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My Cardiff

Captain Kenneth Nelson

Captain Kenneth Nelson (a.k.a. Skip) was a student here in the 1940s. Since 1950 he has lived in Melbourne, Australia. Ken is a great supporter of the University; he gives regularly to the Nelson Scholarship Fund, which provides bursaries to students in the School of Engineering, and most recently became a sponsor of the new Trevithick Library.

Captain Kenneth Nelson

Captain Kenneth Nelson

While reminiscing in Australia about my days in Cardiff some sixty years ago, I was reminded of a saying by James Barrie – ‘God gave us memories so we might have June roses in the December of our lives’.

In September 1941, as Student No. 14434, I commenced my civil engineering course at Cardiff University. In retrospect, 1941 was a dramatic year for Britain in World War II. At the beginning of the year Germany was at the peak of its power. Britain’s European allies had all been defeated and in many of these countries fascist politicians had seized power and adopted a pro-German and anti-British attitude. The most infamous of these collaborators were Pétain and Laval in France and Quisling in Norway.

In September 1940 Hitler decided to bomb Britain into submission. This tactic had already proved successful in other countries. Germany had 3000 aircraft available for this task. To oppose this force Britain had only 800 fighter aircraft. London and its docks were the Luftwaffe’s first major objective. The city was attacked for 76 consecutive nights with only one night of relief. Its worst night was on 11th May 1941 when 550 German bombers made a particularly savage assault, killing more than 1,400 people. During the Blitz Cardiff University became the host to the staff and students who were evacuated from London colleges. Shortly afterwards many of the British provincial cities were being bombed. Cardiff was an important target because of its number of large docks including the world-famous Queen Alexandra dock. The docks were unloading vast quantities of arms and food from across the Atlantic. To reduce their losses, the Luftwaffe was now concentrating on night raids; this meant inaccurate bombing and consequently more civilian casualties.

During these air-raids on Cardiff many public buildings and private residences were either severely damaged or completely destroyed. Our University was no exception. Throughout the Blitz teams of students and staff undertook fire-fighting duties at the University. The responsibilities of these teams were to extinguish incendiary bombs; their greatest danger was from high-explosive bombs which were being dropped at the same time. The worst night for the University fire-fighters was on 26th February 1941, when five high-explosive bombs were dropped on the grounds of the University; one was a direct hit on the Students Union. Five of the fire-fighters were injured, one dying the next day. When Germany invaded Russia on 22nd June 1941 the intensity of the bombing was reduced but, the air-raids still continued. (By the end of the war 60,595 people had been killed in air-raids in Britain).

In Cardiff we had public air-raid shelters and shelters for private residences. Our ‘digs’ in 114 Colum Road had an indoor shelter called a ‘Morrison’ shelter, named after the then Home Secretary. It consisted of a steel-framed box with a thick steel top. It was located in our breakfast room. During night raids our landlady, Miss Phillips, and her sister slept in the Morrison shelter and we five students took shelter under the stairs.

On 7th December 1941, Japan, without any declaration of war, attacked Pearl Harbour. Four days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. So Britain finished the dramatic 1941 with two new allies and one new enemy.

Meanwhile we attended lectures and worked on our studies as well as we could. During the year, Professor W. Norman Thomas, who had been seconded for special war duties returned to give us a lecture on the design and construction of public air-raid shelters.

At the end of the 1941-42 academic year I was awarded the Page Prize in Engineering. Then I enlisted, initially in the Royal Air Force, but I was later commissioned in the Army. I served three years in the Far East – two in Burma during the war and one year on garrison duties in Singapore after the war.

I returned to Cardiff University in March 1947; it was great to meet again with many old friends, both students and staff members. Sadly, several old friends had died in the war. ‘Pete’ Mullett was one; he was killed while flying in the R.A.F. Pete had been a very popular member of our 1941 fire-fighting team at Cardiff.

Gradually we ex-servicemen settled down to our studies again. One privilege granted to us was permission to smoke during examinations. As an ardent pipe smoker I used to ‘puff’ my way through the examinations.

We had inherited an Engineers Society from the First World War veterans. The Society organised lectures, ‘Going Down’ dinners and ‘smoke-nights’. Smoke-nights were the most popular; they were evenings of jollification and the engineers, as usual, were able to produce a number of talented vocalists.

At the end of our course in 1949 Professor W. Norman Thomas, CBE recommended three of us (Graham Jones, Peter Rowley and myself) for engineering positions in the Victorian Water Commission in Australia. As a result I spent the rest of my career designing and constructing dams for irrigation projects.

It was during my last year in Cardiff that I became aware of the similarity of my father’s career and mine - this was not surprising. We had both studied at the Old College in Newport Road. My father had started his course in 1914 as Student No. 5442. At the end of his first year he enlisted in the Army. When the First World War finished in 1918; he returned to his studies at Cardiff.

The Professor of Engineering, at the time, was Frederic Bacon; he frequently stressed the importance of writing technical papers and reports to his students. My father completed his course in 1920 and had by then developed a passion for writing. By the time of his death in 1969 he had published more than 300 technical articles and five books.

Years later I realised that I had inherited some of my father’s enthusiasm for writing. I have had 50 articles and five books published. My latest The Dictionary of Water Engineering (2005) is in the Cardiff University Library.

An important consequence of my writing activity was that I met, at a conference, my future wife Shirley, a medical practitioner, who was then Director of Radiology at Prince Henry’s Hospital, Melbourne. She wrote and practised medicine under her maiden name Shirley Roberts. She published four biographical books, five short biographies in the Journal of Medical Biography and two entries in the New Dictionary of National Biography.

Clearly, writing has played an important part in both my professional and domestic life. This can be traced back to my father’s early days at Cardiff when Professor Frederic Bacon encouraged him to develop his writing skills. I was pleased to hear in 1993 that Cardiff University had established an engineering scholarship in my father’s name.

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