Adolf's Bombs and Cherry Tree Hill School

I was five years old when war broke out in 1939. I remember it well. I sat in an armchair opposite my parents listening to the Sunday morning broadcast by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. In his thin reedy voice he declared war on Germany.

My father, having once served as a regular soldier in the Royal Marines, shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Well, I shall have to go. I’m in the first reserve.’ Later having served a year in France fighting the Germans, he came to be rescued from the Dunkirk beaches, one of 330,000 men. Shortly before this I was one of the first 50 children to be admitted to the new Cherry Tree Hill Junior school in Chaddesden. On that day I had my gas mask in the cardboard box that we all had to carry. The police turned up on that very first day. A child had been suspected of robbing The Toy Shop in Nottingham Road Chaddesden. He was taken away for questioning.

Later on my father was posted to Belfast. On his first leave he came home carrying his army rifle which I was allowed to carry on the trolley bus home to Chaddesden. Looking back, I recall this and the rest of his leave as one of the few happy times I spent with him during the rest of his life.

My descent into a disturbed childhood began one night in 1940 when the air raid siren was heard and I was dragged out of bed by my anxious mother and taken into the pantry under the staircase. First came the sound of distant explosions. Then came the heavy drone of the enemy bomber fleet approaching. I knew the sound well, a contrapuntal ebb and flow of engine noise. So far they had not dropped bombs where I lived in Arridge Road, their targets usually Manchester or Liverpool. My mother read aloud from the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

As the bomb came whistling down I thought I was going to die. My mother continued to read. The whistle grew louder. Then came the explosion, followed by the blast which shook the kitchen door as though it was about to burst open. Then the raid ceased. My mother finished reading the psalm and, on hearing the “All Clear” siren, ushered me back to bed

The next morning I set off for school from my house, 12 Arridge Rd, and joined up with other children crossing Chaddesden Park. We crossed the brook by the playground and came across a bomb crater, gently steaming in the cold air.

We boys jumped into it, landing on top of the camouflet, the domed covering of soil, under which lay an airless cavern. It would be many years before I wrote the ITV drama series “DANGER UXB,” which featured a bomb disposal unit during World War 2. In the research I learnt how to defuse unexploded bombs by steaming out the German explosive. I learnt also that the typical camouflet always covered a deadly pocket of gas. If we boys had been heavier we would have died quickly, falling through the thin top into the lethal vapours.

Clutching our booty of hot shrapnel, dug out from the sides of the crater, we arrived at school five minutes late. Mr Heath, the fiery headmaster, stood there with his cane. Behind him the school windows facing the park were damaged by the blast. Our punishment was painful, as intended. And, of course, we did not tell our parents we had been ‘assaulted.’ That would have been undignified in the extreme. It was legal and effective. I was never late for school again.

That day my mother wrote to my father telling him of our escape from death. With this letter he managed to persuade the authorities to get my mother and I evacuated to Northern Ireland where he served. The dangerous part of the journey was the sea crossing, my mother and I on a troop ship passing from Stranraer to Belfast. Shortly after our departure there was a submarine alert and I sat on deck with my mother wearing life jackets.

I waited for the torpedo to strike, but curiously unafraid because the soldier sitting next to me gave me a Cadburys bar of chocolate. It was so normal and so generous a gesture that proved he was not scared, so nor should I be. We all survived the crossing.

A month later, living on a farm in County Down, my mother received a telegram to say that my father was dangerously ill, having been blown up by a bomb intended for the Belfast shipyards. He was hanging on to life – just. I was not allowed to see him for six months, such were his terrible injuries.

He was given up for dead twice and each time he came through. In ‘dying’ he had ‘gone down a tunnel with a light shining ahead.’ Coming out of the tunnel he had met the deceased members of his own family and then my mother and I. He knew he was dying, he said, because the pain was always replaced by a sense of peace and well being. He knew what he had to do to survive. He had to force his spirit back into its body, back to life – and the awful pain.

His agonies were always treated with morphine. Months later, now an addict, he had to be weaned on to methadone and eventually lost his craving. He returned home after convalescing in Etwall at what is now a Buddhist retreat at Ashe Hall in Sutton Lane.

I returned to Cherry Tree Hill school not ‘knowing long division’. In the village school in Northern Ireland I had only learnt to knit and use a slate for multiplication and spelling.

In consequence I spent the rest of my school days (including Bemrose Grammar School) fearing and hating mathematics. I also suffered from the handicap of not being understood when I spoke, my thick County Down accent defeating both teacher and children. It scared me and I dare not ask a teacher for help. That stayed with me for a few months.

After the war began we started to plant our own school garden to help in the ‘DIG FOR VICTORY’ Campaign. We also had a ‘SAVE PAPER’ campaign. You received an army rank, the highest of which being Field Marshall, all depending on how much waste paper you could collect and bring to school. I complained to the headmaster, Mr Heath, that I was robbed of becoming a ‘General’ because another boy stole my paper! On victory being declared we assembled for afternoon school in the playground (under monitor supervision of senior children) to be told that we had the rest of the day off in celebration. That night we had a bonfire in the middle of Arridge Rd and all the people came out to celebrate. Someone had a violin and played ‘Knees up Mother Brown.

I think I benefited from Cherry Tree Hill, despite the fierce discipline. I did flourish as a writer and played TOAD in TOAD OF TOAD HALL’ on the school stage. I went on to act in radio and at Derby Playhouse and after a teaching career I became a writer with 2 BAFTAS to my credit and 189 series, serials, single plays for BBC and ITV. I am now writing a major film for Helen Mirren set in Greece.

I have two books being published this May - CLOUGH’S WAR in paperback and - with my daughter - TALKING TO ZEUS set in Greece, the basis for my film.

Don Shaw 2010