Authors: Sean Longden
On 9 December 1939, aged sixteen, Ron joined the MV (Merchant Vessel)
at his home port of Avonmouth. Leaving port, the
had only reached Ilfracombe on the North Devon Coast when she ran into trouble:
I was on the wheel when she struck a mine. I ain’t never panicked in my life. We launched the lifeboats but the ship broke her back. One of the bunker chambers was empty, but it was filled with coal dust. They reckon when it hit the mine the explosion ignited the dust. That broke her in two. I can remember one chap on the starboard of the lifeboat. It up-ended and he was the only one we lost.
Rowing away from the sinking ship, they were soon picked up by an RAF launch and returned to shore. It was a journey that belied the existence of a ‘Phoney War’. Like John Chinnery, Ron Bosworth’s war had started early and it was the first of a number of sinkings before he reached his eighteenth birthday.
The boys of the merchant fleet were not the only ones coming to terms with being at war. The ‘Phoney War’ was also no more than hollow words for the sailors of the Royal Navy, which went to war immediately and took its boys with them. On 17 September 1939, exactly two weeks after the declaration of war, the aircraft carrier HMS
was sunk, taking seven boys down with it.
Far to the north of the towns and cities that had evacuated their children was a small population of teenagers for whom war was already very real. Anchored at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys was the once-mighty battleship HMS
. She was there to provide anti-aircraft defence to the other ships of the Home Fleet. On the night of 13 October 1939 a German submarine slipped through the defences and fired three torpedoes at the
. Onboard were 165 boy sailors under the age of eighteen. After the first explosion, many of the boys jumped from their hammocks ready for whatever might come next. Within seconds the Chief Petty Officer entered the After Mess deck and told the fifty boys within not to panic and to return to their hammocks. Trusting of his words, they settled down again. Then came a second, even bigger explosion. Some of the boys were thrown from their hammocks and immediately began to rush for the exits. Within seconds the lights went out and they could feel the ship turning beneath their feet.
Fifteen-year-old Kenneth Toop was sleeping when the first torpedo struck, but was awoken by the boy in the next hammock, who told him: ‘You’d better get out, Lofty, something’s happened.’ Dressing in just
his shoes and trousers, he made his way from the mess deck. At first he tried to escape through a route crowded with boys but abandoned it, choosing to move forward through the screen doors, reaching the deck by a clearer route.
As sixteen-year-old Henry Cox rushed for the exit he realized he was not wearing any trousers, turned back, collected his trousers and reached the deck just in time. One boy later recalled how he was fortunate to have the bunk beside the ladder, meaning he was first out on to the deck above. As the escaping sailors rushed for the next ladder, they were forced to stumble through the deck in complete darkness. Up the next ladder, the first escaping boys reached the open air. Looking back on the disaster, Bert Pocock, who had escaped because he was sleeping beside the escape ladder, thought of the horrors the boys left behind must have endured: ‘They’d have struggled against each other to get out of the hatch, but in the pitch dark they wouldn’t have known where to go.’
Out in the darkness of the deck, the boys soon realized they had to abandon ship as soon as possible. One recalled crawling down the tilting deck carefully until he reached the water. Once in the cold waters of Scapa Flow he struck out as fast as he could, desperate not to be sucked under by the sinking ship. As Henry Cox reached the decks he was glad he had fetched his trousers. To reach the water he had to slide down the barnacle-encrusted hull. Without trousers they would have shredded his skin.
Another boy who was relieved to have put his trousers on was Kenneth Toop. As he reached the deck, the
began to list to starboard and he clambered over the port side, moving along the hull towards the position where he expected the ship’s drifter,
, to be tied: ‘Of course the
had to cast off, as she would have floundered. I was left with no option but to move up the side towards the keel, until sliding into the sea was unavoidable. I entered into a thick covering of oil on a freezing sea.’ Although not a strong swimmer, Ken struck out for a wooden frame he saw floating nearby. He climbed on to the floating frame, where he found some other exhausted members of the crew.
