The War Years
Memories of Mervyn Upton
28th August, 1930 ~ 29th November, 2012
The Week War Broke Out, September 1939
In those distant days, Infant, Junior and Senior Schools had a summer break of four weeks. On 28th August we returned to school.
Mixed feelings…the long holiday was over, I was to enter the class of the dreaded Miss Millard and it was my 9th birthday.
(Miss M had, besides the usual class monitors, a special duty – the ‘cane boy’ whose duty it was to collect the weapon from the Headmaster so it could be used on some unfortunate boy!…girls were not caned.
During the week, the newspapers and radio were full of bad news of a possible war. I remember, one day, the headlines of the Daily Herald read ‘Navy Mobilizes’.
At that time, we all came home for a midday meal (except the very poor who were fed at a local centre). On Friday 1st September the news at 1pm on the BBC National Programme was grim…Germany had invaded Poland and Warsaw and other cities had been bombed.
That afternoon, before leaving school (at 4.15pm), something unusual occurred…the whole school was assembled in the hall to be informed that, if war broke out, the school would be closed until further notice.
Much discussion on the journey home…
Some hoped that war would break out so they could have more holiday, the more thoughtful were apprehensive and wondered what the future would bring for us.
Saturday 2nd September was a very special day.
That summer Grandma Upton hired a car to take the families of her children for a short outing and, that day, it was our turn.
In those days, Father worked (as a fitter for Bristol Gas Company) on Saturday mornings. Early afternoon, we walked to Argyle St, Eastville, where Grandma lived with Auntie Lily and Uncle Ernie, to board the car. (Car journeys were rare and exciting experiences in those days).
We were driven to Aust where we viewed the ferry on its trips across the Severn. The car passed Filton Aerodrome, my first view of a scene that would, later, become very familiar. There appeared to be much activity around a line of aircrafts (Hawker Hurricanes of 501 Squadron, Royal Auxillary Air Force).
After the trip, there was tea with Grandma. It was always the same… tinned tangerine oranges with Ideal Milk, bread with farmhouse butter and Battenberg cake.
Auntie Lily appeared, with the Evening Post, with news for Father…all Auxiliary Firemen to report to the nearest police station immediately. (At the Munich Crisis of 1938, Father had joined the AFS and was now a fully trained fireman, number 1659).
Eastville Police Station was near, so Father reported and was told to present himself, in uniform, at St George Fire Station at 8am the next morning.
Sunday 3rd September:
A pleasant morning and I was playing in next door’s garden with John and David Cox. Shortly after 11am, Mother appeared with a very serious face to inform Mr and Mrs Cox that war had been declared. Father rushed home, on his cycle, for a quick lunch and photographs were taken.
What would happen next?
After another air raid, I was on my way to school when I encountered Dennis Fry who was returning to his home in Gadshill Road…
“The’se dunna wanna go a school ‘cause it’s bin bombed and it’ll fall down on thee ‘ead.” he told me.
I wondered if Miss Millard was inside when it happened and told him I was going to take a look. However, the school gate was open and there were plenty of boys playing in the playground. Some damage had been done to the building as there were a few windows boarded up. A whistle was blown and we went inside as usual. There were a few empty seats, but most of the class (and Miss Millard) were present and the next day things returned to normality.
A day or two later, the classroom door opened and in walked the headmaster, Mr Edwards, with two objects…the cane and a tearful Dennis Fry!
“Did this boy tell you not to come as the school had been bombed?”
A few hands rose.
“Hold out your hand, Fry.” Whack! In every room where there were children deterred from coming to school…poor Dennis was caned!
One sunny day the sirens sounded but, as nothing seemed to happen, Dennis and Donald Atwill and I continued to play in their garden.
Suddenly anti-aircraft guns began to fire and we saw puffs of white smoke in the clear blue sky. Well ahead of them, we observed the sun glinting on a high flying aircraft. Why were our guns so poor when newspapers, magazines and radio broadcasts informed us how good they were?
That summer, schools remained open during the holidays. I compromised with mother and attended for two weeks. We passed the days playing in the playground, painting and drawing and having stories read to us.
‘Can you run home in four minutes?’ - No shelters were yet available so, should an air raid occur, we had to find shelter at home. If we could not fulfil the required time, parents of children nearer the school were requested to accommodate us.
