Thornbury at War

Civil Defence

WWII – Civil Defence in Thornbury 2017-11-16T08:01:15+00:00

Between 1938 and 1939, the government was already making detailed plans for the possible dangers and difficulties the civilian population would face during war.  The resultant campaigns for Civil Defence covered almost every aspect of life.  People were encouraged to plant vegetables on any spare land they had to supplement the rationing that war time would bring.  They were told to make food stretch further and how to keep yourself healthy.  We have written about the various measures concerning nutrition in the section on FEEDING THORNBURY.

The public were also encouraged to learn how to defend themselves and their communities.  Firstly there were information campaigns to inform the public what to do in case of air raids or gas attacks.  People were strongly encouraged to form various groups that would help the safety and health of the country.  These very daunting tasks were broken down into a great many areas of expertise – Air Raid Wardens, Home Guard, First Aid, Fire, Rescue etc.  There were also various auxiliary services to provide the necessary communications, transport and food for the volunteers.

The Gazette of October 15th 1938 had details of the arrangements for air raids in the advent of war.  Even as early as 1938 there were already a large number of air raid wardens who had undergone or were undergoing training.  The chief of these wardens was Major Algar Howard C.B. C.V.O M.C. of Thornbury Castle.  The rest of those named as heads of organisations also sounded like a Who’s Who of Thornbury Society.  The Deputy A.R.P. Warden was Colonel Turner of Old Down.  Dr Prowse had been appointed as the First Aid Commandant.  Mrs Howard was in charge of the Ambulance Transport.  The article said that First Aid Posts would be set in both Thornbury and Patchway with mobile First Aid parties at Thornbury and the surrounding areas of Charfield, Berkeley and Patchway with every village having its own “Aid Point.”  Mr P.A Stinchcombe was to be in charge of Rescue and Demolition.  We do not know at this stage who Mr Stinchcombe was.  Captain Bennett of The Parks was the superintendent of the Dispatch and Messenger Services and Lady Ducie became president of the Women’s Auxiliary Service.

The former Gazette reporter Wallace Phillips wrote an account of Thornbury at this time that also mentions that John Judd was Co-ordinating Officer, Ronald Huntingdon was Decontamination Officer and in charge of War Damage, Leslie Hawkins was responsible for Heavy Rescue, Phillip Cooper for First Aid Parties, Mrs Dutson of Stokefield House was Deputy Ambulance Officer, Mr Millard Co-ordination Officer and Evacuation Officer, Mr Alfred Riddiford Mortuary Superintendent and Major Lee (of the Queens Head) was in command of the Home Guard Unit.  He also says that Dr Kitson was First Aid Commandant rather than Dr Prowse and that Miss Anstice Bennett was his deputy but perhaps these posts changed later in the War.  Read this article

We have collected so much material about the voluntary groups that we have created a separate page about the various groups of Civil Defence Volunteers.  Click here to read about the Volunteers

 

GAS ATTACK

After the First World War the threat of gas attacks and the new possibility of large scale civilian casualties were upper most in people’s minds.  One interesting aspect of this fear is how long it was before World War II that the government was actually putting precautions into place.   Click here to read more about the action taken to prepare the population against gas attack

 

SHELTERS AND TRENCHES

siren

Siren on top of former police station (now the Town Hall)

The prospect of war also meant that the government had to plan for attacks from the air in a way that they had never done before.  This meant shelters in or near people’s houses, places of work and public buildings such as schools.

The Second World War effectively broke out on 1st September 1939 but many preparations were made before that date.

Tony Cherry’s book “History of a School” about what was then the Council School says that “a visit in June 1939 was made by the Air Raid Protection Warden to inspect the premises for the purpose of building air raid shelters.”  It seems the shelters were built quite soon after this as his book goes on to say that by November of that year the children were practising their use – “The Head received a “yellow“ air raid warning alert from his counterpart at the National School.  This was received at 11.15, and at 11.50 the “white” all clear was received.  The information must have come from a relay system as the school did not have its own telephone until 1948.  This method of communication was superseded by a siren based on the top of the police station.  The photograph on the left above shows a view of the side of what is now the Town Hall in the High Street but during the war it was the Police Station.  The siren to warn of air raids is clearly visible on the roof.  It was said to be audible for many miles.

 When it went off the children would line up in an orderly queue and march to the air raid shelters carrying their gas masks.  Gas masks were issued to everybody and were carried everywhere they went.  The ARP (Air Raid Precautions) had built trenches and shelters in 1939.  The trenches flooded very badly and further drainage had to be installed along with the duckboards, so that the shelters could be accessed.  The shelters were in the field behind the toilets. ……… The walls and roof were supported by a wooden frame and corrugated iron.  The roof was covered in clay and topsoil where vegetables were grown.  The shelter had no lighting so the children would sit the dark, singing and playing games, waiting for the all clear.  The only light in the shelters was a torch carried by the teacher.  Young children found them very scary.”

