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Tales of Woolacombe at War

© woolacombegirl

People in story: The people of woolacombe
Article ID: A1969194
Contributed on: 04 November 2003

Woolacombe at War

I consider myself to have had a very privileged childhood, having been bought up in the scenic coastal villages of Woolacombe and its precipitous neighbour Mortehoe. With great nostalgia I recall days of sunshine, sea and sand long ago and yet sometimes seems like yesterday. When armed with buckets and spades, swimming costumes, towels and picnic lunches, we would make our way to the beach. Stopping on route at Redmores Sweet shop to buy bottles of pop, from there we would cutback through the grounds of the Woolacombe Bay Hotel coming out by the Boathouse Cafe . Turning up towards sandy burrows we would go up into the golf links passing the ruins of the old golf house to our favourite spot, the sand dunes above The Big Dip. There we would begin the enjoyment in earnest of swimming, building sand castles, playing hide and seek in the dunes and making dens in the long marron grass.

One of the favourite games of my friend Sue and I was the Big Leap off the high dunes : tightly holding hands we would launch ourselves off to see how far we could go down the slope before tumbling over and over and shrieking with delight as we rolled to the bottom of the dune. Picking ourselves up we would shake the sand out of hair and start to pick up shells - Brass Shells from another era, another time - 1939 :
Sunday September 3rd 1939 was a beautiful autumnal day, young Brian Watts was meandering up the path from Barricane Beach when he encounters his older brother, Jack, running down to meet him . “ ‘Tis terrible news , we are at war with Germany !” says ‘e. The thought that crossed the mind of an eight year old child was “ what does that mean to me ? “ On asking his brother , the reply was “Marg on your bread and no more shop bought jam !!”

Meanwhile up in the kitchen at Miramar Peter Witts was sat with his father at the corner of the table shelling peas ,freshly picked from the garden , whilst his mother was preparing Sunday lunch for the visitors. They were listening to Chamberlains famous speech to the nation on the wireless. Peter recalls it vividly, his mother wiping her hands on her apron and covering her face as she turned to look at her son “Stop worrying “ his father said “ ‘Twill all be over long before ‘es old enough to go , probably be over in six months.” !!
That afternoon John Thomas had taken his father’s boat out with Jinka Ellis {John Ellis} from Barricane Beach. The sea had got up and they were unable to get back into shore. As with any local drama , most of the village had turned out to watch the events unfold from the cliff top as the Ilfracombe Lifeboat came to the rescue, towing them back into Ilfracombe harbour. So began the first day of Woolacombe at War.

With the onset of war the first of many changes began in Woolacombe with the arrival of the Fourth Division of the London Yeomanary and the evacuees . Those that were able took in evacuees from the high risk areas of England. The majority of the evacuees in Woolacombe & Mortehoe seemed to come from the Croydon area of London. Some complete schools transferred en masse : Bartram Gables Girls School took up residence at the Watersmeet Hotel, Dagenham Girls Junior School went to Belle View { a large guest house } , Thornton Heath High School resided at the Rockham Bay Hotel and an orphanage requisitioned The Crows Nest , a small hotel belonging to the Gammon Family of Mortehoe.

My Grandmother , Beatrice Langdon had two evacuees , Brian Trench and Richard Pocock , as well as taking in a self evacuated paying family , Mrs Williams and her son Micheal Williams complete with marmoset monkey. The monkey managed to escape jumping from the second floor window but luckily no harm came to it and it was safely retrieved ! Unfortunately not so lucky was her son Micheal who later became an officer and was killed in action in North Africa. Jean Humphries remembers kicking up a fuss as they didn’t have any evacuees and were promptly supplied with two girls : Jean Paulin & Margeret Pattendon whose twin brothers worked on the land at Barton Farm run by the Pile family. My Auntie Molly & Uncle Ron had an evacuee called Alan Yates. While he was playing with two live rounds of ammunition he caused one to go off ,narrowly missing his eye but a small piece of the brass casing became imbedded in the bridge of his nose. This resulted in a trip to Ilfracombe Hospital to remove it and to have the wound stitched up, which left him scared for life. He was easily recognised when he returned to Woolacombe years later on a surprise visit.

Ivor Gammon , local amateur dramatist, remembers putting on shows in his fathers garage by Beggars Roost in Mortehoe with Ian Holme who was down in Devon as a voluntary evacuee with his father , a retired doctor, staying at Windy Ridge. They were great friends in the war and put on many shows with other evacuees for aid to Russia and other wartime charities. Ian Holme went on to become a well known Shakespearean actor. Ivor wrote congratulating him on his recent MBE and received a nice letter back from Ian remembering how he begun his stage career in Mortehoe during the war years.

