Chris Sladen marks the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe with an assessment of its impact on the University. Author: Chris Sladen.

As it had done 25 years earlier, war broke out during the Long Vacation of 1939. How it would affect university life was, for a while, uncertain; Freddie Madden (Ch Ch 1935) recalls some concern, as he was about to embark on his DPhil, as to whether Oxford would be 'in action again' at all. After minimal delay, however, term duly began and, he says, 'work went on as usual.. well, as usual as it could in the circumstances... old college rules continued... tutorials, seminars and lectures went on fairly normally.'

At first, it was the time of the 'Phoney War'. For Oxford, the most immediate impact came from the flood of young evacuees, some temporarily lodged in colleges (at Christ Church, some were found not to have been baptised, and this was hastily put right). When term began, Madden and others settled back into routine. Numbers of undergraduates had fallen sharply; conscription initially applied only to men aged 20 and 21, thus excluding many younger students, but by agreement between the War Office and the University a recruiting office was set up at the Clarendon Building and some 2,000 undergraduates and postgraduates aged 25 or under volunteered. As a result, student numbers fell from 4,500 (850 of them women) in 1938 to 3,400 (750 women) in 1939.

Where Madden settled down to his doctoral thesis, David Morris, arriving as a Fresher to read Modern History at BNC, decided there was 'absolutely no point in doing any work at all': at the end of their first year, undergraduates were to be set some simple papers (no more testing, he claims, than the school leaving examination of those days) and would then be entitled to a BA degree following war service. In the understandable belief that 'it was all soon coming to an end', he determined to sample traditional Oxford pleasures - skating on Port Meadow, and punting on the Cherwell while, as he now recalls, 'the British army was fighting for its life on Dunkirk's beaches.'

As conscription was successively extended (from 1941 it also applied to single women aged 20­30) student numbers continued to fall until, in 1944, the total was about 2,500, of whom nearly one-third were women ­ the highest proportion yet recorded. Even so, the nadir of 1918, when only a few hundred undergraduates remained in Oxford, was avoided. From 1942 onwards only new matriculands aged under 18 were accepted, augmented by short service military students, among them, towards the end of the war, a handful of Americans (thanks to the US 'GI Bill of Rights' of 1944).

By the time Rosemary Maples (now Rosemary Jameson and living in retirement in south Oxfordshire) came up to Somerville to read English in 1942, the degree course had been fixed at two years (plus an extra six-week term during the Long Vacation); only those who committed themselves in advance to becoming teachers qualified for the three-year course. It was, she thinks, hard work for the two-year students, who got to skip only two or three of the Finals papers: 'It wasn't like ordinary peacetime Oxford, but we thought we were jolly lucky to be up at Oxford at all.'

Dons, and other college and University staff, were also conscripted. By 1940 nearly 25 per cent of Oxford's academic staff were either in the forces or working as temporary civil servants. Less predictably, one (unnamed) professor is celebrated in a history of Morris Motors as 'one of the most skilful fitter-assemblers' at the Cowley works, helping turn out 40 Tiger Moth aircraft each week, plus parts for more sophisticated machines.

Many from the poorly paid ranks of college servants ­ 'scouts' ­ were either conscripted or joined the dextrous professor at Cowley. John Spencer (CCC 1940) is one of several contributors to a college anthology who remembers female 'bedders' coming back from retirement to serve as 'scouts'. Innovation might, however, be taken too far: the wartime marriage of a Corpus undergraduate to the daughter of his female 'scout' was 'much frowned upon', writes Spencer.

While the number of 'scouts' diminished, their duties increased. Many served alongside dons in the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV), later the Home Guard. Maurice Bowra, Warden of Wadham, was second-in-command of the Oxford South Company, drilling 150 postal workers in the quad ('our mails are safe at any rate', wrote Isaiah Berlin). Bowra took command of the Company from Frank Pakenham when the latter ­ never the snappiest dresser on campus ­ was reprimanded for being 'improperly dressed' on parade.

