Life on the Gloucestershire Home Front, by John Putley

When, on Sunday 3rd September 1939, the public were informed that Britain was again at war with Germany, few people were surprised.  Initially life remained oddly ordinary, but although as time passed there were air raids and other characteristics of the war, nothing particularly terrible or terrifying took place on a large scale.  Gloucestershire was never in the front line in either the 1940 invasion scare (though if the Germans had invaded, the Severn Estuary was the goal of a second assault) or the 1944 D-Day preparations, but the sense of involvement in the conflict thanks to the Blackout, the media and rationing, made the Home Front very real for most people.

The first signs of potential conflict in the county occurred 5 years earlier, when following Hitler’s announcement about the existence of the Luftwaffe, the RAF began an Expansion scheme.  Work soon started on airfields at South Cerney, Kemble, Little Rissington and Moreton Valence, together with modernisation at Aston Down (Minchinhampton) and the creation of bases at Innsworth and Quedgeley.  The county’s aviation industries at Brockworth (GAC), Bishops Cleeve (Smiths), Yate (Parnall) and Filton (BAC) also expanded.  In towns, some air-raid shelters appeared and in spring 1939, batteries of AA guns arrived at Cheltenham and Gloucester.  The slide towards war continued when the county Air Raid Precautions (ARP) was established and the Government public information campaign issued leaflets covering the outbreak of war, evacuation, food and ARP precautions. 

For most people the first tangible sign of war came 2 days before it was declared when the official blackout was enacted.  This was to be the most intrusive and extensive of all the wartime measures and for a time, it was the most dangerous as road accidents doubled, thousands of people were injured after night-time trips and falls and crime increased.  This was followed by the arrival of evacuees, mostly children from Birmingham and London, although many returned home after a few months as the ‘Phony war’ continued. Interestingly whereas most people in the county had yet to receive their gas masks most evacuees had them.  In October, the Ministry of Agriculture’s ‘Dig for Victory’ scheme was launched which called for people for to start growing their own food.  It heralded something that impacted on the lives of the entire country, for in January 1940 rationing was introduced.  The first foods to be rationed were bacon, butter and sugar followed by meat (March 1940), then tea and fats (July 1940).  Jam, cheese, eggs followed in 1941 by which time clothes rationing had also been introduced – ‘Make do & mend’ became the order of the day.

In May 1940, the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) formed and many Gloucestershire men joined.  Before long numerous LDV units existed across the county though by July they had been renamed the Home Guard and given a clearer combatant role with better weapons.   The two pictures below highlight the difference between LDV volunteers in 1940 and Home Guard members in 1944. 

In Gloucestershire, the Phony War ended on 18th June 1940 when a lone German Heinkel He-111 bombed the Bristol Aircraft Works at Filton.  The first county air raid warning followed on 24th June – and though no air attack followed, in Gloucester a tragedy occurred when a female ARP Warden was shot and wounded by an LDV member.  In reality although the Germans had undertaken pre-war aerial reconnaissance and had identified a number of targets in Gloucestershire – mostly aircraft manufacturing sites, ports and military installations – Gloucestershire suffered relatively few air raids and the majority of German bombers flew over the county en route to bomb other places.  Despite this approximately 4,200 high explosive (HE) and 20,000 incendiary (IE) bombs fell on Gloucestershire and they killed 250 people and wounded 770. 

Luftwaffe bomb target maps – GAC Hucclecote & RAF Moreton-in-Marsh (GA Ref.No: D3558/114)
Air Raid Warning Bulletin No.1

After Dunkirk, the prospect of invasion became a real possibility and hasty programmes of defensive measures were enacted.  Gloucestershire was part of the General Headquarters (GHQ) Line (which ran across southern England and around London) and Stop Line Green (protecting Bristol, Avonmouth and Sharpness).  This ran from the Somerset coast at Highbridge to Malmesbury (where it met the GHQ Line from London) and then to Avening, where it ran down the valley to Framilode and the Severn.  These lines utilised natural barriers – rivers, canals and railway lines – and were reinforced by pillboxes (brick or concrete blockhouses with firing loops).  These were typically camouflaged by paint or vegetation, though some were given other disguises like the one shown here.  Many still survive today.  In addition to pillboxes, anti-tank obstacles (concrete pyramids and cylinders) and road blocks were built, while trenches and even metal stakes were erected in areas where German troop-carrying gliders or parachutists might land.  

Pillbox disguised as hayrick (GA Ref.No: D5274/1) 
Anti-glider defences at Minchinhampton Common – trench and pyramids (aka dragon’s teeth)

The Battle of Britain postponed German invasion plans but heralded the bombing campaign known as The Blitz.  As noted above, Gloucestershire largely escaped unscathed but the sound of German aircraft became commonplace and easy to recognise (German aircraft emitted a throbbing noise, whereas RAF ones droned – due to unsynchronised versus synchronised engines).  One aspect of the Blitz that remained in the memory was the red glow of fires burning in Bristol to the south and Birmingham to the north.  The main contribution of the county in the Blitz was in electronic warfare for in November, the RAF’s No.80 Wing set up a secret electronic countermeasures station at Birdlip to jam the German electronic navigation aids (Knickebein and X-Gerät).  Although the Blitz eased by May 1941 as Hitler prepared to invade Russia, bombing did not stop altogether as the Luftwaffe switched to hit & run nuisance raids, which were much harder to defend against and continued until late 1944.

By this time, the arrival of American troops in the county was noticeable, especially as many were billeted with local people.  Hereafter, the county seemed to get busier as the military build-up increased as D-Day approached.  For most people this manifested itself in seemingly endless convoys of trucks, tanks and other military hardware making their way southwards, often clogging up roads for many hours.  People continued to grumble about rationing and hardships but in general life had become much safer.  After the success of D-day however a new threat arose; the German V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 rocket.  Most were launched towards London and brought a new wave of terror to the capital inflicting high casualties (killing 6,184 civilians and injuring 17,981).  In Gloucestershire, the main effect was that a fresh wave of evacuees arrived and many of the local AA guns left (being transferred to the south-east to help protect London).  On 31st August, the Luftwaffe made its final attack on the county when Heinkel He-111 bombers flying from Holland air-launched 20 V-1s at Gloucester.   Of these, 17 were detected but only 8 made landfall and none came close to Gloucestershire as 6 fell in Suffolk and 2 in Essex.   

The V-threat ceased by Christmas 1944 which was celebrated with much more enthusiasm than previous years.  By February most ARP posts were no longer manned around-the-clock and on 2nd May the blackout was lifted.  Just 6 days later VE day was celebrated and although the war would continue in the east for another 4 months Gloucestershire was at peace.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s