My Mother remembers the excitement of seeing the first troops of the London Yeomanary arrive who were sent to defend Woolacombe against invasion. This was a territorial unit made up mainly of bank clerks and office workers and were known as a gentleman’s regiment, arriving complete with tennis racquets , hockey sticks , grooms and taking over the local stables with their own horses . Heading the regiment was Colonel Carr who already conveniently owned a house a Putsborough at the far end of Woolacombe beach. They requisitioned Putsborough Sands & the Woolacombe Bay Hotel for their Headquarters and many other houses and small hotels for the rest of the regiment , one of which was Heatherlea at Putsborough. Whilst several of the regiment were quarantined there with German Measles , Fred Peart along with Jack Taylor had to set up a regular beer run to keep up the morale of the troops. Incidentally Heatherlea was burnt to the ground in 1941 resulting in the death of one person , the cook who foolishly went back for her treasured possessions. Locals remember Lady Carr being chauffeur driven along the Marine Drive to do her shopping at Woolacombe. My Auntie Francis was employed as a cook up at Moorlands Guest House for Capt. Dennis Hillwood{ Director of Arsenal F.C.} of the regiment and his son Peter . There she met and became engaged to his batman , Clifford Jardin. More of this later !!

Woolacombe now began to look like a village at war, all signposts were taken down in case of an invasion . The Chichester Arms became The Stayput and the Morte hotel the Halfway House. Every body was issued with I.D. cards and gas masks in a cardboard box which were supposed to be carried at all times .The entire beach was covered in 8-9 foot square posts to prevent the landing of enemy gliders or aircraft. Trenches were dug on the top of the dunes down to the Boathouse cafe and along the cliff tops, bordered with sand bags. Machine gun posts were set up in strategic positions in the village, one opposite The Red Barn {known then as The Bungalow Cafe}, one at the end of Springfield Road and the toilet above the beach were even pressed into service as the windows were blocked up and a seaward facing machine gun was installed !! On the boundary of White Breakers a Four Inch Naval gun was installed complete with its own housing with double doors and a corrugated tin roof. This gun was only test fired twice , the sea front had to be closed off when firing and the first shot blew all the windows out of Parade House . The second shot took the newly constructed roof off the Gun House . Peter Witts confirms this story as he remembers the first shot resulted in the death of the families’ pet budgie and when the second shot was fired the other budgie fell off it’s perch and died as well !! Barbed wire rolls were stacked three high and stretched right across the beach at the foot of the dunes and Kelly Doll style tank traps were laid in the stream as well as mines laid on the beach.

Also a large cork target was positioned in the centre of the bay used by the Air Force for bombing practice. Three observation posts were set up t Barricane , Marine Drive and Putsborough run by the WRAF to triangulate the impact of the bombs.

The London Yeomanary left Woolacombe in January of 1940 and ended up in North Africa were they were reported to have had heavy losses. The Royal Warackshires took over the duties of The London Yeomanary but it was not for long before the South Western Training School arrived setting up a gruelling assault course covering the old reservoir , quarry and stream below and the beach was used for live round assimilation confidence tests. { Full details of this are in the attached copy of an article in the Picture Post including original photographs}.
On 15th August 1940 Woolacombe had its first and only bombing when on Thursday evening in the fields behind Putsborough a German Bomber off loaded seven bombs, fortunately only resulting in the death of a cow or unfortunately if you were that cow!

Due to U-boat activity , all convoys of ships had to sail the Woolacombe side of Lundy island with huge barrage balloons in tow. One of the damaged balloons was washed ashore at Barricane beach and was fabricated into a boat by Jinka Ellis and friends (another story to follow later).

Peter Willis , who served on a German U-boat and now resides in Woolacombe , recalls regularly coming in at night to Woolacombe Bay to get fresh water. Frighteningly nothing was known at the time.

The LDV ,soon to become the Home Guard , were set up early in the war and both Woolacombe and Mortehoe had their own contingent. Morthoe having two !! Local shop owner Benny Bryant was convinced that Bennets mouth was a likely spot for an invasion by the Germans but the other members disagreed , so Benny set up his own one man Army and could be seen every evening putting on his Souwester and marching with his shotgun down to Bennets Mouth to begin his lonely vigil to defend Morthoe against the Hun!!

The Home Guard was started in early 1940 and had a very strict discipline ,meeting every Sunday absenteeism resulting in a summons being issued. Tom Parker, known as Hammers, was in charge of the Mortehoe brigade and Charlie Cowler headed the Woolacombe section . Shooting practices were held once a week , in Mortehoe at the clubhouse and in Woolacombe at Cowler’s Garage. Ray Easterbrook , then aged 15 years , remembers being sent down to the South Western Training school for four hours instruction on the Lewis Gun. Since it was decided that the Lewis gun at the clubhouse was only gathering rust , he was told to take it home were it was kept with his service rifle , revolver and two magazines of ammunition. This gun was nearly brought into action by Ray, when working in the fields of Yarde Farm he heard machine gun fire and saw a German Heinkel bomber strafing shipping. So without a thought ran back to the house to get the Lewis gun but was unable to load it in time to take a shot at the plane. He afterwards realised that it was probably just as well as one in five bullets were tracers and the plane would have been able to pin point his position !

