CIVVY STREET IN WORLD WAR 2
TOM FLETCHER'S TRUE STORY OF CIVILIAN LIFE IN WARTIME
This personal account was published on the web in 2000 on www.macksites.com. It disappeared in 2010, so I have reproduced it here..
War was declared on Germany on September 3 1939. I was just over eleven years old and we lived at Clive Lane, Filton, about five miles north of the centre of Bristol, only a hundred yards or so from the Bristol Aeroplane Company aircraft and engine works (now British Aerospace). My father worked in the engine works at Patchway , (now Rolls Royce).
It seemed only days later that platoons of soldiers were marching up and down the main road to Bristol and Gloucester and the first were stationed around Bristol. A barrage balloon camp was established at Home farm , only a couple of hundred yards from our house.
The Royal Air force personnel were housed in bell-tents and we used to sit with them and be given cups of tea etc. It was my first experience of a bell-tent and to me they seemed so big, yet warm and cozy.
At school we were issued with gas masks contained in small cardboard boxes about six inches cube with a piece of string large enough to carry over your shoulder. We were given instructions on how to wear them etc. and they were quite smelly, claustrophobic things to keep on. Babies under two were supplied with a bag-type gas mask, big enough for them to lie in, that was supplied with filtered air by pumping hand bellows.
The first air raid sirens were installed and tested and were in use with the first activity of German aircraft. We soon got used to them and often didn't take any notice. We were next issued with our own Anderson shelter which was a very strong corrugated iron structure, about six feet by eight feet, with an arched roof and a small doorway at the front. These shelters were self-assembly and designed to be half submerged under garden level. This meant digging a large hole and the soil excavated was piled on the top. I can't remember digging the hole. Dad probably did it when we were at school - he at the time was on permanent nights at Patchway. The Anderson shelter was not too successful as most of them seemed to be half full of water most of the time and few were used regularly.
Another type of shelter issued was the Morrison shelter (named after the Minister of War, Herbert Morrison). These were in the form of a heavy steel dining table with steel mesh sides. This was often kept in the back room and my wife has memories of being put to bed in one as a child, trying to get to sleep when her parents had visitors.
The air raid siren alert (alternate high and low pitch for alert) would often go off at night, but we would usually stay in bed. When the all clear sounded (a sustained high pitch) the engine works would play "Colonel Bogey" over the tannoy, which to this day reminds me of the Patchway works and the air raid all clear.
School and everyday life seemed fairly ordinary and normal for us children, except for the air raid sirens going off quite regularly day and night. We became quite used to the routine and were completely unaware of the inherent danger of living alongside a large aircraft and engine factory which were obvious targets for a major German air raid.
September 25 1940 is a day that will live in my memory forever. It was a beautiful sunny warm day and we were still at home for the summer holidays. After breakfast as usual Ralph and I went out to play, leaving mum at home with a younger sister. Ralph being five years younger then me was rather a drag on my freedom. I used to try and slip away on my own, but mum would usually notice and say "Tom , take Ralph with you".
Sometimes I would get to the end of the back garden and was just opening the gate to slide away when mum's voice would shout out from the back doorstep "Tooooom, wait for Ralph!" What a pain it was to have a younger brother tagging along all the time.
I already had two of my sisters evacuated with an Aunt. My elder sister had left home to take some extra clothes to them. Dad was at Filton. Although he was working nights at Rolls Royce, he also had a morning job delivering bread for a local bakery. Ralph and I decided to "go down the polo field" as we used to say which borders the barbed wire boundary fence of the Bristol Aero plane Company engine works - now Rolls Royce. We used to spend many hours in the field climbing trees etc and in one big tree we had lashed up a super swing which looking back must have been quite dicey as we would swing out from quite a high branch.
The polo field is still there today known as the Combination Rugby Ground - owned by Bristol Rugby Club. On this particular day, September 25th, we were walking alongside the ditch adjacent to the barbed wire fence to Rolls Royce - generally mooching around. The other side of the barbed wire fence were the aircraft engine test beds. These were quite large brick built, cube shaped, windowless buildings, which were supposed to muffle the sound of the engines being tested. From our house you could clearly hear the drone of engines, particularly at night - the testing was non-stop, twenty four hours, night and day.
