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Wartime in Devon

by Ray Horswell

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Ray Horswell
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Ray Horswell
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26 November 2003

I was born and spent the whole of my early life in Torquay. At the outbreak of the war I was nearly nine years old and my first memory was the sinking of the aircraft carrier HMS. Courageous, I think about the third week in September.

I recall being particularly affected by the photgraphs printed in the newspaper at the time which showed the ship listing very heavily and sailors falling or jumping from the sloping flight deck into the sea.

Torquay in common with many other seaside resort towns was chosen by the RAF who established an Initial Training Wing there and many of the local hotels were requisitioned to be used for accommodation and training purposes. as young boys I and my school friends would spend many an hour watching the new recruits "square-bashing" by the harbourside and thinking we might be doing the same thing if the war dragged on for as long as seemed probable then.

Torquay and South Devon seemed far removed from all the action and consequently proved to be an attractive retreat for many who could afford it to escape from the larger urban areas which were under the threat of bombing attacks. This led to an article in the Daily Mirror which published a front page photograph of the harbour and the hill above under the banner headline "Funkhole" with a tirade against those who were leading a sheltered life there.

Most of our news about the progress of the war was gleaned from the "wireless" or the Pathe Newsreels on occasional visits to the cinema we listened with bated breath over the evacuation from Dunkerque my elder sister was particularly concerned, as her fiance who had been called up in the Militia early in 1939 was in France with the BEF, she was overjoyed a few days after the event to find he had been posted on recuperation leave to Paignton and turned up on our doorstep dressed in a light blue uniform white shirt and red tie which my father having
been gassed and wounded as a veteran of the first world war pronounced as "hospital blues" and it appeared he had been slightly wounded during the evacuation process. Much to my disappointment, he was loathe to talk much about it, I suppose with hindsight he must have been traumatised by the whole affair at the age of 21 or so, there being no counselling for stress in those days and shortly after he was posted back to a unit "somewhere in England" against the very likely possibility of invasion

In May of 1941 the war came rather too close for comfort as during one of the many raids on nearby Plymouth, an important target for the enemy due to its involvement with the Navy and the battle of the Atlantic. On this particular occasion however one bomber jettisoned its load over Torquay and the third bomb in a stick of six landed at the rear of our house. Ours together with four others in the small terrace was extensively damaged, most of the ceilings were down and most of the windows back and front were blown in.

Amazingly none of my family were hurt, I remember sleepily picking my way down the stairs behind my brother and noticing the front door hanging drunkenly off its hinges and through the opening, I could see a fire burning at the back of some houses across the valley where the next bomb had landed. The family together with neighbours from the adjoining houses spent the rest of the night in our living room being the only room undamaged in the house, while my mother produced copious pots of tea despite rationing restrictions. I can only assume that our house was the natural rallying point due to my fathers involvement in the local ARP.

Being the youngest of four I found the whole affair rather exciting and the next morning found me searching for bits of shrapnel to take to school as soon as I returned there. I found a small piece buried in the wall above the bed in the rear bedroom which had been occupied by my sisters. Young ladies at that time were in the habit of putting their hair in curlers before retiring, and in the absence of metal hair curlers, anything of metal was in short supply, a substitute was often found by using pipe cleaners obtained from the local tobacconist and rolling the hair up with them. The piece of shrapnel I had found was buried in a curl and my younger sister had a small bald patch in the middle of her head a lucky escape indeed.

My father was a general foreman with a local building contractor, the owner of which took a patriarchal interest in all his workforce and early the following morning one of the firms lorries arrived to transport bedding and personal belongings to temporary accomodation with my grandparents and aunt while the damage to our houses was repaired. Their house was only slightly larger than ours and space was at a premium for the next six or seven weeks while the work was carried out after agreement by the war damage inspectorate and my fathers firm. On the evening of our first day in my grandparents house there was an unholy family row as during the day my brother who was eight years older than I had volunteered for the RAF.

My father was furious, telling my brother that war was not a game or picnic, no doubt remembering his own experiences in the trenches and that my brother who as a woodwork machine apprentice was in a reserved occupation. It was too late, in due course his papers arrived and he was posted to an Initial Training Wing not in Torquay of course but in Blackpool. After further training he joined bomber command as an air crew member to, as he put it get his own back for being bombed out.