An early tragic casualty was the accidental shooting of young Desmond Hopkins. Whilst on a Home Guard exercises one Sunday afternoon in the Golf Links above the Big Dip , John Harris unknowingly had alive round mixed in the blanks they were using and shot Desmond Hopkins in the neck , resulting in his death. It was felt that John was never able to come to terms with this tragic event.

Alfie White , another member of the Woolacombe Home Guard , was always a bit apprehensive about going out in the dark , so when he was on night duty at the council hut by the bus stop on the front ,would take an old treacle tin with him to enable him to respond to the call of nature without having to cross the road in the dark to the toilets. This fact been known to several members of the group , one of which could not resist the temptation of knocking several holes in the bottom of the tin, resulting in Alfie getting very wet trousers , much to his annoyance but great amusement to everyone else!!

All this military activity had a big influence on the local youth, the majority of the local teenagers joined the cadet forces. Ray Easterbrook , Alf Yeo , Jeff Skinner and Jack Watts (Brian Watts’s elder brother) joined the Marine Cadets together. The infamous five , Peter Witts , Phil Pile , George Butler , Richard Treble and Micheal Cowler joined the Air Cadets which was held weekly in Ilfracombe.

Brian Watts remembers the younger contingent formed their own gangs , referred to as regiments. Brian being a member of the Springfield Guards , with Terry Witts being in charge including Ken Rowe , Gerald Fisher, Tom Bidgood and several evacuees. Lurking up towards the Watersfall were the Black Watch , a wild bunch consisting of the Tuckers, Tim Tucker being in charge , the Delahayes and the Thomases. Meanwhile the village was controlled by the South Street Hussars lead by Michael Watts { The Baron} , Sy Pile , Dougie Ellis , Richie Parkhouse , George Butler and several others. All armed with realistic wooden rifles and half with toy tin hats.

Brian relates that the games were very real and suffered the worst hiding of his life (even worse than the hiding he got from his Mother with the poker !!) when trying to defend the sand bagged circle of the machine gun post at the top of Springfield Road from the infamous Black Watch ! “ They knocked the shit out of us !!” Brian recalls.

On another occasion the Springfield Guards along with the South Street Hussars decided that they would re-enact a confidence test on the beach like the South Western Training School. So they lined up down by the beach shelter to march along the beach, while up at the top George Butler and Michael Watts stood armed with stones to throw at them. Dougie said “there’s no way I’m going to walk along there without a tin hat!” Richie Parkhouse retorted “ Don’t be so bloody stupid Douglas , you can have my hat!” Guess who was hit on the head and had to have three or four stitches! Yep you’ve got it - Richie Parkhouse...boys will be boys!

One of their favourite pastimes was to go up to the assault course at the end of the day , when it had closed , to see what had fallen out of the pockets of the troops as they negotiated the rope slung across the pit . Having collected the cigarette lighters , small change and anything else of value , they would then go round the assault course to see if they could do it faster than the soldiers. The usual time being about twelve minutes for the boys , half the time the regular soldiers took.

Mines , washed into the coves and bays by the sea , were a regular hazard. Ray Easterbrook remembers spotting a mine on the shore at Uscombe bay and reporting it to Tug Wilson at the Coast guard lookout on Morte point . The Coast guard Station was manned day and night by a five man team in four hour shifts. Ray was sent down to the rocket station to collect several lengths of rope and told to tie the mine to the rocks to stop it drifting out again. On returning back to North Morte he was then told to knock on all the doors and tell everyone to keep their windows open in case it went off!!

Chaos was caused by a mine on another occasion in Woolacombe. Coast guard Dave Yeo with the help of a long rope was trying to “walk” the mine up the beach with the incoming tide away from the danger of the sewer pipe and rocks. Unfortunately the mine made contact and exploded blowing Dave one hundred yards up the beach and making him deaf for a week. All seaward facing windows on the Esplanade and all the shop fronts were blown in causing havoc. Another story from Ray relayed to him by Fred Cox ,concerning Tug Wilson’s encounter with the Lady from the grange. While on duty at the lookout Tug , an ex guardsmen and very military, seeing the lady coming decided to ignore her but she persistently knocked on both windows and door until Tug reluctantly opened the door saying “What do ‘ee think this is , a knocking shop!!?”
She replied “I am from The Grange !”
“ Aah !” says Tug “ I’ve been waiting to see some bugger from that place, you’ve been showing a light up there.”
“ Oh No!” she said “there is no light up there !”
“ We’ll soon see” retorted Tug “We’ll put a bloody bullet through it !!”.

Although strict rationing was in force and the blackout was imposed rigorously, there were many advantages to living in Woolacombe. Most families had access to a garden and also being in a rural area , rabbits were readily available to the enterprising person. Jean Humphrys recalls taking her dogs rabbiting with her boyfriend , Cliff Longshore and three others from SWTS around Black Cloud Hill and the surrounding area. He was usually able to send two rabbits a week to his parents in Stoke on Trent who were so pleased that they used to pay for the postage.

