Hello my name is Rob Nichols and I’m going to do an interview for WarGen, the date is the 21st August 2018.
No it isn’t!
21st April even. 21st April 2018 and we are in Stroud and we are going to be discussing the experiences during the Second World War of my father Alexander Roy Nichols who lived in Bristol at the time during the Blitz so will be talking about his experience during the war. Ok Dad, when and where were you born?
In Bristol in 1929.
Tell me about your parents what did your father do?
My father was a painter and decorator.
Did your father serve in the First World War?
Yes in the Navy.
Did you have brothers and sisters?
So where were you in the pecking order?
I was first.
Did you have a happy childhood?
What was it like growing up where you did?
In what way? It was a typical working class area on a housing estate on the outskirts of Bristol built just after the First World War. By the time the second war broke out we had moved to the top end of Bishopston and again it is a relatively ordinary district. Ordinary working class people.
What were your interests as a child?
As a youngster we used to play in the street in those days, no problems about that, cant remember anything particularly specific before the war and up to the war period.
Can you remember the build up to the war?
Not really. Not til it actually happened you know, I was 9 and 3/4 when war broke out and at that age you haven’t been involved in the political build up at all just the excitement of the war happening and then of course nothing happened for a long time.
Can you remember the outbreak of the war?
Yes I can remember the outbreak but as I say it was just an event that was announced and then nothing much happened, people got quite a bit excited about it and of course you were all issued with gas masks and the instructions about what to do.
Can you recall the Battle of Britain?
Oh well I can recall earlier than that because before that was Dunkirk and what I can remember from then was that near us was a barracks, part of the Gloucestershire Regiment, the Bristol lot and during the Dunkirk affair a lot of French and Belgian soldiers came to and were based in the barracks for quite some time and then of course the Battle of Britain started. And then of course it was pretty exciting in all sorts of ways, air raids were extremely noisy, you cannot believe how… from where our back garden was you can look across to a raised hill known as Purdan and there was a little battery of 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns, the battery was known as Purdan Percy and during air raids that would be firing pretty much ceaselessly and it was enormous noise and then the noise of the aircraft and then the noise of the bombs, you can’t really relate to the fact that these things were extremely noisy.
We had air raid shelters in the garden, what’s known as an Anderson shelter which is sort of half buried and made of corrugated iron and we used to retire to the air raid shelter during air raids and you would hear what was going on outside and you would think my god that one is going to hit us. Tremendous noise of a bomb coming down, the nearest high explosive bomb actually landed half a mile away but the noise it made we thought it was going to land on us the noise was so tremendous. Incendiary bombs, some of them landed on us. Our road was not all that big about 70 houses and it was divided in 2 for fire party purposes, there was a fire party at the top of the road and a fire party at the bottom half, these of course are residents. Three incendiary bombs landed, one on the house at the top of the road, one on the house at the bottom of the road and one on the house in the middle. Both fire parties decided to go to the one in the middle and a bit of a fight ensued as to which one was actually going to go in and fight the fire. The bombs at the top and the bottom were put out by the householders.
The standard method for putting out an incendiary bomb incidentally people were always on films (?) in fact the correct method was to have a sand bag and just drop it on the bomb. I found after one air raid, I was up on the common, we would go after air raids looking mainly for shrapnel. All that firing at aircraft by the anti aircraft batteries meant there were loads of shell pieces all over the place so we all collected shrapnel, prizes of course were nose cones or base plates but usually what you got were strips of metal but I was up on the common and I saw what looked like the tail fin of an incendiary bomb and of course it was stuck in the ground and when I pulled it I pulled out the whole bomb and what had happened was that when it hit the ground it had fired but buried itself so deeply that it had burnt itself out so there was only a little burnt bit at the bottom of the bomb. I had that for years I don’t know what happened to it. The other thing about the air raids was that quite frequently the water was cut off and this would be a golden opportunity for us youngsters to go fetch water for people and you would go get a bucket for the water, find the water source, get a bucket of water and you would probably get a penny a time, did well for pocket money.
After some of the big raids my father would take me down the town, I remember going down Stokes Croft and round by the horse fair and seeing all the roads covered in debris and hosepipes and some of the buildings were still in flames blazing away merrily all down round what is the large roundabout at the horse fair by Debenhams what used to be the upper arcade and then round by the court building, tremendous damage. That wa slater in the war, when I joined the scouts in 1942 we used to go camping at Hockington and the occasional late raid would occur and I can remember being in camp at Hockington and looking back towards Bristol and seeing the sky red with fire, other daylight raids I would be at school and we would be in the air raid shelters the school basement and teachers would be in the doorway describing the action as they could see the dog fights occur. They used to make day light raids partly on the docks but mainly on the aircraft factory at Filton.
Did any of your family join the armed forces?
No, my father was a full time air raid warden through most of the war, started off with his base in our house then we moved up to Haulfield Rectory and then a special wardens post shelter was built at the top of Ash Road on the common and he was based there. I used to go up quite a lot and go out message running and things like that. One of the other things is people would talk about the air raids and the sirens going off to sound the air raid and then the sirens going again to sound the all clear, well it wasnt, when the sirens went the second time that was the raiders past signal and you were supposed to stay put until you heard from the local air raid warden that it was all clear and the all clear was the ringing of a hand bell and I used to go out when my father got the all clear sign and ring the hand bell up and down the street. I still have such a handbell, not the one from then, I acquired it later. Very loud it is too. The other hand signal the wardens had was a wooden rattle the kind used at football matches and that was to be used if there was gas, if gas had been bombed then the local warden would go around with the rattle in the district and that’s when we would all have our gas masks of course. During the war my half sister was born and they had a gas mask for babies, it looks like a modern car seat for babies but only with a glass cover although the glass was probably celluloid.