A test was made. We had to run home, touch the front door and then return to school. I failed the test but kindly Mrs Shaddock in Berkeley Street offered protection in her home. Her son, Desmond, was a friend who also invited John Dunsford to join us. Fortunately, we never had to use this service.
Eastville Junior School, at this time, did not have sufficient shelter space to protect the whole school so we attended half-time. When not at school, we were set homework. The ‘cane boy’ could be busy if none were done!
Wednesday 25th September:
Homework had been done the evening before. I walked to Fishponds (as far as Woolworth’s) with Mother, Mrs Atwilll, Dennis and Donald. We visited Woolworth’s and may have had 6d to spend if good. Walked back.
When Randle’s was reached the sirens sounded a warning. We continued to walk. At Huyton Road, heavy gunfire began. Mother and I rushed home. The Atwills ran up Ridgeway Parade.
Waiting for Mother to unlock the front door, I looked in the NE direction where the distant sky was covered in smoke. The house seemed to be shaking as we rushed to the Anderson shelter in the garden. We were very scared and thought the Luftwaffe had come to destroy Bristol.
Things went quiet and, shortly afterwards, we heard someone come through the back door from the lane and knock on the shelter door. It was the familiar face of the Co-op butcher boy that confronted us…
“Come out, they’ve gone.” he said and the sirens sounded the all-clear.
He told us masses of smoke was rising from beyond Purdown and he thought the aeroplane works at Filton had been hit. He was correct.
That evening, Father cycled to Newfoundland Road to obtain news of a close friend, Ethel Wright, who worked at Filton. She was shaken but unhurt. She said that shelters were hit and people killed although the incidents had not been very near to her. She also reported damage to the factory.
Friday 27th September:
In school this morning, when sirens sounded at 11.23, we went to the shelters.
A large number of aircraft were heard and then machine gun fire and the terrifying sound of an aircraft crashing.
We thought it must have been a German one as our machines were (we were informed) much better.
A Messerschmitt BF110 C4 (W Nr 2160 U8 + FK) of 2/Z.G.26 had been shot down and crashed at Stapleton Institution, Blackberry Hill, Fishponds. It had been shot down by F/Off M. Royce of 504 Squadron, flying a Hawker Hurricane. The German crew of two are buried in Greenbank Cemetry.
Father, working in the St George area, witnessed the incident.
The ‘Blitz’ ~ 1940–41
We were used to German bombers flying over in their night raids on Midland towns. The anti-aircraft guns would fire, occasionally bombs would fall, then, all would be quiet until the bombers passed over on their return flights and the process repeated.
Sunday 25th November, 1940:
The sirens went early that evening and, when gunfire was heard, my father took me into the garden to watch the shells exploding in the sky.
Shortly afterwards, I heard a loud swishing noise and, frightened, I ran back into the house followed by Father who yelled
“Get into the shelter, they’re dropping bombs!”
We then sat in the shelter shivering, more from the cold than fear, until, in a quieter moment, we went into the house to get coats.
A cycle accident had injured him so he was unfit for fire-fighting duties.
It was obvious that a major bombing attack on the city was being made. When the ‘all-clear’ was sounded we looked towards the centre of the city and were amazed at the number of large fires that were burning. Mother’s brother, Ern House, was also in the AFS and was on duty fighting the fires in the docks area and wondered if he would live to see the light of day (he died in 1995 aged 94!). Locally, bombs fell in Gloucester Street killing two passers-by and several teenagers meeting in Eastville Park including Joyce Trotman, aged 13, known to me by sight.
26th December 1940 ~ Boxing Day:
To Grandma and Grandpa House’s: Taken with Auntie Grace to see Uncle Ern who was on fire-watching duty at Marden’s Paper Store in Temple Back.
As all was quiet, he promised his colleagues he would return immediately if the sirens sounded, and took us to see some of the bomb damage. There was the burned-out Temple Church and, nearby, a street shelter completely shattered by a direct hit. Then, to see the remains of the factory - Marden’s, printers for Wills Tobacco Company. It had been totally destroyed and two things intrigued me…the melted glass in the metal window frames and smoke still rising about four weeks after the attack.