The local grocers stores was owned by Marshall Harris and his sister Mary Tossell remembers in particular Monday nights. Alf Parker on a Monday morning would take the horse and cart to gather the orders from Lee Bay , Mortehoe and Woolacombe . That evening at about 9o’clock when the children were settled , Mary would go down to the shop to help her brother Marshall cut out all the coupons from the ration books and process the orders , not finishing until 1o’clock in the morning. Then on the Tuesday morning , Alf Parker delivered the goods with the horse and cart , usually late back due to chin wagging and umpteen cups of tea! Mary did not manage to escape the coupons even when she had to go into hospital for an operation , as her brother brought in the coupons for her to cut out to give her something to do!!

Eva Boyles lived at Seacroft near Chapel Hill Mortehoe and recalls helping her mother prepare the guests ( mostly officer’s families)meals. One of the jobs delegated to her was the art of cutting a small tin of Spam into 28 very thin slices, which were then divided equally between the fourteen guests! Another job she had was making sausage rolls out of the tins of America sausage meat. These were surrounded by a thick “wodge” of fat which she scrapped off , mixing it with chopped onions , to make the pastry for sausage rolls , a far better alternative to the liquid paraffin some recipes suggested for fat !! Eva had an eccentric widowed Aunt called Cookie Watts who used to supply vegetables to the family with the help of her gardener called Charlie Hall . She was reputed to be a bit of a psychic and terrified the life out of Eva! One day Eva was sent to get some potatoes and reluctantly made her way up Chapel Hill to Fairs Cottage by the Chichester Arms ,were Cookie lived , taking her own basket which must have upset the old lady as she menacingly said “ If you can’t take my bloody teddies in my bloody basket you won’t have the buggers at all!!” It’s much easier at the supermarket today!!

Petrol was also strictly rationed and there was only one grade. Ray Easterbrook recalls the petrol issued for agricultural use was dyed pink and on the tank of a new tractor were the words “ We won’t waste it Sailor !”
The WVS played an active part in the life of the two villages during the war. Organised by Lady Colville and her daughter ,the Honorary Margaret Colville , they personally made regular house collections to assist the many War time charities and were well regarded by the local community. In the heritage centre of Mortehoe a wax model of May Wilson in her WVS uniform can be seen keeping vigil by the stairs.

The blackout was strictly imposed through out the war. In the November issue 1939 of the North Devon Journal it is noted that Edith Lancaster was fined Forty shillings for flouting blackout regulations , not a small sum at the time! Cars had to have their headlights restricted with only three small slots for light. Towards the end of the war Freddie Worth in his Wolsley 12/48 on his way down to Ilfracombe at night suddenly saw three cart horses coming up the hill towards him, with such poor lights he was unable to brake in time. Two horses went by him but the third put his head down and smashed the front of the vehicle right in and the bonnet went through the windscreen. Freddie himself escaped with minor injuries but it was reported that the horses head was found under the back axle.

In contrast a spectacular sight that could be seen in the Bay sometimes at night were the brightly lit Hospital ships sailing by indicating their purpose to the enemy.

With the ever increasing demand for munitions a factory was set up at the back of Cowler’s Garage, jointly owned by Mr Thompson and Mr Fred Worth, using precision engineering to produce bomb noses. The factory was open day and night lit by large mercury vapour lamps. It was manned by both women and men of all ages and a strict time discipline was imposed with clocking in and out on shifts. Mr Worth’s daughter Margaret was often made late for work by having to stand to attention to the raising of the American Flag which made her furious!!

Peter Witts whilst working at the factory with his friends , prior to going into the RAF , recalls one morning when Mr Worth proudly brought his son Derek into the factory in his uniform with his newly acquired Pilots Wings to talk to the young men soon to follow in his foot steps. Derek was always popular and highly regarded by his peers.

Social life in the village improved dramatically with a large influx of soldiers passing through regularly on training at the SWTS. Dances were laid on by the Army at the Woolacombe Bay Hotel. This had the only sprung dance floor in the South West at the time and so had to be covered by local builder , Mr Baker , to protect it from the attentions of the Army ! Regular dances were held on Saturday nights in the Ballroom and dancing classes were given by Sergeant Good on Wednesday evenings and Dorothy Ellis can remember many an enjoyable evenings teaching young soldiers how to ballroom dance. Also Films were shown in the ballroom along with amateur dramatics , Housey Housey{Bingo} and many other social activities.

Margaret Peart’s father , Freddie Worth , ran the bars at the Woolacombe Bay Hotel during the war years. Their own house having been requisitioned by the army and their personal belongings stored at Watersmouth Castle , the family had rooms in the cottage suite , an annexe of the hotel. Margaret recalls that on most Sundays , chaperoned by her mother, they had lunch with the Officers in the main dining room. “ Well !” as she puts it with a twinkle in her eye “ We were star---ving!!”

She also records that at Christmas the officers had a football match dressed outrageously for the time in the barmaids corsets, great fun was obviously had by all !!

The serious side of the war was ever present though. At night one could hear the drone of enemy bombers overhead on their way to bomb South Wales and hear the impact as it rattled the windows and shook the walls. May Taylor remembers how this brought home the reality of war , as she felt the relief that it was not Woolacombe but guilt that others were going through hell.

