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War Time Memories of Allhallows - David Chanters (M. 40 - 45) Remembers

My parents and I first visited Rousdon in May 1940 to see the school and to decide whether I should sit the scholarship exams later that term. It was barely two years since the building had been a private mansion owned by the wealthy Peek Family with an army of servants and 40 gardeners. Lillies still filled the ornamental pond on the terrace, large areas of the walls of the dinning-hall and the main bedroom were still covered in pale yellow silk and the herbaceous border in the walled garden at the end of the terrace was a mass of colour. This was to be its swan song for no labour could be spared that autumn.


The following September found me trudging very nervously and carrying a suitcase up the hill from Combpyne Station to Charton Cross and Rousdon. Little did I think that six weeks later I would retrace that walk after saying good-bye to an uncle who had come down to tell me that my Father’s ship was two weeks overdue in the Atlantic and must be considered lost.


Apart from finding your way around, difficult then but doubtless far harder now, you had to learn and understand the hierarchy. Masters only appeared in class and sometimes in prayers or school chapel. The Head Commoner, house prefects who kept their jackets open and school prefects who kept their hands in trouser pockets and wore black gowns, therefore, exercised almost all discipline. Commoners kept their jackets buttoned and their trouser pockets sewn up. Minor offences were punished by house prefects with washing up, lines, detention or errands and major offences by school prefects with a cane. Washing up entailed twenty minutes running from study to sink and with spare time being short, this was to be avoided. School prefects in that autumn 1940 term were looked upon as Gods and perhaps they were to new boys.


Head of School was Percy Stumbles, Head of Middlemist and Captain of Rugby. Air raids, night or day, were signalled by prefects blowing bugles and every boy had to go at once to the under ground changing rooms for a roll  call. I remember standing under 5the clock tower watching two ‘planes far above and getting a tremendous kick from Stumbles followed by ‘Get downstairs’! He joined the RAF in December, became a pilot and was killed within a year.


Deputy Head was E.G. (Breed) Fisher of Stanton, an American of little academic stature but a fine games player and a great character. We were in the same dormitory, during an epidemic, looked after by Cynthia Shallow, the Heads glamorous niece. Although he was the only Prefect to cane me, I still respect him for he volunteered ( America was still not in the war) for the RAF Eagle squadron and was also dead within a year.


Head of Chudleigh was Eric Smith, later to become a Ghurkha Brigadier with CAE and also for an instant DSO awarded at Casino. Later in Malaya, his arm had to be cut off, without anaesthetic when his helicopter crashed and was liable to catch fire. He told me that after Casino, perhaps the bloodiest battle in Western Europe with horrendous causalities that the General sent them off for a two day party before carrying on Northwards. “No counselling” he grinned. Sadly he died in 1998. He had seemed to be the obvious candidate to succeed Stumbles but the choice fell on J.A. (Willy) Waycott, the junior Chudleigh prefect, only just 17.


He proved to be not just a fearless Rugby Captain but also a fitness fanatic. In the Easter 1941, he persuaded the Head that the school was unfit and that every boy should do PT between 7.00 and 7.30 every weekday morning. Bearing in mind that dormitories were unheated this was extremely unpopular and matters came to a head when George entered his classroom one day to find ‘Down with PT’ on the blackboard. With a rare flash of Irish temper, he demanded the names of the writers. Four Middlemist boys, David Ranft, Tony Swagne, Michael Wesiter and David Alford owned up and received a public beating in the school hall. George took the hint, however, and when Summer Term began, PT had gone for ever. This aside, Waycott proved an excellent and popular Head Boy. He joined the Gunners, won an MC as a Captain in Italy and was killed shortly after. Thus, the three senior boys of my first term were all killed in action. What a waste – they all had so much to give.


Sadly, it was not only those that would lead from the front and be in the thick of the action that were killed. Tony Williams of Stanton was a quiet sweet mannered boy who always took the leading girl parts in the school play. He joined the Merchant Navy who was killed in an air attack in Bari, Southern Italy. Peter Cooley of Middlemist had that sort of greasy skin that looked dirty after a bath. He was constantly ragged but never lost his temper or retaliated even when shut behind the glass door in the bookcase in the Common Room. He became a Sergeant Navigator and was killed in a raid over Germany. They would never have become leaders but still deserve to be remembered and honoured.


The teaching staff throughout the war were a strange mixture of youth and age, experience and near uselessness. Senior was NAP, (George Stuart Napier), who had come to Honiton in 1912 without degree or experience. He joined the Black Watch, fought in France, was badly gassed and returned to school in about 1918. He taught 3 rd & 4 th forms English, Scripture, ran cricket and became Housemaster of Baker. Gas left him with a terrible cough, which could be heard from one end of the building to the other. He wore the same green Norfolk jacket throughout the second war, was universally popular, preached good sermons and was regarded as a good psychologist who could track down any petty thief. He retired to Axmouth ‘wise and full of years’ after an incredible length of service and continue to provide news of OHs from his incomparable knowledge.


Next, and indispensable, was H.A.Lee, Horace to all but Juniors who called him Hog, frightened by his (mostly) pretend fits of temper. Housemaster of Stanton and later Chudleigh, he taught senior French, English Language and literature, ran Rugby, Hockey, Tennis, Shooting, commanded the Corps and Home Guard. He sang in the Choir, preached when needed and produced the school timetable – a Herculean task in view of constant staff changes. He also produced the School plays. Beat that! He went from Marlborough to Pembroke, Cambridge and then straight to Honiton at 21, leaving the school over 40 years later. He gave new tennis courts, retired to Honiton and left Allhallows a substantial legacy.


