Accounts written by boys in Harper House about their experiences during the bombing of Sherborne on 30 September 1940.

Arranged A-Z by surname:

ANON
Harper House, 6th form.

‘On returning to Sherborne 3 days after the 30th September’
I and a friend had been to Oxford for an exam, and returned to Sherborne 3 days after the raid.  We had come down by the G.W.R. to Yeovil, and caught a bus to Sherborne.  We came into Sherborne without my noticing anything peculiar, and came up Greenhill, to be stopped by a little white A.R.P. notice at the top of Cheap Street.  There was nothing peculiar in that, since Sherborne A.R.P. had had practices before, and I assumed that they were having one now.  We debussed, and turned left to walk along past Carlton theatre towards Newlands to reach Harper House.  We immediately saw a lot of bedding and furniture standing in the road before a house.  A bomb had landed pretty near, and the house was being evacuated.  I remember thinking “Good Lord, a bomb’s been dropped”.  We, with a small crowd of others stood and watched for a moment.  A cat was sitting on the pile of stones which had once been its home, surveying the scene with stoical interest.

From there we could get a glimpse of Newlands and the illusion of “a” bomb was soon dispelled.  Somewhat anxious, and yet singularly thrilled, we turned to a man who was standing in the doorway of a house nearby watching events with the air of a film producer who has at last got a scene to his liking.  We enquired what had happened.  He informed us, and, amongst other things, told us that King’s School was, if still standing, not functioning.  This I did not believe, and told the man so.  But he insisted, and was about to enlarge on the facts when we moved on.

We reached Newlands, a quarter of Sherborne which had been badly hit, and stood for 8 or ten minutes looking at the damage.  Only one or two houses had received direct hits, but most were being evacuated as they were unsafe.  Men were still working on burst pipes in a crater, although damage had been done 3 days previously.  Cars were continuously going past filled with sightseers, staring and gossiping.  We were just walking down to Harper House through Hound Street, when a master overtook on a bicycle, and asked us about the exam.  It was a bit startling, and seemed very out of place.

When we reached the house we were really a little sorry to see it still standing.

David Blandford BARTLETT (1924-1998)
Attended Sherborne School (Harper House) September 1937-March 1942; 6th form; XI 1941.
Age on 30 September 1940: 16.

‘English essay, The Raid on Sherborne’
It was about half-past four when the air-raid siren sounded.  We were doing work, or perhaps pretending to, at the time and everyone went to their allotted places, some to the classrooms on the ground floor, some into Abbey House and those in the fire squad ran back to their houses, which they always have to do whenever the siren blows.  I happened to be in the house fire squad and quickly ran back to Harper House, where we waited in the large open space, which is our place of refuge.  After about five minutes we went into our studies and began to work, but soon a rumbling noise was heard in the distance and the prefect who was there shouted to us to get into the open space and lie down.  The noise became louder and louder and for two minutes it was the nearest thing to hell that I have yet met.  It naturally seemed much longer than it really was.  The door happened to be open and one boy got up to shut it, but he was blown clean back and was unable to shut it properly.  While the bombs were being dropped there was so much noise, with windows breaking and boulders being hurled through the roof and the whole house vibrating that it was impossible to hear the whistle of the falling bombs.  When the raid was over we realized that one bomb had landed in the field next door and had hurled two or three colossal boulders through the roof, and soon found out that four had landed in the School Courts. The siren was put out of action, so we stayed inside for a while until we realised that it was not working and that whistles were being blown instead.  We wrote hurried letters home that night to say that we were all right and were writing that we thought about fifty bombs had been dropped, thinking that this was a huge amount; later on however we learned that about four hundred had been let loose.

