A friend for life and incendiary bombs: going up in wartime
Geoffrey Winter (Corpus 1940) served in the Second World War during his undergraduate years at Cambridge. He shares his alumni story.
I had to spend one night or so every week fully dressed on fire-watch duty, patrolling the college premises to sound the alarm if incendiary bombs fell on the college.
I was born in November 1922 in Bradford, Yorkshire. My parents had left school aged fourteen. My father became an apprentice in heavy engineering and my mother went to work in a Bradford mill. At the time of my birth my father was a fitter in the Bradford Locomotive Depot of the London and North Eastern Railway; a few years later he became a foreman.
My mother taught me to read when I was about three years old. My formal schooling began when I was five. I went to a council elementary school, which had been attended by my parents, where I was in classes each of about 45 pupils. When I was about eight years old my father was promoted to be in charge of a locomotive depot in Wrexham, North Wales.
Socially Wrexham was a rather ordinary sort of place. The main local industries were coal-mining and the manufacture of iron and steel. Nevertheless the ethos of my Sixth Form was highly aspirational and it was assumed that most pupils would go on to some form of higher education, with a place at Oxford or Cambridge a target for many of us.
There were only 50 boys in the whole of my Sixth Form but 12 of us were to go to Oxford or Cambridge. However most if not all of us needed financial help for this to happen. The best possible help came from the award of a State Scholarship.
To my astonishment and delight, I obtained a State Scholarship plus a County Council Exhibition on the results of my first attempt at the High School Certificate examinations in the summer of 1939. I returned to school after three weeks in France to prepare for the Cambridge Scholarship examinations, which were due in December 1939.
I went to Corpus in the first week of December 1939 to sit the Open Scholarship Examinations and to be interviewed by the Tutor and by the Director of Studies in Modern Languages.
I went up to Corpus in the autumn of 1940 at the age of 17. From the start, I knew that I would not be able to remain at Corpus for the usual three-year first degree course, I knew I would have to leave for war service and might, with luck, return after the war.
I applied myself conscientiously to my academic work. I played hockey and tennis for the College. I spent quite a lot of time with the Officer Training Corps at the Grange Road base. I had to spend one night or so every week fully dressed on fire-watch duty, patrolling the College premises to sound the alarm if incendiary bombs fell on the College.
I lived at the top of ‘C’ staircase and my room had a coal fire. I had to carry a sack of coal (rationed) from a dump in a secluded part of the College up the stairs; the ration was not sufficient for a fire to be left burning all day.
When I had been up for the Scholarship Examinations I had met a fellow-candidate and we had got on very well in those few days. He came up as a major scholar in Classics and we became close friends – for life, as it turned out.
My military service began in July 1942; I chose to serve in the infantry and was commissioned at the end of January 1943. By July 1943 I was fighting in Sicily and then in Italy. We suffered many casualties and after the fall of Rome, the battalion went to the Middle East for a rest, reinforcements and some specialised training.
We spent time in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan (at the time called Transjordan). I went on specialised courses in mine-lifting, bridging and boating, the use of explosive charges; for a while I was an instructor at a street-fighting school in Lebanon. We did not return to Italy but sailed from Haifa to the south of France, travelled to Belgium, eventually crossed the Rhine and then the Elbe. We were advancing on Lübeck when the war ended.
During my time aboard I met just one Corpus contemporary. We came across each other as we were preparing for an attack to the west of Cassino. I did not see him again. He was killed at Anzio; years later I found his grave in the Anzio War Cemetery.
In Germany I expected an opportunity to improve my oral German but was prevented by the ‘no fraternisation’ order which prevented us from engaging in social conversation with German people. I found life in Germany very boring; there was little for us to do. Sometimes we had to quell rioting by displaced persons who wanted to wreck vengeance on the Germans.
Returning to Corpus
In Brunswick I was astonished to receive a letter from Corpus to say that the University had secured the early release from the forces of all Scholars and Exhibitioners. I returned to Corpus at the beginning of November 1945. I had already graduated while in Italy as I had taken part one of the Tripos, kept six terms and served in the Army for at least the equivalent of three terms. This qualified me for an unclassified honours wartime degree.
The question was how long I would remain at Corpus. Could I take part two of the Tripos in two terms after three and a half years during which I’d never opened a book or written a page? Or should I take two terms plus an academic year before taking part two? I opted for the former. I worked hard, still played tennis and hockey, and had a good time generally; I was very pleased with a 2:1 in part two of the Modern and Medieval Languages Tripos after such a long absence and a very short period of preparation.
I went down at the end of term. After a post-graduate year at London University I went to Ghana (at the time called the Gold Coast) in 1948, returning to England in 1954. I became an assistant education officer in local education authority administration and eventually became the chief education officer of the County of the North Riding of Yorkshire. On retirement from that post I became a principle lecturer in management of education at Sheffield City Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University).
I kept in touch with Corpus after I had gone down. I attended functions at the College, became a member of the Corpus Association Committee and visited my best friend who had become a Fellow (later Senior Life Fellow).
Geoffrey Winter studied Modern and Medieval Languages and attended Corpus Christi College.
This article has been written by Geoffrey Winter and the opinions expressed are those of the author.