In charge of Stanton and Chemistry was Sammy Bridge, a mild inoffensive little man who almost asked to be ragged but never worried, pebble glasses kept him out of the services. He had an incredibly old Austin 7 which was rarely in action. Like the Skoda it needed a heated rear window to warm the hands of those pushing it. He was extremely kind-hearted, taking extra classes for stupid pupils, including me, without charge. Half way through the practice exam in School Certificate, I looked happily at the red liquid in my titration tube only to see that everyone else’s was blue! Sammy didn’t grumble but hurried to find all the new materials.


Shortage of domestic staff was also a constant problem although those from Honiton and the Peek family were marvellous. Alice Webber in the pantry could always be relied on for an extra slice of bread and marge., made palatable by a spoonful of one’s sugar ration doled out weekly by the Housekeeper and kept in one’s individual tin. Miss Archer worked tirelessly in the linen room to sort out the laundry, which continued miraculously to appear each week from Honiton whilst Margaret Thompson – later Mrs Webber – battled tirelessly in the bookshop to divide fairly the limited supply of buns and doughnuts from Gills of Axminster. Peach, the carpenter, after his efforts in 1939 to provide black-out panels for every window managed to spend the rest of the war looking busy. All heating and plumbing were run by Gupper and Grabham whose names led to the rather feeble saying that the Greek alphabet should be ‘Alpha, Beta, Gupper, Grabham’!


Food was always in short supply –which was no one’s fault – and of poor quality, which was blamed on a succession of housekeepers who changed regularly. At one time Mrs Shallow herself took over and things improved, she had little experience of mass catering, however, and one day put a number of tins of fruit pudding into the oven without piercing the lids. This lead to a wonderful explosion with pudding over the walls but she carried on undaunted.


These lines may give the impression of unrelieved gloom but, despite the food and the cold, morale remained high and there was constant laughter at minor episodes now mainly forgotten and perhaps not so funny in print now as at the time.


The Home Guard platoon was run by Capt. Lee and CSM Harry Aggar, demotion to Lieut. and Sergeant since a platoon did not warrant such ranks. It consisted mainly of boys over 17 who were waiting to enlist, a few of the servants and Mr.Paul the Sexton from Combpyne whose drill was worse than Corporal Jones! One day early in 1944 there had been E boat activity in Lyme Bay and the Coastguard failure to make his daily telephone call to HQ at 6am. The Home Guard was called out, in case the German crew had landed, our hastily decision, drew rifles, the Bren gun and live ammunition from the armoury and marched down the road to the beach. A few hundred yards away they formed a semi-circle round the hut, aimed their gun whilst Horace Lee shouted. After a minute or two the Coastguard strolled out putting his pipe out asked what the blankety-blank fuss was about! The telephone wire was broken and the nearest Germans were back in Normandy. To those of us eating breakfast avidly awaiting the sound of machine-gun fire this was a great anti-climax.


I found to my dismay that scholarship boys went straight into 5A, the second highest form (6B not then existing) and was expected to sit School Certificate in July. Not only were we regarded as swots but there was little opportunity to meet, or make friends with, boys in lower forms, we also missed NAP’s Scripture lessons and Harry Aggar’s gym. Harry had fought with the Hampshire’s at Gallipoli in 1915 and had a large part of one calf missing to prove it. His greatest joy of the year was bayonet drill for the Corps, when he could demonstrate how to scream, thrust the bayonet into the enemy and twist it to remove his guts. Nevertheless, he was a tower of strength providing a link between boys and masters. He seemed to be everywhere and knew everything that went on.


The war news improved from El Alamein in October 1942 onwards and it became easier for the Head of School to persuade the Headmaster to give a half-holiday when an OH was decorated. Group Captain Brian Sellick with 2 DSOs & 2 DFCs must have been quite the most popular but Sir Arthur Harris, C in C of Bomber Command, was a good second with frequent promotions. As well as Him the school also provided the Quartermaster General to the Forces, General Sir Walter Venning. To have two prominent war leaders from a small school was no mean feat.


On going into breakfast on June 5 th, 1944 we saw that most of Lyme Bay was covered in ships of all sizes, from large warships to small landing craft and we knew that at last the invasion was starting. It was a sight to remember. Next day the early news announced that troops had landed in Normandy before dawn.

On May 7 th 1945, the war in Europe ended and the following day was declared VE Day, a public holiday. I cannot remember how it was arranged but almost every boy was sent home with money for a return rail ticket and after two days of celebration we returned on the 10thh.


The last great event of the Summer Term ended with a visit from Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris to present prizes on Speech Day. I had to command the guard of honour wearing service dress, Sam Browne belt and carrying a dress sword. All went well at rehearsals but on the day I found it incredibly difficult to return the point of the sword to the very small slot at the top of the scabbard and those few seconds were the longest of my life. No one could doubt Sir Arthur’s dynamic resolution nor his pride and sorrow that over 50,000 men in Bomber Command alone had died. Sir Arthur was never promoted to Marshal of the RAF nor given a peerage and returned to his native South Africa, embittered by the slight to his men.


Those who left that July, after five or more memourable years, were sure that in about two years that we should be landing in Malaya, Burma or Japan. Little did we realise that the greatest war in history would end three weeks later after two atom bombs were dropped on Japan.


There have been so many changes since then that the school is almost unrecognisable. First of these is of course the introduction of girls (what did we miss!) and the greater number of day pupils. Both are common to nearly every boarding school but Allhallows has been at a great disadvantage because of the sparse population within commuting distance. Taunton, for example, still has three public schools and Wellington, a much smaller town, has over 700 pupils, three times what Allhallows had.


David Chanter
May 1998