The A.F.S and the N.F.S
In 1938, after the Munich Crisis, Father decided to join the Auxillary Fire Service. He felt that war was coming and that his employment as a gas fitter would be important and, at his age (38), he would be called to service in the armed services. He discussed the matter with his brother-in-law, Ern House and they both began fire service training.
By the time that war broke out on December 3rd, 1939, both were fully qualified. Father spent the first day of war on duty at St George Fire Station awaiting air-raids! Bristol was well outside the range of German bombers all then based in Germany. How ignorant were those in positions of authority!
Father, Fireman 1659, was posted at Eastville Police Station before a large house, next to William’s Garage which was used as the Fire Station. Uncle Ern was posted to Whitethorn’s Garage, Lower Ashley Road.
Eastville Fire Station had two, regular, senior officers - Skinner and Westlake. They were excellent men and their efficient leadership was appreciated by the auxiliaries. Regular pump training took place at the flooded quarry in Rover View, Stapleton, at the entrance to Snuff Mills Park.
There were fixed duties and, if possible, men reported for duties when air-raid sirens sounded. Cycling to duty during one of the raids, Father had a road accident in City Road, injuring his shoulder, so was not fit for duty during the major air-raids. Later, he fought the oil tank fires at Avonmouth after a later raid.
Uncle Ern did fight the air-raid fires. On Sunday 24th November, 1940, he was on duty with his crew dealing with the fires in Bristol Docks. Later he admitted that, with so many bombs falling, he did not expect to see the light of day. Fortunately, he never suffered any bomb injury and died in his 90s.
After the Blitz era, the AFS was reorganised becoming the National Fire Service. Eastville Fire Station also changed. John Ford (Tripe Butcher) became Senior Officer. Father went on duty on Saturday nights with a regular crew – Wenban (Leading Fireman), Bird (Driver and Pump Man), Churchill, Fido and Homer.
Watchroom Crew – Peter Frampton, Clarice and Eunice (Firewomen in late teens) and Roy Langley (messenger – with cycle!).
They proved to be a good team but lost contact with each other when the war ended. Mother was not pleased when Clarice and Eunice called on Father before going on duty!!!
In those Post-Blitz days, it was mainly civil fires that were fought and the auxiliaries were delighted when their ladders were in position and pumps in action before the arrival of the regular firemen.
Of course there were lighter incidents to retell:
Homer was a keen cine photographer and often produced his projector to entertain the crew.
After several weeks of inactivity, it was discussed how a fire might be tackled at the nearby ‘His Majesty’s’ Cinema. As the night was quiet, it was decided to investigate so the fire crew set off in the engine. Roy, the messenger, would cycle to them if their services were required to fight a real incident. Ladders were put up and hoses run out. Father, the number one ladder-man, had ascended to the top when the cinema manager appeared (complete in evening dress). He swore at them, telling them to clear off. His clients might panic if they saw the firemen apparently in action. Crestfallen, the crew cleared up their equipment and returned to the station.
There had been a fire at a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Bristol and the crew were to spend the night there on watch should the fire re-ignite. There was a discussion – supper at the station or buy fish and chips en-route. Fish and chips won the day so the engine stopped at the first available supply. In those days fish and chip shops always had long queues. Father leapt out of the engine and rushed to the head of the queue. “Six fish and chip lots please. Make it quick we’re on our way to a fire.” He was rapidly served!!
One Sunday afternoon, Mother and Auntie Ruby, with Carole in her pram, walked to Eastville Fire Station to meet Father when he came off duty. He ran out past them, completely ignoring them, and boarded a fire engine and began laughing and joking with a young firewoman. At last he saw Mother and alighted to join her. Another subject that was frequently mentioned in domestic rows!!!! Sometime later, Carole and I would re-enact the incident to annoy him!!!!!
Clarice was celebrating her 21st birthday and the whole station, with their families, was invited. The event took place in the hall over the (then) Co-op Grocery Store at the junction of Fishponds Road and Stoke View. During a game of Musical Chairs, Father accused another guest, Powell, (actually a distant relative) of cheating and a fight seemed likely. Father would have flattened him. (Auntie Frances was disgusted when she heard of the incident).
