THE BOYS OF SHAKESPEARE’S SCHOOL IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR
By Richard Pearson
Published by Pen & Sword Military
ISBN: 978 1 78159 152 9
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online
Blimey! This book sounds so English, doesn’t it? You get the feel of all that Goodbye, Mr Chips stuff, the cricket and tuck shops, the jolly japes and all those colourful blazers. One of my favourite heroes in The Dandy comic was Winker Watson and he was a right character. I was nine years old, so don’t bust my chops over it. I’m not nostalgic for schools of that kind. I went to a right rough-house in east London for which I retain not a jot of fondness. It was war. Despite all that I don’t mind evoking the memory of the nutty schoolmaster played by Will Hay in those pre-war comedies the “boys” in this book would have seen as new. The ghost of Robert Donat treads softly through the ether of these ramblings.
I have committed a deceit to set my scene. This isn’t about a posh public school where chaps sachet with affluent ease into the Brigade of Guards or the Millionaires Squadron. This is the story of the King Edward VI grammar school in Stratford-Upon-Avon and its sacrifice in the Second World War. It wasn’t the poorest, but it wasn’t for the gentry, either. We learn that fifty-two former pupils died for their country. That is a heavy price for just one school.
These books are popular. We more often see them as privately published affairs and indeed my pal John Baker and his sister Lesley Iles produced one for Southend High School, remembering over a hundred boys lost in the Great War. They’re now doing WW2 and I had the pleasure of photographing the grave of an airman in Sicily for them a week or so ago. But some books get the backing of a specialist publisher and that is why we are here.
What Southend has in common with Stratford-Upon-Avon is that these boys were all pretty much of the yeoman sort – NCOs and the lower ranks, not too many temporary gentlemen or professional officer types.
We don’t get an officer until Chapter 7, but in short order we meet Battle of Britain hero Rogers Freeman Garland Miller of 609 Squadron who was lost on the 27th of September, 1940. Known as Mick, he was regular who had come through his training to fly Spitfires just in time for the battle. He died in a collision with a Bf110, the Spitfire disintegrating while what remained of the Messerschmitt, complete with crewman, came down just a few miles outside Dorchester. The German pilot survived.
In a different world altogether was Trooper James Overbury of the Warwickshire Yeomanry. He died fighting rebels in Iraq during the uprising by the pro-Nazi Rachid Ali. His unit had not long converted from horseback to being lorried infantry. My late father’s battalion were out there somewhere, the event is listed in his army paybook.
A tragic case is that of Frederick John Bailey, a Warrant Officer pilot with 73 Squadron who had the misfortune to be in the port of Bari the night three Ju-88s bombed the harbour. They got lucky and hit a fuel pipeline which set off a chain of explosions. One of these exposed a nasty secret. The British had been storing a consignment of mustard gas, fearing the Germans were about to use gas themselves; on one of the ships which caught fire. Other munitions aboard exploded and in the nightmare that followed around two thousand people were infected by the gas. Frederick was one of the sixty-nine who died as a direct consequence.
These are three quick examples of many. They tell a story of the ordinary lads who fought for their country. They are no different to the American paratrooper David Clinton Tharp we celebrated a couple of reviews ago. Their victory, the one we cherish, wasn’t won by supermen. It was achieved by the likes of you and me. But we won’t ever have to do it like they did and so we fete them and rightly so. The ranks of the victors are starting to thin and it is shocking to think that, in no so many years from now, we will be venerating the Harry Patches of the Second World War. Books like this are our link.
My dad was an infantryman – his mortal enemy in the war was disease and he survived it, just, to suffer all his life in some way or other. I remember the relapses of malaria with sadness. He died in 1992. He went to a nicer school than me and others in his class did more heroic things, I’m sure. In some ways this book transcends Shakespeare’s school and tells us of all the men from those schools who became aircrew and engineers, tank gunners, sappers and infantrymen. They were our yeomen. They won Britain’s war.
Richard Pearson has done a nice job here. For in bringing us the lads of his own school, where he is the archivist, he kick starts a desire to learn about all the others.
It would be nice to see more books like this. They might not all get to the attention of Pen & Sword, but they can be made and they are most welcome.