World War II has a significant place in Clifton College’s history books. In 1940, it was thought that Bristol would be safe from the German bombardment but this proved not to be the case. On 24th June, the first bombs fell on the city with devastating effect.
The adjacent church caught fire, leading teachers and pupils to take shelter in basements and, later in the year, purpose-built air-raid shelters (the last of which was demolished in 1986).
The Bristol Blitz, 24th November 1940
A bomb fell on the Preparatory School’s New Field, which only missed one Wiseman’s House shelter and Polack’s House Shelter by 30 and 60 feet respectively. Originally believed to be an error by the Luftwaffe, this bombing appeared to mistake the cricket pitch for an airfield. However in later years it became clear that the College, a source of officers and soldiers as well as having a boarding House for Jewish boys, was very much a target.
Luckily, no one was injured, but General Sir Hugh Elles, the SW Regional Commissioner and OC, advised that the College should be evacuated. The College Chairman did not agree, but the Headmaster, Bertrand L. Hallward, held an emergency meeting without the Chairman and displayed excellent organisational skills to lead the evacuation.
Evacuation to Bude, N. Cornwall, 1941
As 1941 began, the boys’ schooling experience changed radically. 310 pupils, with overnight bags, and books from the library, and a few Housemasters and teachers were evacuated to Bude. Hallward arranged for them to stay in seaside boarding houses and continue their studies there. Their ability to learn was not compromised in any way judging by the school’s results: Clifton College won a high number of academic awards at Oxford and Cambridge between 1941, 1945 and beating Eton and St Paul’s to take the top spot in the league tables in 1943.
Former pupil, John David Marsh, recounted some of his experiences in an interview with the BBC.
“I do not think we ever appreciated how hard the masters must have worked but when we went back to school single bedrooms had been turned into a study bedroom for two. Big wooden stilts had been made and the school beds bolted to them as bunk beds. A floor of a hotel made up a boarding house and the ground floor rooms were turned into classrooms and the school library.
“The Headland Café was turned into a communal dining room and assembly and everything else hall. The masters found accommodation in the town somehow. A problem was obviously science labs. We shared these with local schools after they had finished for the day. This meant that lessons had to be after five o’clock and so the afternoons were for games. There was no longer a music school with lots of pianos – but local residents were obliging and let their pianos be used for practice.”
He continues: “We played Rugby in a farmer’s field some miles along the coast. Hockey was on the sands when the tide went out. The local cricket club lent their ground for matches. I think the boys took all this in their stride – after all, there was a war on.
“Masters, used to good facilities in Clifton, must have found it hard work. But the school thrived. I was doing Botany for what was then the Higher School Certificate and we had the moors and the seashore and a riverbank to explore and we had great field days out botanising.”
Back at the College ….playing fields became airfields
The hotels in Bude had been occupied by the Royal Army Service Corps Officer Cadet Training, who then paid handsomely to take over the use of the College buildings. In October the following year, General Omar Bradley moved in and the College became the US First Army HQ.
The School House Housemaster’s drawing room became his office and the Wilson Tower became a high security location.
The top floor was a listening post receiving messages from GCHQ, the floor below was the map room where the details of the American part in the D-Day landings were compiled and in the library itself the ordnance logistics were brought together by clerks for the invasion – some 18,000 items. In fact, some of the drawing pins which secured these are still there today.
Despite the efficiency, the American Army could not get the Chapel clock to work and left an apology note on the back of the clock – which is the only visible evidence we have of them ever being here. Everything else, it is rumoured, is buried beneath the playing fields! We do have photographic evidence of the Army – demonstrating baseball on the Close to Queen Mary who was living incognito outside Bristol.
In November 1944 the Clifton buildings were officially returned to their owners. Hallward returned with 295 boys in March 1945, a number not much higher than the 273 Old Cliftonians who lost their lives in the war.
Flying the flag
General Eisenhower donated an American flag (with 49 stars of course) to the College in 1953 as a thank you for the important role it played during World War II, and it is flown every year on July 4th the American Day of Independence. On 6 June 2014, the flag flew over Clifton College to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings which included the Omaha Landings planned here at Clifton by the American Army.
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