My feelings during the raid were really very blank.  When I heard the rumbling sound in the distance before the actual raid, I did not at first think that it was bombs, but soon found out that it was.  While the bombs were being dropped from over our heads, my main thought was when it was going to end.  I was not thinking that I might be dead within a few second, like most people, for some reason or other; all that seemed to concern me was when the wretched thing was going to be over.  After it was all over I began to wonder how it had affected other people and whether the School and Abbey had been damaged or not.  I also was wondering about how many had lost their lives or had been buried or hurt; those in the school especially.  I naturally was thinking what a miraculous escape we had had, especially when I heard that no one in the school had been hurt.  How so little damage was done by four hundred bombs I could not make out.

Francis Michael CASSAVETTI (1924-2008)
Attended Sherborne School (Harper House) September 1938-March 1943; Exhibitioner; Upper 6th form; School Prefect; Head of School; King Exhibition 1938; XV 1942; Hockey XI 1941, 1942, 1943 (captain).
Age on 30 September 1940: 15.

‘My impression of the September 30th Air Raid’
I am not making any pretension to having second sight on any such sixth sense, but when I heard the air raid warning I felt it sounded somewhat sinister somehow, and I had a feeling something was going to happen.  However my premonition was soon dispelled, when I had been sitting for a short time in the classroom below, to which we had gone.  There a master in there suddenly remarked with an excited look on his face [?] Heinhels’, and I heard a distant humming.  Then I heard and felt a distant rumble, which slowly drew nearer.  I had ample time to lie down, and on being hit by a piece of glass from the window, to move into the middle of the classroom to a safer place under a desk before the most approximate bombs fell.  Then all I can remember during the very close explosions was the tense and scarlet face of the master just opposite me.

It was as the explosions landed further away that a feeling of fear really came to me, especially when one of our air planes came over very low down just after, and I had a feeling that if anything more was dropped, it just could not miss the building I was in.  By the time we were all told to go across to the cloisters I was in a slightly calmer mood but the atmosphere there rather prevailed over me, and I left them shivering with fright, but also with feeling of security.

Ranald Philip Clayton HANDFIELD-JONES (b.1923)
Attended Sherborne School (Harper House) January 1937-September 1941; 6th form.
Age on 30 September 1940: 17.

Essay
I had been staying at Oxford for a week, and I returned on Thursday the third of October.  I had no idea that anything might be out of the ordinary and was not unduly surprised when I saw a ‘Road Closed’ sign at the top of Cheap Street.  Such things had appeared before when there was an A.R.P. practice.

Walking along Newlands I came to a group of people standing round a few shattered walls & a heap of rocks and wood that had once been a house, so familiar as to attract no attention.  I thought of the house a few doors away which had been set on fire: there had been people standing around then, but they had looked more interested as if fire was less easily understood than the German mentality.

It was difficult to believe at first that not only this house but many more like it had been destroyed by bombs: it made one wonder what the Germans were really like, they seemed remote and incomprehensible until once came face to face with their handiwork.

I asked one of the small group of people standing around whether Harper House had been hit, and the person thought not but was not sure, so I started down Newlands towards Hound Street.  What surprised me more than anything was that the damage was comparatively slight.  I had a preconceived idea that when a bomb landed in a street, the houses on either side for a distance of twenty or thirty yards would be either demolished or uninhabitable.  However, a direct hit on a house had sometimes only removed the roof and two of the outside walls.

Harper House has a vast pile of earth which had been removed from the top step in the yard and the lawn and the field over the wall were liberally spattered with earth.

Then came the meeting of friends, the vivid tales and personal experiences: pictures of columns of smoke from bursting bombs, the blast that made ones hair stand on end.  Finally a feeling of having missed something.

Peter Riley Vernon TOMSON (b.1926)
Attended Sherborne School (Harper House) September 1940-July 1944; School Prefect; Ridout Science prize 1944.
Age on 30 September 1940: 14.

‘The Air Raid’
When the warning began I and I know others thought it would be just the same as previous daytime ones had been, about half an hour of free time and truthfully I quite enjoyed these.

However after the first quarter of an hour, in which I read a novel which I carried with me for such an occasion, I altered my thoughts on the subject a great deal, in fact since I have never desired a warning.

