One of the first excitements at the Old Ride was a visit from HMS Eclipse, a cruiser training ship for Osborne cadets. We played cricket against them and, after dark, they turned their searchlight on to the school from where they were anchored in Bournemouth Bay, and I thought this was thrilling. From my dormitory window I could see the Old Harry rocks at Swanage, and I wonder what I would have thought if a fortuneteller had told me that fifty years later I should be navigating Stormvogel in the dark to an anchorage near these rocks so that a new main halyard could be rove during the Fastnet race.
One of the masters was a young parson called Copleston, who was a tremendous favourite with us. He came to stay at my home one holiday. My mother liked him, but I don’t think my father did, and the visit was not a great success. Another great favourite as a master was a brother of Beverley Nichols; later he introduced me to Beverley at Marlborough. There was another young master who could not control boys, and I got involved in an episode that made me squirm with shame afterwards. We were out for a walk and crossing an open heathland on a hot summer’s day. We were teasing this master, who was very well dressed (it was a Sunday), and wearing a bowler hat.
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While one boy distracted him in front, I tipped the hat over his eyes, whereupon he lashed out with his stick and hit the wrong boy, which caused tremendous joy amongst the rest of us. At that moment two of my cousins, who happened to be staying at a house near by, although I did not know it, arrived on the scene, also out for a walk. They called me over and gave me a good dressing down. Years later, I thought how awful this must have been for the master, who was really an extremely nice chap.
Then we had a German woman who taught music. She had a sharp nose and straggly, thin hair, and disliked me very much. She let me know this on every possible occasion. One day I said that my mother wanted me to learn music. I didn’t, however. How could I be fond of music at that time, when I had to spend every singing lesson without uttering a word? I could not get out the sound I wanted to, and as a result had to stand up with the others and mouth the words without uttering a sound. With the possibility of my taking music lessons, Fraulein was as sweet as honey to me; but I don’t know what the outcome would have been next term if the war had not intervened. She disappeared without trace. The school boiler stoker was called back to the Navy, and during one of his leaves he visited us, and held forth to an admiring group of boys telling us how the Hood and another great battleship were about to be launched and would blow the Kiel Canal gates up. Copleston, whom we called ‘Pebbles’, was a great one for Secret Service tales, and our walks along the cliff tops were made exciting by the thought of all the submarines near us at sea, and the spies round us on land.
Somehow, I became captain of the cricket XI, although really I was never much good at cricket, I was also captain of the school. One of my friends of today, Air Commodore Allen Wheeler, who is now one of the brains of aircraft design, was a junior at the Old Ride at that time. He told me recently that he had been entered in a swimming race at the end of one term, and that I said to him, You have got to win – or else ’ and that he was so frightened that he went ahead and won. I expect I was still somewhat of a bully, and wonder if my experiences at Ellerslie were any excuse.
I was also Number One in the drill squad which the school became as soon as the First World War broke out. This was the last time I ‘took a parade’, if you could call it that, until the middle of the Second World War when I was sent down to the Empire Flying School and had to take the parade as Duty Officer. I was scared stiff. Thirty years between parades is quite a long while, but we must have been hot stuff at the Old Ride, because I succeeded in foozling my way through the ordeal.
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