation but more particularly because the whole party had travelled on a group passport. But after a visit to the local mayor I was furnished with an attestation enabling me to travel back to England without a passport. Rex Cotterell insisted on accompanying me to Paris. "How touching", said Smiler. "Not a bit", muttered Rex to me, "I just fancy a night in Paris on my own". We set off next day and in conversation with worried French people on the train gathered that things had deteriorated rapidly since our departure. Rex wasn't sure that he and the rest of the party would get home before the storm broke. In fact they did so with just three days to spare.

Watch Keeping
On reporting to the Admiralty, I found that things had assumed an urgency formerly unknown. The place was actually preparing to do the job it was created for. I was put on a watch-keeping rota of twelve hours on duty and twenty four off, an unsettling arrangement of alternate day and night watches which meant that one lost every third night's sleep. As I had never missed a night in my life or for that matter worked for an unbroken twelve hour stretch, this was a novelty which I found unappealing; but there were other young people there, including a number of young ladies, and we found compensating humour in our suffering. This appalling routine, which played utter havoc with the bodily systems of all who suffered it, actually continued throughout the war in spite of pleas to change it to a weekly basis, and many people stuck it for the whole six years, to the detriment of their health.

The cause of the crisis was that Hitler had been demanding the return of the so-called free port of Danzig (or Gdansk), which had once been part of Germany but was then under Polish protection and was approached by a wide "corridor" of land cutting through northern Germany. This was another of the penal conditions imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles after the 1914-1918 War, which a modicum of foresight would have shown to carry the certainty of future conflict. Hitler, after his previous successes with the pusillanimous governments of Britain and France, was in no mood to discuss matters reasonably. Nor for that matter were the Poles, bolstered (as they thought) with cast-iron guarantees of British and French protection, willing to make concessions to this strutting upstart. Germany's ultimatum to the Poles was couched in terms they could not possibly accept and on 1st September 1939, after a German cruiser on a "courtesy" visit to a Polish port adjoining Danzig suddenly poured shells into the defenceless city, German troops flooded across the Polish frontier. Britain, followed by France, issued a warning that they would not stand by and demanded that the Germans withdraw.

On Sunday 3rd September 1939 the British people were told to stand by their radio sets, and at 11am we heard the voice of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain saying dismally "I have to tell you that the German Government has not replied to our message and that consequently this country is at war with Germany". From War Registry and the Naval Wireless Station in Whitehall went a "Most Immediate" General Message to every ship and naval authority in the farthest-flung corners of the world, with just two words - "Total Germany". The proud life of Britain and her Empire, and indeed the fruits of centuries of history, were about to end.

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