Jack Pridham grew up in Thornbury during world War II. His memories provide a fascinating insight into life at that time.
“My first real encounter with the enemy, other than with the owner of Fazzi’s Italian ice cream shop in Gloucester – who was interned – was in September 1940 when, in daylight, Stukas dive-bombed the Bristol Aeroplane Company in Filton. Father and I had an unreal view of the raid from the attic where we could clearly see the planes but hear little except the street noises below. It was much later that we learned that 91 employees had been killed and over 100 injured! German aircraft had invaded Thornbury Rural District Council airspace some 3 months before the BAC incident at Filton, which was not part of our RDC. The first air raid warning was at 00.18 hr on 25 June 1940 and the last at 05.16 hr on 13 June 1944. There were 555 warnings between those dates, 566 HE bombs were dropped in the Rural District and an estimated 15 in the River Severn! The Germans sent us approximately 1500 incendiaries (only 2 contained phosphorus!), 584 houses were damaged or destroyed and, miraculously, only 9 people in the district were killed and 14 injured.
The most exciting and at the same time horrendous incident of my war occurred probably late in 1941 or possibly 1942. There had been a lot of aircraft activity that night and father and I, as usual, stood at the gate on The Plain and watched the searchlights and listened to the ack-ack fire coming from the general direction of Bristol. We were joined by a retired gentleman from The Shen in Gloucester Road who was taking his evening constitutional. The man’s name was Scott (actually it was Bruce) – he had a military title which escapes me – Captain or Major or something – and he was a relation of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the Antarctic explorer. As I remember, he was standing in his plus fours, telling my father that I should be in bed at that time of night. Within minutes of hearing this unsolicited opinion, there was a massive flash and a bang, just above us – hundreds rather than thousands of feet in the air! Father immediately reported to the Fire Station and the brigade rushed off to the north of the town. The grapevine was again working well and early the next morning a few of us were able to take off on our bikes to a field near to Tortworth (today, the home of Leyhill Open Prison) where we found the cause of the explosion. Two Heinkel 111ks had collided over Thornbury and crashed about 5 miles away. The field was covered with bits of aircraft and bits of aircrew: no one had survived. Father told us that he had found a pilot, on the ground, burning with his legs still in the seated position that he had held in the aircraft: he had hosed him down!
Personal encounters with Field Marshall Goring’s Luftwaffe were normally at a distance and at night. Droning, heavily laden bombers regularly flew overhead throughout the first half of the war and occasionally their loads were jettisoned in the locality: it was always said that the pilots who were keen to get home, disposed of their bomb loads before reaching their targets. There was no evidence to support this belief which may have been born of youthful confidence that the enemy was inferior. One HE bomb did drop in day-time, at Moreton, about a mile due north, from home. It was during the school holidays and a contingent of the JSG (Jack’s John Street Gang) all heard the crunch. We were always ready for such exciting events and within minutes we had cycled to Moreton and found the crater which was in a field just a few yards from the road. We scrambled over the gate knowing that the first in the hole might be rewarded. On this occasion it was my lucky dip; after a brief dig in the newly ‘turned’ topsoil a heavy 2 by 4 inch piece of jagged metal was recovered which was viewed in awe by the assembly and then pocketed to impress at later displays.
Shrapnel could be used as currency – its value depended on its size, weight, and jaggedness; the latter was probably the most important criterion. I had a very large piece of small gauge steel which had come from an oil bomb – it was still oily but not jagged and therefore of little market value. A piece of foreign shrapnel was more valuable than that from ‘friendly fire’. Most of the shrapnel ‘on the market’ was small and derived from anti-aircraft shells. Bits of incendiary bombs were also prized possessions. Normally they burned completely away leaving a pile of brilliant white magnesium oxide but if interrupted by an air raid warden with a stirrup pump or bucket of sand, bomb fins or larger bits could be salvaged. One Saturday morning we learned on the highly effective grapevine that incendiaries had been dropped during the night at Alveston – this time one mile to the south of the town. We cycled up Alveston Hill (known to the Alvestonians as Thornbury Hill!) as fast as we could, hoping that we had stolen a march on our many competitors. The site was more difficult to find on this occasion: there had been no explosions and we had seen no flames but some locals pointed the way. As luck would have it, a stick of bombs had been jettisoned in marshy ground and many had only partially burned. It was exciting to pull on fins not knowing how much of the bomb casings would still be attached. Our booty which was carried away in army haversacks, consisted of several half bombs and one or two larger pieces. We were not aware that the tops of some incendiaries were loaded with phosphorus to deter fire-fighters! It might have been useful to have known this as the bombs were often ‘recycled’ by using a coarse file to produce magnesium powder which could be ignited whenever the spirit moved us!
Other tradable souvenirs included ammunition from aircraft machine guns and canon. The origin of these items was not clear particularly when they were ‘live’! The more venturesome members of the group (and father!) sometimes deactivated the ‘ammo’ by removing the cordite which like the magnesium, burned nicely: it was not always appreciated that after this process a shell casing with an explosive cap remained! Bits of German aircraft that had been ‘downed’ were also collectable as were other military items, from the Axis Powers or the Allies, such as commando knives, bayonets, buttons, belts, cap badges, etc. To the utter disgust of my father and in my relative innocence, I procured a splendid leather belt from a SS Division; the large buckle was emblazoned with the words, “Gott Mit Uns”. By 1945 He appeared to have abandoned them!