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15 October 2014
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A Teenager's War

by Owen Nankivell

Contributed by 
Owen Nankivell
People in story: 
Owen Nankivell
Location of story: 
Torbay
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A2892152
Contributed on: 
04 August 2004

I was born in Torquay and grew up there until I left to go to into the army. I was 12 when war broke out and was called up for the army in October 1945 when I was 18.

We lived in a house on a hill with excellent views of Torbay. Torquay was a large training centre for the RAF. One advantage was that there were many top class athletes among the training staff especially at the Palace Hotel which was a rehabilitation hospital. As an enthusiastic tennis player I remember, for example, seeing Dan Maskell play many times. The Palace was, incidentally, heavily bombed with much loss of life amongst the RAF patients.

I attended the Torquay Boys' Grammar School in buildings which we were obliged to share with an evacuated London school, St Olaves and St Saviours. We used the school in the morning and St Olave's in the afternoon. I became the captain of the school's football team but have the dubious honour of the worst record in terms of goals for and against in the whole history of the school. This was because half our fixture list was against service teams, the RAF, Dartmouth Naval College and the Royal Marine Commandos. A loss of 13 - 2 was considered a good result. Playing again the RAF brought me against a professional footballer who went on to manage a first division team after the war.

The war itself was, I suppose, an excitement to someone of my age. All sorts of morale bosting events took place. The town had its fund raising events (to raise enough to buy a Spitfire, for example) with many march pasts. With so many men away in the forces, young teenagers like me were given opportunities and responsibilities which otherwise would have been denied us.

There were many not so pleasant reminders of the war itself. We were intensely aware of the heavy bombing of both our neighbouring cities, Plymouth and Exeter, with the night sky completely lit up by the fires. But Torbay had its share of bombing and casualties mostly from dive bombing raids. I remember seeing a number of Stuka raids on the port at Brixham on the other side of the Bay. Incidentally we had a number of Belgian boys at the school from fishing families who had fled to Brixham from Belgium in 1940. But there were many other bombing raids and on three occasions I had to throw myself in the gutter for protection.

There is a little story behind one bombing raid in, I believe 1943. My father was a small builder but his business during the war was limited to repairing war damage. He had a few workmen some full time and some part time. One was a plasterer called Ernie Widdecombe who was also in the RN reserve and his part time duties were to serve on the blockship moored in Torquay harbour. It was not a laborious duty and he appeared to spend most of his time catching crabs and lobsters. He often brought one home (alive) to my mother.
In about 1943 or early 1944 I recall walking around Torquay harbour with a girl friend in the afternoon when there was a Stuka dive bombing raid and the blockship was hit. We had thrown ourselves into the gutter but on getting up I distinctly remember seeing a crew member climbing up the mast of the sinking ship and a couple of fishermen rowing frantically out to rescue him. I believe it was Ernie.
From time to time we were bombed by aircraft returning from raids in the North who jettisoned their bombs on the last landfall before the Channel (i.e. Torquay). I actually watched a Dornier bomber do this at the same time spraying us with machine gun fire. The bomb landed on Waldon Hill but was dropped too low and failed to go off.
On another occasion a group of us had gone walking to Haytor on Dartmoor and with a good view right across to Torquay we saw a dive bombing raid in progress. When I got home I found that our house had had a near miss. My mother was carrying a bowl of soup into the kitchen when a lump of plaster fell and broke the plate in her hands. Too close for comfort.
By 1943 I had become a Civil Defence messenger boy. It was fun but not without its inherent danger. I was required to report for duty whenever the sirens went which meant cycling in the open when bombs were going off. My mother was not best pleased.
The build up to D-Day was very exciting. I remember travelling down to Plymouth for the day (eating in a British Restaurant) and, in the bus, passing mile after mile of military equipment building up for the invasion. American troops arrived in Torquay in 1943/early 1994. One of their bizarre requests came to the school for us to teach some of them how to play soccer. Our sports master and I took about forty servicemen to Paignton Green for an afternoon's football - quite chaotic. The Americans were billeted either in the numerous vacant holiday camps around the Bay or increasingly in private homes. Ours was a largish house and we were hosts to about eight servicemen.
By the week before D-Day we were totally sealed in the town and the Bay was absolutely full with shipping ready for the embarkation. The Royal Engineers had built two slipways in the harbour to facilitate the embarkation. I remember the night of June 5 with the constant droning of aircraft overhead ( I later realised it had been the airborne divisions flying to France), and when I woke the next morning it was to see a completely empty Bay.

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Air Raids and Other Bombing Category
Childhood and Evacuation Category
Family Life Category
Devon Category
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