World War II

Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, on 3rd September 1939, did not result in the same wave of patriotic euphoria that had engulfed Cambridge in the summer of 1914, as memories of that conflict were too recent and too grim. Nor did the war take anyone by surprise; Emmanuel, along with other Cambridge colleges, had been preparing for hostilities for some time.

As early as May 1938 Emmanuel had designated its Bursar as Air Raid Warden, and during the Munich Crisis in September of that year there was a flurry of activity, the College purchasing ladders, fire buckets, sand, water pumps, and other fire-fighting equipment. A watch tower was set up on the roof of the Westmorland Building, and as a consequence of this foresight fire-watchers were on duty from the first day of the war. All members of the College were expected to take their turn at watching, and they also received instruction in fire-fighting, participating in regular ARP (Air Raid Precaution) drills. As it turned out, the only bomb damage the College was to suffer occurred on 16th January 1941, when a small incendiary device fell on the Kitchen roof. This was extinguished ‘quite easily’ by the two fire-watching students on duty, Ronald Ruddle and Paul Fehrsen.

Shortly after the war began, the College’s most precious silverware, archives, ancient stained glass and rare books were evacuated to trusted custodians in the provinces (mainly Emmanuel-educated clergymen!). It proved impractical, however, to include all but a handful of the College’s pictures in this scheme. The blackout was strictly enforced; one Emmanuel student later vividly recalled the hazards of crossing open areas, such as Parker’s Piece, in the pitch dark. As the war progressed, the parapets where the fire-watchers sat were reinforced, and the windows of several College buildings were given the protection of sandbags or temporary brick screens. The basements of various buildings inside the College precinct, including the Hostel and Emmanuel House, were used as air-raid shelters, and a new refuge was built close to the Library and Old Court, in the gardens of 55 St Andrew’s Street (a College-owned property). The tunnel under Emmanuel Street, that linked the main College site to North Court, was reinforced with strutting in order to provide another safe shelter.

The College was not depopulated to anything like the same extent as in the First World War, for the recruitment of students was organised by the military authorities in a much more considered and controlled way; indeed, annual admissions of new students to Emmanuel were considerably higher for most of the war years than they had been in the previous decade. Overall, however, the number of resident students fell, because many of them were only at College for a short period of time. Arts students could stay for a year before going into the armed forces, while scientists and engineers were enabled, by University wartime regulations, to gain their degrees after only two years’ study. The student intake also included a considerable number of ‘Short Course’ cadets, men already in the forces who had come to take specially-designed Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Royal Engineers courses in arts, science or engineering, lasting six months. Quite a few of these cadets returned after the war to continue their studies and graduate in the normal way.

The ‘Short Course’ cadets were housed in North Court, which was again, as in the First World War, given over to the armed forces for the duration, in this case to the RAF Initial Training Wing. The air force also took over two other College buildings for use as Sick Quarters: Emmanuel House and the Hostel (part only, the rest continuing to be occupied by undergraduates). From July 1942 RAF personnel were given permission to use the College’s two Fives Courts for the disinfection of blankets. Because of the presence of the military within the College precinct, other residents - Fellows, students and staff - had to be issued with civilian passes. The railings along the College frontage on St Andrew’s Street were sacrificed to the war effort in 1940 (although rumour had it that they got no further than a local scrap metal dump) but after a tussle with the Ministry of Works and Buildings, North Court's railings were reprieved, in the interests of military security.

The domestic side of College life was more seriously affected than in the previous conflict, for strict rationing of food and fuel, amongst other things, was brought in almost immediately. An endless stream of Ministry of Food directives were issued to Cambridge colleges during the war, minutely controlling the quantity and constituents of meals, and allotting designated suppliers, some of whom were more reliable than others. The quality of the wartime food served at Emmanuel suffered as much from the departure of its skilled cooks as from the rationing, and there were many complaints about the food, one student describing a particularly awful dinner as ‘one of the foulest meals within human history’. The daily wartime College menu books abound with unappetising items such as kidney omelette, calf’s head vinaigrette, egg cutlets, tapioca pudding and marrow jam tart. Despite this, some students took more than their fair share of food, as illustrated below. In an attempt to improve the quality and reduce the cost of meals, the College decided to cultivate vegetables. Initially this enterprise was confined to existing flower beds, but in October 1940 the decision was taken to dig up a large part of the Paddock and divide it into neat vegetable plots. These were maintained until 1949, as rationing continued after the war. Because of the shortage of domestic labour, the College often asked students to help out in the gardens and in the kitchens, paying in both cases a small wage.

Because student numbers remained fairly high throughout the Second World War, the social life of the undergraduates was less seriously affected than in the previous conflict, although rationing made things like tea and sherry parties - formerly staples of student hospitality - impossible. The ‘Short Course’ cadets participated fully in all College activities, including any sports still on offer; there was rowing three days a week, the squash court was in regular use, and the Wilberforce Road playing fields were maintained, although from 1941 they were shared with several Cambridge schools, and grazed by sheep during the Long Vac. The Debating Society held meetings throughout the War, often discussing issues pertaining to the conflict. The Musical Society continued to give concerts, but the Dionysiacs (the College dramatic society) were obliged to sacrifice the timbers of their stage in the Old Library to Civil Defence purposes.

The composition of Emmanuel’s Fellowship was of course affected by the war. All the younger Fellows, and several of the older ones, left to take up war work of one sort or another, and the remaining Fellows also took on war-related duties in addition to their normal work. As a consequence retired Emmanuel Fellows living in Cambridge were asked to take over some of the teaching burden and they soon found themselves with heavier tutorial loads than at any time in their careers. The teaching staff was also augmented by visiting lecturers, including Luis Cernuda, who would become one of Spain’s most acclaimed poets; his poem El Arbor was inspired by Emmanuel’s celebrated Oriental plane tree. Another visiting academic was Professor Frank Dobie of the University of Texas, who greatly enjoyed his time at Emmanuel despite the wartime privations, and later published an entertaining account of his sojourn in Cambridge. Rarely seen without his beloved Stetson, he was a noted raconteur and a popular addition to Emmanuel’s society.

The end of the War in Europe, officially designated ‘V.E. Day’ and celebrated on 8th May 1945, was marked at Emmanuel by modest festivities. This was partly because rationing prevented anything more lavish, and partly in accordance with the University’s request that celebrations should be muted, as the war in the Far East had yet to be concluded. A few weeks earlier, with the Allied victory in sight, a Debating Society motion had optimistically proposed that Emmanuel’s Fellows be asked to supply free drinks on ‘V-day’. This motion was carried unanimously, as was the suggestion that the College should hold a Victory Ball, or failing that, a special dinner. Neither proved possible, but on V.E. Day port from Emmanuel’s cellars was indeed provided for all members of the College to drink the King’s health at dinner, a meal whose first course was the patriotic-sounding Consommé Rex. As V.J. Day occurred in the Long Vac, it was not formally celebrated in College.

The number of Emmanuel men killed in the Second World War was slightly higher than the death toll of the previous conflict, some 140 men being killed on active service or as a result of enemy action. Most of the servicemen who died were soldiers and airmen, although there were also more than a dozen naval fatalities. Eight Medical Officers and two Chaplains to the Forces also lost their lives, and a few men appear to have been killed while carrying out Intelligence work. This time there were civilian casualties, too, several men dying in air raids or during attacks on passenger ships. The memorials to the 1939-46 Fallen (for men who died on active service in the year following the cessation of hostilities were considered to be war casualties) consist of an illuminated parchment Book of Remembrance and a specially-commissioned cross for the Chapel altar, made by Howard Brown of Norwich.