At War with the Evacuees

David Gibbs’ Anecdotes (continued)

At War With The Evacuees

‘The evacuees are coming’, my mother announced one day, and for some reason she seemed rather excited about. It was all to do with the war apparently.

As a small boy I wasn’t too sure what a war was but whatever it might be it was not having much effect on my place in the world. ¬†Merriott seemed secure enough in spite of all this grown-up talk of bombs and tanks and Gerries and Hitler. But grown-ups were very concerned, especially when somebody called Winston Churchill was talking on Mrs Paul’s wireless and all the neighbours gathered round to listen and we children hung about outside the cottage door wondering what it was all about.

Slowly though, the war business began to make sense. Basically, it seemed, there was our
side and their side. But now the evacuees were coming. Were they on our side or their side?

Now quite clearly they should have been on our side. They came from London. The German bombs had flattened their homes. They had miraculous escapes they told us, describing them in great detail – and we country kids believed them. What we didn’t know is that
before they left there hadn’t been any bombing at all. But be that as it may, we were under orders to be nice to the evacuees, poor little mites.

I think it was a Saturday they arrived, seemingly from nowhere. None of this cardboard-gas-mask-box-hanging-round-the-neck stuff or identity labels tied to their lapels in case they got lost. In my childhood memory first they weren’t there and then they were. Our usual friends had to be disregarded. We were to act as minders.

I was detailed to go and call for a boy who was billeted with old Mrs Wills who lived just up the road from where I lived. It was early afternoon. Eventually we joined up with other kids,
evacuees and minders, to play in a huge pile of soft sand deposited alongside the road leading into the village and earmarked for sandbag filling.

We played in that strange, inhibited way that children adopt when they first meet and are under grown-ups’ orders to like each other. But it was not long before there were squabbles, and we country kids had had enough of evacuees. Cocky little know-alls! They were definitely not on our side.

And in the months that followed there was trouble at school, too. A new playground pecking order had to be established. We village boys had long known who could fight who and win. This had been sorted out almost from birth, with just the odd playground scrap to confirm or amend the arrangement. Some boys achieved superiority purely on the strength of having a tough older brother, or from coming from a reputedly tough family. Others were deemed to be cissies by a similar analysis. We all knew exactly where we were, until the evacuees came.

There were fights galore, it seemed. Fights before school, at playtime, lunchtime and on the way home. ‘Fight! Fight!’, the cry would go up, and we would rush to gather round to occasionally cheer the victor but more often than not to console yet another tear-stained local loser. We country kids were having a pretty rough time of it. Most of us were sliding down the pecking order. We were losing the war.

But it was not all misery in the playground. We loved it, country kids and evacuees alike, when an evacuee called Quinzey shinned up the thirty-foot tall flagpole, right to the top. No
village lad had ever done that, nor would have dared. And neither did any other evacuee dare to do so when they had got to know Freddie Masters, the school headmaster, a little better. Freddie was waiting for Quinzey when he eventually came down.

And the evacuees brought with them an enthusiasm for pavement games that I suspect were much more popular in London than they had ever been in Somerset. These games seemed to have periods of popularity that followed an annual cycle. Soon we were all enthusiasts
of five-stones, hop-scotch, and another game where we threw a ball to knock stones from a pattern of five rings chalked on the ground, catching the ball as it rebounded off the wall behind. Then there was playing marbles. Or making paper aeroplanes that littered the playground until Freddie had a purge and put a stop to it. And in the autumn we played conkers…. ah! but just a minute: come to think about it that must have been our

Like wandering freely across the fields, building ‘camps’ in hollow hedges, climbing trees, birds nesting and knowing where to catch red-breasters in the mill stream. Or picking pounds and pounds of blackberries for war-time jam making; or gathering pearly white mushrooms kissed by the dew of a mellow September evening; or kicking through the autumn leaves searching for chestnuts felled by the first frost of winter. Passing on the simple pleasures of the countryside – that was definitely our contribution.

It was, of course, a two-way process, and in this two-way process friendships grew. Eventually, my best friends were evacuees. Jimmy Dunn, Freddy Dunn, John Plumb, Henry Plumb, and Tommy, Joe and Sidney Rowe and many more beside, all from far away Downham, Bromley, Kent – wherever that might be, although I presumed it was somewhere near Big Ben. With them I and other country boys like me shared our formative years, learning from each other, sharing the joys and experiences of a wartime childhood.

We saw the American soldiers arrive to occupy newly built huts and hastily erected tents on the village recreation ground. ‘Got any gum, chum?’, we asked, rarely to be refused. ‘Got any big sisters?’, they asked. ‘Yes’, we’d say innocently, hoping for an extra packet of gum. And just after D-day, we stood there, big sisters as well, and cheered as they pulled out, heading for the Channel ports and their rendezvous with whatever fate had in store for them.

Text Box: My treasured Italian ring Later, when Italian prisoners arrived to occupy the
same huts, we hurled childish abuse at them as they arrived back each evening in the buses that had taken them off to a day’s labouring in the fields. Strangely enough, in the way that kids do we made friends with
some of the I-ties, as we called them. Security must have been slack for we spent hours in their huts, slipping into the camp from a gap in the hedge at the far end of the field. One Italian fashioned for each one of us an engraved ring from old brass tubing, probably a bullet case. I still have mine; I wonder if Jimmy Dunn still has his?

So the war moved towards its end. Then, almost as suddenly as they had arrived, the evacuees went home. One morning, a couple of buses pulled up outside the school and the evacuees climbed aboard and were driven away. They just went. Friendships so long
nurtured were instantly severed. I remember no good-byes, no sad farewells, no tears from either side. But I do remember the emptiness they left behind and how, for many months afterwards, I sorely missed my evacuee friends.

© David Gibbs 2003