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15 October 2014
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Reminiscences of Ilfracombe at War 1939 to 1945

by JoChallacombe2

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13 May 2005


At the start of the War Ilfracombe was designated a demilitarised town and the old gun carriages dating from the Napoleonic wars located on Hillsborough were removed in 1940. at this time gas was the fuel in general use for lighting in people’s homes, electricity generated by diesel power being very expensive. Coal for the gas was brought in by sea from South Wales by two ships, The Snowflake and the Florence. An emergency supply of coal was provided on the pier which was almost completely covered by huge stacks of it. The only clear areas were in the vicinity of the old lifeboat house and on the Northern edge where a popular dance hall was sited. This can still be seen as the village hall at Muddiford. The Snowflake was damaged at sea towards the end of the war and was towed to Watermouth where it sank and with this the summer export of Combe Martin strawberries to Wales by sea ceased.

From 1940 train-loads of evacuees arrived in the town and were billeted in any house that had a spare room. Also a complete school, Dagenham county High, arrived and was superimposed on the local Grammar school but was not integrated into it as the pupils used classrooms which were vacant while the Grammar school classes were in laboratories etc. They also used the adjacent St Peter’s Church house.

Virtually all the hotels were requisitioned for troops, the Ilfracombe Hotel and St Petrocs housed the Pay Corps and their offices while the Collinwood was the naval equivalent the WRENS being housed in the Mount Hotel. The other hotels had an ever-changing population. This continued until the Americans arrived and they also requisitioned empty houses and had camps at Liscombe. They had a “donut” factory in Parkers Yard and a glasshouse in the Albermarle which was festooned with barbed wire, also a PX in St James’s church hall. There were other canteens – a YMCA over the Chocolate Box, a NAAFI in the old Town Hall and a British Restaurant in Oxford Grove. Outside the town was a Pioneer Corps camp which contained mostly eastern Europeans.

In the harbour were two RAF launches for rescue purposes and towing targets. For bombing practice a triangular raft was used with a central pole on which was mounted a circular wicker ball and for machine gun practice a square raft with honeycomb wall.

The town was slowly fortified with machine gun posts on the NE corner of the promenade by the Ilfracombe Hotel and on the cliff east of Rapparee and in addition two guns on Larkstone which I think were 4 inch ones.

No memory would be complete without reference to the Home Guard which consisted of old sweats from the 1914-18 war, some of whom were remarkable shots, and also lads like me at 16. Unusually the unit was designated as mobile which meant we had allocated duties, one of which was a nightly patrol from Mullacott Cross to Lynton Cross. An amusing incident occurred one night when footsteps approached the patrol and were challenged three times. A shot was fired in the air then at a distant object – result – one dead cow! All members were issued with ammunition to keep at home. My mother went quite pale when I came in with a rifle, 200 rounds of ammunition and 2 hand grenades!

The experimental fuel line PLUTO (Pipe line under the ocean) was tested between Watermouth and Swansea, police stopping all vehicles at the coastguards and the Sawmills to ensure nobody was smoking. Another wartime feature was the double decker buses on the Barnstaple route which ran on gas produced in small trailers behind the bus.

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