The Home Front: Cambridge at War

Sammy Love 12 November 2015

In January 2014, footage filmed by St John’s student Malcolm Shaw was released, depicting scenes of Cambridge student life from the summer of 1941. It shows idyllic scenes such as the 1941 cuppers tennis final, punting outings and sunny visits to Grantchester. We also see Malcolm and some of his fellow students climbing iconic buildings, but unlike the infamous Night Climbers years before them, he and his peers scale the buildings in broad daylight – such activities were permitted as part of fire drills and evacuation training. Looking back at the footage, Malcolm gives a voiceover reminiscing “what happy days those were, and relatively care free despite the back drop of war”. But the university would increasingly feel the strains of wartime.

The academic year of 1941-42 saw matriculations down to three fifths of their usual figure and after conscription of all men aged 18+ was introduced in 1942, the 1942-43 year saw numbers down to less than half the usual. The government ran a system that ensured some men were allowed to stay for higher education, but from 1943 this only applied for science and medical students whereas physically healthy arts students could not defer their service.

Despite the loss of not only students but many fellows and lecturers to the war effort, the university took efforts to keep things running as normal as possible. For instance, in 1942 they devised a scheme that allowed students to study for two terms whilst undertaking their military training and, providing they passed their cadet examinations, this time would count towards a ‘war degree’ which they could complete if they returned to study after their service was finished.

Though most university and college buildings survived unscathed, several of the Union Society buildings were severely damaged in air-raid attacks in 1942. It was believed the Nazis refrained from bombing Cambridge and Oxford in the hope the RAF would reciprocate and spare their important university city, Heidelberg. Yet Cambridge did not completely escape the terror of the Blitz; several air attacks took place between 1940 and 1942, with the first seeing two HE bombs dropped on Vicarage Terrace on the night of the 18th June 1940. In total it is estimated 30 people were killed and 70 injured due to air-raids on Cambridge. As such, Cambridge colleges were sure to take air-raid precautions; by the end of 1941 the stained glass windows of King’s Chapel had been replaced with black tar paper and all rooms in the college were equipped with blue lightbulbs and black-out blinds.

In September 1939 3,000 evacuees were sent to Cambridge from places such as London, Manchester and Liverpool. However, many children struggled to settle in as they found the families they were assigned to too posh compared with their cockney parents and it is estimated that within three months almost half had returned home. The University played its part in assisting with the war effort; fellows at King’s College did their bit by keeping fire-watch from the chapel roof and also dug a zig zag trench outside the choir school to act as an air raid shelter. King’s also accommodated RAF soldiers, who were then able to hide their vehicles under the trees along the backs. Across the university members got involved in the Dig for Victory campaign, which saw college lawns being dug up to grow vegetables.

It appears the Home Front at Cambridge was characterised, like the rest of the country, by resilience, positivity and adaption. As much as possible the University tried to remain an inspiring place that would support young minds and produce men and women who would be an asset to Great Britain. Yet one cannot romanticise the stark reality that even those who survived the war had much stolen from them. Robert F Clark, a Christ’s student who matriculated in 1943 remembers: “At the end of the war I tried to return to complete my course. I was told that there was a five year waiting list. I had to move on with my life”.