We are grateful to Jack Pridham who grew up in our town for his accounts of life in Thornbury during World War II
“The first military unit to arrive was the 1st Monmouth Regiment which manned searchlights at Marlwood, overlooking the town and many of the villages in the Rural District Council. I do not think that they stayed long but at the end of September 1939, the 52nd Heavy Brigade of the Royal Artillery was formed in Thornbury. This event will be remembered by the, then, youth of the town as it brought in huge 9.2 inch howitzers and the odd 60 lb field gun which for a time were parked in the streets (including Pullins Green!) and were later moved to emplacements in the Pithay grounds next to the Castle. They were never fired on this site for obvious reasons! Officers lived in the Castle and other ranks in huts in the Pithay! Some of the troops were billeted with the townsfolk and we had a Private (or perhaps he was a Lance-Bombardier) by the name of Sam Walker from Derby who was accompanied by his wife Ada. They slept in the ‘John Street bedroom’ (I was displaced to the attic!) and were in all ways very good lodgers.
I remember the gradual military build-up in the town the likes of which had never been seen before! Initially, the whole operation was very disturbing for the occupants of such a sleepy place – strangers in khaki with unusual accents, arriving from all over the country. One of the first places they occupied was a small property at the bottom of the High Street (previously the Registrar’s Office?) between Annie Pitcher’s sweet shop and Matthews’ fish shop and green grocery. It was converted into some kind of military office and soldiers trooped in and out all of the time. Eventually, there were few areas in the town where they could not be found. We soon grew fond of them, however!
The Maritime ‘Ack Ack’ Regiment, later called the 6th Royal Maritime Regiment, was also formed in Thornbury in 1940. The original Regiment, the 1st Maritime, was formed some 280 years earlier in London and saw service in merchant ships at sea in wars against the French and the Spaniards. The 6th Regiment, as of old, again provided men to arm merchant ships, on this occasion against German raiders and other Axis forces. It grew in Thornbury from 28 men in 1940 to 3,300 and was disbanded there in 1946. The size of the ship determined how many ‘Ack Acks’ were aboard which could be anything from 2 on a coaster to about 100 on ‘the Queens’. They were a brave group of men who were often outgunned by the enemy and worked under the most awful weather conditions: they won many awards and it is estimated that 350 died. (Click here for Frank Biddle’s memories of the Maritime Regiment)
The town’s knowledge of ‘the world and its peoples’ was extended further in 1943/44 when the United States Army came to the area. Their nearest base was at Tortworth, close to the Heinkel crash site, in the grounds of what had been Earl Ducie’s home. Here they established a large hospital which after the War was converted to Leyhill Open Prison.
In general we did not see a lot of the Americans in Thornbury. They did have a minor relationship with the Grammar School and gave demonstration soft-ball games and their Commanding Officer, a Colonel, at Tortworth presented the school prizes. I remember that he talked about “canned education” (whatever that was!) and, afterwards, we all sang the “Stars and Stripes”! I also remember the Yanks jitterbugging, as only seen in the films, at Saturday evening hops in the Cossham Hall. There was a veiled hostility towards them based on jealousy – they were paid well, their uniforms were of high quality, they tended to be noisy and brash and they were better dancers! They were also ‘scoring’ with British women and many war brides later went to live in the US. In addition, there was some ill feeling about their late entry into the War but this was balanced by the knowledge that in their absence, we, the Brits, had already started to win battles and had withstood all that the Luftwaffe could throw at us! These points of view we tended to keep to ourselves and, all in all, Anglo-American relationships in the Thornbury area were good.
One event on a Saturday in 1944, that I clearly remember, was our first sighting of black American soldiers! Again, very few Thornburians, probably none of school age, had ever seen a human being of African descent in the flesh! Hollywood had taught us all about slavery, the treatment of the Negros in the South and the enmity that still existed between the whites and the blacks. The word got around that some black troops were coming to town. They probably came in trucks from Tortworth where they would certainly have been part of a segregated unit. They appeared quite suddenly in the afternoon in a rather threatening manner, marching in a column, two abreast down St John Street. We gazed at them from the safety of the shop wondering if they were looking for trouble, but they stopped on The Plain and dispersed and that was that! There were white troops in town at the time but there were no reports of any confrontations. However, there were stories that something approaching a full scale battle had occurred between the two factions in the Castle Street area of Bristol. Apart from the alleged use of a machine gun no other details leaked out. No doubt with D-Day approaching no one wanted to advertise a potentially serious intra-national problem.
One of the first real indications in Thornbury that the battle was on came, as usual, via the grapevine. The message to teenagers was that a train loaded with US personnel was due to arrive in a few days time. We had no idea what was happening but on the day (probably 9 June) when US vehicles and military police started to arrive in town, we all assembled along the railway embankment, waiting for the mystery train with an unknown ETA. When it eventually steamed into the station, we were surprised if not shocked to see that we were welcoming wounded men from the invasion beaches some of whom obviously had serious injuries. When the train stopped the men started to throw chewing gum to us – in 5-strip packs, which we had not seen before, and there were also tins of shiny, roasted, Planters peanuts and, I think, cigarettes. It was a touching moment; they were the heroes and the roles should have been reversed – but we didn’t expect them and in any case, we had nothing to pass on except smiles and waves! Worse than that, many scrambled on the grass for everything that was thrown down the embankment and, like pigeons in a square, ‘eye-balled’ the carriage windows for yet more ‘goodies’!
An elaborate one way system with military police at every junction, brought the American ambulances in from the A38 at Grovesend, they picked-up their patients at the station and then drove back to the Tortworth hospital via the Gloucester Road and our front gate. The whole war passed our gate! It was alleged that there were 600 wounded on that train and a few other trains, which we ghoulishly and expectantly attended, arrived over the next few weeks and then nothing more!