The magazine of Thornbury Grammar School, The Thornburian, of 1939 reported that “the opening of hostilities made necessary the erection of air raid shelters, and some of the larger, and, in most cases stronger, boys assisted in shifting sandbags.  The official estimate that a sandbag weighs 60 lbs.  This seemed hopelessly inadequate after an hour’s work.”  Although it seems that the initial plan was to build the shelters on the playing field, L.G Taylor’s “History of Marlwood School” tells us that they were built “under the sheltering lip of the quarry.”  This was in the area now occupied by Castle Combe Close and the shelters were accessed from the field at the back of the school down a short flight of stone steps.

Sadly Thornbury Grammar School was not quite ready by the start of the new school year in 1939 as the air raid shelters needed for all the pupils had not been completed.  Some of the children were delighted to be told that it was not safe for them to go to school until the work was done, although Doreen Cooksley who was about to start the ‘big school’ that year remembers her disappointment at the delay.  Doreen recalls that the different classes were each allotted a designated space in the shelter to facilitate an accurate roll call.   The children sat in rows on low benches.  Apparently the air raids were not expected to last very long as Doreen does not remember there being toilet provision.

L. G Taylor tells us that at the Grammar School “at the first whine of the siren, pupils and teachers, with gas masks trailing, evacuated the building with military precision.”

The Council School records show that its shelters were used about 14 times during 1940.

It is not clear how many of these evacuations to the shelters were false alarms.  Stafford Morse’s history of Thornbury Grammar School ( “Development of a Country School”) notes that; “Fortunately, although at various times the alarm sent the pupils to them, the school never had to face an air-raid.

This seems a little odd in light of an entry in the National School records that on July 4th 1940 “the school started late because of an air-raid”.  Perhaps the air raids were at night as three more air-raids were mentioned in the National School records within that week.  The school hours were eventually changed to start at 10am as children were losing sleep because of the raids.

Not only the schools had air raid shelters in readiness, some householders had also taken the precaution of building their own.  The BBC Website “WW2 People’s War” has an account of using a private shelter written by H.H. Thomas who said

“at first I and my family went to an underground shelter across the road belonging to Mr Watts who was registrar for the area of Thornbury, later we all went under the stairs and later still ignored the sirens and stayed in bed.”

The Trayhurn family at the Coombe must have been more cautious because Betty Deary who was billeted with the family when she was evacuated to Thornbury said that at first they used to sit under the stairs when there was a raid but later in the war an old dairy was converted into an air-raid shelter so that the family could sleep there.  Jack Pridham’s book also described how his father Bert constructed the family’s shelter in the garden of what is now The Georgian House.

“He dug a large hole adjacent to the southern, low wall of the garden and added a thick roof of old corrugated iron, iron bedsteads and soil and installed some internal wooden seating for about 10 or 12 neighbours.  Shiny, government, prefab Anderson Shelters that needed to be buried in the garden were available but for some reason we had none in our town.  Priority was probably given to city dwellers that were more likely to be targeted by Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe.”

People who lived in the Gillingstool area apparently used the big brick kilns as an air raid shelter.

Although Thornbury was comparatively very safe, only six miles away Filton with its aircraft factory was very much a target for bombing.  In only one raid in 1940 it was attacked by 57 Heinkel bombers and over 200 people were killed.

BLACKOUT

The prospect of war plunged the country into darkness.  The new regulations affected Thornbury as much as places elsewhere.  On the 1st September 1939 two days before war broke out the blackout regulations meant that all streets lights were turned off.  All windows were covered in special blackout blinds and curtains.  We have been told that the the most common method of doing this was to make a wooden frame to fit inside the window frame and then to pin black material over this.  Windows also had strips of sticky white tape applied to them in a criss-cross pattern to prevent injuries from flying glass.  These rules also applied to schools.  The Council School Log book notes that on 10th November 1939 the County Architect’s Department sent someone to measure the windows and he then left the necessary material from which the teachers were asked to make blackout curtains.

No lights were to be visible at all, even the glow of a cigarette light was frowned upon.  In Thornbury many people were summonsed for a breech of these regulations.  Edward Samuel Mizen of Lower Bath Road was fined for permitting light to be visible from a roofed building during the blackout.  In another instance the Gazette of 24th January 1942 reported that Lily Lewis of Pullins Green John Street Thornbury was fined £1 on the evidence of PC Packer for causing light to be visible from her bedroom window during the blackout.

