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A Child's View of the War - Gordon Ivor King

by ActionBristol

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Charles and Florence King (parents)Arthur and Thelma King (brother and sister)
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13 December 2005

A Child's View of the War

I remember seeing Neville Chamberlain on the Pathe News at the Savoy Cinema at Shirehampton, waving what turned out to be useless piece of paper as he disembarked from the plane that brought him back from his meeting with Adolph Hitler.

We all, or rather our parents did, breathed a sigh of relief that we were not going to be drawn into yet another war. It didn't really mean very much to a 10 year old at the time.
We had never been taught anything at school about the 'Great' war of 1914 - 1918; our history lessons never advanced further that the 17th. century.

Oh, we became quite knowledgeable about the Wars of the Roses, the brutal crusades, Agincourt etc, but remained quite ignorant of modern British history from say the Victorian period onwards.

After war was declared, we (on ''The Green'' at Ham Green) all had Anderson air-raid shelters installed in our back gardens. Firstly, a 3 ft.deep rectangular hole about 8 ft. by 5 ft. was dug out, then the heavy galvanised and corrugated steel sides and ends were fitted, after which a concrete floor was poured in and levelled. Then the curved roof made from the same material as the sides and ends, was fitted.
All that work was carried out by Bristol Corporation or some other official body.

The doorway of the shelter, (an opening of about 2 ft. by 4 ft.) was open to the elements and as it was up to the individual users to improvise on the basic design, Dad put in alot of work to make the shelter as comfortable as possible.
He fitted a hinged door and built a porch over the entrance. He fitted a set of wooden steps to enable us to climb down to the floor of the shelter which I remember was 3 ft. below ground level. Dad covered the inside walls with granulated cork to lessen the risk of condensation forming, especially in cold weather and mats were placed on the concrete floor.We had a single bed on either side for mother and I, a hammock slung from end to end above one bunk-bed for Dad and a small cot for my baby sister who was 2 years old just after the outbreak of war..

Illumination was provided by oil lamps at first and an oil stove for heating food and boiling water but later Dad wired up an electric light in the roof. That was much better than the oil lamps, it gave more light, was safer and reduced the smell of paraffin getting into our clothes somewhat. I loved sleeping in that shelter, it was warm and really quite comfortable, although a bit cramped.

The icing on the cake so to speak was when I helped Dad put a tiled roof over the whole structure, finishing off with blackberry plants trained to grow over it all. It didn’t look like an air-raid shelter at all from the outside, but more like a miniature country cottage.

When the sirens sounded to warn of our first air-raid, it sent me straight to the toilet but after that I found the war exciting. During the period of the blitz, we spent every night in the shelter.
Dad said that going by his experience in the trenches in France during WW1, if you hear the scream of a bomb as it plummets earthwards, like a heavy shell fired from a gun, it will miss you. It's the bomb you do not hear that will get you !

I remember well the night that three bombs fell in the grounds of Ham Green hospital, one about 200 yards away.
We heard the eerie whistle made by the fins as the bombs hurtled down, but putting our faith in what Dad had told us, we huddled together and hoped he was right.He was.
I didn't know how much damage was done, but I believe it was relatively minor. Broken windows etc.
We had a look at the nearest crater next day and found debris scattered over a wide area.
The size of the crater (about 15 ft. deep by about 30 ft. diameter we reckoned, just about matched the loudness of the explosion.
I loved to watch the dog-fights between RAF and German fighters, oblivious to the risk of being hit by a stray bullet or shrapnel, but I ensured that I was under some sort of cover.

Whenever we had air-raid warnings during school time, we would be led across into the church next door and had to lay under the pews. I hate to think how we would have fared had the church received a direct hit whilst we were inside, any faith in god would have been next to useless. But the church was destroyed by a single incendiary bomb on the night of 16th. January 1941.

On the morning of Saturday 22nd. February 1941, I cannot remember if the sirens sounded or not, but Mum, Dad, my sister Thelma and I were all in the kitchen-diner when we heard the loud drone of aircraft engines and rushed out the back door to see a Heinkel 111 flying low over Shirehampton towards Bristol.

We could also hear machine guns firing.
The plane took a tight curve to the right, so we all ran round to the front of the house to see it even lower and flying towards Portishead.
But as it flew over Matcombe, the anti-aircraft battery there opened up and shot off a part of the tail.
The Heinkel lost height and disappeared behind trees and we heard it crash into the mud on the Somerset shoreline of the Bristol channel.
Apparently, the reason it was flying so low was because it had come into contact with one of the barrage balloon cables guarding Avonmouth and must have lost part of a wing or something. But I found that particular incident very exciting and to this day remains the most memorable that I personally witnessed during WW2.

Apart from the bombs in the hospital grounds and the incendiary bomb that destroyed the church, I cannot recall any other bombs falling in our area. Other people may know of other bombs but those mentioned is the limit of my recollection of such incidents.

I think the next most frightening experience for me after the first air-raid warnings and hearing the bombs screaming down, was after a heavy night raid on Bristol during the blitz, my brother Arthur, who was on shore leave from the Merchant Navy, took me on the bus to Bedminster to see the bomb damage.

We walked the length of North Street and along East Street.
The damage was terrible and made me glad that we didn’t live in the city. I remember feeling so sorry for the hundreds of people who had lost their homes and/or businesses and wondered how many had also lost their lives.

Anyway, as we approached one section of East Street that had suffered greatly, I saw several bodies strewn across the street among the debris. I didn't stop to wonder why they hadn't been taken either to casualty or the morgue, but turned and ran. I had never seen a dead person before and I wasn't in the mood to see a dozen or so especially if they were in a gorey mess.
But Arthur called out to say there was nothing to be afraid of explaining that the bodies were not of people. The Fifty Shilling tailors shop had suffered a direct hit and it was the dummies, some fully, some partly clothed that were scattered across the road.

We then made our way to the Tramway Centre and up Park Street where gangs of workmen were demolishing dangerous buildings.

Before the war,there were I believe 32 cinemas in Bristol. The one that was considered to be the finest was the ''Regent''. It was beautifully decorated inside and the exterior was rather grand too. The seating was very comfortable and the whole ambience gave an aura of luxury. Unfortunately, it was totally destroyed during the blitz.
We came across what was left of this wonderful cinema, just three walls standing among a huge pile of debris. It was really awful to see the ''Regent'' laid to ruins.

My last 18 months at school, to my 14th. birthday in March 1943 and therefore my last recollections of the war as a child, was spent making wooden toys for children affected by the bombing and for the children that had been evacuated from London and other large cities to the countryside. We made tanks out of cotton reels and matchsticks with elastic bands to drive them along. We made all sorts of toys for toddlers which I enjoyed very much, but I didn't learn alot apart from making wooden toys.


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