The sun was warm. It was approaching midday and the sky was clear blue except for one massive white cumulus cloud. Just then the air raid siren sounded.
Being very used to them when not much ever happened during the day, we carried on walking slowly alongside the ditch which had about of foot of water running through. After a few minutes we heard aircraft approaching and we knew straightaway they were German aircraft.
After twelve months of war we would instantly know the difference between the sound of German aircraft and British aircraft. German aircraft engines had a distinctive droning sound. I said to Ralph, with both of us looking up into the clear blue sky "where are they? Can you see them?" We both looked up, squinting with the sun, but still couldn't see them.
I decided to lie down on my back facing the sky to see if I could pick them out from the deep blue sky. As I looked toward the white cumulus cloud the aircraft emerged in arrow formation. As I shouted to Ralph, "there they are!" we heard the scream of the first bombs as they came whistling down. There were 57 German bombers flying at 15,000 feet, the time was 11:48 precisely, and they dropped approximately 350 bombs. The only way to describe the next few minutes was all hell was let loose. The first bombs hit with massive bangs and explosions and the anti-aircraft guns (one being only about 50 yards away) started banging away.
In a split second I was on my feet and we went to the edge of the ditch, but didn't fancy jumping into the mucky water. Ralph half jumped and fell forward into a bed of tall stinging nettles and rapidly leapt back again yelling and rubbing his hands up and down his legs, but the noise drowned his cries as he looked around wondering what was happening (as you can imagine he has never forgotten it!)
As we were wondering what to do and where to run, Rolls Royce workers from the engine test beds a few yard the other side of the barbed wire fence came running to the fence and started to climb over. They were frightened and panicking and were frantically trying to climb over the barbed wire as fast as possible and at the same time cutting their hands and legs and shredding their trouser legs. With bleeding hands etc, they shouted to us to follow them and we ran about 50 yards to a small brick tunnel which carried the water from the stream under the embankment.
On top of the embankment, immediately above us, was an army anti-aircraft artillery unit.. There were almighty bangs, explosions, AA gunfire etc. The raid was over in minutes and over 350 bombs were dropped . Standing in the tunnel we stood with our backs pressed against the curved brick wall with our feet just clear of the water streaming through. There must have been about twenty men from the works and we stood shoulder to shoulder. Suddenly there was a deathly hush.
The man standing at the entrance crept out and we all followed. Ralph and I thought "lets get home" We climbed up the embankment and came face to face with the soldiers in the AA unit. They looked surprised and asked "Where the hell have you come from?" We pointed back down the embankment and still shaking said 'in the tunnel'. "Where do you live?" one asked and I said "Clive Lane" and pointed in the direction of our home. "Come with me" one of them said and took us in hand and we started off home.
We were about halfway home when I saw Dad running in our direction waving his arms. The soldier handed us over, Dad thanked him, and we ran back to Clive Lane, the three of us hand in hand.
There was smoke and flames everywhere, A gas main had a direct hit and flames seemed to go up to the sky. Fire engines were hurtling along with their bells ringing. Eleven soldiers were killed with a direct hit just the other side of the railway bridge about 60 yards from our house. The whole scene was smoke, flames, bells ringing from ambulances and fire engines. When we were in sight of our house I could see that the roof was off.
There were plenty of empty houses in Filton. Lots of people who had relatives or friends away from Bristol just upped and went when the bombing started. I assume some of their homes were requisitioned for housing bombed out families.
More than 900 houses were damaged or destroyed in the raid and 91 workers were killed inside the aircraft works. Most were killed as the result of direct hits on the air raid shelters within the works' boundary.
These shelters were semi-submerged, of concrete construction and about forty feet long. One shelter allocated to the tool room department suffered a direct hit and I believe about 45 toolmakers were killed. (This was the reason that a year or so after starting work I was transferred to the tool room. They still hadn't made up the shortfall of skilled toolmakers lost in that fateful daylight raid).
58 people were killed outside the factory with 154 seriously injured and 118 slightly hurt. Filton church was used as a temporary mortuary and for the rest of the day and the following day there were explosions in the Filton area as delayed action bombs exploded.
