My recollections of the war outbreak
October 05 2020
We continue our serialisation of Memories of a Bristol Boyhood by Knowle resident John Fletcher and this month, we hear about his experiences of early wartime and the strict rules and regulations that came into play in the wake of World War II …
September 3, 1939 was my seventh birthday and the declaration of war on that day was not an ideal present. Prior to that date it was fairly obvious to most people that at some stage we would be forced into an armed conflict with Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
The Prime Minister made the announcement in a radio broadcast to the nation at 11.15am that morning. I remember there being no panic in our street but most of the adults gathered in quiet groups by the garden gates talking in sorrowful acceptance of the situation. Our country had been planning for some time, since the beginning of 1939, in order to build up our planes, ships and armaments etc. A civil defence force had been informed on what to do in the event of war, particularly in response to possible air raids. The Broad Walk area of Knowle was the first in Bristol to have Anderson shelters delivered, beginning in March 1939. We had been supplied with an Anderson shelter built at the bottom of our garden. These shelters proved very successful to anything but a direct hit by a high explosive bomb. Their main fault was that they became very damp and on occasions, flooded.
Shelters were widely used early in the war but became less used as people got fed up with the discomfort and took ‘pot luck’ staying in their own homes, quite often clearing out and using the space under the staircase, this being thought to be the strongest part of the house.
Everyone was issued with a gas mask which had to be taken wherever you went. At school we had regular practises to ensure they could be used quickly and efficiently. They were tested by holding a piece of card over the snout(nose piece) and then breathing in. If the card remained in place without being held it was passed as fit for purpose. It did not take long for small children to realise that by blowing out hard instead of breathing in they could make some very rude noises, accompanied by shrieks of laughter.
One of the restrictions was the ‘black out’. Strict regulations were enforced by air raid wardens and it was a very serious offence to show a light of any kind outside a building during the hours of darkness. This of course meant there was no street lighting of any kind. In London and other big cities the result of this was disastrous as many more people were killed or injured in road accidents as were killed by enemy action.
Food rationing was quickly introduced and was probably the most difficult problem that families, (particularly mothers), had to adjust to(see table, below - for other food stuff, points were issued).
A family had a limited choice on the rare occasions that certain other items became available, such as biscuits, jam, canned goods, dried fruit etc. and a decision could be made as to which items your points would be used on. Clothing and material were also rationed on a ‘coupon’ basis.
Besides ration books, each person was issued with an identity card which had to be carried at all times although children were not expected to comply with this instruction.
Another innovation was the introduction of the air raid warning. This warning was emitted by loud sirens positioned on high buildings so that the sound would carry a great distance.
All of these regulations and restrictions affected the adult population whilst we children carried on very much as before. Probably one of the main differences was that whereas before most of our imaginary games had involved Cowboys and Indians, we now introduced Allied Forces versus the Nazis. We went to school just the same, played with our friends in the gardens or streets and for our entertainment we had the excitement of the cinema.
We attended a special childrens’ cinema on Saturday mornings. These were the ‘Two Penny Rush’ at the Gaiety Cinema in Upper Knowle or the ‘One Penny Crush’ at the Knowle Cinema lower down the hill at Totterdown. The alternative cinema, The Knowle, was very different and nick-named the ‘flea pit’. It had been a cinema for a very long time and the general feeling was of being run down and needing a refit. However, once you had decided to sit in luxury for two pence or rough it for one penny, the selection of entertainment was very similar. At the end of all concerts or cinema programmes the National Anthem was played and about 90% of the audience would remain standing to attention. This was not just a patriotic war-time gesture, but took place before and after the war.
Sundays were always treated as a very different day regardless of whether a family was religious or not. Sunday was a day of quiet and rest. Parents did not allow their children to play in the streets, shops were all closed, (although maybe newsagents were allowed a limited time to sell the Sunday newspapers) and the BBC broadcast only news, religious services and serious discussions. Public houses were shut and the desperate had to travel to South Wales for a drink.
My family’s Sundays followed a very predictable pattern. After Sunday School and Sunday roast lunch, Sunday afternoons alternated. One Sunday would be taken with a walk to Arnos Vale Cemetery to put flowers on, or tidy up, the grave of my father. The alternate Sunday would consist of a visit to my paternal grandmother. To reach my grandmother’s house we would walk through the older part of the city, finishing up via Old Market Street and Castle Street.
Revisit these pages next month to read how Bristol became an enemy target and how the flooding of John's family's air raid shelter was in fact a blessing in disguise!