EVACUATION 1 – EVACUATION 2 – ADDENDUM
The following short article by David Best was written in 2000, and is published here as a conclusion to his poignant memoirs. It was originally published in three parts in the Parish Magazine in August, September and October 2000. In addition to referring again, inevitably, to the camp’s role during the war, this short article is all the more interesting because of the additional information it gives of the camp’s pre-war history, about which relatively little was known by the Marldon Local History Group.
Dogs, Dunkirk, D-Day and Dwellings.
Recent programmes on television and radio commemorating the Dunkirk evacuation brought back memories of Marldon’s involvement, sixty years ago, in the part played by the thousands of British and American troops who passed through the village before returning to Normandy to take on the very powerful German Army.
When war broke out in September 1939, the total number of houses in Marldon was little more than a hundred and most of the inhabitants knew every other person in the village. There were more milking cows in Marldon and Compton (some from the three farms in the village centre) than the entire population. Today Marldon is an attractive residential rural community. The dwellings built predominatly in the 1930s and 1950s blend well with the cottages and houses of the 19th Century and earlier. In looking at what was the garrison site in Marldon it is of interest to record some of the chequered history of the “MIDAS” development site.
A few people have remarked on the fine house which stood in the grounds prior to the building work, and which was one of the last of the old buildings to be demolished. “The Crofts”, as it was known, was originally built as a dog kennels in the 1920s for a Mr. and Mrs. Durhan-Waite, and the intention was that it would be used for quarantine purposes. He was a retired colonial officer from the Assam Labour Board and prior to coming to Marldon had visited England only twice before in his lfe. They were married in Marldon Church in 1926. My father, who came to Marldon just before this, helped to construct the outbuildings. They also had a chauffeur for their Austin 16. This was pretty unusual in Marldon, although the two Miss Mellors at Westerland House also had one for their Austin 12.
In one of the fields there was a small railway carriage which one could buy at the time from the GWR when they became surplus. This arrived by traction engine from Goodrington and was made into a sort of summer house in the “grand colonial” style in the grounds. It was still there in the 1930s.
By 1936 the four acres of land – which was in fact a garden – proved a bit of a handful and the Durhan-Waites ;moved further into the village to live at Moor Tor. However, he could not stand the climate and after several years they went to live in the Channel Islands, just in time for the German Occupation (!).
Meanwhile, “The Crofts” was purchased by a Mr. Jennings, a large, impressive man who had a son of about 18. He must have had an interest in engineering because he had a large collection of electric motors and as a lad I was fascinated when he constructed a large metal windmill on the high ground in order to generate electricity. In 1939 the first work was started to replace the dog kennel buildings with chalets and this was the start of the holiday camp. The owner’s son was then called up for the Forces and sadly did not survive the war.
Another change of ownership followed in 1940 when the camp was taken over by the MOD (Ministry of Defence) and was used to house some of the exhausted soldiers from assorted regiments as they shambled back from Dunkirk. I recall that even the garden shed was used to become a bedroom for two soldiers from the North of England. A sentry box was placed at the only entrance – opposite Weekaborough House – and thereafter the military kept very much to themselves. The truth was that there was a threat of invasion and the soldiers worked very hard over the following weeks to construct gun emplacements in the corners of the surrounding fields. These were the feeble attempts to defend the camp, but I don’t think they had a big gun in the place. As a lad I remember following the troops around in their training to lay mines and prepare booby traps to impede the German army, whom everyone believed would come. In the end nothing happened and eventually the troops drifted back to their own proper regiments.
For some months the camp was then occupied by ATS girls, although quite what their purpose was I don’t know. In any event they did not seem so friendly towards small boys and they did not have any of the exciting bits and piece of military hardward, so I kept away.
The somewhat harsh conditions were then deemed unsuitable for girls, who complained about the lack of hot water and they were posted away after a short time. However, the conditions were far better than those of the anti-aircraft units camped out at the Beacon following the Plymouth raids in the March and April that year. The guns were sited where the radio masts are today, and the cookhouse was built alongside the roadway where in a previous year bombs from a German plane had straddled the road, and we all went to look at the holes in the fields. The Royal Artillery unit was very much part of a peacetime regiment because the officers brought their wives with them and they lodged at houses in the village. The previous owner of the Beacon Kennels said to me one day that he just could not understand why he kept coming across NAAFI knives and forks !
Back at the camp, the first American coloured troops of the US Army arrived in 1943. These were the maintenance staff sent ahead to prepare the camps to American standards, and contingents of the 4th Infantry Division followed shortly after. This caused a few problems because the coloured troops had already become friends of people in the village. The Village Hall had been made available to them if they wanted to get away from the camp. The first thing the Americans did was to remove the ridiculous looking sentry box from the roadside to a more comfortable position nearer the cookhouse and space was made for their large amount of motor transport – a bit different from the Dunkirk “bike brigade”! Even in Leader Lane six wheeled trucks became a regular feature. The lower part of the colonial style house became a Mess hall and several times this was cleared for troop dances. We supplied eggs to the camp and also elderberry wine, to which the troops were addicted.
The good times continued through to 1944 until late in April the camp emptied for the rehearsal of Operation Tiger at Slapton Sands. We knew that something had happened because a week later not all our lot came back, and it was after the war that we learned that German E-boats had sunk one of the the Torbay LSTs (Landing Ship – Tanks). After this time anyway the camps were sealed. I felt a bit put out because I was chucked out without any explanation. The camp doubled in size with many tents surrounding the boundary. This caused a bit of a problem with sanitation, particularly as we had a field adjoining. Some of the surplus water from the cookhouse was actually drained into Leader Lane. Then, on June 3rd, it had all gone and with it a large amount of the glamour and excitement which is peculiar to any community alongside a military base.
About a year later (1945), the camp was released by the MOD and purchased by Alfred Wise, who set about the holiday camp business. I recall that he clashed with my father over drainage arrangements and after several years he departed and set up a holiday camp at Barton Hall in Torquay, which is still run as a holiday camp by Pontins.
Several ownerships later Pontins acquired the Marldon camp, and it was run successfully with a good reputation. Visitors returned year after year through the magic holiday camp era. During this time the son of the original owner – still living in Jersey – used to stay there whilst on holiday. He would bring with him his collection of original photographs to show other residents the place built by his father as a Dog Kennels many years before. I don’t think the management were too happy about that!
During the lifetime of the camp it brought boredom and restrictions to some but happiness and employment to many more. In its new role as a residential area a bit of the local history has come to an end.
By comparison with the rather attractive little collection of houses built at Weekaborough, it is my personal view that the density of urban type of housing now being built high on the hillside does little to enhance the rural nature and character of the village, and should stand as a red flag for those other sites threatened with development.
David Best – 2000.