Schoolboys guards

This article first appeared in 'The Granthamian', the Magazine of The King's School, Grantham, in December 1939. It was written by Robert Edwards, and it is reproduced with his permission.  Robert was a sixth-form pupil at the school at the time and as incredible as it sounds to us today, was on watch duty in St Wulfram's Church on the first night of World War II. He recounts his experiences and thoughts.

We were to go on duty at twelve midnight for a three hour shift. It was a glorious night: a pale, full moon lit up roofs and roads, and cast wonderful shadows across the streets. Myriads of stars twinkled overhead in a cloudless sky. Looking up at the heavens where all was peaceful as it had been for millions of years, it seemed that war was impossible, unreal, and utterly futile. A glorious Sunday had been followed by this still more glorious night, and at eleven o'clock on that sunny Sunday morning Great Britain had declared war.

I was approaching my post, its tower was floodlit by God's searchlight but its walls were in deep shadow. A faint diffused glow was visible through one of its arched windows. I entered and talked to the shift, which we were to relieve, till my colleague* arrived. The old shift then left and we two were alone. We placed our equipment and food in the corner of the building allotted to us, where there were deck chairs, an armchair, and a table. A solitary candle lit our little "dwelling" and cast weird shadows about the rest of the large, dim lit, interior.

After a short while, we went over our beats. When an air raid was over our duty was to deal with any incendiary bombs that had landed on the roof during the raid. We each had a certain section of roof to patrol, and we had to prevent such bombs from burning through the leads and timber, and falling into the building and so setting it on fire. Out on the roof the world seemed at peace. The moon lit up part of the roof casting the rest in shadow, and the tower stood gaunt above us. But bins of dried sand and shovels for the bombs brought our thoughts back to - war.

Having been over our beats we ascended the tower before returning below. From the tower we could clearly see the adjacent building, and roads, and the nearby river. But beyond this short range the town was an indistinct black haze in which very few things were discernible. Houses and street lamps were dark, no lights showed, except the faint glow from passing locomotives, and the traffic lights whose bright red and green crosses were easily visible. From all around the horizon searchlight beams were silently crossing and re-crossing the skies. Suddenly the bells chimed. A quarter to one. We hurried down the tower steps counting them as we went. At the bottom we compared notes. One of us had counted thirty more steps than the other.

The time sped by, and at a quarter past two we went up the tower again, and coming out at the top we were surprised, for the moon was now hidden, and the sky all clouded over. No searchlights were to be seen. The town was indiscernible. All was black. The air was cold. We retraced our steps counting them aloud together; this time we agreed. The next shift would relieve us at three o'clock. The time was then eleven minutes to three. Not long to wait. We started to collect our equipment together.

All was quiet. Suddenly - "Listen!" From outside came clear and distinct the wail of sirens. Quickly, grabbing our things, we made for our place of shelter. The relieving shift soon hurried in and joined us. We tried the electric light switch but the current had been cut off. By the light of torches we soaped the eyepieces of our masks, and tried them on. We switched the torches off and waited, in the dark, talking now and then. One of us went to see if the second way out was unlocked; we all followed and emerged into the open.

A warden was patrolling an adjacent street. A hazy white cloud floated high over the town. All other clouds had gone. The moon was resplendent in all its glory. The real call had sounded over an hour ago, and no planes had been heard. Had there been a raid somewhere else, or was it a false alarm? The sirens started their monotone "all clear." We returned to the building, and my colleague and I got our equipment, and an hour and quarter overdue we left the post.

I walked home along deserted moonlit streets. The stars twinkled in a cloudless sky as they have done for millions of years. The whole universe seemed at peace, and yet -? How utterly futile is war. How utterly futile ....