Boy Scouts scrub potatoes ready for the evening meal at a fruit-picking camp near Cambridge in 1943 By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, Wildman Shaw [Public domain], via IWM and Wikimedia Commons
I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to Epsom College in 1943. Under the College's war-time rules, once you were fourteen it was compulsory to join the Cadet Corps for military-style training. Coming to the school as I did aged twelve, I had the opportunity to join the Scout Troop run by Abner Nash. At first we learnt basic skills like tying knots. To this day I recall, and recite to myself while doing it, Abner's instructions on how to tie a bowline. We learnt other skills like First Aid, Morse code signalling either with flashlight or signal flag, as well as full semaphore signalling with two flags.
One weekend the scouts went on the Saturday to a meadow near West Humble beside the River Mole. We pitched our tents, lit a fire to cook by and camped out overnight. The next day we went swimming in the River Mole. Abner Nash kindly lent me some knitted woollen trunks, as I didn't have my trunks at the school (for the boys-only swimming in the College baths they were not only unnecessary, they were not permitted). It was kind of him to lend me the trunks but a bit embarrassing for me to find when I got them on that a moth had made a hole (albeit a small one, thank goodness) in the front in a rather critical location.
Back at the Scout Hut we were also tutored in some of the creepy skills a spy might need, like how to approach a sentry from behind without being heard, or to make your way across country without drawing attention to yourself. As circumstances turned out, the latter was to prove very useful.
When it was time for the Corps Field Day in the spring term of 1944 there was excitement in the Troop, because Abner had devised an excellent Wide Game for the Scouts. We were divided into pairs. Each pair was given a small sum of money (about five shillings, 25p in today's money) and a map showing a location at an Ordnance Survey grid reference on Ranmore Common. We were given the challenge of making our way there, each pair independently, arriving by a set rendezvous time in the early afternoon. Abner picked the twosomes, cleverly pairing each boarder with a day-boy. Those of us in the junior boarding house were normally forbidden to go into the town of Epsom, thus we benefited greatly by being paired with someone with local knowledge. Sadly I cannot recall my partner's name, but he was a day-boy from Epsom itself.
Pay Day for Boy Scouts at a fruit-picking camp near Cambridge in 1943 By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, Wildman Shaw [Public domain], via IWM and Wikimedia Commons
Each pair drew in turn from an upturned hat a piece of paper which gave us our starting instructions, as every pair was to follow a different route. In our case, we were to walk to Epsom Town station, buy tickets and take the train to Dorking, proceeding from there to the rendezvous point on foot, perhaps a couple of miles hike.
Studying the map (Link to a 1960 OS Map of this area), we decided to walk first north from the station then west along the road that passed what was then Dorking Grammar School. This led to a road which seemed to track along the base of the Downs escarpment, whereas we wanted to be up on top of the Downs if we were to reach the rendezvous. Shortly, however, we found what seemed like a lane branching off this road, leading up the hillside in the direction we wanted to go. There was a gate closed across the lane, but a scramble up a bank allowed us to bypass it and up we went, making good progress.
In due course, as we got higher, we realised we had entered the estate of a very large house. If trespassing upon private property, we had better use our scouting skills to traverse the ground unnoticed - for twelve-year-olds in wartime, this was an excellent exercise!
At one stage we thought we could hear sounds reminiscent of the sharp cracks heard when the shooting team were practicing on the College's 25-yard outdoor rifle range, the only range in the school grounds where it was possible to use live ammunition in the 0.303 Lee-Enfield rifles which were the standard issue weapons used by members of the Corps. The noises we now heard came from some way off to our left.
Getting nearer to the large house, we could see that it was well and truly inhabited, and there were huge heaps everywhere of khaki-coloured boxes and objects covered by tarpaulins. At this stage in the war, we were well aware what camouflage looked like. We knew now this was some form of Army camp.
The path we were following crossed an open area, but was itself somewhat recessed into the ground, so using what we had learned in the Scouts, we flattened ourselves down, and crawled across this stretch of ground, eventually reaching an area where there had obviously been a well-tended garden, with hedges which allowed us to adopt a higher profile. At a crouching run, we approached the reverse side of what was obviously a notice beside the path. Once past it, we turned to read what anyone could have seen, had they come from the other direction:
NO PERSONNEL TO PASS THIS POINT
WHEN FIRING IS IN PROGRESS
We had heard firing! We felt sure we had not crossed an actual firing range - there had been no signs of any targets. It seemed we were not only trespassing, we had clearly passed over forbidden ground!
The one clear objective now was to get out of this place as quickly as possible! Dodging behind the various piles of boxes, crates, mysterious objects draped in tarpaulins, we headed rapidly for what looked like a perimeter wall. In the distance we could hear loud voices, and they sounded American.
Happily, no-one spotted us. We climbed over the wall and reached a road, running across it and into the woods on the far side. From there we passed along between the trees until eventually we reached the rendezvous point, to be greeted happily by Scoutmaster Abner Nash. We were not the first, but neither were we the last, and gladly joined the group in eating the hearty lunch he had prepared by a camp fire.
Sadly, overcome as we were by the shock of what might have been, Abner was never to learn from us of the use we had made that day of the excellent scouting skills he had taught us, of traversing "enemy" territory unseen.
What none of us knew at the time, of course, least of all Abner Nash, was that the landings in Normandy were only about three months away, and what we had passed through was one tiny part of the enormous but intensely secret military build-up in preparation for D-Day.
Now, years later, I realise that the large house in question was the Denbies country house built by Thomas Cubitt in 1854. A website on "England's Lost Country Houses" says of it that "after World War II, during which the house was billeted with Canadian troops and suffered from the usual neglect and damage … [it] was demolished in 1953". There is now a large and successful vineyard on the Denbies estate.