Meanwhile my mother was going through her own hell having received the dreaded telegram informing her that her husband , Clive Coats, was reported missing believed killed in action on the 13th February 1942. Confirmed by a letter stating the same and followed up by a letter of condolence from His Majesty, King George VI .Soon after she was put on a widows pension and it was not until August 1943 that she received a post card from my father stating that he was a POW in the hands of the Japanese. My father had left England in November 1941 destination The Middle East , stopping off at Durban in South Africa . They were diverted to Singapore due to the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese. On reaching Singapore they were quickly forced into retreat and it was then that Dad was shot , he believed by a ricochet , that went through his arm and ended up imbedded in his ribs quarter of an inch below his heart, where it remained to his dying day as it was to dangerous to operate on. He was taken to hospital with all the other casualties and because the Japanese were advancing so rapidly those that were able to walk were told to head for Java . My father was to seriously wounded to be moved and was injected for the pain . When he came round everybody had gone except a young 18 year old airman, badly wounded in the stomach and a few Red Cross volunteers , who moved them by ambulance to a small hospital run by the Nuns. It was on this trip that they were intercepted by the Japanese. My father remembered holding the frightened young airman’s hand and comforting him as a father would as it was obvious that he was dying and did shortly afterwards. My father then spend a few months in Hospital until he was deemed fit enough to be transferred to the prison of war camp in Palembang Sumatra , where he managed to survive in appalling conditions until the end of the war.

Hughie Treeble of Woolacombe was taken prisoner and held in a different camp to my Father in Sumsatra{reported in the North Devon Journal February 11th 1943.

Ernie Winters was held prisoner in Germany. Recorded in the NDJ on January 14th 1943 his mother Mrs B. Winters held a whist drive in aid of POWs and my mother Mrs. C. Coats won one of the prizes.

Cpl. Walter Brown ( Brian & Jack Watts’s Step Father) was captured in Crete and was held prisoner in Stalag 383 in Germany.

Casualties of war (known to me so far)

Tom Cooper of Mortehoe, Navy, was machine gunned down his right side whilst serving on a Motor Torpedo Boat.

Colin Dyer of Woolacombe , Navy, was torpedoed in a destroyer and had bad memories of fellow seaman who were hanging onto the lifeboat having their hands knocked by the Officers to prevent the lifeboat from capsizing.

Herbert Dyer of the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry was killed in active service in Italy.

Derek Worth , Fleet Air Arm Pilot , tragically killed in 1941 in a training accident in Scotland.

Of those that joined the Cadets:

Ray Easterbrook was not accepted into the marines due to a missing thumb blown off by a shotgun before the war and served in a reserved occupation on Yarde Farm.

Jack Watts joined the Marines and was at Dunkirk later sent to Singapore where he contracted dysentery which weakened him and tragically died in 1945 of Meningitis.

Of the Infamous Five who all joined the RAF : Micheal Cowler served in India as ground crew (Failed for air crew due to colour blindness).

Phil Pile

George Butler was an Air Gunner and flew in B17s

Richard Treble was an Air Gunner and was tragically lost at sea on his first flight on reconnaissance over the North Sea on the last day of the War.

Peter Witts was an Air Gunner and flew in Liberators, Flying Fortress and Halifaxes.

Unfortunately the war did not last six months as his father predicted and Peter volunteered for the RAF aged 17 years.

The 25th April 1943, Peter’s last day before joining up , was a beautiful spring morning and Peter with his younger brother Terry , calling in on Jack Watts and his younger brother Brian , set out early to collect seagull eggs at Bull Point. They returned for lunch and then set out in the opposite direction to collect more eggs at Baggy Point. Later in the evening Peter recalls the Fire Bell ringing to summon his father to a gorse fire up at Seymour and his mother giving him a flask of coffee to take up to his father. So ended the last day of Peter’s boyhood as he left the tranquillity of Woolacombe to face the brutality of war.

Several planes crashed in the Bay and surrounding area during the war , quite a few went down dive bombing the cork target in the middle of the bay.

A Wellington bomber crashed on the Woolacombe side of Morte Point ( all crew were rescued)

An Avro Hanson at Mullacott Cross near the radio station

A Henley at Baggy Point

A Lancaster at Bara Fields

Beauforts (several casualties)

A Spitfire at Morte Point (Polish Pilot survived)

Dorothy Ellis remembers going down with her sister to Mill Rock to investigate the site of a plane crash. They earned the gratitude of the salvage team when they found a missing piece of wreckage that the team had overlooked. She recalls it was such a bright beautiful day that you could clearly see the dogfights out at sea over Lundy Island.

Lundy Island ( 20 miles off the coast of Woolacombe) was used as a Naval Observation Point manned by six Signallers and one Officer. Two Heinkel 111 crash landed on the island. One on 3rd March 1941 all five crew captured, the second on 1st April 1941 two crew killed on impact and the remaining three captured. On the 1st June 1942 a British Whitley Bomber crashed in thick fog at Pilots Quay killing all five crew, the engines remain on the cliff face to this day. The owner of the Island Mr.Harman’s eldest son John was killed in action in 1944 and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. A memorial stone was set up in the old Quarry were he played as a child, now called the VC Quarry.

