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15 October 2014
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We couldn't Save Bristol

by ActionBristol

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Contributed by 
People in story: 
W. E. Clark
Location of story: 
aound Bristol
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
15 July 2005

We Couldn’t Save Bristol

In 1939 I was a 17 year old Territorial in the Anti-Aircraft Artillery. We were mobilised on the 24th August. Half my Battery went to man 2x3.7 inch guns in a field near Ham Green, other guns were at Purdown and Hanham.

My half of the battery was dispersed to various rooftops in the city. Each position had a first world war Lewis gun, but they were fitted with bi-pod stands so although we could shoot anything level with us, shooting aeroplanes was difficult. We got some tri-pods made locally so now we could shoot up into the air. Hitler must have heard of this achievement because no planes came over.

On the Sunday that war was declared I spent the day filling sandbags in Bristol Foundry and carrying them up 4 storeys of fire escape to Wilkinson and Ridells roof in Victoria Street. On the Monday morning, Wilkinson’s brought their architect up to the roof. He declared the roof too weak to support the weight of the sandbags and they had to go down. They went down a lot quicker than they went up!

The good part of this time was that we ate in Wills Canteen, the food was great. Also my pay had gone up from the 9 shilling and 8 pence per 47 hour week as a second year apprentice to 14 shillings per 168 hour week all found.

After a couple of weeks the rooftop strategy didn’t seem to achieve any purpose and we joined the rest of out Battery at Ham Green. Some of the chaps had been on Wills’ roof and I was only a little surprised to see one with a cubic biscuit tin full of neatly laid out cigarettes - definitely Duty Free. At Ham Green we slept on straw palliases in 1st World War bell tents, they leaked like sieves. The food was very different, or indifferent. The sentry on the gat had a pick handle to fight off 5th columnists but later he was given a rifle with one bullet. We were really safe.

Fortunately before the winter really set in we moved to a hutted camp at Easton in Gordano. There we slept on bed boards (3 thin planks on 2 low trestles). Each hut had a tortoise stove but the ablutions still consisted of a row of cold water taps out in the open. 1939/1940 was a hard winter with a lot of snow. Every couple of weeks we were taken to Broad Weir of Hotwells swimming pools for a bath (both had slipper baths) and then we would swim naked in the pool.

We now had 4x3.7 inch guns in concrete emplacements but they had never been fired. The guns had of course to be kept in prime condition. To protect the shell fuses from damp we used condoms, not really designed for 3.7 inch shells but I suppose it was a case of one size fits all. One day they took us to the Portbury gun site where they fired a couple of rounds over the channel so that we knew what the guns sounded like. Obviously by this time we had had plenty of intense training.

Some time in 1940 we took over the Portbury Gun Site as well as Easton in Gordano so we now had 8x3.7inch guns yet to be fired in anger.

The Portbury site seemed wonderful. The sleeping huts all connected together, we had indoor ablutions and showers with hot water and flushing toilets instead of bucket latrines and beds with mattresses. There was a football pitch and a good NAFFI with a snooker and table tennis table. One of our chaps had worked for the Evening World and they got the tables for us. They did a lot for the local troops.

Eventually time ran out on the phoney war and the bombers started coming over. By this time there we probably had over 30 guns around Bristol. Things changed dramatically and we also had to make changes rapidly. All of our training had revolved around our predictors and height finders locking on to the targets and feeding the instructions to the guns. But very few raids were in daylight, most were by high level planes at night. Searchlights were ineffective and what the predictors couldn’t see they couldn’t compute. Fortunately at about this time something very hush hush called RADAR appeared on the scene and this gave us no warnings of approaching aircraft and their approximate positions but not eyeball contact. Whether or not Bristol was the target, planes going to many other places tended to follow the river, so we were virtually manning the guns every night. It was so regular that we were ordered to go to bed in the afternoons. From a year without firing a shot we were now firing many rounds practically every night. The frustration was that you never knew whether or not you were hitting the targets as nothing was usually visible other than the shells exploding. We certainly couldn’t do enough to stop the heart of Bristol being destroyed. The most spectacular sight I saw was all the petrol tanks at Avonmouth going up in flames. Strangely enough our one positive success occurred in daylight. The clouds were very low and a plane came down low to find its position. It was a few hundred yards from the Portbury site and we fired at it with the big guns and machine guns. It crashed into the channel mud across the fields from us. One survivor was held in our guard room until collected by M.P’s.

Presumably our efforts (or the RAF’s) did produce some results because the frequency of raids gradually tailed off and Hitler relied more on un-manned rockets but a great deal of damage had already been done.

With the easing off of the raids the Army decided I was no longer indispensable to the Artillery and sent me on courses to get me back into my trade. After a spell in England and Northern Ireland (not nice even then) I spent the rest of the war in North Africa, Egypt and Italy. A total of 6 years 10 months - 27% of my life at that point.

Would we do the same again? When I took a soldiers oath to protect King and Country I didn’t think it meant, as it seems to now, being sent to fight in such places as Bosnia or Iraq. Places that pose no threat to Britain’s safety.

It also appears that we were nearly as ill equipped for the Iraq war as we were for WW2. Nothing changes.

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