We approached our home from the back. I remember walking up the path to the back door, but there was no sign of mum or my younger sister. We entered the house and found they were both safe, upstairs getting some night clothes and things together. It couldn't have been much because we didn't have much. Before we arrived home the ARP warden (Air Raid Precaution) had already been around knocking at doors and telling everyone to prepare for evacuation - the whole area was littered with U.X.B.'s - unexploded bombs.
Looking back I would like to think that mum fell on her knees as we walked in, clasped us in her arms and thanked God that we were safe. Alas I have no such memory and no doubt mum having such a large brood was aware we were in one piece and quickly got on with the packing ready for us to leave. My sister has confirmed that they were under the stairs (not in the garden in the Anderson shelter) during the raid. When all was quiet they crept out from under the stairs and my sister has vivid memories of looking up at the ceiling and seeing flowers dangling from the bowl type lamp shade.. Apparently mum had a vase of flowers in the window and when all the windows were blown in from the nearby blast, the flowers were blown across the room and up into the lamp shade.
Within a few minutes the ARP warden was again shouting through the front doorway (the front door had been blown in with the blast) ,"Are you ready? We must go at once." We ran out to a waiting car and were taken to Shield Road School, where we had cups of tea and something to eat.
While we were having some refreshment, many more families were arriving from houses too damaged for them to stay in as there were unexploded bombs in the vicinity. Everyone arriving was 'booked in' by a couple of ladies sitting at a table where names and addresses of all family members were given. The school hall had been laid out with mattresses - one mattress per family. Although we are a large family, then there were only five of us. I can't remember and I don't suppose for one moment that the five of us slept side by side on one mattress. Dad for certain would be missing because he was working nights at Rolls Royce.
I have one crystal clear memory of waking up the first morning and glancing around and seeing the family lying next to us. A girl of about fifteen (so old to me as a twelve year old) woke up, sat up and reached for her handbag. She found her lipstick and proceeded to apply a generous coating to both lips. As young as I was, I thought - shouldn't she be going to wash first? (Showers were unheard of in those days and you had a bath once a week). I can't remember how long we stayed at the school - only a matter of days and then we were moved out to a house in Mackie Avenue.
While we were staying at the school and during our early days in Mackie Avenue we wandered around Filton and watched the bomb disposal squads digging out the unexploded bombs. The fact that we stood at the edge of the hole that they were digging meant, of course, that the bomb had been exposed enough for the expert in the team to remove the fuse. There were two or three occasions where we could see the end of the bomb with the soldiers still digging around it. These bombs were big, probably 500lbs.
After some weeks at Mackie Avenue we moved to Charborough Road, another requisitioned house.
We were now living in Charborough Road, Filton (Our bombed house in Clive Lane was about 200 yards from the nearest aircraft factory building, this house in Charborough Road was about 400 yards from the nearest aircraft factory building - a much safer location! ) and we were all going to Charborough Road school (affectionately known as Charborough Road Academy). In those days this was called an elementary school, now known as a "comprehensive".
When we came home from school with a note to say the school was offering to evacuate all pupils (I don't think it was compulsory) no doubt mum and dad thought that it was a good idea having been bombed out once. And looking back it was also an opportunity to get rid of the three remaining kids. Just think one moment, they had six children and a few months later there were none - they had the house all to themselves - the silence must have been unbearable.
The decision was made - we would be evacuated. I was nearly 13, Ralph 8, and my sister was 6. The big day came and we all assembled in the school playground with a small (very small) suitcase each. Suitcase is the wrong description, more like an attaché case. In addition we each had a big brown baggage label tied to our lapel button hole with our name and address inscribed. We posed for a group photograph and then climbed aboard the charabancs (coaches). I can't remember my parents being there to see us off - I suppose they thought it would be better if parents weren't there to cause last minute tears and delays.
We couldn't wait to get started on our great adventure. The coach arrived at Coleford in the 'Square' and we all trooped into the Town Hall.
We stood or sat around waiting - there were three or four women looking after us and we were now known as 'evacuees'. Soon more women and men (mostly women) came in and started looking us over. I could see them pointing in our direction and nodding and shaking their heads (mostly shaking).
Looking back I suppose the helpers were trying to keep the three of us together, but without success. As more prospective foster parents arrived they started to select children sitting around us, usually an only child or two from one family at the most, and they filled in a form and left the hall. This went on for an hour or so I suppose until there were only the three of us left sitting together with the four ladies who were supervising the selection. Then one of the ladies came towards us and said we would have to split up and go to different homes. Ralph and I went with one lady who had a car and we first went to a huge detached creepy looking house up a short drive. She knocked on the door and said a few words to whoever opened it (I couldn't see or hear what was said) but it was very brief and we left.
