Week 90: Exeter College in World War II

On the seventieth anniversary of V.E. Day, the Chaplain looks back at the College life during the Second World War with the help of the College publication, the Exeter College Association Register, which is still published annually.

Register war

During the War, Lincoln College, whose buildings were requisitioned for the duration, moved into share Exeter’s. Student numbers were much diminished, as can be seen by the 1944 matriculation photograph.

Lincoln College moves in with Exeter College 1944

Lincoln College moves in with Exeter College 1944

Academic activities were also steadily curtailed and directed increasingly to war-related work such as that of the Air Squadron, the Naval Division, the Home Guard, and all of the various forms of Civil Defence. Men reading for Medicine and Science were allowed to complete their academic studies, but the majority of Arts students were not permitted to reside in College for more than one year, and were during that brief period compelled to spend an inordinate amount of time on training for war, which all too often they had to repeat when they joined for full-time service. Yet despite these exacting demands, they never flagged in their zeal for study, as the list of First Classes shows.

It is odd to read College Orders for such things as the formation of fire-squads and the payment of fire-fighters who volunteered to remain up in the vacation, or the installation of static water tanks on the quad. Every able-bodied resident in College had been assigned his part in case of an incident, and there were not likely to be many occupants of ‘the trench’ –shelters in the fellows’ garden – in fact only two persons are known ever to have occupied them, and one of these caught a violent cold as a reward for his obedience to orders!

More heartening is a resolution of May 1943 to the effect that the College bell should be rung again as of yore. Now, in peace we look back at the days when, at the sound of the siren the high table dinner was moved to the ante-chamber of the dons’ bath, and undergraduates were bidden to collect their food at the buttery and consume it in their rooms.

We had become inured to war.

The decision that Exeter should be used during the war for the housing of undergraduates and cadets meant that a considerable staff needed to be employed, and the staffing problem was the more serious because many of Exeter’s staff were young  and would inevitably be required for war.  The heaviest burden of all fell on the kitchen, which was soon bereft of all of the male cooks except the Chef himself.

All things come to an end, even totalitarian war. Trinity Term 1945 opened with the bright omen of imminent victory, and soon that hope was realised. On 8 May there was a Thanksgiving Service in Chapel, during which the names of the fallen belonging to Exeter and Lincoln Colleges were read out by the Rectors of the two colleges. In the evening there was a dinner in Hall, at which the Rector gave the toast of ‘The United Nations,’ still a name to conjure with.

Exeter's War Memorial

Exeter’s War Memorial

Rev’d Andrew Allen

College Chaplain

Bishop Radford Fellow, and Editor of Exeter College Register