During our stay with my grandparents we heard from my uncle, their son, a regular soldier who joined the army at the end of the first world war. He was in the middle east in 1939 with his family and had subsequently been sent to India while his wife and two sons had been sent to Durban for the duration, where they spent the whole of the war period free of rationing and restrictions of any kind. My uncle was then posted to Burma and we had no news of him for nearly three years, then one day my grandfather
called in looking immensely proud as he had heard that his son had been promoted to the rank of Major and had been mentioned in dispatches from the Burma campaign.

The family had returned to the newly repaired and decorated home and had been the recipients of one of the first Morrison shelters, rather like shutting the stable door my mother said, but it was duly erected in the same room that we all had assembled in with the neighbours some months before. Thereafter whenever the siren sounded at night we would all troop downstairs to the shelter until the all clear sounded. My father was head of the street fire party and possibly as a result of his position of authority I was designated street fire party messenger with my own helmet emblazoned with a white M worn with great pride by an eleven year old. Under strict instructions from my mother I was allowed to stand outside the front door with helmet on until I heard, however faintly, the sound of an aeroplane when I was to come into the shelter immediately. Fortunately my services as a messenger were never called upon other than in daylight practices as very few night attacks occured, the few that did were a by-product as a result of raids on Plymouth or Exeter.

Torquay however in common with many other south coastal towns had many hit and run attacks with FW 90s' which would fly over at low level with machine gun and cannon fire drop, one or two small bombs each then be off back to France often before local defence mechanisms could be mustered. One such attack occured on a Sunday afternoon in 1943 and a bomb was dropped on a church hall at St. Marys' church at Babbacombe where a sunday school was being held, a number of children being killed including many of my school friends. The classroom on the following day being very sombre as roughly 20% of the class had been killed the day before. a local school had also been bombed resulting in it being untenable. The perpetrator of this attack did not escape however, as in turning away having dropped the bombs his aircraft hit the spire of the nearby convent Priory church and crashed on Torre Abbey sands where it burnt out with the pilot trapped inside.

My brother having become a member of RAFVR was a favourite on his infrequent visits home on leave, particularly of my mother, the early disagreement arising from his volunteering had been forgotten and both mother and father were proud of their first son with his aircrew brevet on his jacket. As a result our home was open house to many of the personnel who had been posted to Torquays' ITW. My younger sister being attractive and an accomplished ballroom dancer had many an RAF escort home on Saturday night after dancing at the Marine Spa Ballroom. and these same escorts, Canadian, Rhodesian as well as home grown, often joined the family for meal times despite rationing difficulties.

Another benefit from my brothers absence was that as soon as I could reach the pedals I was allowed to use his bicycle which opened up a new world for me, as I explored with my friends further and further from home, and led to many excursions after the war on newer and lighter cycles.

My fathers firm had won a contract from the Admiralty to build blast protection walls around all the oil storage tanks at the Navys' supply depot near Torpoint, as the general foreman in charge of the project, every day he would journey from Torquay to Plymouth with a gang of key workmen to supplement the local labour force which was in the main concentating on bomb damage repairs from the repeated raids on the city.

Sometimes at weekends I was allowed to accompany him and would sleepily,armed with a packet of sandwiches for lunch prepared by my mother, climb aboard the coach for the journey. I still recall the frisson of fear and excitement as we neared the city and caught a glimpse of the barrage balloon defences. A hush would fall on the coach as we went
through the city centre and on to Devonport to board the ferry to Torpoint, at the extent of damage caused by the latest raid.

On one of these visits Commander Edgecumbe who was the Officer overseeing the progress of the work took me in a staff car to his family home nearby and in the Orangery in the garden picked a fresh orange and gave it to me which made a big impression on a small boy who hadn't had an oraange since Xmas 1939,let alone had one freshly picked from a tree.

