I was fifteen years old, a schoolboy in South London, and about to sit my General Schools Exams. It was late June 1944 and V1s had been dropping on London for a couple of weeks. My school - the South London Emergency Secondary School (SLESS), operated in the buildings of Alleyn's School and it had been had been closed down for a couple of weeks because of the danger from 'flying bombs' We fifth formers, who were just finishing our secondary school years were only allowed in the school because we needed to take our exams.
I had previously attended Roan School, Greenwich, which like many other London schools closed because of the war. I was one of those who were not evacuated and so I was sent to SLESS. There were boys from sixteen other South London schools at SLESS - Brockley County, Aske's, Addey and Stanhope, Strand, Wilson's, Westminster, Colfe's, St. Dunstan's, Whitgift and of course a large contingent of Alleyn's boys who were not evacuated with rest of the school to Rossall School in Fleetwood, Lancashire in 1941.
The exams were held in our form room which was on the first floor. It had big windows and nothing much in the way of blast protection. Before each exam, we were instructed to continue to work even after an air raid warning had sounded; should a 'doodlebug' be heard approaching we would be instructed when to duck under our desks and wait for it - we hoped - pass us by. The exams stretched over several days. Each day without fail the sirens would go, and each day there would be several occasions when we'd hear the two-stroke drone of a V1 heading in our direction. The invigilating master would give the signal, and under our desks we went. We were too preoccupied in praying that the buzzbombs would go elsewhere, to have time to exchange notes on how we were doing with the English Literature or Latin paper, and mercifully - for us at any rate - they all did go elsewehere, though a few crashed close enough for us to feel the room shake.
One of my vivid memories is of our English teacher, one William Hutt, whose nickname was 'Polly'. He was about six feet three, with straggly hair and a shaggy moustache which gave him a very lugubrious expression. He was also a brilliant teacher, and cultivated in me a love of the works of Hugh Walpole, Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, which has stayed with me to this day. He was our invigilator for several exams and when the first sounds of a doodlebug were heard, he would stand up and slowly and deliberately extend a very long forefinger toward us and then downwards, with the admonition "Down!". Down under our desks we went. Polly, meanwhile, would step to the side of his desk away from the windows, and lower himself down so that his back was against the desk, with his legs stretching out for what seemed yards and yards towards the classroom door. This exercise he somehow completed with his hands in his pocket.
Once Hitler's latest unwanted present had buzzed by, Polly would elevate himself, and extend the imperious finger towards us and upwards. "Up!" he'd say, and up we'd get and get on with our exams. His whole manner was so calm and reassuring that it made this bizarre routine seem perfectly normal. I don't recall that we were given any extra time to compensate for these interruptions. I do remember that some of us took the trouble to learn the French words for things like 'air-raid',' siren' and 'bomb', in case they came in handy during our oral French exam.
And so the days passed, the exams finished and we ended our school years with no graduation ceremonies, no farewell parties, instead, just quick goodbyes. I heard later that one of our number who had taken the exam with us was later killed by a 'flying bomb' which fell on his home but I suppose that was the law of averages catching up with us. He had, I remember, carved a beautiful model doodlebug out of balsa wood.
Pip Wedge, Toronto, Canada
The Dulwich Society Local History Group is presenting an illustrated lecture by local resident Stephen Henden on the story of the attack on London by VIs and V2s with special reference to the attacks on Dulwich, on Tuesday November 21 in The Old Library, Dulwich College at 8pm - see 'What's on in Dulwich' (p.19 )