CAPTAIN NIGEL KETTLEWELL (NICK)
YOUNGSTERS IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR
My contemporaries John Gauld and John Colmer have inspired me to record my rather unusual activities prior to also arriving at Allhallows in September 1945.
My Father had retired from the sea in the early thirties and in 1936 he bought a yachting business on the Norfolk Broads, Southgate Brothers at Stalham. This became quite successful and had its best year in 1939. With the declaration of war all pleasure boats were taken out and anchored on the broads for the duration to prevent German seaplanes landing there to disgorge troops. My Father was recalled to the colours and departed to RNC Greenwich for refresher courses in Intelligence and Naval Control of Shipping.
His first appointment was most unusual. He was to accompany Commander Charles Swift to Cork where they would both be Directors of the City of Cork Steamship Company. This might have been invented to suit their mission. Overtly they were to supervise the arrival and departure of British merchant ships trading with Southern Irish ports while at the same time attempting to catch German submarines refueling in Bantry Bay. For these tasks they acquired a large American car which ran on petrol brought over in the ships for them. All other private cars ran on gas balloons on their roofs so they were fairly conspicuous!
It was then decided that as part of their cover they should be accompanied by families so my Mother packed up, let the house as an Army Officers’ Quarter and we set of for Holyhead by train in late 1940. Arriving there for the ferry to Dublin we found the port closed while some mines air dropped at the entrance were swept. We stayed in a B&B. On arrival in Cork we moved into a rented house and I was sent to the City of Cork Grammar School (see school report!). One problem was that the Irish language was compulsory though I don’t think anyone in Cork used it as first language. Fortunately it was always the last lesson of the day so my Father arranged I should go home early!
At this time we suffered from an escort gap in the middle of the Atlantic. Not having the use of bases in the SW of Ireland our escorts had to turn back from their convoys lacking fuel to meet the Canadian escorts from Halifax Nova Scotia. Thus the German submarines had a field day made worse by their refueling from a milch cow in Bantry Bay, a submarine with large fuel tanks instead of torpedo tubes. Whilst my Father and Cdr Swift had contacts warning them it was fairly obvious where they were going setting off in their car. Eire was the only Commonwealth country not to declare war on Germany but after those on our side had left to join the Irish regiments or the RN it was mainly hostile. Indeed de Valera, their President, signed the book of condolence in the German Embassy on Hitler’s death! Years later I visited the German Military Cemetery in Dublin and saw the graves of sailors from U-boats landed in Bantry Bay.
Following Pearl Harbour, with the US entering the war, it was thought they might have more success in dealing with the Irish government and the mission was brought to an end in 1942. The escort gap was then closing and the US, influenced by the Irish vote, decided not to intervene. My Father was re-appointed to the staff of CinC Western Approaches in Liverpool. He decided bombing there was not a place for us so my Mother and I returned to Norfolk. She took up a war job with the Women’s Land Army and stayed with friends outside Norwich. I went to the junior boarding house of King Edward VI School in the Cathedral Close. When the bombing of cathedrals started early in 1943 we undressed into pajamas and dressing gowns and went down to the crypt below a small church in the Close where we slept on mattresses. One night there were massive explosions and in the morning we arose to find our school had gone. The cathedral survived as people had manned the roof and threw the incendiary bombs over the side as they came down. My Mother, coming into work by bus, was told that the school had gone and probably the boys with it. Fortunately we all survived and I was then sent to Old Buckenham Hall prep well into the countryside.
No sooner had I started than the US Air Force built a bomber airfield by the school! In the evenings when the bombers took off they tested their guns as they crossed the boundary. We lay in the field and collected the spent brass cartridges and the clips. We had built secret dens in the woods and there we made belts. Sometimes the gun malfunctioned and ejected live rounds which were much prized if you could make a belt of them. However one day we were spotted by a patrol and a Sergeant came to the school. To the astonishment of Mr Sewell our headmaster he asked for their cartridges back “We need them to kill Germans” he said. So we went and collected our finds which were quite considerable to even greater astonishment of our Masters. In return the Americans came to teach us Baseball.
The bombing having ceased we spent the 1945 Easter holiday in Liverpool and in a cottage in the Lake District. I went out to the ships with my Father and when he briefed the Convoy Commodore I was sent to the Galley where I was given Pineapples, Bananas, etc which I had never seen before! My parents then decided they would retire to Devon after the war as had always been planned, my Father not contemplating starting again, so Stalham was sold. In the Summer holidays we packed up and moved to Gidleigh. My Father went into Barclays Bank in Exeter, about the only bank to have survived the bombing to open an account and asked about schools for me. You are in luck said the manager here is Mr Middlemist who used to be the head of Allhallows and introduced them. Within days a place had been found for me in Junior House, my parents took me to Rousdon and we had Tea in the Library with the Shallows including Rosemary.
For my last term at Allhallows, Summer 1951, the Prestons arrived. Honor Preston, nee Sewell, was the daughter of the Headmaster of Old Buckenham Hall. Very much the same role as Rosemary Shallow as the only girl in the school! She was pleased to find one old boy of OBH and kept me in touch at our reunions, the last at that very good Lunch at Forde Abbey.