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The Evacuation of the South Hams by Jane Putt.

by csvdevon

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Contributed by 
People in story: 
The Brooking Family
Location of story: 
Island Farm, Stokenham, South Hams, Devon
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
18 January 2006

This story has been written to the BBC People's War site by CSV Storygatherer Coralie, for Jane Putt (nee Brooking). The story has been added to the site with Jean Brooking’s permission, on behalf of Jane, and she fully understands the terms and conditions of the site.

What a shock it must have been for my parents to learn that they must evacuate their home, Island Farm, Stokenham, in the short time of six weeks. I was 6 years old at the time, Jean aged 8, Herb was nearly 4, Derek was nearly 3 and Mother was pregnant with her fifth child, due in March 1944.

There was to be a sudden total evacuation of this quiet Devon countryside, involving 3,000 people, their possessions, farm stock and equipment. This fact was made known by the Lord Lieutentant of Devon, on 12th November 1943, at East Allington Church. Later on the same day, the message was delivered at Stokenham Church, where my father would have heard it. I’m sure that when he went home with the news, Mother and all others must have been filled with horror and disbelief, looking at their surroundings and wondering “For how long?” and “Shall we ever come back again?”.

The date fixed for completion of the evacuation was 20th December 1943, and it was estimated to last at least six months. Of course, the War Office could not go into too many details, but they had chosen the Slapton Sands area of the South Hams for training the United States Forces because it resembled the beaches in Normandy where they were to land on D-Day.

The then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain’s words at the outbreak of war were: “It is a sad day for all of us. For none is it sadder than for me. Everything that I have worked for, everything that I had hoped for, everything that I believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins this morning”. So must the people of the South Hams felt at this time.


The following proclamation was posted in the villages of Torcross, Slapton, Strete, Blackawton, East Allington, Sherford, Stokenham and Chillington:


The public are reminded that requisition took effect from 16th November, from which date compensation is calculated. They will not, except for special reason, be disturbed in their possession until December 21st, but from that date the Admiralty may at any time, and without prior notice, enforce their right to immediate possession. It is therefore essential that EVERY PERSON SHOULD LEAVE THE AREA BY DECEMBER 20TH.

On December 21st the supply of electricity in the area will cease. The present measures for supplying food will not be continued, but will be replaced by arrangements of a purely emergency character. The police stations will be closing during the present week.

THE INFORMATION CENTRES will remain OPEN on SUNDAY DECEMBER 19th. They will be CLOSED from DECEMBER 21st, but officers will be present at BLACKAWTON to deal with urgent matters.

The telephone numbers of the information Centres are:

BLACKAWTON Blackawton 47 and 48

STOKENHAM Kingsbridge 2386 and 2387

As from December 21st all compensation matters will be dealt with by the Admiralty at DITTISHAM COURT HOTEL. (Tel: Dittisham 31)

Transport must now be taken on the date allotted except in the case of serious illness. All cases of illness which mat affect removal must be immediately reported to the Information Centre.

Ministry of Home Security


Where were we to begin? Where on earth could we go? Island Farm in 1943 had no telephone to ring around to try and find accommodation for parents, 4 children and all the livestock. We had no electricity; oil lamps and candles were used for lighting, and milking the cows was done by hand. Tilling the land was done by hand or horses. Moving must have seemed an impossibility.

Life in the South Hams had gone on, more or less undisturbed for centuries, agriculture always being the main industry and some of the farms having been in the same families for generations. Life was calm, slow and simple in this fertile countryside. Now catastrophe — 750 families to be moved in six weeks! One hundred and eighty farms, village shops, schools and houses, in all 30,000 acres, to be cleared so that troops could move in and start making camps and defence points, and ring the area with guards. Nothing was to be left, apart from empty buildings and churches. The following notice was posted at each church in the parish:


The church has stood here for several hundred years. Around it has grown a community, which has lived in these houses and tilled these fields ever since there was a church. This church, this churchyard, in which their loved ones lie at rest, these homes, these fields, are as dear to those who have left them as are the homes and graves and fields which you, our Allies, have left behind you. They hope to return one day, as you hope to return to yours, to find them waiting to welcome them home. They entrust them to your care meanwhile and pray that God’s blessing may rest upon us all.