I mentioned earlier that a school had been damaged during a hit and run attack, and was untenable as a result. The pupils were re-located in our school and in turn some of us were sent to another school in the town. This was much larger and newer than our old one having been completed just before the outbreak of the war. The girls were housed in the west wing completewith their own Gymnasium and Assembly Hall while the boys occupied identical accommodation in the east wing. The school was set well back fron the road and separated from it by a huge playing field containing rugby football and hockey pitches a cricket table and athletics track. One Monday morning early in 1944 we went to school to find the whole of the playing field occupied by a hundred or more bell tents occupied by American soldiers. At the end of that day upon leaving school I walked down the long path alongside the playing field to the road and standing outside the very last tent was an enormous soldier, both my brother and brother in law were six footers and this individual would have towered over them and he was coal black, the first coloured person apart from Paul Robeson in "Sanders of the River" I had ever seen. I stopped dead in my tracks mouth agape and from deep inside this huge frame came a rumbling "what you lookin' at boy?" I stammered out the stock response of "got any gum chum" and was told in no uncertain terms to go forth and multiply.

The area of Slapton Sands and Torcross was chosen to practice seabourne landings as it closely resembled the area in Normandy which was to be the landing area for the invasion forces. The whole of the area was requisitioned by the War Office and the local population evacuated from their homes. A number of exercises were subsequently carried out to simulate the forthcoming invasion. One such involved the "invasion fleet assembled in Dartmouth sailing around Berry Head and across Lyme Bay almost to Portland and back to represent the cross channel journey on "D Day" on the return journey to Slapton across Lyme Bay a number of German E-boats penetrated the "fleet" and sank a large number of landing craft with fearful loss of life. All this is documented in a publication entitled "The Forgotten Dead" by Ken Small published by Bloomsbury
I often wondered whether my giant negro survived.

The event was hushed up at the time but rumours abounded locally, and by the time it reached our young ears it became an area rich in souvenirs. An expedition was planned and four of us in late May probably during the half term break set out complete with sandwiches lemonade and such and cycled via Totnes & Strete to Torcross confident that we would find an abundance of shrapnel spent bullets and even perhaps that most coveted item the American "periscope flashlight". It all came to nought however as the area was cordoned off by the police and we were turned back due to the danger of unexploded ammunition.

June 1944 saw the long awaited invasion and during the break out from the beach head area my brother-in-law was wounded in a mortar attack, recovered
and was back again in time to take part in the crossing of the Rhine. He survived the remainder of the war and was eventually re-united with his wife and daughter. My brother was not so fortunate and was shot down and killed while on a bombing mission two weeks after D-Day. He together with the rest of the crew and the crew of two other aircraft are buried in a tiny village cemetery in Northern France, we have visited the site on a number of occasions and I am always struck by the age of these young people, the eldest being 25, and the
wate and futility of war. There we have it then just one recollection of a family during wartime typical no doubt of thousands of others.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - HMS Courageous

Posted on: 26 November 2003 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Ray

Regarding you opening paragraph in which you say "my first memory was the sinking of the aircraft carrier HMS. Courageous, I think about the third week in September"

You were pretty close, HMS Courageous was sunk on 17 September 1939. You will find full details, with a copy of the photograph you mentioned, here: links


Message 1 - St Mary's Church

Posted on: 20 December 2003 by carbontaylor

Hello Ray,
You may see from my contribution (Wartime Experiences - not yet through the editorial desk as far as I can deduce), that I have written also about the bombing of St Mary's Church, Babbacombe. I remember too(but have not written) the Focke-Wulf 190 colliding with the Church Steeple. I thought it crashed in a road (but perhaps that was another raid), the radial engine having come off and bounced some way down the hill.
Roger Taylor


Message 2 - St Mary's Church

Posted on: 19 February 2004 by ray horswell

Dear Roger,

You are correct, as I have heard fom another source unconnected with this article, that the aircraft cashed onto some houses in Teignmouth Road, where the correspondents mother lived at the time. If I had stopped to think there is noway the aircaft having hit the spire of Priory Church could have remained airborne as far as Torre Abbey sands, and I must have confused this with another event later in the war. Old age I'm afraid.
Thank you for your reply I must make a correction to the article, must keep the record straight.


Ray Horswell.

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