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Author Topic: 24th November 1940  (Read 712 times)
Red Squirrel
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There are some who call me... Tim

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« on: November 24, 2020, 10:32:52 am »

Eighty years ago today, a Western Daily Press reporter cycled from Whiteladies Road, Bristol, back to his camp in Keynsham. His report was not published until after the war. Here it is, in full:

I was in Trinity Church, Whiteladies Road when last night?s raid began. And if I preface my story of the more spectacular side of that unforgettable Sunday evening with an account of the more or less personal incidents in which I was concerned, it is because they glowed with the spirit that will be worth remembering long after a new and greater Bristol has risen Phoenix-like from the ashes of the old. In a less deadly drama it would have been amusing. By about a quarter to seven it was obvious from the noise that this was not the mild and innocuous air raid to which we had become accustomed in recent months. Nevertheless, loud and ominous as were the bangs, the minister stuck resolutely to his original comfort that ?they? were ?only the friendly sound of guns?, and with self-discipline which I fancy he learnt in the front line of the previous war, continued his extempore address with ordered precision right to the end. A long whiz and a splattering of metal more than once tested his voice, but ?that is only shrapnel, I feel quite sure? he said cheerfully.

We opened the church doors and half Bristol seemed to be on fire! At that the congregation descended to the shelter of the underground schoolrooms. The air rang with zooming ?planes and the barrage of the guns; the roof sang with the falling shrapnel. Now and then a thud told us of a high-explosive bomb. You could read by the light of the fires. The nearest one ? a church, not 50 yards away. Obviously, the schoolroom was indicated! With Coventry in mind, everyone prepared for a long night. The young people joked and knitted, the older ones talked, (as they always will) and the children sat quiet and unsmiling by their parents? knees. For some reason, nobody suggested singing. I think it was such an obvious course that no one liked to broach it.

During the occasion lulls in the devil?s symphony outside, odd groups slipped home. Others, from the half shelter of a surface archway, alternatively watched the show and ducked at the warning whistle of bombs and incendiaries. The roof of the burning church fell in, a house across the road caught fire, and southwards over Bristol the flames roared their fury to the sky. About halfway through the raid (as it transpired) I got home, telephoned my unit, and found I was likely to be needed. My pass expired at 10.30 anyway. So I borrowed my sister?s bike and set off to return to camp [at Keynsham] and see what I could of the damage. It took me 25 minutes to reach the Press office in Baldwin Street. I remember I used to do it in five minutes years ago. I struck Whiteladies Road just above Clifton Down Station, and from there to the Centre, what with hosepipes and fires and endless detours, I pushed and carried that cycle as much as I rode it. On either side of my route, most of the streets had a house or two on fire, but they were nothing. With one or two exceptions I have reported every big fire in Bristol in the last 10 years, but last night I saw 20 or so fires each one fiercer than I had seen before. Near the Whiteladies Cinema, Weeks? auction rooms and part of the furniture depository were one high storied mass of concentrated fire. Not so much flames as the red hot glow, magnified a thousand times, of a well-fanned brazier. A hundred yards to the east, St Joseph?s Home in Cotham Hill was paying the price of a regime which knows not charity. Somewhere in Clifton, too, the flames had their hold.

Down to the Victoria Rooms, the road was clear, but there I should have stopped in amazement even had not the snaking hosepipe outside the Academy barred my path. Lennard?s fine building (and the block including the Triangle behind) was one surging mass of fire. Firemen ? professional and AFS, as everywhere, were valiant in hearts and hands. But what could they do? I?ll tell you what they did, though. They stopped that wave from flooding to the buildings neighbouring the Pro-Cathedral, and they stopped them from lapping and engulfing Queen?s Road. For there was a nasty wind, and a mere 50ft of street would never have stemmed that tide. When, baulking at the fiery gauntlet of Queen?s Road, I turned past the Embassy Cinema and went behind along Elmdale Road, the sparks from Lennard?s were falling even there like fiendish snow. Up Elton Road the handsome prep wing of the Grammar School was burning down.

I intended to turn down University Road to join the main street again, but a policeman said ?No?, for the Art Gallery, that strange incongruous copy of the Doge?s Palace in hostile Venice, was well afire. Sharp cracks and crashes told of havoc among those treasured show cases, and I feared for that fine new hall of the newer part of the Art Gallery. I turned up University Road again towards the Royal Fort ? and on my right the University was ablaze. Obviously the fire went deep into the heart of the place, but I didn?t realise, as I actually rode down Woodland Road, that the Great Hall was gone. Enough for me that the great Gothic tower still stood defiant to the blood-shot sky.

Somehow the Prince?s Theatre in Park Row gave me a nasty shock, because although I?ve always grumbled at its design, it stood for so many peace-time things that I love ? the D?Oyly Carte, the ballet, good plays and cheerful music. No Prince?s panto this year. By this time the shrapnel from the guns, the occasional explosions and the odd planes still overhead just failed to register in my consciousness. I had to get back to camp; but, after all, I am a journalist, and one day (censor permitting!) this story would have to be written. So I turned right at the bottom of Woodland Road, intent on going down Park Street. I nearly regretted that impulse. Boot?s was ablaze in Queen?s Road, but I hardly noticed it. My eyes fell down the hills to the city. Park Street was ablaze, it seemed, from end to end. It was an avenue of fire. Because of its proportions I suppose, the effect was exaggerated, because when I returned a day or two later, I was surprised to see the destruction was not greater. But to me on that night of amazement, Park Street was the most shocking sight of all. The road was covered with glass and stones and steel and hosepipes. Fire engines steadily roared their applause to the heroic effort of the firemen fighting impossible odds. I carried my cycle down through an avenue of flame which seemed to be straining to join its hungry hands across the cringing thoroughfare. The heat was considerable, and I veered from one side to the other, according to the intensity of the flanking fires, to avoid its worst. As before, I was glad of my eyeshields and tin hat because of the sparks and the nerve-jumping crashes of falling masonry.