I recall a rhyme from my childhood
Lundy’s high its sure to be dry
Lundy’s plain it’s sure to rain

Ships Lost:

London II carrying steel billets was bombed and sunk on 21/3/41 by German Aircraft 12 miles of Bull Point .

The Attweppen , carrying coal from Barry in Wales to Fremington , was bombed and sunk by the Germans on 28/3/41.

In January 1943 a large Sunderland Flying Boat with a very heavy fighter escort passed over Woolacombe , this was Winston Churchill on his way to the famous meeting with President Roosevelt in Casablanca to agree to a date for the amphibious invasion of Europe.

Finally the Invasion took place ,a Friendly Invasion of Woolacombe by the Americans in the summer of 1943.The SWTS moved out two months before to make way for the Assault Training Centre (ATC). After much internal wrangling 25 square miles between Woolacombe and Appledore was acquired by Col. Thompson of U.S. Army for the training of the D-day landings ,due to its similarity to the Normandy beaches .In August 1943 he set-up his headquarters at the Woolacombe Bay Hotel and the Assault Training Centre (ATC) started in earnest by preparing the beach. First in was a new fangled (to Brian Watts at the time!) bulldozer which, with the help of a chain , pulled out all the wooden posts across the beach. Barbed wire and mines that had been laid for the previous anticipated invasion three years before had to be removed.

A road was cut from the end of Marine Drive linking Woolacombe to Putsborough , called the “Corduroy Road” as it was made up of logs. In the village they joined Bay View road to Rockfield Road .The “Big Dip” of my childhood was created to enable sea-borne supplies to be brought up from the beach to cater for the vast numbers of troops training in the area. Paths were cut down to the golf links from the Marine Drive that are still in use today. Three pill boxes and barbed wire were erected for training purposes.

The Bungalow Cafe became the headquarters of the American Red Cross . Mrs May Taylor , Denise McClegland and Beryl Dyer ( Mrs Ornellis) worked for the Red Cross . My Mother helped out on a voluntary basis and remembers that on one evening a young GI on receiving bad news , was asked what he wanted to eat , he replied “Kippers with Strawberry Jam !!”

The Nissan huts were extended above the beach and a huge recreation hall was erected with 15ft by 20ft roll back steel doors , polished wood floor and a stage with two dressing rooms at the back . With the opening of this hall the Bungalow Cafe was no longer required for dances. The Hall became a very popular venue with the surrounding villages. In the archives of Ilfracombe museum , a woman records the wonderful evenings spent dancing and the doorstep sized hot beef sandwiches , candy bars and chewing gum. Transport was never a problem if you could not get a bus or taxi the Army would come to fetch you!

It is also recalled by several people that Glen Miller came to the Recreation Hall to entertain the troops. Other famous visitors to Woolacombe included General Eisenhower and other high ranking officers including Russians headed by Admiral Kharlamov, who came to observe amphibious landings .

Several other buildings were now requisitioned by the American Army and large camps of Nissan huts and tents were set up in the surrounding areas. One at Lincombe near Lee , Burrow Woods Camp, that had been built by the British , was now taken over by the Americans , housing over 2000 American troops. The Mortehoe Home Guard obviously had their hands full defending the Wren’s honour and Quarters at West Acre , Mortehoe. Living opposite to the Burrows Woods Camp , Nancy James (nee Baker) then aged 15 years remembers how pleased she was that the grammar school uniform had been changed from gym slip to black skirt and white blouse. This enabled her to be able to give the impression of being a secretary going to work as she passed the camp every day on her way to catch the school bus. On another occasion she recalls taking the march past , stood on the podium with Col. Thompson, and feeling like the bees knees in her best frock and wide brimmed hat with a bluebird on the side . Fifty years on Nancy met Col. Thompson again (now Brig. Gen.) when he was in Woolacombe for the dedication of the granite memorial stone and subsequently sent him photos of the occasion, resulting in the following reply:
Dear Nancy,
What a nice surprise to receive the set of photos and your letter, our thoughts are often on Woolacombe and the wonderful people we met there. We hope our paths will cross again in the near future
All our best wishes Yosth and Paul Thompson.

Strict discipline was enforced by the American Military Police(AMP). Brian tells me “the MPs were absolute Bastards , carrying Tommy guns and truncheons , any soldier who stepped out of line was instantly in the glass house and were made to sweep the roads and to run with heavy packs across the sea front and back. It was certainly no easy detention !!” In contrast Graham Brown thought the MPs were wonderful as at the age of three remembers that when they passed the glass house they used to throw candy bars and chewing gum , making them his heroes!!