At the time I was in the cloisters outside the ‘Pound’ leaning against the wall of sandbags.  The first indication of enemy activity seemed to me to be a violent shaking accompanied with a rumble increasing rapidly in strength.  Immediately there was the cry of “Lie down”, at which everyone flung themselves on the floor and curled up into balls or lay prone, and soon the bombs began to fall.

During the short time when the high explosives were falling, a thousand thoughts went through my mind.  My first reaction was that it would not be very close or dangerous, but soon my opinion altered, there were several loud bangs each preceded by a whistle which grew louder every moment and became deeper, moreover each whistle seemed to be louder than the preceding one and it gave me the impression that the next was bound to land on or near me.

Naturally then I hardly thought at all, except of the bombs, but I noticed one thing which was that the light in the ‘Pound’ went out.

I had been covered with pieces of glass during the actual bombing, but otherwise I was completely unchanged.  For some period afterwards I remained on the ground since people were shouting keep down and other similar sentences, but soon I got up and quickly looked over the sandbags.  The sight which I saw surprised me greatly because I had not realized that bombs had really fallen as close as that, although there were some fumes of burnt cordite and the dust which had arisen.

The noise of the actual explosions were not as terrifying as the whistling in my mind, but I was more frightened then than I have ever been before, and now I always would prefer not to have a warning even if I could miss some work.

Brian Geoffrey Wellesley WELDON (b.1924)
Attended Sherborne School (Harper House) September 1938-July 1942; Exhibitioner.
Age on 30 September 1940: 15.

‘My experience of the raid on Sherborne’
During afternoon school on Monday September 30th 1940, at 4.30 to be precise, the “banshee” wailed and we all trooped down to the bottom storey.  But, being a member of the House Fire Squad, I ran back to the house [Harper House] cursing the Germans for coming over, imagining that it was just one of the countless warnings, little thinking that it was going to prove one of the most terrifying and noisy afternoons in my life.

I seated myself in my chair in my study and started reading a book when another boy came in and sat down.  Just after I had become really engrossed in my book we heard many ‘planes not so very far away and presently the door rattled and the house gently shook.  We rushed to the “open space”, which was our refuge place during an air raid and listened.  The whole Fire Squad and a few more prefects were there and since the house started shaking more we shut the doors and lay down flat on our faces and waited.

We had not long to wait before the explosions came uncomfortably close.  One door was blown open and, in an attempt to shut it a prefect was flung back by the terrific blast of a nearby bomb.  There just was not time to be really frightened.  I distinctly remember wondering what it was like to be blown up, because I was determined that, judging by the noise and whistlings of bombs, I could not possibly live through it, even if a miracle were to happen.

The blast sucked at our trousers and flapped them, just as if you were on the pillion of a motor bicycle travelling at a high speed.  It also pulled your hair in different directions and the dust eddied and swirled about on the floor and the glass from a door slid across the floor.

I, God knows how, had the presence of mind to ram my fingers tight in my ears; probably because I vainly hoped to shut out the noise of the bombs, for, as a small child and even up to very recently, I hated thunder and a great deal of noise.

Then all was quiet, how quiet!  We looked out of a window and saw a pall of dust above the neighbouring houses.  Enormous boulders were mingled with our bicycles and were strewn liberally round the garden.  We dusted ourselves and started sweeping up the mess and we all went to our studies to see if anything we particularly cherished was broken.  My window had been sucked out completely – frame and all – except for one large piece of glass just where I had been sitting.  Nothing had been broken, though the mirror and my wooden carved animals were on the floor.  Even the valves of my wireless set, just by the window were unharmed and the instrument worked just as well, if not better than it had before!

Mrs Barlow brought us some tea, which was extremely kind of her, and we drank it gratefully.  We then went upstairs to see what damage had been done to the house. Stones and earth and plaster covered the floors of the upper dormitories; stones which had been carried from a field forty yards away!  There were gaping holes in the roof and all the windows were shattered.  We started clearing up the mess and then the rest of the house came back and the house was, once more, restored to comparative order and cleanliness.

