Keith David (SH 40-43) draws comparisons between wartime Tonbridge and today's pandemic crisis
|22 Apr 2020|
|History & Politics|
|Keith David (SH 40-43) Wartime Memories |
To those of us who lived through it, in many ways the current times are reminiscent of the war, though also so different.
When I arrived at Tonbridge on my first day, early in the war, the school was closed. Returning to Charing Cross on the old Southern Railway, I had mixed feelings. Disappointment at missing the excitement of new beginnings, the new life of a Novi but also enjoying the pleasure of extending a long summer holiday.
And so began the strange life of Tonbridge at war. The Officer Training Corps (OTC) was the first line of defence of the town in the likely event of a Hun invasion. We square-bashed under the commanding voice of former regimental Sergeant Major of the Brigade of Guards, Sturges, disassembled and replaced all the seventy odd parts of the Bren gun Hore-Belisha had procured from the Czechs and polished relics from the Boer war, Lee-Enfield rifles and the brass buttons on our puttied uniforms. And occasionally watched Junkers, on their nightly run to bomb London, caught in the searchlights of the ack-ack batteries on the Downs.
Tonbridge home guard in front of Tonbridge School, WWII
But all this martial activity had little effect on the consciousness of the boys. They were of course marginally aware that there was a war on, though my age group never imagined that it would have to serve. The course of the war, the actual prospect of an invasion, the fate of British arms in Singapore and the Middle East, Churchill’s heroic oratory, were not discussed. The school carried on as usual. A few Masters joined the Army, replaced by retired teachers and academics with vast knowledge and intriguing experiences of the world. When the first RAF Victoria Cross was won by an Old Tonbridgian, we enjoyed a day off but there was little talk of glory or heroism, or Achtung Spitfeuer. Instead we were fully engaged in the school’s culture. Involved in our classes and games, in the success of the 1st XI, the threat of the odd bull at the Boat race, chapel with its daily matins, the Shakespeare play, Gilbert and Sullivan and the annual Band Concert.
This healthy Shangri-La existence was fostered by another great Head, E. A. Whitworth, who exemplified normalcy, continuity and calm.
WWII was of course the first war to fully involve civilians. They were bombed. Strafed in the streets, (My Mother and I, one day early in the war in London had to escape into a street shelter to avoid a low flying Messerschmitt. This was later remedied by the elephant-like Barrage Balloons.) The School escaped all that, though a single bomb from a Luftwaffe aircraft on its return home landed near the chapel throwing up a lot of earth but not exploding.
Messerschmitt aircraft used in WWII
Our war on the coronavirus today seems potentially more deadly than WWII, unpredictable and threatening us all but, like Mr. Whitworth, we carry on day by day and look forward to all the good times to come.
I discovered that the interviewers asked what position a candidate wanted to fly. Most of them wanted to become pilots or navigators. They were then asked whether they would consider training as airgunners instead. They were older and wiser than I and turned the offer down. They knew that an airgunner would be trained in six weeks and as a tailgunner in a B-17, the Flying Fortress, would be the first target of Messerschmitt fighters.
When it was my turn, I said I wanted to be an airgunner. The head of the Board, a Senior RAF officer, looked at my papers and said: “But you were at Tonbridge, you have a Certificate A. Wouldn’t you like to be a pilot?”. When I acknowledged that I would like that very much, he said: “Your School is known for its cricket. I have seen them play at Lords. Were you in the First Eleven?”. I said I only made the Third, but I did play tennis. That seemed to excite him. I later found out that cricketers were generally assigned to bombers whereas tall, skinny tennis players made good fighter pilots. So I was assigned to pilot training for Fighter Command. Of the 120 only three were selected for aircrew. Two gunners and me.
It was the greatest moment of my young life. I was barely eighteen. I ran across the street to an Army and Navy store and bought a white flash like the one in the photograph. Per Ardua ad Astra, on wings to the stars.
Keith David (SH 40-43)
You can share your wartime and school-time memories with us here on the new Tonbridge Connect forum: https://www.tonbridgeconnect.org/forum