As the war came near to its end, it was decided that there would be pump competitions to maintain enthusiasm. Father’s crew entered for several and, on one evening, I accompanied the party (in the fire engine) to Evan’s Park, Saint Philip’s Marsh. I was delighted to see Father hit the target quickly and know his team had won. A trip in the fire engine made it a perfect evening.
Eastville Fire Station was closed and the crew was transferred to Fishponds Fire Station, Snowdon Road for a short while until the NFS was abolished.
Sometime afterwards, Father received a Defence Medal for his war-time services. I received it after his death and later passed it on to his grandson, my nephew, Jason Monks.
In 1940, householders were urged to form fire-fighting groups to extinguish any incendiary bombs quickly before they could produce large fires.
Nos 330 to 342 Fishponds Road, with 1 & 3 Shamrock Road, formed one such group. Father, as a trained fireman, was chosen to be leader.
Active members were ‘Old Man’ Townsend / Les Robbins / Ern James / Harry Leat / Fred Amesbury / Ken Amesbury / Sid Townsend
Two properties provided no men – that of Mrs Gibbs who lived with her blind son, Reg, in Shamrock Road and that of Mrs Sergeant who lived with her daughter, Mrs Garth-Atkins, in Fishponds Road.
Each evening, a duty man was responsible for the observation during any air raid. In fact, virtually the whole group gathered in the back lane during raids, only taking cover when shrapnel from anti-aircraft gunfire, began to descend. The system worked well with conscientious members.
After a couple of months or so, we had a visit from Joe and Bill Goodlife. They were fed up with the Park Place Group and asked if they could join with us. Two strong men with building experiences. They, too, proved to be excellent and were quickly accepted by the rest of the Group.
It was imagined that the City was heavily bombed and each group of Fire-watchers were tested.
The ‘Old Man’ had his own test ~ Father, Mother and Mrs Townsend were ‘in’ the secret and I was dared to reveal the truth. While waiting for the official test, the group made their own practices. Someone noticed that the ‘Old Man’ was missing so a search was made for him without success.
Mrs Townsend was contacted but she knew nothing – behind their backs she signalled to me with a finger placed on her lips…say nothing!
They searched his workshop, found nothing downstairs but heard a groan from the upper layer. There was a pile a fallen timber with the ‘Old Man’ trapped inside. Carefully, they rescued him. Fred Amesbury was shocked and ran home for a glass of whiskey for the unfortunate. Imagine his shock when he found the group laughing with the ‘Old Man’ in the middle, nothing wrong with him except for a dirty face!...he enjoyed the whiskey!! His ‘test’ had proved to be a useful experience.
When the official test was staged, the group passed with flying colours. Muriel Amesbury, Fred’s daughter, coming to their rescue by providing her First Aid knowledge.
Fortunately, the group was never tested by enemy action but was prepared to fight fire during that critical period.
28th August, 1942
It was school holidays, it was a Friday and it was my 12th birthday. Naturally, I was still in bed when, about 9.30, there was a loud explosion from the centre of the city. Mother rapidly appeared, telling me to get up as bombs were falling. Shortly afterwards the sirens sounded their warbling warning. All was quiet – no more bombs – no gunfire. After a brief period, the sirens sounded the all-clear. What had happened?
A high flying aircraft, initially reported as a He177 or Do217, but actually a Ju86R piloted by Feldwebel Horst Gotz with Leutenant Erich Sommer as observer, approached the city at about 40,000ft, well above the range of defending anti-aircraft guns. One 250kg (550lbs) bomb was dropped which fell into broad Weir where 3 double decker buses were destroyed with 48 killed, 26 seriously injured and 30 slightly hurt. It was Bristol’s worse single bomb incident of the entire war.
Various fighters, including 2 Westland Whirlwinds of 263 Squadron attempted interceptions but could not attain the require altitude.
Horst Gotz survived the war and, when 58 in 1970, retired as Lufthansa Captain flying Boeing 707s.
One evening during the mid-war period, when evening air raid activity was virtually nil, we were aware that there was an enormous fire in the centre of the City. Or was it something else?...
The area was red but not the same as the fires seen in 1940-41.
Then, overhead, we heard a procession of large aircraft. No searchlights, no anti-aircraft fire. Was the RAF training its night bomber crews?
I have never seen any reference to these events – it happened on several occasions – in any book written about war-time Bristol.