During the day, undergraduate and postgraduate students would exercise with the University Training Corps. Others joined college fire brigades, exercising with city crews.

Dons, scouts and students served together as fire-watchers on college rooftops. A round-the-clock team of 20 was stationed at Merton, control centre for all buildings on that side of the city. John Croft (Ch Ch 1941), who would become head of the Home Office Research Unit in the 1970s, has written of 'many a starlit night on the roof of the library watching bombers limping home from raids on Germany'. At several colleges the ladders or stout ropes provided as escape routes in case of fire proved invaluable to those wishing to climb into college in the black-out. Rosemary Maples, whose home was south of London, where the reality of the Blitz was all too evident, remembers Somervillians helping out at the Radcliffe Infirmary, but thought the fuss Oxford made of air raid precautions 'ludicrous'.

Freddie Madden, who went on to a long and distinguished post-war career as a historian ­ Reader, Professorial Fellow and Emeritus Fellow of Nuffield College ­ was fortunate, in 1939, to find a room in his old college; others were shunted unceremoniously into neighbouring colleges: from BNC, David Morris found himself following the pagan evacuees into Christ Church's Meadow Building. Several colleges were requisitioned for civil servants. Balliol hosted bits of the Foreign Office; Merton the Ministry of Transport, Queen's the Ministry of Home Security. Much of St John's was occupied by the Ministry of Food's controllers of fish and potatoes ­ 'the biggest fish and chip shop in the world', quips Whitehall historian Peter Hennessy.

As in 1914, the Examination Schools became a hospital, as did St Hugh's (where pioneering work was done on head injuries) and Ruskin College. London's Slade School of Fine Art was decanted into the Ashmolean. The New Bodleian was first hiding place for college paintings, stained glass and other valuables, many later shifted to more remote places, while the lowest level of the building became an air raid shelter for 2,000. A static water tank was erected in Radcliffe Square, but Merton designed and built its own, claimed the local press, 'to harmonise with the surroundings'. Individual colleges prepared refuges in cellars and basements; the Oxford Mail alleged that one college had converted its cellar but provided only one entrance; if this became blocked, the report said, egress was to be effected with a pickaxe: 'This useful tool will be kept in the porters' lodge ­ the non-arrival of dons at high table would be signal for excavation to begin.'

Another chore for the scouts was daily erection and dismantling of the black-out. For colleges, the cost of blacking out hundreds of windows of assorted sizes in medieval, Tudor or 19th-century buildings was considerable. Before term began, Oxford's shops had reported that blinds, curtains, black paint and brown paper were already in short supply. Watchful over his charges' wellbeing, the then Master of Pembroke asked what action was proposed to protect undergraduates against the solicitations of prostitutes in Oxford's darkened streets. He might have been cheered by the recollection of another 'Corpuscle', Peter Wakefield (CCC 1939 ­ his post-war career would be in the Diplomatic Service) that 'life... sobered up in the face of the war... the black-out reduced the temptation to sally out of an evening'. On the other hand, the memoirs of John Harper-Nelson (Trinity, 1940) tell not only of afternoons devoted to rugby and rowing, but evenings of 'jazz, pubs and publications', concluding: 'to the relief of its adherents and the exasperation of its critics, life at Oxford flows, like the Isis, with inexorable tranquillity in peace or war.' And the budding Labour politician Christopher Mayhew, on leave in Oxford in 1941, wrote to his mother, 'less butter is eaten with crumpets; inferior brands of sherry are drunk... [but] fundamentally Oxford is just the same.'