We then went to a smaller detached house in Box Bush Road (it's still there) where I was shown in (Ralph was left in the car) and straight up the stairs to a small bedroom with a single bed, small wardrobe and a small dressing table. I sat on the bed and looked around and could hear the lady who had brought me talking downstairs. The house was so quiet after what I'd been used to - not a sound in the bedroom - and for the first time in my life I felt rather lonely, with a bedroom all to myself.
After a few minutes the lady called me downstairs and suggested I went with her to Mrs. Jones, where Ralph was to stay. When we arrived it was in fact a shop, a radio and photographers shop.
(Its still there and was still a radio shop in the 1980s). It was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Jones who had an eighteen month old son, John . We all went in, the lady in front followed by Ralph, with me bringing up the rear. You went through the main front door off the street, with a door to the shop and on the left and a door in front which opened directly into the living room. As I was closing the door behind us a voice called out from the kitchen for us to go through. We trooped into the kitchen where Mrs. Jones was sitting by the fire with John on her lap, changing his napkin. For me it was the most welcome feeling I'd had all day. There was the smell of something nice cooking - by this time it was nearly teatime, the fire was blazing away in the old fashioned black grate with the oven each side . The lady introduced Ralph and asked Mrs. Jones if he was ok. Mrs Jones looked him over and said yes she was sure he would be alright.
I was looking around this warm homely family kitchen, thinking how lucky Ralph was to be billeted with a family like this. Then I heard the lady ask Mrs. Jones if she would take two, they are brothers and this one is Tom. Mrs. Jones without hesitation said if she was going to have one she might as well have two, it was a double bed in the back bedroom after all. I felt as if I was home again and quickly nodded when the lady said we must go back to Box Bush Road and get my things.
And so began a very happy period of our lives, being evacuated with Mr. and Mrs. Jones and John in the Radio and Photographer shop in Coleford, Forest of Dean. After a few weeks Mr. Jones started to show me various things in the shop. His work room, dark room and studio, which was at the back of the shop and was a large wooden building with a glass roof. I eventually was doing small jobs helping Mr. Jones and one of my first regular jobs every evening was wiring up the accumulators for re-charging. A lot of the local people in the surrounding country area used batteries to run their old fashioned radios ('wireless' in those days).
These batteries were in fact accumulators which were glass containers about four inches square and eight inches high with a swinging carrying handle at the top. These accumulators contained plates and acid and when fully charged would run a radio for about a week. Mr. Jones had a charging set and the locals would bring their accumulators in, leave them overnight and collect them the next day fully charged. My job was to wire all the batteries together, positive to positive and negative to negative after banking them in rows side by side on a large steel tray about two feet wide and three feet long. When all the wiring was complete the whole bank was connected to the charger and left overnight.
Mr. Jones also tried to get me involved with radios, but I was obviously a bit too young to grasp it all. However with his help I made a one valve radio. This was always the classic start in those days - to make your first one valve radio - and it worked.
Mr. Jones showed me how to load a camera with a film (mainly 'Box Brownie') type and customers (mainly women, who always brought their cameras with them) would ask me if I could load the films for them.
I can still remember feeling quite important being able to help them. I was about thirteen at the time. Mr. Jones suffered from asthma and used to smoke 'Potters Asthma' cigarettes, a popular early treatment for Asthma, with a very distinctive smell. He was quite ill some days and couldn't do very much. For many years afterwards every time someone was smoking 'Potters' it rekindled memories of Coleford.
Every fine Sunday morning Mr. Jones would take us for a walk in the forest. We could be, what seemed to us, in the heart of the forest after about twenty minutes. If Mr. Jones felt well we would sometimes take John and take it in turns to carry him on our shoulders.
I also received my first insight and experience of a photographers 'darkroom'. Although I didn't do any developing and printing, Mr. Jones allowed me to be with him in the 'darkroom' and watch him developing and printing the films. These would be his own studio work and the films brought in by the general public. I also served in the shop, particularly when Mr. Jones was in the studio taking photographs (portraits) - lots of children and mums and dads with their first child.