Grandpa Alfred Upton married his fiancée, Annie Preece c1890 to make himself eligible for the post of the first park ranger. Previously, the land had been part of the estate of Ridgeway House (demolished in 1938). My father and his brothers and sisters were born in the Park House.
In the 1900s, a lake was constructed – a job creation scheme for the unemployed.
In ?? the boat house was burnt down by suffragettes. Father was sent to unlock the park gate for the firemen but, when he arrived, he discovered that the park gates had been knocked down. Grandpa was not pleased!!
Grandfather had the reputation for obtaining obedience and good behaviour from children and young people using the park. One day, two cyclists, seeking revenge, encountered Grandpa crossing Fishponds Road…
”There’s old Upton – let’s give him a scare.”
They sped towards him but came a little too close. Grandpa stretched out his arms and knocked them off their machines.
Photographs exist of:
the movement of tree trunks by a team of six horses
Grandpa superintending the rescue of two men from the roof of the boathouse where they sought refuge from a flash flood
the placing of a cannon facing Eastville Boys’ School.
Father attended that school and, during World War 1, two refugee boys from Belgium became pupils. Their long hair attracted the attention of those who delighted in pulling it. To catch the culprits, the Headmaster requested that a member of staff should hide in a plantation to record the names of the miscreants. That day, father was not one of them!
Grandfather retired in 1929 dying in 1936. He was replaced by Mr Lennard.
Firework displays were staged in the park to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of 1935 and Coronation of 1937. Various organisations used the park and I remember one by the Labour party. Just before the war, the army chartered aircraft from the smaller charter airlines to use as ‘targets’ for the searchlight defences. One day, one such unit came to the park and demonstrated its techniques…first in daylight and then for real after dark. Similar units were operating in other parts of Bristol. Although it was after bedtime, I was taken to see the nocturnal display. An aircraft was found and all the lights concentrated on it but it escaped from the beams. There was applause when ‘our’ light shot forwards and relocated the aircraft. I suppose that it was a good exercise but the machines flew at about 100mph at 5,000ft.
In 1939, plans were made for a large exhibition and, that summer, crowds visited the park to view the construction of a large temporary building, on the upper side of the central park, to include the bandstand and stretch to the patrolmen’s rustic hut.
After the outbreak of war, the building was appropriated by the army when the bottom part of the park became employed for infantry training by the Gloucestershire Regiment.
Eventually, the whole area was closed to civilians. An underground air raid shelter was constructed in the upper part of the park at about this time for public use.
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk were dumped in the park and local residents were requested to supply them with meals and baths (more about this later).
Sunday evening, 25th November:
Two bombs fell in the park at the commencement of Bristol’s first heavy air raid. Teenagers were killed and the disused open-air swimming baths suffered further damage after the attention of vandals. Eventually, the army moved out and the temporary building was demolished.
Much later, a searchlight unit moved into the lower part of the park. The light was more powerful than the one that had previously demonstrated and had strange aerials on its sides which we, correctly, assumed to be radio location (later radar).
Much of this lower area was used for the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign and became allotments.
‘Holidays at Home’ was another campaign and various entertainments came to the upper part of the park. There were plays by amateur groups, bands, dancing. PE displays and, above all, The Fair. This was brought by Charles Heale, whose vehicles wintered at Midland Road. There were roundabouts, moon rocket, dodgems, slot machines, darts and dubious side shows where we spent our pennies but nobody seemed to win anything.
The favourite, for me, was the crazy house.
Sometimes there was a mini circus. To attract customers, some of the performers played drums to background music. One was dressed as a cowboy and I remember Gilbert Sims saying
“He’s not a real cowboy, you know, real ones don’t dress like that. That’s not real guns he has – if they were real, the cops would run him in.”
The ‘cowboy’ was not pleased and obviously wished he could belt Gilbert.
The show was minimal…a couple of clowns, a scantily clad teenage girl, the cowboy and a couple of other adults – about six performers altogether.
Halfway through we were asked to donate to a collection to aid the career of one of the clowns. What a racket, attempting to make the audience pay twice.
On one occasion, a group of large American soldiers were, unsuccessfully, attempting to ring the bell with the hammer. Father (5 foot 6inches) came along and easily rang the bell with every strike. All the Americans had to try again to attempt to prove they were stronger than the little Englishman.