A large motor pool was created at Sandy Burrows field along with an ammunition dump which is still in existence today. The Pandora hotel became the hospital , Belle View was used as a Military Prison ( Glass House) , the Boathouse Cafe was the PX store ( like a NAAFI store) , the Marisco Club as it is today was The Forty Eight Club for the NCOs and the Devonia and the Atlantic Hotels had small barber shops at the back for the GIs.
The rubbish dump was at High Bullen and as the Americans had comparatively endless supplies , what was rubbish to them was a gold mine to others. Brian & Co. used to visit regularly finding keys , K rations, clothes , packets of cigarettes, lighters and thousands of condoms which they used to sell down at the factory at the back of Cowler’s.

Bill Miles used to collect surplus materials from the American Army camps. One dark evening as he was going about his duties , he was challenged “Halt who goes there?”
“Pigs Swill !” replied Bill
“Advance Pigs Swill and be recognised!!” was the reply! Bill had many a free drink at the local Hostelry on that story!

The American band was billeted at Rayharden , run by Mrs. Davis and her daughter Enid , from there they would march daily to the Woolacombe Bay Hotel. In the grounds of the hotel they would play their national anthem to the raising and lowering of the Stars & Stripes. Joe Fisher was a member of the band and remembers by the time he arrived in the early spring of 1944 they only played the retreat. Perhaps Margaret Pearts annoyance at being made late had been transmitted to the Americans by then !! - {Joe Fisher is a contact in America that we have been corresponding with and I have included the memories he sent me at the back of this article.} Joyce Redmore has fond memories of the music of the band as they practised opposite her parent’s Cafe and sweet shop and recalls them coming in daily for refreshments.

The good social life that Woolacombe had become accustomed to during the war continued, if anything even more than before. My sister Vivienne’s earliest memory is of being taken on the shoulders of Jerry , an American soldier, a friend of Auntie Francis , to get ring donuts down by the Nissan huts at the top of the beach and many other locals remember this treat. The friendliness of the GIs made them very popular with the children and much appreciated was the “Hershey Bars” as chocolate was a rare treat in the war years. Equally appreciated by the young women was the black silk stockings and the attention given to them by the friendly GIs!

One afternoon my mother after helping her friend Linda Brown with the evacuees , persuaded Linda to accompany her on a promised trip to the beach with my three year old sister Vivienne. On reaching the beach they were approached by a young American called Robert Morgan who asked if he could sit a while and talk to them. Vivienne wanted a bucket of water and Robert duly obliged . My mother fondly recalls the picture of the tall young American holding the small girl’s hand and walking the entire length of the beach to get water from the sea instead of one of the neighbouring pools. This was the beginning of the romance between Linda and Robert and they remained married to this day and live in America. Some of the local girls that married Americans are Joan Thomas , Greta Pile , Jean Diamond (married a Canadian), Jean Humphrys was engaged to an American, Robert Robinson, but met and married Johnnie Humphrys, who stayed with my Grandmother , while salvaging the Lancaster bomber that crashed in Bara Fields.

The first scout group was set up at this time by Leo Maslinoff an American soldier and was very much appreciated and enjoyed by the local boys . Brian Watts thought that he was a wonderful man , a really great guy and his respect for him came through after all these years as he relayed the stories of those times.

The ATC aim was to train the troops for the D-day landings. Morte Point was used as a firing range from the sea on many occasions . When being used for firing practise a red flag would fly. Small bits of shrapnel can still be found by the sharp-eyed in the hollows left by the shelling in the war and the top stone was blown off changing the outline of Morte Point.

Regular simulated landings were made at Woolacombe in all conditions. Disembarking they would run up the beach under heavy fire , negotiating barbed wire and booby traps with the demolition team to take out the pill boxes.

The American booby trap detonators were made of brass and were reusable. With a little ingenuity and red match heads these booby traps could be reused to make an impressive explosion . This proved so popular at school Brian Watts tells us that they soon had a big order book to fill. So one evening when the Americans were at the far end of the beach at Black Rock at Putsborough, setting up the booby traps for the next landing Michael Watts , George Butler and Brian Watts went down to Mill Rock to get some more booby traps. Micheal told the other two to stay in the dunes while he went to have a look . Unknown to him the Americans had earlier set up the traps and when Michael set one off he jumped so much that he set the next one off , running in panic round the rock he set off another two!! As he came panting up the sand dune Brian said “ Why didn’t you come back the same way ?!!”

Micheal replied “ I wasn’t going to come back up that bloody way again!!” The ambulance came along the beach but in spite of the fright they had , the boys were long gone.

On another trip down to the beach Brian with Tom Bidgood found the beach covered with about eighty condoms and both boys worried what the American soldiers had been doing to their Mothers ! As it turned out the demolition squads attacking the pill boxes found that condoms provided a good water proof protection for their fuses !!

On one occasion a group of local families and a Londoner called Perkins who lived at Combe Ridge ( a real character ) were watching one of the landings .One of the demolition squads had gone a bit wrong and instead of attacking a pill box , advanced on the public toilets which had been left derelict by the British Army. There was one hell of an explosion , the toilet roof was lifted three foot in the air and dust flew every where . “Christ !” said Perkins “ They’re even blowing up the bloody Shithouse now!!”