Because Thornbury had only limited access to electricity the offences usually involved bicycle lights.  For example Charles Staite’s daughter Irene was caught riding an unauthorised light in 1942 and fined five shillings.

Car accidents throughout the country increased because of the lighting restrictions and the number of people killed on the roads almost doubled.  The King’s surgeon, Wilfed Trotter, apparently wrote an article for the British Medical Journal where he pointed out that by “frightening the nation into blackout regulations, the Luftwaffe was able to kill 600 British citizens a month without ever taking to the air, at a cost to itself of exactly nothing.”  We know of at least two such deaths in Thornbury.  In September 1940 Frederick Robert Wilcox was knocked down by a motorcycle whilst walking in St John Street.   A young child Sidney Coles was also believed to be a victim of an accident in the blackout.

On a much more humorous note Pat Sainsbury’s account on the BBC website “WW2- People’s War” relates an incident when “we were on our way to the Congregational Church in the blackout. My father coughed and his false teeth flew out. He looked for them by striking matches, and actually found them!”

END OF THE WAR

The end of the war in Europe came when the German forces surrendered in Italy on 29 April.  Total and unconditional surrender was signed on 7th May, to be effective by the end of 8th May.  Although the war continued until August when the Japanese surrendered the war on the Home Front was over and it was time to assess the achievements of the volunteers and to celebrate the Peace.

Gloucester Archives Office holds an extract from the minutes of a parish meeting of Thornbury Rural District Council 25th May 1945.  This give a detailed report summarising the Civil Defence efforts for the whole war time period.  It was obtained on behalf of the A.R.P sub-controller Sir Algar Howard. It said that

“Air Raids in Thornbury were:-
1939: none 1940: 383 1941: 121 1942: 34 1943: 13 1944: 6 1945: None.   Total number of warnings: 557

The first warning was at 00.18 on 25th June 1940 and the last at 05.16 on 13th June 1944.  The longest period of warning was 12 hours and 39 minutes on 4th/5th July 1941.

Altogether there were 219 incidents requiring some action to be taken by the services, and the number of bombs dropped was:

High Explosives   566 (plus an approximate number of 15 in the River Severn between the high and low water water mark).
High Explosive which did not explode on impact 83
Incendiary bombs 1536
Oil Incendiary Bombs 37
Fire Pot Incendiary Bombs 9 (plus 1 unexploded)
Phosphorous Incendiary Bombs 2 (both unexploded)
British Anti-aircraft Shells exploded 16  unexploded 129
Parachute Mines exploded 3  unexploded 1
Photo Flash Bombs 10

 

Casualties were as follows

Killed males 7  females 2
Injured males 8  females 6
Crashed Aircraft Allied 17
Crew casualties killed 12  injured 6
Crashed Aircraft (enemy)  2
Crew Casualties killed 4  injured 1
Livestock killed 27  injured 12
Houses Damaged 584 (8 totally destroyed).

 

These figures seem very high considering that Thornbury was said to be very quiet and we feel it should be taken in context.  The term “Thornbury” in the ARP sense had a much wider area than just the town and was closer to the area covered by the District Council.  The meetings and incident reports make it plain that the biggest concern in their area was for Patchway which is five or 6 miles away and very close to the Filton factory and airfield.  It is there that the bomb shelter and trenches are focused.  It is noticeable that although the reports frequently mention Patchway they do not seem to mention casualties or details of incidents in neighbouring Filton or its factories.  These appear to have come under another authority.  We know that in one raid on Filton the night of 25th September 1940 72 people were killed in the factory (another 19 died later from their injuries) and another 58 people were killed outside of the factory.

Using the incident report books can give some idea at what the ARP dealt with locally during the war years

25.11.41 Th150 at 1920 Oldbury Naite E4 or 5. R Hales.  5 Casualties. 1 trapped. Killed.  5 Casualties brought by car to Dr Grace.  4 bad cases. Thornbury ambulance sent to Dr Grace.  Berkeley FAP ambulance sent to Oldbury Naite.  J Hodges sent to meet them at Hill.  T Ashcroft sent for information to Oldbury Naite.  Mr Millard & Fire Service doing this.  Rescue & Demolition doing this.”

“30.October 1944.  Crashed aircraft.  Stirling bomber at Grovesend at 22.55 hours (map reference 100.100).  Crew bailed out.  1 man broken leg.  Ambulance sent out to Itchington.  Mr Smith’s bungalow demolished.  Mr Hobby’s partially demolished.  Mr Smith slightly injured.”

Plane crashes were reported in the incident logs but notes on these although giving details of the names of the crew and their bases also had the comment that they were dealt with by RAF and police.  We can only assume that there were concerns about security and the fear that any new technology used on the planes could become common knowledge.

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