Long Marston, a small village in Hertfordshire had an airfield at the opposite end of the village. From it Lancaster and Wellington bombers with forces from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada — (and, eventually, the USA!) were sent out to Germany. In the January of 1941, in the darkness of early evening, however, when I was five years old, an experience took place which has stayed with me my entire life. It was all over in a few minutes and was entirely unanticipated, so it could not be described as “terrifying”. Reliving it, however, with the benefit of hindsight, it is unsurprising none of those who shared those moments have ever forgotten them.
My mother and two brothers (who were three and just a few months) had returned from the village school. We had been there to take advantage of the library service. There was quite a lot of excitement when the wooden boxes with the library books were delivered to be checked out to us by a neighbouring farmer’s wife and her friend. We collected our books and walked back to the shop. We were trying on some socks which we had bought, in our home. We lived next door but one from the village school.
There was an enormous explosion as the first bomb dropped followed by two further detonations getting progressively less deafening. I remember particularly how calm our mother was. She was only thirty and had three children who would soon pick up any cues from her manner or the atmosphere. She said something like, “Right, we’re going into the cupboard under the stairs.” I remember asking, “Is this when we put on our gas masks?” We had carried them everywhere. Her answer was measured and controlled. No, I didn’t have to wear the mask. There was a young girl from the next hamlet who was with us, helping our mother with the children. When I think back, I realise she must have been little more than a child herself. It is a credit to my mother’s courage that she instinctively kept her own fear from us all.
We were left under the stairs whilst our mother went to check out the damage. She returned to tell us matter-of-factly that there had been a direct hit on the village school.
We later saw for ourselves the crater that was all that remained of our Victorian, three-teacher school. Some rubble remained of the privies, but there was nothing else. Tragically Mrs Weylan, my teacher in the infants’ class was living at the schoolhouse. She must have been killed instantly in that explosion. I don’t know how old she was. She had lovely white hair. I had asked her on one occasion. She told me she was twenty-one. My mathematics wasn’t that bad. I realised she must have been older and asked mother. She gave me the same answer! In those days “Twenty-one” meant “adult” and it was not polite to enquire further of any lady. What ever age she was, she was fit and healthy; much too young to lose her life.
The Boot public house close by was hit and demolished. Its garage remained intact. A huge clod of earth had smashed panes of glass in our greenhouse, but otherwise our home was undamaged, apart from losing electricity and telephone services. Amazingly, the next door Elizabethan chimneys of the old farmhouse stood just as straight after the bomb, too.
Our mother told the young girl ‘mother’s help’ to go straight home to her mother to let her know she was safe because the telephone wasn’t working. It was pitch black outside, so her walk home must have been quite frightening.
We had our tea by the light of paraffin lamps and took torches and candles to bed. Mother must have been anxious to let father, who was working in a town a few miles away, that all was well. Still she remained very calm and seemingly in charge of the situation. Actually father soon heard about the Long Marston bomb and returned to assist in clearing the blocked road. He, and other local men and women, also helped to deal with the terrible aftermath of the bomb on the school to dig a way through. He had no idea if we were alive or dead. I discovered recently that my aunt, (my father’s sister) was called to collect the ambulance from Rothschild’s stable to take the remains of our teacher to the morgue at the Royal Bucks Hospital in Aylesbury. I had always believed that she had been blown to pieces in the blast.
The roof of the shop adjacent to the school was severely damaged and its three children evacuated. I remember being disappointed that we didn’t house our friend’s evacuees. I was looking forward to them sharing our single beds! Ironically there were two evacuees from London living at the School house. We didn’t see them again leading us all to believe they had also been victims of the bomb. I only learned fifty years later that their mother came down from London and took them home to safety in the city!
The second bomb had fallen on the duck pond in the next parish and the third comparatively harmlessly into a field.
The infants had no school for the rest of that term, though the older children did receive some education in the village hall in the next parish, (a pink tin hut!). They had very minimal equipment. It was very much the spirit of the day to ‘get on with it’. I imagine they all must have felt relieved the bomb happened after the school day had finished. For my whole life the school bombing has set a benchmark for tragedy. After that all things have to be put into proportion. Nothing is traumatic in my life. Whatever happens, I deal with as a ‘happening’ to be sorted through.
Author Credit: Gwilym Scourfield, WW2 People’s War
Contributed by: CSV Actiondesk at BBC Oxford
People in story: Sheila Wood
Location of story: Long Marston, Hertfordshire
Background to story: Civilian
Article ID: A5912291
Contributed on: 26 September 2005