One Saturday morning towards the end of November , beginning of December the ATC against local advice from the coast guards were attempting practise landings in amphibious DUKWs in appalling conditions , known to the locals as the black east wind which brings high seas and lethal under currents. Three of the DUKWs started too drift towards the rocks and when they turned parallel to the beach in an attempt to rectify the situation , they were almost instantly rolled over and capsized killing most of the troops on board. It is recorded in “Spirit of the Sands” book , an incident when 14 men were killed and another incident when several were killed . The local memory all put the figure to be between 50 to 60 men drowned as when the bodies were laid out in the Forty Eight Club they covered most of the floor. But the true figure may never be known and I intend to research this topic further. Attached is an article from the Journal reporting a similar incident at the Putsborough side of Baggy Point . In the rush to prepare for the D-day landings some casualties were inevitable.

In May 1944 the Majority of the Americans disappeared overnight and Woolacombe knew the biggest secret of the time , that the invasion of Europe was imminent . Now all that could be done was to wait for news of the D-day landings and I am sure that many prayers went out to all those young men who had won the hearts of the women and children of Woolacombe.

On June 6th 1944 the invasion was launched .Every body I have spoken to remembers the amazing sight of the vast convoys of ships passing through the Bay on D-day and the hundreds of Aircraft with the three white line invasion markings on the wings passing overhead. Over 3000 American troops gave their lives in the Omaha landings.

With the departure of the Americans my Grandfather George Henry Langdon stepped into Leo Maslinoff shoes and took over the running of the scout group , not an easy task. Brian remembers one occasion up at Spraecombe when my grandfather relayed the news of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima . “ Come along you boys line up on parade” ordered George Henry “I have a special message for you. The war I think will soon be over as the Americans have dropped a bomb on Hiroshima and devastated an area of about 12 square miles.”

Darky Leaworthy forgetting were he was said “Coo ----or Bugger Me !!” which was way out of line at the time.
From what I can gather there was not a lot of celebration on VE day in Woolacombe as the war was still raging in the far East and two of Woolacombe’s men , Hughie Treble and my father ,Clive Coats, were still held prisoner in Sumatra. On VJ Day my grandfather had organised a fireworks display with the scouts . He had been celebrating the end of the war and the imminent release of my father and was well and truly inebriated . Unknown to him the scouts had tied all sorts of rubbish , oil drums , tin cans and bits of wood to his Morris Bluebird car. Coming out of Lauderdale he jumped into the car and drove off clanging and rattling up the road ignoring the commotion and revelling in the fun of the occasion. Having “secured” the fireworks under the trestle table, he began the display by lighting the Catherine wheel he had nailed to the table ,sparks went in the box and the whole lot went off every where making it a truly memorable display for the scouts!!

In May 1992 a granite memorial was erected on the sea front above the beach dedicated to all the American soldiers who served in Woolacombe during the D-day operations. Col. Thompson ( now Brig. Gen.) and Major Pixton ( now Gen.) were both in attendance. The RAF band played Glen Miller music and a fly past by a helicopter from RAF Chivenor flying the Stars and Stripes. General Pixton dedicated the memorial and Brig. General Thompson’s closing words of his speech were “I would presume to speak for the 25,000 spearhead troops who were trained here on the beach , when I say Thank God there is a Woolacombe and Thank you Woolacombe.”

As I summarise this story and reflect on Woolacombe at war I see a time when the excitement of the unknown , of living for today , not knowing if there would be any tomorrows , was normality for the young men and women living and training in the village. But I also see in my mind a young Brian Watts running up the path to late to wave goodbye to his brother on the departing bus , desperately waving to get his brothers attention whom he was never to see again.

And I can hear Margaret Pearts words “I got up in the morning and every thing was fine ,but on hearing of the death of my brother , from that moment on nothing was ever the same again”.

I feel these words epitomises war , whatever the time , the place or nationality and so I say thank you to all those men and women that enabled me to be here today to recount this story of Woolacombe at War.

Those that gave their lives 1939 - 1945:
R.H.Berkin H.R.Dyer
D.E.Hopkins G.A.Saywell
G.Vasey R.J.Trebble
E.J.Watts D.Worth
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Comment posted on: 12 March 2004 by Andy1971

Dont know where to start, thankyou for posting this. As somebody who has been holidaying in Woolacombe of and on since I was a little boy, ive found this very interesting. As somebody who is very interested in WW2 and has read endless books on the subject, this is even more amazing.
I knew Americans must have been at Wooly as I have seen the monument on the cliffs. But I never realised to what extent plus all the other war history.

I love Woolacombe and have done since I was little from playing in the rock pools finding starfish and crabs. From finding millions of shells on Barricane. And as ive got older walking the many beautifull walks. One of my favourite places is a hill just behind Morte village. It seems to me to be the highest spot in the area, and ive sat there for ages just admiring the place and loosing myself in thought.

Now with knowing the history I shall cherrish the place even more, thankyou.

Andrew, Woking, Surrey.


Source: BBC WW2 People'st War. WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar.


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