Historian Paul Addison concludes that food was one of the more depressing aspects of life in wartime Oxford: 'unappetising meals... meagre rations of milk, tea and sugar, and a pound pot of marmalade per term.' Others disagree: Freddie Madden says: 'I don't think there was noticeably any rationing [in 1939]'; David Morris found Christ Church food, that first year of the war, to be 'magnificent'. At Somerville Rosemary Maples seems not to have been so lucky. Living in college (just one Somerville building had been requisitioned), she says that 'most of the time we were jolly hungry'. There were frequent sorties to the Little Clarendon Street bakery, whose loaves would be devoured whole, without butter or jam.

Other shortages ­ of cigarettes, razor blades and soap ­ may have irked more; Maurice Bowra is said by his biographer to have found the lack of lavatory paper 'particularly galling', telling Penelope Betjeman that he used the Daily Mirror, until it blocked Wadham's drains. A common hardship was lack of heating. David Morris found Meadow Building rooms unbearably cold: one jug of hot water a day was provided and, when he came back after the Christmas vacation, the sheets were so cold and damp that steam rose when he got into bed. Things were scarcely better at Somerville, where, Rosemary Jameson says, students quit their rooms and huddled in the library to work.

Some who tasted Oxford's charms before going off to war never returned: John Harper-Nelson's memoirs are dedicated to 'those who made being at Oxford such fun but never survived to enjoy the memories'. Soon after the war, the Oxford Magazine estimated that 1,719 members of the University had lost their lives and, although this was an underestimate, the real total was still smaller, both absolutely and as a proportion of all those who served, than was the case in 1918. Some survivors, like Richard Burton (Exeter 1944), chose to perform in other arenas. Before embarking on his career as journalist, broadcaster and author, Ludovic Kennedy, after 'a year of self-indulgence' in 1938­39, did return in 1946 finding, he writes, 'the indolence and hedonism that had characterised the pre-war period... had given way to application and austerity'. And Sir Roger Bannister writes in his 2004 autobiography, The First Four Minutes, of Exeter College being 'given a new unity and enthusiasm' by the influx of ex-servicemen who formed 90 per cent of the undergraduate population in 1946: 'If they spoke to us and gave us the benefit of their wartime experiences we were surprised and grateful to be noticed. If they chose to ignore us we were not hurt.'

David Morris, who had registered as a conscientious objector in 1940, working first with bombed-out families in Bermondsey, then with the Friends Ambulance Unit in China (his 1948 memoir is titled China Changed My Life), switched, at BNC, to law in 1946, later practising as solicitor, barrister and judge. He remembers post-war Oxford being 'full up ­ three or four times the number of students compared to pre-war. Everyone I knew had been in the war [and] we worked bloody hard. After six years' absence [study] was quite a strain,' but 'we were just so pleased to be back'. There was nothing to drink save weak beer and ­ oddly ­ rum; college food was 'infinitely worse than during the war ... but we didn't mind.' Even at its drabbest, rationing yet more severe than in wartime ­ bread now rationed: no crumbs of comfort for Somervillians ­ David remembers Oxford as 'still magical'.

Outwardly, the Oxford of the late 1940s might look much the same as it had a decade earlier, albeit shabbier. Colleges and University, however, were about to embark on decades of radical change. How much of that change might be attributed directly to the war compared with other engines of change is debatable. Prominent among those engines was the Education Act, 1944 ­ nicknamed the 'Butler Act' ­ a crucial lever in determining the future composition of Oxford's undergraduate population.

Writing in the Oxford Magazine earlier this year, Michael Lee (Ch Ch, 1950) highlighted what he saw as the 'sheer amazement' of the first generation of those 'Butler's scholars' who benefited from central and local government funding for undergraduates. In 1947, Lee points out, around 10 per cent of Oxford undergraduates were dependent on local authority awards, but nearly 50 per cent received ex-service grants; by 1960 over 8 per cent of all undergraduates enjoyed some form of state finance.

Chris Sladen (Ch Ch 1953) is a regular contributor. He acknowledges, with particular thanks, Paul Eros, Deputy Director of Development, Corpus Christi College, as well as John Harper-Nelson's Oxford at War (1994).