Eventually a few succeeded. Good business for the owner of the apparatus who turned out to be someone Mother had worked with at Todds the Tailors before she married.
One more bomb incident to relate…
Three bombs were dropped – one near the swimming baths doing more damage, one nearby that set one house on fire and shattered its neighbour so that they both had to be demolished and were later rebuilt. The third fell in the cemetery. That night, blasts from the bombs shattered three of our windows.
The war ended and, slowly, the park returned to normality.
My parents felt sorry for the young men who were ‘called up’ and, when the opportunity came, they offered to entertain a soldier. The first (name forgotten) came from the Royal Artillery. He was a Bren Gunner at the antiaircraft site but was soon posted. We later heard from him and he described how his unit had shot down a Spitfire!
Number two was Albert Ayton, a recruit in the Gloucester Regiment based in Eastville Park. His widowed mother lived in Lambeth and he had a girlfriend called Flo. He became a very regular visitor until he was, virtually, family. His twenty-first birthday was approaching and my parents were holding a party for him so he was invited to bring some of his army friends to the celebration. Unfortunately, the Germans invaded France and the emergency meant that all troops were confined to camp. Father visited the camp and, as a result, Albert could come until 12.00pm and one friend until 10.00pm. Both had to be available for instant recall. The party successfully took place.
Shortly afterwards, the Gloucesters were sent to France. Albert was not with them. He re-mustered to become a cook and was posted to the County Ground. Apart from one ‘field postcard’, Albert never heard from his friends again.
Soldiers evacuated from France were scattered around England and some were dumped in Eastville Park. Such was the panic, that local residents were requested to give them a meal and washing facilities. We entertained a couple who, to show their thanks, gave me French and Belgian coins. I have a photograph of one of them dated 6/6/40. His name was Mac Leander of the Royal Engineers. He gave me an Iranian bank note that I still possess. His friend R.H. Leonard also signed the photograph.
Albert married Flo who, for two periods, came to live with us from the Kennington District of London where she lived in a block of flats. Her standards were very different from those we practised.
I remember she asked Mother if she would like a fur coat, as one could be obtained cheaply…she said she often had a wardrobe full of them. She knew people who ‘acquired’ such garments and she often stored them for the local gang who did not want the police to find them!
The first visit she came alone, finding local employment (Cottrell’s leather factory). The second visit came in 1944 when she brought her 3 year old son, Rodney. It appeared he had not had contact with grass before and was frightened when he walked on our lawn. He was a large boy for his age and often attacked my sister Carole, then a small 2 year old. Eventually, they departed, returning to Lambeth.
After service in India, Albert safely returned home. Later he, Flo and his two children moved to Basingstoke. Contact was maintained with my parents, mainly through Christmas cards, until they died.
Four American soldiers were billeted on us. We had no choice but to accept them. They were clerks in the medical corps…Charles Smith, Leo Carido, Simon Posnick and Frank Garza. They proved to be pleasant young men who were generous with tinned food, chewing gum (previously banned to me!) and sweets. Gradually they were posted to France, the last one leaving after about a month. The first to go was Charles Smith and he turned up at lunchtime to collect his gear. He was reluctant to have a final cup of tea as he had a driver in a jeep.
“Bring him in” said Father “I can’t, he’s a black man” came the reply
Father responded “I don’t care what colour he is, if he’s here to fight the Germans he’s welcome to come in…bring him in.”
The man entered and was made welcome. My fourteen month old sister was attracted to him and wanted to, and did, sit on his knee. He asked Mother if he could give her chewing gum, an offer that was declined because of her age. He told the family he had ‘piccaninies’ in Alabama. Later, the mother of Charles sent me an aeroplane kit and my sister a cuddly elephant (when the family flew to Guernsey in 1952, my sister’s first elephant went with us!).
After the war we heard from Frank that all four had survived the struggle and returned, safely, home.
During their stay, the American Army Air Corps bombed Japan with a new aircraft, the Super-fortress, the B-29. Charles Smith said it was the B-19 and I corrected him. He was sure he was correct but, next day, apologised. I was correct and his amazed voice said “Gee, fancy and English kid knowing more about the American forces than me!!”