I was amazed next morning to see the bombs in Cheap Street and in the Courts, and in the afternoon we helped to take furniture out of partly demolished houses.

It was the after effects which were the worst.  I was then frightened and felt I wanted to talk to someone the whole time and I could not bear to be left alone in a room especially after dark.

In the night I woke up and a time bomb went off.  My heart thumped until I thought it would burst and leapt to my mouth.  I was sick with fright in case it was another raid and I hid my head under the pillow to keep out the noise of the bombs which I expected.

John Bruce WINGATE (1924-2013)
Attended Sherborne School (Harper House) May 1938-July 1942; xv 1941; soccer, fencing.
Age on 30 September 1940: 16.

When I went home in the Christmas of 1940 I was immediately besieged with questions about our raid on September 30th.  Before I had time to open my mouth to answer these questions these kindly friends took the words out of my mouth and completely disabled me with kind words such as “It must have been awful – I expect it was rather like Cousin G who was…”  So I never told my story to anyone except my family and they were not even appreciative as they had been through the Blitz in London.  But at last I can tell my story and someone might read it with perhaps a glimmer of interest.

On September 30th it was quite a decent day for Sherborne.  We had had a short warning in the morning.  I was rather tired after a game.  We were doing Maths and I can remember doodling on my pad and the steady drone of the master’s voice lulling me into an easy doze.  I was at peace with everyone, even Hitler, if I had been thinking about him.  I was thinking of the glorious fun of harvesting, the hum of the tractor which I had driven so often.  There was an external hum somewhere.  I stirred and listened.  Everyone was listening, even the master.  It was the warning no one minded, we all trooped into the cloisters and sat down.  Having borrowed a cushion from a boy in School House I parked myself by the pound and started to draw.  I was deeply engrossed in my drawing when someone said “Here they come.”  I heard a deep hum of a formation of aircraft, but I could not identify the noise as it was a formation.  Then there was a boom in the distance.  That was enough, I put a book between my teeth I remember that well, it was a book of Heat by Mackenzie, it still bears my tooth marks to this day.  The banging became louder and louder: I seemed to be thinking very clearly, although was terrified.  I was wondering if the ceiling came in whether my head was going to be crushed or my body was going to be shattered.  I wondered if I was going to die in agony or if I was going to die at all.  The bombs came nearer and then with one appalling crash they seemed to be on top of us.  Then they went away. I arose feeling very shaken and very thankful. Some people were forcing smiles: then everything became normal. The usual laughing and talking spread round.

The Chief [Headmaster] appeared in his dressing gown.  He had been taking a bath.  Everyone let out a roar of cheering. This helped to brighten things up.  There were, it was reported, two big craters in the courts and also a bomb had landed either on, in or near the science buildings.  Mr D and S came in covered with dust from head to foot with broad grins.  The all clear went and every soul in the place rushed into the courts to view the damage.  Someone had said at the beginning of the term “One fairly big bomb in the middle of the courts and the whole place would be flattened.”  So far from being flattened the buildings were still standing not very much the worse except for fallen ceilings and broken windows.

I picked my way back to the house through glass all over the roads.  I had to circumnavigate a huge hole in the middle of Cheap Street.  Once at the house [Harper House] it was all right but when I was approaching from the bottom of Hound Street my feelings were rather mixed.  I wondered vaguely what I would find.  I thought the worst would be a gaping hole surrounded by a few gaunt walls.  Of course there may not be a bomb near the place.  It was still standing when I arrived anyhow.  There was a bit of a mess from boulders which had fallen through the roof, hurled from a neighbouring bomb.  When we had cleared up the mess we all sat back and then we realized how lucky we had been.  That night we heard three delayed action bombs going off.  We heard that there were a few more to go.  But we had to wait till the morrow to find out the rest of the damage done to Sherborne.

 

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