Gresham's School in wartime
Gresham’s story in the Second World War in many ways mirrored that of the country as a whole. As war approached, air-raid shelters were built across the school and the black-out was imposed. In September 1939 Gresham’s billeted evacuees from London and the southeast.
Everything changed in May 1940. With Hitler’s invasion of the Low Countries and France, Holt suddenly found itself in the frontline as a possible location for a German invasion. The Home Office ordered the school to leave so that the military could take up home defence duties. The school found itself evacuated to Newquay in Cornwall.
Between June 1940 and January 1945 Gresham’s – for the only time in its history – found itself in exile. Day boys suddenly found themselves boarders in the southwest of England. The school took up residence in two hotels in Newquay, The Bay and The Pentire. The school had to be enterprising – a golf course became rugby and cricket pitches, Physics lessons took place in the Pentire Bar and the school linked temporary classrooms to the gas supply of Newquay so Chemistry lessons could continue.
The war took its toll. The roll of the school steadily declined, and staff took on extra duties for no extra pay. The Headmaster was asked to leave. Meanwhile back at Holt the Theatre in the Woods suffered heavy damage as soldiers prepared for D-Day.
Only with the success of the Normandy landings from June 1944 did a return to Holt become possible, and it finally came in January 1945. By the end of the conflict, some 111 former pupils of the school had lost their lives in fighting in the three services across the globe.
The Secret War - Gresham's Spies
In addition to the official story of Gresham’s at war, a small number of former pupils were secretly working as spies for the USSR – admittedly then Britain’s ally in the Second World War.
The most notorious were Donald Maclean, one of the ‘Cambridge Five’, who worked for the Foreign Office in Paris, London and Washington during the war years and Cedric Belfrage, who has recently been confirmed as one of the USSR’s most important spies in the USA in his important role in British Security Co-ordination in New York.
Maclean’s school friend, James Klugmann, worked with the Special Operations Executive in Yugoslavia, doing all he could to promote the cause of Tito’s Communists. The brothers Peter and Bernard Floud are also suspected as having been involved in the Oxford spy ring of the 1930s, though their wartime record may have been less controversial.
Another important Gresham’s Communist was Tom Wintringham. A veteran of the Spanish Civil War, Wintringham produced one of the bestselling books on home defence methods, ‘New Ways of War’, and was one of the architects and organisers of the Home Guard in 1940, providing guerrilla warfare training to recruits at Osterley Park in case the Nazi invasion came.
For more information why not visit the Archives pages of the Old Greshamian Club website at . There you will find digital copies of the Gresham magazine up to 1932, information on wartime headmasters, the WWII roll of honour, and an article on the School’s wartime evacuation to Newquay ‘Way out West’.
Our thanks to Mr Simon Kinder and Mrs Liz Larby of Gresham's for providing us with this information.