Was it a shock to the system and did you ever worry what might happen to you?
I don’t remember to us it was all rather exciting, I don’t remember it being a shock and I don’t remember being frightened. All sorts of things happened, they had exercises, ARP Air Raid Precaution Exercises and people made up as casualties and be rescued and occasionally there were army exercises nearby in case the invaders got that far you know. And one or two cases with alarms, oh the Germans are here, but it never actually happened of course.
Can you tell me about the camaraderie in the community?
Oh yeah there was certainly everyone in it together, you didnt know who was going to be bombed next. And there was certainly food was rationed so there was all sorts of things you had to help out. The meat ration was a shillings worth of meat per person per week plus tuppence worth of corned beef but we were quite lucky because my father kept chickens so we would occasionally have chicken, we were always plentifully supplied with eggs and a chap up the road used to go out into the country shooting rabbits so most weeks we would have a rabbit, sixpence each a rabbit was so yeah we were relatively well fed no problems at all that I can particularly remember about food, lots of things were not available like mixed fruit for cakes so that is when carrot cake became very popular.
What were your day to day living conditions like?
Alright, just as you’d expect an ordinary working class family to be. There was the blackout of course, after dark all the lights were out and that included the street lights which were dimmed and cars had special covers over their lights to make them dim so during the winter nights it was very dark.
Can you remember any particularly funny incidents?
Apart from the fire party nothing particularly funny.
Any particularly tragic incidents?
No nobody I know got killed or injured, we were on the outskirts of Bristol remember, up north so the kind of bombing we had was what you might call, well there was a railway line quite near us so there would be bombs that missed the railway line so they would be on their way to Filton and some of those bobs would fall short. At the top of the road where I lived was the old tram depot and of course the trams were bombed, the generator was bombed quite early in the war so the trams stopped running but in the tram was an auxiliary fire service fire engine, it was an old museum piece used to clank out and grind up the road and of course it couldn’t go more than 25 miles per hour but it was frequently in use.
What was the worse thing that happened to you?
To me! Nothing untoward, once you get talking to your mother that is when you will find out about worst things!
Where were you when the war ended?
I was at home, my God that was a whoop up, people went crazy, great processions would form up and we’d go marching round the streets someone with a drum someone with a bugle or something like that singing songs. God it was a whoop up and there would be a street party of course. That was on VE Day and then it happened all again on VJ Day. VE Day was the war in Europe and VJ was the war in Japan.
Do you often think about the war?
Not really. Going back you asked if there was anything, well my father’s brother, Uncle Harry, there were 2 sons and they were in the RAF and they were serving with the RAF in the Far East and they were both shot down and both killed so that was a tragedy in the family but apart from that no one else that I can remember were in anyway put out.
Do you have any photographs from that time?
Not that I know off.
Do you have any further thoughts about your experiences of the war?
Well its funny because I was at home in the Blitz, 1940 were the big ones. In January people decided we would have a big evacuation and I was asked if I wanted to go, I thought this will be a bit of a lark so I’d go so I was evacuated in January and I came to Cheltenham of all places which of course was absolutely untouched during the war but come Easter I was homesick and came home. so apart from the January February March that I was away I was all at home.
Shall we leave it there?
Do you want to say some more about unexploded bombs?
Yes I forgot that bit at school at Cotton School I went too on one occasion there was a large to do because a bomb landed in the school playground but didnt explode so of course the school got evacuated and we couldn’t go to school until the bomb was removed and that took several weeks, not a high priority I presume I think like a residential area, so we didnt go to school but we had to share at Fairfields School they went in the morning and we went in the afternoon and that carried on for a few weeks until the bomb was cleared but it did make a bit of amess the unexploded bomb, I remember mud all over the playground. Yeah that was the only bit I remembered that I should have mentioned earlier but unexploded bombs would happen quite regularly all over the city and that would hold up… the other thing I do remember of course during the war, we had warship week or airplane week where there would be a money raising thing to provide munitions and aircraft and that and of the course the other thing was the collection of all aluminium things, one of the few things we have at home as a survivor of the war is a teapot which I know dated from 1936 but all the other aluminium pots and pans were collected up to go of to the airplane factories but I remember on one occasion we had one of these collection weeks and I and 2 of my friends (?) and Bob Sunday, Bob Sundays mother kept a sweet shop at the top of the road Bastibles and we took over the shop window and filled it with models. One of my crazes in those days was making model warships and also model aircraft so we put an exhibition of these in the window and we collected maybe a pound or two and we decided to take it down to see the Lord Mayor in what was then called the council house at college green. Sorry Council House on College Green didnt open until after the war, built before the war but we went to the old council house in town and we got invited in to meet the Lord Mayor who accepted our contribution and as a reward we were allowed to try on the Lord Mayors chain of office. So I have actually worn the Lord Mayors chain of office. So yeah that was the only bit I…
What about your memories of the destruction in the centre, how much damage was done to the centre of the town…?
Oh it was huge, all the old town was virtually wiped out and all down round the docks there used to be a huge warehouse, if you stood on the centre you could look down St Augustus reach and there was a big warehouse facing now occupied by the Maritime Museum I think and there was a large coat of arms on the top of that warehouse which my grandfather painted but that was all destroyed and the docks were flattened.
Ok thank you.
End of interview.