I can vividly remember the first time I saw prints developed. Mr. Jones dropped what looked like plain pieces of paper into the tray containing developing fluid, and watching the picture gradually appear onto the white paper - it was like magic to me. After a batch of printing when they were dry; many required trimming to remove the surplus, and leave a nice even border. This was a job I could do, and we used a standard office guillotine about twelve inches square.
We stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Jones until the end of 1941 when Ralph and I went home for Christmas and we didn't return. I can't recall why we didn't go back because we all got on so well like one happy family.
I was due to leave school the following July, reaching the age of fourteen in the June of 1942. Perhaps mum and dad thought I would be looking for a job within a few months and there were thousands of jobs on our doorstep at the Bristol Aero plane Company.
Japan attacked Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941 and America immediately entered the war.
Soon the first American troops (black and white Americans) arrived in Bristol and were stationed in a large tented camp adjacent to the Patchway bypass, about two and a half miles from our house. This was the first time we had ever seen such large numbers of black men, and we were not fully aware that they were segregated in the camp.
We used to cycle to the camp and hang around the entrance watching the lorries entering with supplies. Jeeps seemed to be buzzing in and out all the time, and drivers and passengers (who always seemed a happy-go-lucky lot) would throw us the occasional packet of chewing gum - a real treat for us.
Jeeps tearing around Filton soon became a familiar sight, and we used to sit in them when they were parked outside the pubs. My father, who was working permanently on the night shift at Rolls Royce and had a part-time job delivering bread in the morning, also had a part-time job during weekends as a barman in the local pub.
He told of the early days, of the Americans first visit to the pub. They had pockets full of English money, but no idea whatsoever of the value, and after ordering a drink (usually whiskey - they detested English beer) they would hold out both hands full of notes and coins for the barman to take the cost of the round. It goes without saying all the barmen were scrupulously honest!!
The Americans, having quite a smart uniform - much better than the English "Tommy" -and plenty of money, quickly attracted the local girls. It soon got around that as well as money, they seemed able to get unlimited supplies of nylon stockings (a real luxury for girls in wartime) and stacks of chocolate. It's no exaggeration to say that some of the girls were "queuing up", much to the annoyance of local boys and service men home on leave.
The Americans, now known as "G.I.s" fitted in well with the local community, attending dances, etc as well as getting involved in the odd Saturday night "punch-up".
On one occasion a travelling fair arrived on the local common for a few days, which was an immediate attraction for us boys, and for the Americans with their English girlfriends.
One particular ride, which was a very fast roundabout type, together with a switch-back up and down action proved very popular with the G.I.s who, unlike the English lads, could afford to stay on for as many rides as they wanted. This ride was of great interest to us lads as spectators. Due to the speed of the ride, and with a light breeze blowing, as the two-seater cars came spinning around holding a G.I. with his arm firmly around his girl, we were treated to some exciting sights. At a particular point on the ride the girls' skirts would blow up in their face exposing legs clad in nylon stockings held up with suspenders. We didn't know if they were showing off the nylons, their legs or both but we were rooted to the spot as they flashed by laughing and screaming - I can still see those girls now!! As a group of l4 and l5 year old boys standing and staring we were slowly beginning to realize that girls are different to boys - such innocent days!!!!
The British servicemen on leave didn't stand a chance against the G.I.s - they had the uniform, the money, the nylons the chocolate AND the girls. The Americans were paid around forty pounds a month while our men only got a few shillings. Towards the end of the war, before D-day there were approximately two million Americans based in Britain.
At the end of the war some of the Americans returned to Filton and married their English girlfriends, taking them back to the States. These girls were then known as G.I. brides.
I left school at the end of July and after a very, very brief interview i.e. name, age and address I started my working career the following Monday at the Bristol Aeroplane Co. Aircraft Works.
A few days after starting work we had an air raid alert about mid morning. It was my first experience of an air raid at work and I had no idea what the drill would be, or what to do. Within seconds things were happening, every man I could see was moving very quickly to get his coat and anything else he wanted to take with him. Someone shouted "follow me, don't go to the shelters" (apparently after the daylight raid when 91 people were killed, mostly in the shelters, the shelters were now hardly used). I grabbed my coat and followed the crowd running as fast as we could
We ran through the works, out to the canteen gate, a whole mass of people (you must appreciate there were something like 15,000 people working at Filton at this time) running through the gate and down past the canteen to the surrounding fields.
