Part 2 – Getting Ready.
During the early part of 1939 the Government had foreseen the possibility that war might occur, and plans had been made for the evacuation of children from the major cities.
Devon was pronounced a safe area and even Plymouth was considered suitable to absorb the thousands of schoolchildren who would be sent to the County. The Marldon contingent arrived not long after that sunlit Sunday when war was declared, and we were sent down to the Meadow to look at the young Londoners who had arrived and were being allocated to different households. Some were very young and could have had no idea why they had been sent from one end of the country to the other. All looked scruffy after the day’s journey and, with their labels and instructions tied to them, resembled a delivery of parcels.
The war had in a small way started to affect the village. Some people resented the autocratic system of billeting and enforcement, but all the children were well cared for. Many had not seen cows or even a field before, and were quite lost in this strange world devoid of traffic and chip shops, but they quickly integrated with the village children and learned how to survive in the country.
The influx imposed a great strain on the village school, but as time went by and nothing happened they drifted away in ones and twos and most were back home in time for the large scale London raids which came in the following year.
When the siren sounded, we would leave the school and troop up West Lane in twos. At first this diversion from lessons was great fun and a tremendous waste of time, particularly as most of the alarms were false, but after a while it lost its attraction and we became bored just hanging around looking at the flowers. Furthermore, the lane was all right on a fine day, but it turned into a sea of mud in the rain, so the rambles were discontinued, and then when the siren sounded we hid under our desks instead. Later, when the alarms became more and more frequent, even this was considered a bit sissy, so we were expected to carry on as if nothing had happened.
During the period known as the “phoney war”, the British and French armies had come to a standstill, but the picture was very much different at sea. The Merchant Navy was taking a hammering, and in that year German U-boats sank 215 merchant ships, together with two capital ships of the Royal Navy. Survival therefore depended on producing as much food as we could and salvaging whatever raw materials were available in the country. The village played its part in this reclamation and the Council removed iron railings from many houses, although farms were generally exempt.
The school Headmaster was an outstanding organiser, and he set up squads of schoolchildren equipped with trolleys for the collection of scrap metal. The most fertile places were the farms, and we tramped many miles, from Widdicombe Farm, Occombe, then to Compton, collecting old bedsteads and saucepans and things.
At first the exercise was productive, and part of the playground took on the appearance of a breaker’s yard, but as time went by it became obvious that the best chunks of scrap required heavy lifting equipment and lorries to cart it away, so the collection service petered out. Nevertheless, the children had entered into the spirit of the occasion with gusto, as all children will, and it was felt that they had made a valuable contribution to the War Effort.
At school the curiculum included such things as operating stirrup pumps and how to extinguish incendiary bombs and making hay boxes to keep food hot, although few of us would ever have to fall back on this knowledge.
As the war progressed, tractors with foreign names such as Oliver and Caterpillar started to come through from Canada and the USA. Some of the tracked vehicles could climb mountains and there was a minor agricultural revolution as the village took on a new look when fields were ploughed which had never been touched before.
Early in the 1930’s, a collection of dog and quarantine kennels had been built on land adjoining a house near Marldon Cross. The project never really took off and in 1937 the kennels were converted into a sort of basic holiday camp with the addition of several old railway carriages in the grounds. By 1939, the camp had not been occupied, but sufficient work had been done to make the premises habitable, so they were taken over by the War Office just in time to receive elements of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) following the evacuation from Dunkirk on 4th June 1940. Marldon had become a military base and would remain so for the next four years.
Looking back on that time, it was one with little fun or social life for the troops. They had arrived tired and exhausted, an assorted rabble from different units and it was some time before they got back on their feet and in some sort of order.
After that followed a programme of intense activity and hard work as they prepared for the invasion which was expected, and indeed Operation Sea Lion had been ordered by Hitler for September 14th. The camp was ringed with gun emplacements to protect the base, and in corners of some of the fields evidence of this work still exists today.
A unit of the Home Guard was formed, and groups of villagers in this “Dad’s Army” set off in the evenings equipped with shot guns and dartboards to man strategic places. A detail of 6 men were posted in shifts on the high ground at the Beacon, and they slept at night in a hut in the grounds of the reservoir. The hut had been built as a crude workman’s store with large gaps in the sides, so one of the men from the village papered it inside with newspaper to keep out the draught.
They would patrol the hilltop for two hour periods, in pairs, whilst the others slept, and the purpose was to act as a look-out and not only keep an eye open for Germans, but to report any fires or lights in the Torbay area.
One night, the system nearly went into reverse. The Beacon, even in mild weather, became bitterly cold at night, and it was the practice to heat up bricks on the stove, wrap them in empty sandbags and use them as bed heaters. On this occasion the bricks were a little too hot, and they ignited the bags (already treated with an inflammable material to withstand the damp), and the whole lot went up in smoke, very nearly burning down their own headquarters.
Everything that has been said about that unique band of men is entirely true, and they would be the first to admit that often they had laughed themselves to sleep thinking about the antics they had been up to.