The last days of a schoolboy's war

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The Independent Online
As Europe was liberated, at least one boy in Croydon regretted that he would miss the action. Bernard Crick remembers

I was 15 and still at school. That much is certain. What I was doing in the last Easter weekend of the Second World War is a matter of memory; and memory, I learnt as a biographer, is very unreliable.

It must have been that Easter that I took my first communion, and we marched in our Officers Training Corps uniform to Croydon parish church. As Whitgift school was a church foundation, we were prepared by a bishop and ordained by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Of the uniforms and the march I am sure, and this was years before I read The Good Soldier Schweik and noted a parallel. But surely we did not march, as memory dictates, with rifles and fixed bayonets? That must have been either Croydon's Victory in Europe or Victory in Japan parade.

False memories irritate me profoundly. Two in particular remind me of memory's tricks. One is walking for the first time - plainly an induced memory from enthusiastic female handlers, unless I was a very late developer. And the other is being lifted on my father's shoulders on the roof of Croydon Airport Hotel to see Neville Chamberlain land and hear him say: "I have in my hand a piece of paper that means peace in our time."

Unhappily, he never said that, and at 200 yards away we could not have heard him any way. I was there, but the embellished yet impacted memory must be induced or imagined, presumably from later newsreels. My older brother, who served in the ranks for the whole war, now says that he can no longer remember which of his tales are true and which he made up. Unfortunately, this has made him more cautious in retelling fine stories.

What I do remember of that Easter weekend is that we all knew that the war in Europe was coming to an end, and we schoolboys regretted that we would miss it. Yet we had a concealed anxiety that elder brothers, even some fathers, who had survived it all so far - North Africa, Italy, the D-Day landings - would soon all be shipped off to Burma to fight slowly through China. This fear of a second, slow and terrible blood-letting was widespread and is now largely forgotten.

I turned pacifist two years later, but even so could never see condemnation of the dropping of the two atom bombs as a simple matter. A shudder of horror and "thank God it's over" was then, I think, the dominant emotion.

This recollection is clouded over by later knowledge of the Cold War arms race and the crazy progress to mutual deterrent over-kill. At the time, I was more affected by the death of a friend killed by a V2 rocket while fetching the Sunday newspapers - one Harold Tevison (one of those "boys who will never grow old").

Mostly, though, boys like me rather enjoyed the war. We did not realise at first how serious it was, and when we did, we were excited more than frightened, even though Croydon was in the path of everything.

Of holidays and luxuries, we hardly knew what we were missing. And we had one great pleasure that my sons could never enjoy: with wartime petrol restrictions, the roads were free and open and we swarmed on our bikes all across the south of England, admiring the military hardware thinly hidden in the North Downs woods of Surrey.

It must have been Easter 1945 that led to some tension in my gang, most of whom did not go to a private school. They resented me being Awol from our usual weekend ride for the sake of uniform, school and communion.

My schoolfriends and I began to wonder if, after the end of the war, there would be Officer Training Corps camps any more, or the entertaining cock-ups of school manoeuvres. Masters returning from the wars, invalided out, shared our mockery (indeed fed it) of the old fellows of 1914 vintage who ran the school OTC. I was very relieved when one of them told me that the need for the summer harvest camp would continue for several years.

That was my holiday, and nothing has been so enjoyable ever since: 10 hours a day in the fields, for six or eight weeks, for four years. I worked on Lord Berners' estate and it was that summer that his estate manager, Robert Heber Percy, burnt Faringdon House's blackout curtains on VE night in the market square. But the blackout regulations continued for several weeks (was it fear of kamikaze pilots?) so the police got him that time, although prosecutions for black-market offences had failed.

I remember more vividly the day war broke out. We were taking a late summer holiday at Swanage, following my father to bowling competitions. My mother and I had begun to walk back from the beach to the hotel for lunch when we heard a man shouting. Floss said something like: "God, it's your father."

He was in his panama hat and white bowling jacket, very red-faced and shouting angrily: "It's all a damned lie! Don't believe them!" as he tore down news placards saying "War declared."

"They are just trying to sell papers," he bellowed. Harry ignored the Second World War. He retreated into his insurance work and his club. There were many like him to whom 1914 was the war, and this other one profaned the memory of "the glorious dead".

When I was a little boy I believed that churches were war memorials and that Christ had died for us all at Passchendaele. When I prayed that Sunday, 50 years ago, I was probably still thinking of the dead of the trenches. A few weeks later we saw the film, just spliced in without warning to a routine newsreel, of the opening up of Belsen. We wept in the alley outside. I think that started me thinking.

The writer is emeritus professor of politics at London University and author of `George Orwell: a Life'.