We are grateful to Jack Pridham who grew up in Thornbury during World War II for his memories of life in the town, which provide us with a detailed and interesting account of life at that time.
“A company of the Home Guard, initially known as the Local Defence Volunteers, commanded by a Major Lee from the Queen’s Head, was recruited to defend the town from Nazi invasion. Mr Alfred Riddiford, the ex bootmaker, was appointed Mortuary Superintendent: his house in Horseshoe Lane was also a collection point for blackberries and hips which were picked from the hedgerows by patriotic citizens, and small boys, for a few pence a pound. They were processed at Coleford in the Forest of Dean and were, of course, a valuable source of vitamin C for the nation’s health.
One amusing incident was the military exercise in Thornbury when the local Home Guard was supposed to defend the town from an attack by the professionals, a battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment. Several days of preparation preceded the event which was to be held on a Saturday, and the home team was brimming with confidence. When the great day arrived all the Thornbury citizens got up early and tried to position themselves where they would see the most activity. Civilians were not allowed to roam the streets during the exercise. The family had a clear view across The Plain where they were sure that the ultimate battle would be fought. The Home Guard hid themselves where they could in the town which included three men behind the privet hedge in front of the Royal George. Needless to say, some observers thought that this position was not without advantages! The serious defence should have been concentrated at the various barriers and small arms emplacements on all roads leading to the town. However, it seemed that they could not all be adequately manned and some military genius in the HG decided that the attack would almost certainly come from the south, down the Bristol Road. Why this decision was taken is not known. Possibly the ‘Glosters’ were camped on the south side? So, the emplacement at the top of the High Street, opposite the entrance to the railway station, was heavily guarded, probably with the HG’s only machine gun, and the Gloucester Road approach from the north, was not! Needless to say the ‘Glosters’ streamed up the Gloucester Road, winkled the HG out of the privet hedge (before opening time), bayoneted another through the leg on the Plain and attacked the High Street defenders from the rear. The HG immediately surrendered and the whole thing was over in an hour, or so! No doubt, at a later stage, questions were asked at HG Headquarters but the analysis of the day was, as far as I know, never made public. Having given the Thornbury Home Guard a “Dad’s Army” image, I think I should say that had the real invasion occurred, they would probably have given their all!
Other civil defence exercises were held from time to time in which most townsfolk were involved in some way or other. My job, as a Boy Scout, was to act as a ‘runner’. In my dreams, I saw myself weaving and ducking across the countryside avoiding the heavy machine gun fire and carrying a message which would change the whole course of the war. In retrospect, under such circumstances I would probably have been more likely to have ‘done’ rather than have been a runner! Thankfully, my ability was never tested and my duties during such exercises were minimal. I was to take messages to, I think, a ‘field hospital’, about the numbers of casualties and the nature of their wounds. The latter descriptions were written on large labels that were tied to the volunteers that were lying around the ‘battle field’ and we had a few volunteer corpses who were labelled, “Dead”! These details formed the core of my messages! I was told that I was eligible for a 1939-45 Defence Medal for these services but somehow I seem to have been missed off the list!
My first of two personal contributions to the war effort was not worthy of a mention in dispatches. With my mother and Aunt Rose I went on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings as a voluntary observer to Milbury Heath, a mile or so up on high ground to the east of the town. Here we spent exciting 3 hour watches in a wooden hut with a marvellous view over the Severn waiting for German gliders and paratroops to arrive in the Severn Valley below. We had to be especially alert if the parish church bells signalled that an invasion had begun: bell ringing to call the faithful was suspended during the war. I cannot remember exactly how we were supposed to inform the authorities of a sighting: I think there was a telephone box a few yards down the road. However, we were remarkably unsuccessful and sometime in 1940 our services were no longer required which was no bad thing as one or two years later a large mine on a parachute exploded very near to our watch-point!”