Within minutes the mighty battleship had slipped beneath the surface. Desperate sailors – men and boys – swam for safety through
the oily waters, hoping to reach the rescue ships that had raced to the scene. Ken Toop waited for what seemed like hours, until the
picked him up and took him to HMS
. Safely onboard, he began the long and hard task of scrubbing the thick, sticky oil from his body. It was a thankless task, but was better than the alternatives: of the 165 boys serving on HMS
125 had been lost when she sank.
The next day the survivors were sent to the mainland and two days later they were taken by train to Portsmouth. As Ken Toop remembered, as he travelled, his hair was still thick with oil: ‘It was awful. We looked like the seabirds you see after oil spills.’ It was weeks before he was finally clean. Arriving in Portsmouth, he was given ten-days’ survivor’s leave, then the fifteen year old was told to report to the dockyard where he joined HMS
and headed off to war as a member of the crew of a six-inch gun turret. One year later he was torpedoed for a second time. As he later recalled of life at sea in wartime: ‘It was awful – bloody awful. You spent long hours closed up below the waterlines, at action stations. I look back on it and it was indescribable. I just hoped I was going to get through it.’
As the survivors arrived in Portsmouth, it became clear to many that the so-called ‘Phoney War’ was a myth. In the Royal Marines barracks, there had begun a procession of boys arriving back from sunken ships. For Len Chester, seeing these first survivors was a pivotal moment in his understanding of the true cost of war:
The thought of war suddenly became apparent. We were getting the first survivors coming back. Two survivors from HMS
came back to the barracks. We talked to these boys and they told us about life at sea. So war became real to us. Then, two of my mates – Aubrey Priestley and Harry Mountford – were lost on the
. Suddenly you realize there’s a war going on.
And so it continued. As the weeks passed, more and more boys became casualties. By the end of 1939 almost 140 boy sailors had been killed in action. When the nation rejoiced at the scuttling of the German battleship the
, they were unaware that the Battle of the River Plate had cost the lives of two boys, Ronald Hill and Ernest Squire. By May 1940, when the Germans invaded Western Europe, the
Royal Navy had lost another fourteen boys. In the days following the sinking of the
a diarist noted: ‘The
has been sunk. Last month it was the
. I have heard there are thirty such ships. How many of them can we afford to lose and yet win?’
These haunting words, sensing the perils presented to the Royal Navy in face of the might of the resurgent German Navy, acted as a reflection to the country’s situation: how many youngsters could the country lose to war before the whole strength of the nation sapped away?
As 1939 drew to a close and the first full year of war commenced, a sense of restlessness engulfed the nation. Following the first flush of excitement – the evacuations, the air raid alerts, the mobilization of thousands of men for war service – everything had seemingly gone quiet. Defying so many expectations, London hadn’t been flattened by high explosive or chemical weapons dropped to poison the population. Instead, short of the sinking of a few ships, the world had kept turning. Yes, there were shortages in the shops and, yes, large parts of the population had been moved around the country, but daily life continued. It seemed that something had to change: either war would erupt or Britain would gradually drift back to its old familiar routines. At first it seemed the latter option was in the ascendance.
Once winter was over, there was a genuine change in the villages and country towns of Great Britain. After the harsh winter many of the evacuees were frustrated in the countryside. There was nothing to do, there had been no bombing of their old homes and conditions in their new homes were often cramped. Schools were overcrowded and teaching was anything but efficient. The authorities did their best, but it was simply too much to take entire cities, rehouse them in the countryside and expect life to continue as normal. Then there was homesickness. With many children pining not just for their parents but for the familiar streets of home, the trickle of returning children became a flood. More than 300,000 of the 734,000 evacuees chose to ignore the dangers of the wartime city and returned home by the start of 1940, and by March 1940 only around 300,000 evacuees remained in the countryside. At first the authorities attempted to stop the drift back to the cities. They tried to undermine the overwhelming sense of homesickness by offering cheap tickets for parents to visit their children. Some parents were even asked to sign contracts accepting
they would not take their children home. In London newspaper adverts were placed, encouraging parents to send their children back into the countryside. But it was hopeless: the drift continued and when parents were officially asked to register their children for re-evacuation, some 100,000 refused.
