I was a student at Imperial College in war-time London in 1944 and 1945, the last two years of a six-year war. I had come from an all-boys school so the first surprise was girls on the campus. In those days, there were very few and most were in Physics or Chemistry classes.
Imperial College is located north of the South Kensington station in south-west London and was, at that time, comprised of three colleges: the Royal College of Science, the Royal School of Mines, and the City and Guilds Institute engineering school. I was in the Chemical Engineering Department located across the road from the south side of the Albert Hall. The building next door was the Royal College of Music from which emanated strange noises, especially in summer when the windows were open. Other buildings nearby included the National History Museum and the National Science Museum and in the heart of it all is the Royal Institute Tower.
It was surprising how little effect the war had on activities at the college, although many compromises had been made. The gaiety of energetic young students was not there or was certainly suppressed. Nevertheless, many things did continue and this included the various club activities at the College. As a freshman, I was offered membership in the usual team games such as rugger, soccer, and cricket, but also enticing activities like gliding, sailing, skiing, and mountain-climbing. The one that appealed to me was the Boat Club that had a lovely boat house on the Thames at Putney. On my first visit, they happened to be looking for a coxswain for the second eight. I weighed 140 pounds and was offered the position. I coxed that eight from 1944 to 1946 right through the Regattas of Putney, Reading Marlow, and Henley. Our first eight won the Head of the River race on the Thames in 1946 and my crew came tenth of over sixty competitors.
One interesting thing I remember was that food was rationed and, remarkably, so was clothing. We had a clothing book with so many points and we could use them all to buy a suit or jacket and pants or use them separately for other items. I remember we had utility socks that were so short they disappeared into your shoe. For food, we had a ration book and there were strict limits on most items. I gave my ration book to my landlady and she gave me breakfast and dinner seven days a week. Weekly allowances included a single egg, 6 ounces of meat, and small rations of bacon, butter, and tea which I cannot recall.
We were able to supplement our diet with rabbit, chicken, sausage, or whatever the butcher had that week. Shopping was a bit of a nightmare because a queue would form instantly when the word got out that a little extra was available. The Minister of Food tried to popularize whale meat and even reindeer meat at one time. I got my lunch at college and the menu featured lots of pasta. The one meat dish that was often on the menu was the Doubleday Meat Pie. Discussions about the contents abounded. One day, which was announced as Doubleday Pie Day, a bunch of students hung a banner over the road depicting people running all over,catching cats, dogs, and rats and throwing them into a contraption labeled “Doubleday Pie Machine.” It was rumored that the Doubleday Pie Company sued the college. Whether they did or not, the pies kept coming.
Gradually we began to realize we were not being bothered as much by bombs. The biggest invasion in history started on June 6, 1944, D-Day, and as our troops pushed into continental Europe, the V-1s could not reach London any more. A few came down in the Midlands and in Scotland but that did not last long. The news about the war on the radio started getting better each day. We continued to get regular reports from Winston Churchill on the nine o’clock BBC news as we had throughout the entire war. Everyone would huddle round the radio when the word got out that Winston was going to be on. (He had a competitor in Lord Haw-Haw who got on the airways with German propaganda, most of it treated as stupid or funny.)
Our six year World War II ended victoriously on May 8, 1945 which became known as VE-Day. (The invasion had taken only 11 months from D-Day to Berlin but the whole war cost the U.K. 383,8oo military lives and the USA 470,000.) I went with thousands of students to the Mall leading to Buckingham Palace to see the V-Day Victory Parade. This was fantastic and incorporated troops and equipment from every branch of the armed forces together with all the auxiliary services. When the parade ended, the throng gathered in front of the palace and started chanting, “We want the King.”
Ultimately, the balcony windows swung apart and out came King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, followed by the royal princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. The crowd went wild but the biggest roar I have ever heard came when Winston Churchill came out and greeted the crowd and the RAF flyover. Winston was the first non-royal to step on that balcony.
Later that same day, I went to a D-Day dance in a Putney dance hall where I met a sixteen year old secretary from the BBC called Doris Dewing. Seventy years later, we just celebrated our sixty-third wedding anniversary in July, but that is another memory for another day.