Angela, twelve years old and Hugh, three, were driven to Devon by their father, Foreign Editor of the Daily Herald, as soon as he heard of the German-Russian Non-aggression Pact, ten days before declaration of war. They stayed first at a prep school at Lifton Park under the thumb of their father’s malevolent aunt, but Hugh soon went to live with the local GP, and his family, who taught him basic fire-fighting, including dealing with incendiary bombs, and rescue – at a little more than four he could move the six-foot doctors across the floor. After an instructive year butterfly collecting, the family enthusiasm, he was precipitately thrown out to become a full-time boarder at a girls’ riding school in Lewdown, run by a Lesbian Headmistress and her staff with an inclination to strap him for imaginary misbehaviour. Angela ended up there as well, but her early, unsupervised, interest lay with one of the two boys, sons of cronies.
Before he had been there long Hugh was woken by a mistress. The blackout had been taken down and she indicated a big red glow in the sky: ‘that’s Plymouth burning’.
Years later it transpired that their father had paid nothing to the doctor, or the school for the whole war.
When the juniors were moved from the main school, Ardock, to a local house, High Trees, Hugh formed a friendship with Ursula, they made a spoof bomb together, and her sudden removal left a lasting gap.
The siblings saw little of their mother Kitty MacBride, later noted potter of the ‘Happy Mice’, heroic Warden in the Blitz and ATS officer attached to the RAMC to enrol, with outstanding success, blood donors for D-day and after. They didn’t see their father after 1939 until re-united in Canberra in 1946, where he had a Diplomatic job. Hugh was popular with the Ozzy boys, after he had punched a few of them! Angela did a year’s Medicine at Sydney University but, faced with paying her own fare, she came home.
Angela and Hugh’s accounts are interspersed with entertaining, sometimes tragic, details of their unusual family background.
As RAF Armament officer, and research chemist, Hugh finds that some of his childhood impressions were not what they seemed. The ‘earth tremor’ felt shortly after the school moved to Fairford, Glos was the mighty explosion of the underground bomb dump at Fauld, Staffs and Hugh explains, for the first time, its true cause.
The seemingly unimportant loss of his gas-mask before the end of the war could have proved fatal; a dusty corner of the chemical literature (cited) reveals that Hitler was mass-producing the nerve-gas Tabun and building plants for (more persistent) Sarin which could have been delivered, a tonne at a time, by V2 rockets against which we had no defence. (Half the V1s, an alternative vehicle, were shot down by RAF fighters and Ack-Ack guns, many ‘manned’ by ATS girls.) Everywhere south of Cambridge was within range from the French coast, and had D-day been postponed much longer the population could have been decimated, if not exterminated, in Hitler’s Final Revenge.
The same source describes development of a similar nerve-gas by chemists at Cambridge, who speeded-up their work by testing compounds on their own eyes!
Imprint: Ryelands. ISBN 978 1 906551 36 0, hardback, 210x148mm, 224 pages. Published April 2013.