Generous rations of rural news

5th May 1995 at 01:00
Things are sliding. Comic-strip storm-troopers no longer cry "Die Britischer pig dog", while the fourth-years at Ringmer Community College claim never to have shot at Germans in the playground.

They do, however, know about the time that raw sewage was used to quench a fire and preserve the blackout in the nearby town of Lewes. They know how a Spitfire came to crash into a local mill, and how the wave of evacuees from London affected life in the Sussex countryside.

The school's fourth-years (Year 10) have just produced a book of local memories in time for VE Day - the fruit of last year's key stage 3 history course.

"We try to look at each topic at a local or family level first, then broaden it out to a national or international level," says Rob Gibson, the head of humanities. "Clearly this lends itself very much to this approach; the War had a major impact on many local families and the local community. If people didn't do this kind of research, a lot of personal and family histories would be lost."

Kathryn Porter had never known that her father had fought in Egypt. He was holed up in Tobruk for eight months; defended the canal zone at Alexandria; and then took part in Montgomery's final push against Rommel. All this before he joined the invasion of Sicily and Italy. "I was surprised," she says. "He'd never mentioned it before."

The exercise turned up a range of experience well beyond the normal tales of the Blitz and the Western Front. Marc Blackman interviewed a former German soldier and was surprised to be told that many German troops had entered the War pessimistic about their chances of beating the Allies.

His interviewee, Rudolf Sonnenburg, was among two million troops sent to the freezing Russian Front in 1941. This was a year that the winter came suddenly. "Temperatures dived to -53oF and it was impossible to touch anything that was metal because your hands would stick instantly," he explained to Marc. "In summer it reached 84oF and the smell of dead bodies was indescribable." Many of Rudolf's comrades were killed, or committed suicide, but he was lucky enough to be captured by the Americans.

Rationing in the countryside does not seem to have been the hardship it was in the major cities. Izzy Pateman's grandmother had a big garden with rabbits and chickens to supplement the otherwise meagre allocations. Besides which, she explains, she was well supplied with food and clothes after joining the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.

Those who believe in a Golden Age when teachers commanded universal respect should perhaps take note. Charlotte Fletcher was billeted in Sussex near her evacuated pupils. "They (local people) went round and chose the best-dressed children and the nicest looking. The scruffy kind of ones were left to the end. And the teachers, well I was with a Miss Grevel. I had to share a bed with Mrs Rennie, one of the teachers, and we had the maid's room. So that's what she thought of teachers!

"After Mrs Rennie went back to London, she said to me, 'I had no idea that teachers were such nice people!' I could have struck her."

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