I should like to read you a true story. It’s called “JOHNNY’S WAR”.
Johnny was a typical student at a High School. He could have been here, except that the school was a boarding school in England – and the year was 1940.
He had got used to the early days of World War II – carrying his gas mask everywhere, having a family of evacuees from London living in his home, and going down to the cellar at the first wail of the air raid siren.
Everyone in the household had a camp bed in the cellar as well as their ordinary one upstairs, and when the bombing of London began in earnest in 1940, everyone started off the night in the cellars automatically.
It was very similar at school, except that the beds weren’t as comfortable as the ones at home; just sacking hung on a wooden frame. If the siren sounded at any hour after “Lights Out”, Johnny took his rug and his pillow from his dormitory down to his bunk and slept as best he could until the steady, comforting tone of the “All Clear” sounded.
The war was only a few weeks old when food rationing was introduced, and everybody was issued with a Ration Book. Supermarkets hadn’t been invented then and the shop assistant had to cut coupons out of Johnny’s Ration Book whenever his mother bought food. Sugar, butter, cheese, bacon, meat were all rationed; dry goods like jam, cereals, sweet biscuits were on a point system, as were clothes. (Most of Johnny’s wardrobe had been handed down from his elder brother.) Candies? Johnny could buy only one bar of chocolate a week, and his ration was one egg a month. Tropical fruit like oranges and bananas were available only to children under 5 years old, who had green Ration Books to distinguish them.
Lessons took place as usual, though many of the teachers had been recalled from retirement to replace those who had been called up, and very few were under 65. Most of those who were, had lost an arm, or a leg, or had some other war disability. As the years passed, shortages increased. Lined exercise books often contained whole sentences from the recycled newspaper of which they were made; a pad of unlined paper was virtually unobtainable. Pencils had no paint on them and certainly no eraser on the end. No new textbooks were published, and by 1945 the old ones were pretty dilapidated.
When he turned 15 every boy at Johnny’s school had to join the Cadet Force and the war suddenly took on a more emphatic meaning for him. He had to parade, in uniform, for an hour every Wednesday before lunch and again in the afternoon for a couple of hours. It was always a scramble to get clean after crawling in the ditches of the local countryside in time for the afternoon lessons from 4:30 to 6:15. Of course, much of Tuesday’s free time had to be spent polishing boots and belt in readiness for the Wednesday parades.
The second year in Cadets was devoted to leadership training and involved extra parades before lunch on both Tuesdays and Thursdays. There was an examination to be passed at the end of that year and Johnny realised that this was preparation for the inevitable day when he would turn 18 and join either the Army, the Navy or the Air Force. It would be worth while passing this early test, so he took Cadets very seriously.
Also at age 15, Johnny was expected to spend the whole of the first three weeks of his summer holiday at a Harvest Camp. With all men between 18 and 55 already called up into the forces, the nation turned to its youth to gather in the harvest. His school ran four such camps where the boys slept in bell tents, worked 8 hours a day, six days a week, in the fields, usually setting up the corn sheaves in groups of eight so that they would dry before threshing. – Remember, this is before the day of the monster combine harvesters which today groom the plains of North America. One camp Johnny spent all three weeks picking up potatoes in a 100 acre field – that’s 40 hectares - returning each evening on his bicycle to wash the days’ sweat off in the pool which the boys had constructed by damming up part of the river. Three weeks without hot water did not endear him to Harvest Camp.
The rest of the summer holidays took place quietly at home. Johnny’s Mother and Father were both involved in volunteer war work and as the lovely beaches where the family had taken holidays before the war were now covered in barbed wire and guarded by soldiers, going away was pointless.
There was, however, one advantage for Johnny in all this. On his 17th birthday he went to the Post Office, paid the equivalent of $5.00 today, and bought his Driving Licence. There were no Driving Schools, or Driving Tests simply because there were so few cars around. No civilian could buy petrol – perhaps I should say “gas” – and private cars were forbidden unless their owners were involved in some kind of war work. Because Johnny’s parents were so involved, they received a ration of petrol. The car could not be used for any personal reason, but by accompanying his parents on their working trips he slowly learned to drive. No going up to the University parking lot at weekends to practice reversing into a small space! Have you ever thought how your life would change if there were no private motoring?
There was nothing to drive at school, of course, but during that final year Johnny became more and more aware that this time next year he would be in the forces. By now he was old enough to take his place as a Firewatcher. Once every two weeks it was the responsibility of his dorm to have a team on duty in 2-hour shifts throughout the night. If the air raid siren sounded, the boy on duty would put on his greatcoat, his tin hat, and meet the other Firewatchers from the neighbourhood and watch for any incendiary bombs that might fall. In fact, this rarely happened at his school because it was 60 miles from London and not in an industrial area. So Firewatching really became an exercise in keeping himself awake when everyone else was asleep.
Although the threat of invasion had largely passed by now, there were other factors which hit Johnny nearer home. Each morning he would scan the lists in the newspaper of those who had been killed “On Active Service”. Occasionally he would find the names of boys in the school whom he had known. He became particularly upset when he found three of his brother’s contemporaries listed there in a short interval after the Allies had invaded France. These were young men who had been at school with him. Their pictures were in the school photograph on the wall of his bedroom at home.
Perhaps the climax came when the dreaded telegram arrived from the War Office saying that his own brother had been wounded in Italy; ironically by a British soldier who had failed to put the safety catch on his Sten gun, and the bullet was fired into his brother’s jaw from a range of some 6 feet.
This was the uncertain world that he was about to enter. No thoughts of a career, or travelling, or which university he would be attending in September. Simply the decision to make between the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.
As he sat in the Recruiting Office with the vital paper in front of him, Johnny wondered what choices, if any, would face the graduating classes in 60 years’ time.