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Childhood Reminiscences of WW2 in Bath

by cornwallcsv

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
John Chitson
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Contributed on: 
11 September 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War website by Doreen Bennett on behalf of John Chitson, the author and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

I was 5 years old when the war started, so times may be jumbled but the events are still with me. We lived in Pultney Gardens in Bath and at the beginning of the war a billeting officer called and told my mother to expect four men for bed, breakfast and evening meal for the duration. “How can I accommodate them?” she asked, “We have only three bedrooms, one for my husband and I and one for my son, leaving just one bedroom”. “Ah”, the officer replied, “your son can sleep in your room; one can sleep in the boy’s room; two can sleep in the double bed in the middle bedroom and one on the bed settee in your front room. We will supply an extra bed for your son.” So we started the war with four lodgers, which shortly came down to three. The men were draughtsmen and engineers working on secret installations! I suspect now that they were working on the Corsham Storage facilities and the Hungerford Ammunition Dump. So for most of the war I slept in my parent’s bedroom.

There were fund raising activities and I remember that I had to present a “purse” to Queen Mary, (I think on the stage at the Pavilion) to buy a spitfire. There were days of practice to get the bow correct, then on THE day there stood this tall regal figure — despite trepidation, I was pushed forward, I bowed and gave her the purse and I think she shook my hand. We often saw Queen Mary and Haille Selasse (Emperor of Ethiopia) shopping in Milsom Street.

As the war progressed appeals were made for aluminium pans — mother gave some of her saucepans - for spitfires and iron for battle ships. We lost our wrought iron railings, also the WW1 (German?) field gun that was in the upper part of Sydney Gardens. The scrap man also took the cannons from the foot of the Victoria Monument in Victoria Park.

I went to school at St Nicholas Private School in Darlington Street, it was only two rooms on the ground floor and to play we marched in a crocodile to Sydney Gardens. Arrangements were made with residents of Sydney Place that if the sirens sounded we could shelter in any of their large basements. We had to take our gas masks and 1/3rd pint bottle of milk daily to school.

My father who worked for Brooke Bond Tea joined the ARP. He was over age for the armed forces for he had served in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in the First World War. He did a full day’s work, had his tea and then reported to the ARP post in the basement of the now Holburne Museum. He never said what he did but he worked hard during the blitz and once admitted to lying in the gutter of Pultney Road whilst a German plane machine gunned the road and railway. He also admitted that he had manned an observation post in the tower of Bathford Woods.

In the blitz of 1942 a house in Orange Grove was demolished among many others and the canal was hit damaging a lock. Two of our ceilings came down and most of the windows were blown out. The falling ceiling in my old bedroom knocked the occupant unconscious. We had no gas and my mother was reduced to trying to cook over a 1 KW 1-bar electric fire laid on its back but this did not last long as the electricity was also cut off. Father was working or else assisting in rescues during the blitz, so mother and I reported to the emergency feeding station at the Pavilion. All I remember was that it was a reasonable meal but they burnt the custard!

The empty canal basin, due to the damaged lock, attracted another boy and me and we started to walk out to the middle. I remember I lost a shoe! The lock was quickly rebuilt as the Kennet and Avon Canal was considered a strategic route.

It was around this time that I remember being taken outside the house to see the red sky — it was Bristol burning.

It was after the blitz that the Morrison shelter arrived and all the men of the house helped to erect it in the sitting room against a solid wall. The top was covered with a cloth and used as a table. When the sirens wailed, mother and I slept inside it.

I think that it was in 1944 that my parents transferred me to St Marks School and it was often a valid excuse when others and I were late for school, that we could not cross the road because of the convoys passing! I realise now that it was the preparations for D-Day as lorry after lorry of American troops and equipment passed through Bath along the A4 through Widcombe. The soldiers always looked out for children and we often got packets of chewing gum much to the disgust of our parents and schoolteachers. For years the hump back bridge across the canal, Widcombe Bridge, bore the marks of the American tank transporters which often got stuck on the hump and played see-saws for a while.

I used to like to walk along the Grand Parade, as although there was a barbed wire fence down the middle of the road, one could watch the lights of the Blue Print Printers working through the lower windows of the Empire Hotel. Once in a while, one of our draughtsmen billetees would bring home a parcel of old drawings, black ink on a shiny blue linen which when washed/boiled made lovely handkerchiefs and even pillow cases and other items.

All during the war my father drove his little Trojan van all around the local towns and villages of North Somerset and West Wiltshire delivering tea and chicory coffee to the shops. During the school holidays I would often go with him and for many a small shop, the delivery was 3lbs. of tea (in quarter pound packs) and one small bottle of chicory per week. The trips allowed me to see the fighters and bombers at Colerne and Hullvington and also to see the large bombers towing huge gliders which I realise now were practicing for D-Day. I do not remember seeing any crashes. There was a fighter airfield at Charmy Down.

My maternal grandparents lived in Penzance so we were able to go on holiday to the seaside. We swam and played on the local beaches, once we had passed through the scaffolding festooned with barbed wire. I well remember an Ack-Ack gun being positioned on the floor of the (drained) seawater bathing pool. I can also remember walking down the main shopping street with my grandmother when we heard a loud explosion. My grandmother would not let me go into the sea until later that day, when you could see the top of the funnel and masts of a Royal Navy minesweeper which had hit a mine close in to the seashore.

We went to Penzance by train of course and it was normally a seven or eight hour journey. On one occasion however, it was a lot longer. We got to Plymouth but the train was not allowed to cross the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash, instead the train went back to Exeter and we entered Cornwall courtesy of the Southern Railway via Okehampton, Launceston, Wadebridge and Bodmin. It was a very long journey but we never changed trains.

I can not remember when the British Restaurant was opened on Queens Square, now Charlotte Car Park but the food was good and one got a very reasonable meal for minimum cost. I do not remember if one had to trade points off the ration book for the meal but it was a once-in-a-while treat for me! The short cut diagonally across the gardens of Queens Square from Wood Street remained for years until the railings were reinstated.

Our celebration of VE Day was a street party in Orange Grove.

After the war my father and his fellow ARP wardens put a barrel organ onto the back of a lorry. They then drove it around collecting money for the people of Alkmaar in Holland. A few years ago I went to Alkmaar and was amazed to see the very same organ in the ground floor entrance hall of their Guildhall. The people of Alkmaar are still very grateful to the citizens of Bath for their generosity at the time of The Netherlands release from occupation by the Nazis.

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