Charles, Bishop of Exeter

Portable treasures from the churches were well packed and transported, and sand bags put in place to protect fonts, windows and doors against live ammunition.

Being only 6 years old at the time of this upheaval, I cannot recall much of the trauma. The W.R.V.S. (Women’s Royal Voluntary Service) set up stations and helped where possible. We, in fact, were lucky in that our grandfather, a retired farmer himself, knew somebody near Totnes who was willing to take us in to share their large farmhouse. This was at Sharpham Barton, Ashprington, where we went before Christmas 1943. The couple we shared with had no children of their own, so it must have seemed noisy for them with this sudden invasion of Brookings. We were able to take a lot of our cattle and implements. Not all animals in the area could be saved and the cattle market reached saturation point. The R.S.P.C.A. had to put down many loved family pets. Farmers outside the evacuation area helped out friends and neighbours by housing animals and machinery where possible.

Jean and I went to the village school at Ashprington for two terms. The local children did not readily accept us and we were not particularly happy in the unfamiliar surroundings. Our youngest sister, Ann, was born in March 1944.

During this time, the peace and tranquillity of the South Hams was shattered. Thousands of troops moved in, and with full-scale battle exercises taking place and live ammunition being used they suffered casualties. On 28th April 1944, there was an attack on the practising forces by German ‘E’ boats. Many Americans were wounded and approximately 700 killed. Had the Germans accurately assessed the situation they had tumbled upon, the outcome of D-Day may have been very different!

The exercises turned out to be a military success and what they achieved at the end is now history.

During August, plans for rehabilitation began when the land was formally handed back to the government. First a bomb disposal unit had to seek out unexploded shells and ammunition, working from the outer perimeter, then the centre and finally the coastline, obviously the worst hit.

Roads had to be re-instated. The huge American vehicles needed wider access than the narrow lanes provided, so hedges had been flattened, or lanes filled in completely to bring them to the level of the hedges, for easier access.

Compensation payments were made and damage to properties paid for. Splendid household gifts were received from the Canadian and American Red Cross, including crockery, saucepans, brooms, door mats and bedspreads, all of which were so appreciated by the householders.

Gradually the area came to normal life again. We were one of the first few families to return. I can remember walking up our garden path (aged 7 by this time) and seeing the weeds higher than me. Our home was filthy with excrement in the bath and the doors kicked in. The village school was still closed. Italian prisoner-of-war and Land Army girls were helping repair roads and working in the fields. The area was infested with rats. These are vague memories. It was wonderful to be home again.

Thirty years later, there were still a few scars to be seen in the area of this remarkable event, but the villages, fields, woods and beaches had regained all their old beauty. Few would realise the upheaval that took place, unless they read the inscription on the granite obelisk standing on Slapton Sands, which is a memorial to the living, not the dead, and reads as follows:


was presented by the United States Army authorities, to the people of the South Hams who generously left their homes and their lands to provide a battle practice area of the successful assault in Normandy in June, 1944.

Their action resulted in the saving of many hundreds of lives and contributed in no small measure to the operation. The area included the villages of Blackawton, Chillington, East Allington, Slapton, Stokenham, Strete and Torcross, together with many outlying farms and houses.


The village inn at Blackawton, re-named ‘The Normandy Arms’ has photographs and paintings of the beaches invaded. Salcombe has a plaque on the quay wall commemorating the 66 ships and auxiliary vessels which sailed from the port of Salcombe on 4th June 1944, taking part in the enterprise.

The South Hams will always be a special place for me. Mother and Father are dead, but we five children are all living in some part of South Devon, as are most of our children. Herb has successfully farmed the land at Island Farm for nearly 30 years, and with two sons and two grandsons to follow, we hope Brookings will continue there for many generations to come.

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