We found the best places we could find in and around the hedges and trees, around the fields and stayed there until the "all clear" sounded. These daylight alerts didn't last long, only ten to twenty minutes when it was thought it was probably a German reconnaissance plane flying overhead and quickly away.
Before I started work my mother recalled the occasion, shortly after moving into our requisitioned house (which was again only three to four hundred yards from the aircraft works) when the air raid siren sounded during the day. She was in the middle of some hand washing at the kitchen sink, when glancing through the kitchen window she just happened to notice a man running up the back lane. As she looked again the man opened our garden gate, ran down the garden path, opened the back door and stepped into the kitchen. He was rather startled coming face to face with my mother at the sink and without a word of explanation asked "do you mind if I go under the stairs?". Before she could say yes, no or whatever he walked through the kitchen, into the hall , opened the under-stairs door and went inside.
It should be explained that most people favoured sheltering under the stairs during the air raids which were generally cleared of the usual junk etc. and equipped with blankets, pillows and cushions.
My mother carried on with the hand washing until the air raid all clear sounded - about l0 to l5 minutes later. The man emerged from under the stairs, walked back through the kitchen - stopping only to say "thank you very much", opened the back door, walked down the garden path, through the gate a disappeared down the lane.
He was wearing overalls under his coat so he had obviously run from the aircraft works where most people refused to use the shelters.
The daylight raids gradually petered out due to the increased number of "Hurricane" and "Spitfire" aircraft available, which gave us supremacy in the air and subsequently inflicted increasing heavy losses to the German bombers.
However, the night bombing of Bristol continued for some time and looking from the front of our house towards the centre of Bristol there were many times when the whole night sky was one massive "red glow" reflecting the raging fires from the buildings below.
For a young teenager growing up the war could seem quite distant after the bombing (both day and night) virtually ended.
There being no television of course, the only up to the minute news available was from the radio, followed by the newspapers where the news could be days old, and then Pathe News, the newsreel shown during our weekly visit to the cinema.
However tragic events and news continued to reveal the reality of the war. My eldest cousin who was in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) was killed in a bombing raid on the South Coast when she was serving with an anti-aircraft unit. She was 28 years of age. News would also be received of men from work and relatives of neighbours etc. who had been killed in action.
On the 7th May l945 Germany surrendered and the 8th May was declared V-E day (Victory in Europe). The whole world seemed to go crazy with dancing, singing and parties in the street and celebration drinks. As a group of maturing teenagers we planned a ‘pub crawl’ that evening and off we went to the centre of Bristol.
Although the dancing, singing, bonfires and kissing and hugging of complete strangers carried on, unfortunately the pubs ran out of beer! By about 9.30 pm every pub was dry, cleared out of anything drinkable but the fun continued dancing around the bonfires.
The Government announced a Victory Parade would take place in London on 10th August and my future brother in law suggested that we should go. We planned to catch the early morning "milk train" to Paddington. During the night I was ferried on the back of his motor bike to Temple Meads Station and he then returned for my sister. Leaving the bike at the station we caught the 4am milk train.
On arriving at Paddington we had some directions from a cockney local who advised "Go dahn the back streets mate" and we found our way to Oxford Street. The crowds were already about four deep from the front of the pavement and we found the best possible spot. Standing on tiptoe we witnessed a wonderful, colourful, uplifting procession of marching bands and representatives of all the armed forces. The cheering and flag waving was non-stop.
Afterwards we had tea in Lyons Corner House (a famous London landmark) found our way back to Paddington Station and home.
V-J Day (Victory in Japan) 1945
On August 6th 1945, at 8.15am the first atomic bomb was dropped from a B29 Super Fortress bomber on Hiroshima. The bomb was code named “Little Boy”. 70,000 were killed. On August 9th 1945, the second atomic bomb was dropped from a B29 on Nagasaki. A second B29 carried Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC as an observer.
On 15th August 1945, Japan surrendered.
When the war in Japan ended the celebrations seemed much more subdued than the V-E celebrations, but nevertheless everyone celebrated in the hope that it was the war to end all wars.