Glenapp proved to be an immense and very stimulating contrast to life at Winchester. Everything was new and different. If there were difficulties, they had to be overcome, this was our individual contribution to the country’s war effort and gave us the feeling that we were playing our part in overcoming the evil that Hitler represented.
With U-Boats operating in the Clyde the authorities were paranoiac that the blackout was observed. Fears of German “agents”, who might try and signal the U- Boats, were widespread, and with Glenapp being located high on the hillside above Ballantrae in a position commanding much of the Clyde, the school was always being scrutinised to see that no chink of light ever escaped. The result was that at the height of the long Scots winters (operating under the daylight saving routine currently advocated by the EEC), first the shutters and then the blackout curtains were drawn soon after 3 pm. and were not opened again until at least 10 am. Not only was this very claustrophobic, but as the blackout effectively eliminated all natural ventilation, the fug that built up inside the Castle by each morning was often overpowering. If by that time, as happened not infrequently, the Castle was shrouded in cloud and being battered by sheeting rain carried by a strong Atlantic gale, the school was virtually besieged. However gales rarely lasted long and were invariably followed by a clearance with wonderful views.
The converse was that during summers reinforced by double summertime, it was hardly ever dark. The locals used to play golf and tennis until well after midnight, boys felt disinclined to sleep, and the patrol-leaders had a hard job in keeping their dormitories relatively quiet. I well remember the spectacular sunsets, and on clear evenings being able to set an immense panorama that stretched from the hills of Antrim in Ulster, the Mull of Kintyre, Ailsa Craig, to Arran and sometimes even higher up the Clyde.
Glenapp was a haven from the bombing, which had extended across virtually all of the UK. However Belfast had been reckoned to be beyond range of the German bombers, and therefore was relatively undefended and unprepared. It was therefore taken by surprise by a vicious raid in the spring of 1941. The coast road from Glasgow, which ran through Ballantrae, to the ferries at Stranraer was suddenly filled with ambulances and fire-engines rushing to the aid of Belfast, all returning north three days later.
For the few who received visits “The King’s Arms” in Ballantrae, although unpretentious from the outside, was a wonderful place to which to be taken out. There was always a warm peat fire and opportunities to “top up” on an apparently inexhaustible supply of eggs and bacon, baps that only Scotland knows how to make topped with butter and home-made jams. All this at a time of growing scarcity in the rest of the UK. Ballantrae also possessed a salty nine-hole golf-course, set between road and sea, and riddled with rabbit holes. Like everything else golf-bails were in short supply, and the owners of Ballantrae’s dogs soon realised there was a useful supplementary income to be made from training them to retrieve “lost” balls. It made golf an expensive and often frustrating sport for novices like me. Glenapp demonstrated that there were many other and, for me, more enjoyable sports and other activities available beyond the traditional soccer, rugger, hockey and cricket, to which we had been confined at Winchester. The contrast provided by the move to Glenapp proved stimulating, introducing a breath of fresh air, greater freedom and developing our initiative.
Blair was an even more imposing castle than Glenapp. It had great historical “presence” having been at the centre of Scots history for nearly 700 years. The grounds were vast and offered far wider scope than Glenapp. Blair, being near the centre of the Highlands, was also much colder. Few of us had ever seen so much snow which, in that first winter of 1941-42, arrived in early December soon after our arrival at the end of October and stayed with us until the end of the following March.
Normal games were impossible, so those able to acquire skates turned to vigorous games of ice-hockey on the Duke’s curling pond, an exciting and stimulating alternative to conventional sports. For those who couldn’t skate there was always wood gathering, the logs being hauled on sledges, and cut to keep the Castle’s fires burning, in which as the temperatures were well below freezing, we all had a real interest. And after each heavy snow fall everyone could release their inhibitions with a massive snowball fight with the cleanest of crisp snow.
That first winter at Blair set the record as the school’s longest term lasting five months. Since the winter term did not start until the end of October 1941 and with transport difficult, the Tindalls decided to cut out the Christmas holidays and carry straight through until Easter 1942. To many of the younger boys the term must have seemed never-ending, especially as letters took a long time to arrive, which heightened the feeling of isolation in this strange remote frozen castle cut off from the real world back home.
Throughout 1941 and 1942 the long rail journeys up to Stranraer and subsequently Blair Atholl were considerable adventures. With the country suffering severe bombing, timings were often erratic, with frequent stops and re-routing possible. It was difficult to judge progress as all the station name signs had been removed, to confuse the enemy in case of an invasion. Stations were crowded, sad, dark and gloomy places with the minimum of lighting. Heating in the trains varied from extreme to zero, and at night all the windows had to be blacked out. I believe the night train to Blair never failed to get through, but it was sometimes many hours late. Certainly on arrival one felt one had arrived in a different world.
Indeed that first winter at Blair must have been a nightmare for the Tindalls as they coped with the uncertainty overhanging the future, and solved the many problems of re-establishing a viable school routine in such very different circumstances. The war was at a dangerous stage, Hitler was at the gates of Moscow, and Britain seemed to be losing rather than winning. Heavy shipping losses in the Atlantic resulted in the tightening of rationing of virtually every item. It was the winter when we lost Singapore, Hong Kong and the Far East. There were few boys who did not have some close relation, not just fathers and brothers but mothers and sisters too, at risk and involved in some way in the war. Maps and charts were maintained for the main fronts, with the ebbs and flows being monitored closely. Knowledge of the growing list of casualties was reinforced by the periodic announcement at Prayers of yet another OWD boy lost, and the realisation that another name had to be added to the school’s Roll of Honour. The total of 82 who died in the Second World War, compared to the 36 lost between 1914-18, brings home the extent to which these —— contributed to ensuring that Britain was not defeated and the British way of life preserved. The list of achievement recorded in Mark Hichens’s postscript to his book would undoubtedly have been longer if those recorded on the Roll of Honour had survived to live full lives and fulfil the potential of their many talents.
My grandparents (Colonel George and Mrs. Banister) must have first met Lionel Helbert soon after the school was founded in 1897, when they were searching for a school for their two sons. They were clearly impressed as both boys: my father – Charles Banister 1899-1903 and uncle – Gerald Banister 1901-1905, were sent to West Downs.
Helbert was renowned for keeping in close touch with parents, and when my grandfather retired from the Army in the early 1900s he became fascinated by Helbert’s new ideas. He also realised that, as Mark Hichens has recorded, administration was not Helbert’s forte, and wishing to contribute to ensuring that West Downs flourished, acted for a time (probably around 1905-06) as a kind of voluntary (unpaid) bursar. Unfortunately no family records exist, which give further information about this period. Colonel Banister died in the Spanish flu epidemic early in 1919 (ten years before I was born), my father in 1961 and my uncle in 1985.
In total seven Banisters attended West Downs as both my father and uncle sent all their sons to the school: Peter (1925-31), William (1927-32), James (1928-33), Philip (1936-40) and finally myself (1937-43).
Robert Banister, B/Corr 10.5.93