Out in Oxfordshire, Reg Baker was happy to be in the countryside. After the poverty of his upbringing in London, the countryside was a welcome relief. However, he soon realized some of his friends were less enthusiastic about their new surroundings. One child had run away three times, only to be returned each time to the village. One unhappy child had been locked in the attic, whilst another had been locked in the shed: these were extreme measures to prevent the drift back to the cities. But Reg wasn’t concerned: he was eating well, putting on weight and was loved by his foster-family. He knew it wasn’t his real home but what little homesickness he felt was tempered by the knowledge that his hard-working parents would have little time for him back in London. On the occasions he felt like running back to London, he would sit on a wall and watch lorries passing by. Whenever he saw one bearing the name ‘London Brick Company’ he would think about jumping on and riding back to the city. He later discovered it would have been a foolish move: the ‘London Brick Company’ was actually based fifty miles north of London.
Those who did return to the cities entered a world that had changed, despite the absence of bombing. Parents happily received their kids at home but then discovered that there were few schools open to accommodate them. Their teachers remained in the countryside and at the officially evacuated schools, many classrooms remained in the hands of the ARP or the fire service. Those schools that were open were overcrowded and offered irregular classes. As a result, many of the returning evacuees simply spent their time in the streets. Cinemas and amusement arcades reported increasing numbers of youngsters hanging around with nothing to do. It was a welcome return home, but not a situation that could continue indefinitely. With increasing children to cater for, schools had to be reopened, but only after shelters were hastily dug in the grounds, with benches for the children to sit on and lights by which the teachers could read to the children. One teacher reported being unable to use a classroom since it had been
converted into a mortuary in expectation of heavy civilian casualties. At one school, children were given a year’s worth of class work and then told they should do it at home.
As the drift continued, pressure increased on evacuees remaining in the countryside. As his classmates drifted back home to Ealing, Roy Bartlett found himself increasingly wanting to join them. With fewer Londoners in the school, the evacuees were no longer educated separately, instead joining the main classes. It was an uncomfortable time: ‘We were outcasts. “Cockney kids” was a term of derision.’ Added to the fact that he had never even wanted to be evacuated, it was time to go home. After nine months his parents came to collect him, returning him to his old school in Ealing where he rejoined his classmates. Arriving home he found little had changed: there had been no bombing and his school was due to reopen. The one major difference was the cellar of his parents’ home. They took him down the wooden stairs beneath the shop. Inside the stockroom were supporting pillars and beams, built-in bunks and a set of stairs leading to the pavement entrance. There were even doorways connecting to the adjoining shops. Now, instead of just being their home, it was a public shelter.
As the children returned to the cities, some adults began to disappear. January 1940 saw the call-up of the second batch of conscripts into the ‘Militia’, the draft of twenty-one year olds into the Army. At the same time, volunteers continued to arrive at recruiting offices and more reservists were ‘re-called to the colours’. In north London, fourteen-year old Stan Scott noticed that his father had failed to return home from his work as a bus driver: ‘Mum was worried. She thought he’d had an accident. So I walked to the bus station at Wood Green to look for him. They said he’d not been in that day and told me to try Finchley. So I humped it up to Finchley. They told me to try Wood Green!’ Realizing his father had not been at work at all that day, he decided to search the Royal Fusiliers offices in Holborn, a place his father had taken him on occasions as a child:
I was wandering around and suddenly a sergeant said to me, ‘What do you want? Who are you looking for?’ I said, ‘My Dad.’ He told me to look on the board where there was a list of names of men who were being
drafted. There he was. I thought, ‘Shit, I’m going to have to tell Mum.’ When I finally got home she asked me what I’d found. ‘Mum, he’s back in the Army.’ A couple of days later we got a letter from him, marked ‘BEF France’. ‘Dear Rose, I’m back in the Army. I’m in France with the reserve.’