Brian Griffin

British Civilian

These notes were written by Brian Griffin in 2018 for WarGen. He is based now in Sydney, Australia. He was born in India in 1930 and was at school in England from 1936 to 1947.

“In 1939 my family was on our summer school holidays with my grandfather at his home in Italy. During our stay an announcement came warning British citizens to leave Italy as soon as possible. We had to pack and leave within hours and Grandpa immediately booked us on the last night train before the border was closed. Had he not done this we would have been interned for the duration of the war. We travelled overnight through France to Calais and then took the ferry back to Britain.

My brother, sister and I were all at boarding schools in England as our home was actually in India where my father served in the Indian Army. As Dad was now serving in WW2 my mother had to remain in England and she boarded in London and did volunteer work. At India House she made up Red Cross parcels for Indian Army POW’s and she was also an Air Raid Warden – at night on the roof, she was a spotter looking out for incendiary bomb fires and calling the fire brigade.

Fortunately, friends of ours knew a family on a farm in Devon – ‘Peamore Farm’, who would take us in and we were all able to stay with them as P.G.s (Mum preferred ‘paying guests’ to ‘evacuees’) for all the long school holidays throughout the war.

Churchill ordered all schools located between London and Berlin to be evacuated as this was expected to be the most used route by German bombers. Our headmaster of Windlesham, Chris Malden, found a beautiful large country house near Ambleside in the Lake District and moved the school there, well away from German bombers. On some school holidays I travelled down from there to London with other boys and girls from Roedean School, which was fun. I stayed in London with Mum and Grandpa in a safe bedroom in the basement. I helped Mum pack the parcels at India House for a few days.

My earliest experience of the war would have been to share a train from London to Exeter with wounded soldiers from Dunkirk. I was surprised to see the soldiers as we had not heard the news of the evacuation from France and did not expect to see wounded soldiers being sent west rather than to London hospitals. Later I heard that Churchill was emptying the London hospitals to be prepared for more wounded if there was an invasion.

My father was in command of his Indian Army regiment, the Mahratta Light Infantry, who were engaged in the North Africa campaign against General Rommel and his Africa Corp.

When I stayed with my mother in London during the school holidays, she took me to all the Newsreels, sometimes as many as three in one day. We were so anxious to find out what was happening in the war and especially the North Africa Campaign where Dad was fighting.

When we had long school holidays I had to travel by train from the Lake District to the farm in Devon. One time the train suddenly stopped, and the driver came through telling everybody that the line had been bombed so we had to leave the train. Fortunately, when we walked to the nearest road a bus driver offered to drive us around the trouble to south of Bristol where we were able to catch another train and continue our trip to Exeter.

One of my jobs on the farm was to shut up the hen houses at night to protect the hens from foxes. The design of the houses was very clever. They had a wire floor and were on 4 wheels so each night I wheeled them to different parts of the corn fields, so the hens could eat and scratch after the harvest. When I did my tour of the houses, I crept forward to see if there were any rabbits grazing. I always had my .22-gauge rifle with me on the ready so if I saw rabbit ears on the horizon, I lifted my rifle to my shoulder and one step forward would reveal the rabbits head and an easy target. Our scullery maid would strip them, wash the inside and leave the skin on. Sometimes I would then cycle to Exeter rail station with the rabbits hanging off the handlebars. I tied a label to the rabbits with my Auntie’s address in London and gave them to the train guard who put them in the freight car. I then telephoned Auntie Agnes who collected the rabbits from the London train station and she was very pleased to have the meat which was scarce during rationing.

One close experience was during the Christmas holidays when we all woke to a tremendous explosion. We were being bombed! The blast broke windows but no other real damage but out in the fields was huge crater which attracted some of the cows. Some slipped in with the loose earth and we then had to put a rope around their midriff and haul them out with the tractor – great fun for small boys!

I used to cycle into Exeter to the shops. One day I didn’t have enough pocket money for the Dinky cars I wanted. So, the next day I cycled in again and discovered the street had been bombed and all the shops were gone. All those lovely shopkeepers were dead. I think I must have cried.

My public school, Sherborne, was bombed by a plane returning to France that had not reached its target and wanted to get rid of the bombs. Fortunately, no real damage was done. A fond memory from Sherborne was the magazines that were subscribed to for the reading room because after the boys had had time to read them they were auctioned off. I won the London Illustrated News and I pasted cuttings from it about the war for my scrapbook.

When the Allies were preparing to invade France on the Normandy beaches, many of the US Army troops were gathering along the Devon and Cornwall coasts. During the June school holidays, we saw a continuous convoy of US troop trucks on the main road west passing our farm which was near Exeter on their way to engage in the D Day landings. We threw apples into the trucks for the soldiers and they threw chewing gum back to us. We invited some of the officers to sleep in our farm barns.

My (brief) family story

My father was born in Australia and at age 16 he volunteered and served in the Australian army in WW1 at Gallipoli and then on the Western Front. After the war he joined the British Army and was sent to India as a commissioned officer in the Indian Army. He served in Burma and Afghanistan with the Mahratta Light Infantry.

He met and married my mother in India and my siblings and I were all born in India.

After WW2, Dad retired from the Indian Army as a Brigadier General and Head of the Mahratta Light Infantry. He decided it would be best for the family to move to Australia so on 9 August 1947, I sailed on SS Otranto from Southampton to Bombay to join the family.  After handing over the regiment at Partition we waited for a passage to Australia. Most of the ships from the UK to Australia were full of returning soldiers so we waited several months for a booking. We stayed with my grandparents before building our own home in Sydney. I completed my education at Sydney University and have had a successful career as an architect.

Now at age 87 I am retired.

(Written by Brian Griffin, posted for WarGen by Michael Thompson who can provide details of how to contact Brian on request. I also have his signed Release Form)

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