When I got to the bottom of Park Street and looked back at this mighty torch flaming to the skies. I estimated that every third shop was ablaze. Stopping to test my tyres, I reflected, perhaps a trifle sardonically, that there could be few people in Bristol who would not derive pleasure from the fact that so far, at least, the Cathedral, the new civic buildings and the Mauritania were unscathed! Along the alleyway by the Lord Mayor?s Chapel a glow told of further mischief afloat. At the end of College Green, Gane?s furniture shop was burning like tinder, but round the corner ? surprise and relief ? the Centre was its accustomed Sunday self ? except that it was almost daylight, and odd hosepipes drew their life blood from its unnoticed main water pipes. But along the Harbour behind me I had a message of the fires on the wharves, and looking up Clare Street I was appalled at the view of Wine Street. I could see All Saints? Church intact, but beyond the site of the old High Cross all detail was lost in one vast sheet of orange flame. I thought how, in peacetime reporting, I had used the words ?blazing inferno? and I lamented the paucity of the English language. I dropped in at the Press office where the tape machines ticked steadily away in the air-raid shelter. But what news had England for Bristol that night?

Further along Baldwin Street, this tremendous story began all over again. Rowland Adams, the fruiterer, on the corner of Queen Charlotte Street, was already a ruin, and I had a vague impression that parts of Queen Charlotte Street and the Welsh Back were burning. On the other side, 65 Baldwin Street, the Cunard-White Star officers, had taken the blow and at the end St Nicholas Church shared the proud sacrifice of the secular buildings. On Bristol Bridge. I stayed for a full five minutes. From there I had another impressive view of the Wine Street area. The whole block to Mary-le-Port Street was burning, and I guessed that Union Street and Narrow Wine Street were in very like plight. Straight through what had been the top of Bridge Street I saw the furnace that had been Castle Street ? Castle Street, with the very new hiding the very old, where you could not drive your car on a Saturday night because of the crowd. With a sudden shock I realised that St Peter?s Hospital and half the church had disappeared. My heart ached at the thought of that ever-young half-timbered front, and the age-darkened oak of the panelled rooms, for these things meant much to me, as they did to most of you. I didn?t mind so much the burning of the Regent Cinema next door, nor the carnage among the great stores further on, because they can be replaced. By the flames I followed the course of the water along the old Castle Moat and I thought of that great fire which had ravaged a walled city after the desolation of the mediaeval plague. But these fires were started by man himself.

Behind me the Avon was being pumped on to a great fire on the Redcliff water front, and a way to the east of the city the sky repeated its tragic tale. I turned to the drama near at hand, Victoria street. You know now, of course, that Robinson?s on the right, and George?s Brewery offices on the left made a flaming gateway to another trail of havoc that rivalled, and in parts surpassed, the pity of Park Street. Yet I laughed as I entered that gate. High on a sturdy wall an automatic fire bell, fanned by the flames within, clanged with a regular, unmuffled beat. I approached an AFS man wiping the smuts from his eyes as he rested for a moment on his trailer pump. ?Excuse me,? I said, ?but the bell?s ringing. There must be a fire somewhere.? Revitalised into action he sprang up. ?Gosh ? where?? he asked, and then took off his tin hat and rocked with laughter. Then: ?D?you know, we?ve been trying to stop that ruddy bell for I don?t know how long,? and, still smiling, he returned to the fight,

Filled with admiration I lifted my bike and continued my insignificant way. Along most of Victoria Street, and in Temple Street too, when I made a forced detour, I protected my face with my hand from the sparks and the heat, and every now and then picked a singeing spark from my spray-damped clothes. But all around me these AFS fellows noticed nothing but the unremitting demands of their Herculean job. The worst spot was near Temple Church, where the aisle of the Weaver?s Chapel was gone, but the solid tower leaned no more than of old. Already that place was unrecognisable, and the road itself was a mess such as a tornado might have made. From some unexpected stable carters and a couple of Blue-jackets were leading those familiar Bristol draft horses to safety, frightened, but unflinching, like the thoroughbreds they are. If ever a drama had a climax the tragedy of Victoria Street had that night. The vast furnace that had been Mardon?s factories, was a mighty valediction with a vengeance. The road I took then led to lesser scenes of destruction, fires and bomb craters, and the whole ARP service in gallant action, but always I turned back to look at the city itself.

When the ?Raiders Passed? went I was back in Bristol, driving an army lorry, instead of wheeling a bicycle, and before morning came, I had side-tracked and detoured that pitted roads of Southville and Knowle and driven twice across the Suspension Bridge. What a sight we saw from there! The timber yards opposite Hotwells seemed to pale the spectacle of the other fires, and yet even as these were approached again they claimed the stage for themselves once more. That was the way it was last night. The senses could absorb so much and no more, and then they reeled. Even so, and this is worth noting, chaos never came, hard though it threatened. By the time Bristol breakfasted those fires were under control. Dawn saw the beginning of the salvage which soon set the wheels of the city moving again. The bombers have done their worst, but Bristol beat them, and will again!
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« Reply #1 on: November 25, 2020, 07:12:12 am »

You don't get reporting of that quality in the national and regional press now.
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