Wonders of a wartime childhood

GERMAN child refugees joining classes at Shotley, a daily school bus trip crossing RAF Martlesham, and being evacuated from Suffolk to Birmingham by train, are all childhood memories for a former Suffolk man.

David Kindred

GERMAN child refugees joining classes at Shotley, a daily school bus trip crossing RAF Martlesham, and being evacuated from Suffolk to Birmingham by train, are all childhood memories for a former Suffolk man.

Last week I started the memories of former Shotley man John Andrews, who is now 82 and living in North Norfolk. John tells us how pupils from Shotley had to make the long journey every day to the grammar school in Felixstowe. This was decades before the Orwell Bridge and the bus travelled through Ipswich and several villages including Martlesham, where children could spot experimental aircraft being tested at the RAF station.

John explained that his teacher at Shotley school, Mr Snell, was able to spot a likely scholarship candidate among his pupils.

John said: “This was long before the days of the 'eleven-plus' exams. After weeks of cramming and reading, the scholarship class presented itself at the County Hall in Ipswich for the examination, which was a terrifying ordeal, but Mr Snell's success rate was high. The hurdle crossed, September 1938 saw me and other new pupils from the peninsula villages, travelling to school daily at the grammar school in Garrison Lane, Felixstowe.

“At first this was quite a tiring journey, but we soon acclimatised. In those days the Eastern Counties kept two outstation buses at Shotley Gate, in the garage halfway up Bristol Hill. These were manned on a shift basis by three regular locally domiciled crews, while a third bus, from the main Ipswich depot, helped maintain the full timetable.

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“The local crews were responsible for keeping their vehicles clean and this they did as they came on duty early in the mornings, the first bus was at 7.15am, followed by the 7.55. At Ipswich we were joined by children from other directions and then boarded a special bus which took us on to school.

“As we had to pick up even more children our route took us out by Rushmere and Kesgrave, then through Martlesham RAF Station to Brightwell, Falkenham and Kirton before joining the main Ipswich to Felixstowe Road near Trimley. For the boys the highlight of this daily run, in both directions, was the traversing of Martlesham Camp.

“This was the RAF's experimental station, as Felixstowe was the marine equivalent, and every new aircraft, both civil and military, was sent to either of these stations for testing before entering service. We saw many prototypes, including the first Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, and many others that were never developed further.

“On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the road through the camp was immediately closed and our bus had to be diverted. This was achieved by turning right at the Kesgrave Bell and using a back road with overhanging trees until regaining the normal route near Brightwell. One particularly low branch regularly broke the upper front window of our double decker bus, showering us with glass. Such was our daily thrill, we little realised the danger involved. Eventually the bus company had the offending branch cut off.

“With the outbreak of the Second World War we were issued with our gas masks and the school was provided with air raid shelters. Signposts and other locality identifying signs were removed and there was the boarding up of some windows and security taping of others. The Eastern Counties dispersed its buses from Ipswich depot, a number being relocated in Woolverstone Park and six single deckers were stabled at the Shotley garage, which made the accommodation there very cramped.

“Night driving conditions became very hazardous with the compulsory shielding of headlamps, but due to severe traffic reduction, accidents were minimal. Later came the use of 'producer gas' to propel road vehicles giving rise to many incidents such as roadside fires started by burning coal from the producer and the Shotley bus regularly stalling ascending Freston hill because of lack of gas! At this juncture the driver and conductor would manually bounce the towed producer unit up and down, to accelerate the fire into producing more gas. Schedules suffered in consequence.

“Another significant change brought about by the war was the threat to London from German bombers necessitating the evacuation of children from there to 'safe' areas, East Suffolk being considered one of the latter. Our school roll numbers thus increased considerably and was further added to by a number of German Jewish children who had been rescued from Hitler's Germany on the eve of the outbreak of war.

“Likeable as these children were, the rest of us were very suspicious of them, even thinking of them as spies! Unfortunately, it was never deemed necessary to tell us about who they were or the traumatic experiences they had been through. Had we known the true circumstances I feel sure that we would have been much more sympathetic.

“By the middle of 1940 with the fall, to the Germans, of the Low Countries and France, East Suffolk no longer looked 'safe' and evacuation became an exercise that we were all to experience, some for the second time. Planned with military precision, it almost failed as I was concerned. It was a Sunday morning and normal bus transport arrangements, as for school, were to apply.

“Frank Berry, one of our local drivers, was to take the special bus to Ipswich where we would, as on weekdays, transfer to the school bus - for the last time. My mother and I waited impatiently for the bus for what seemed hours, she crying because I was leaving her and I because I was afraid that my friends would go without me. Eventually Frank came down the road 'hell for leather' on his bicycle still in carpet slippers and we soon got away, but had missed the school bus at Ipswich.

“We had to go on to Felixstowe without changing buses and arrived at school just as the briefing ended. Then the long crocodile march to the town station, along with gas masks, and on to our designated part of the train of which, appropriately, one of my classmates' fathers, was the guard, as far as Ipswich. We then having no idea of our ultimate destination.

“It was a long, interesting day for rail buffs. We travelled first to Cambridge and then on, through Bedford and Bletchley towards Oxford, over lines which have now mainly disappeared. The line from Cambridge to Oxford was largely single track and at every station we crossed freight trains, loaded with war materials and this on a Sunday. We missed Oxford by traversing the now defunct Yarnton Curve, to join the Oxford to Worcester line and started shedding our passengers at Worcester.

“Then we went on to Bromsgrove, where many more children alighted, eventually only leaving our school pupils on the train until we arrived on the outskirts of Birmingham. Here we changed trains and soon came to Redditch, our destination. Then on to buses and out to villages where, in school and halls, we were received into our new communities, some of us being hand picked by our 'foster' mothers on the spot and the rest being delivered!

“Two years in Redditch generated many more experiences and then in July 1942, I joined the navy. Where are all these classmates and friends I wonder? What have their experiences been since those grim, but happy days?