Part 4 – A Friendly Invasion
Throughout 1941, wartime distractions from school lessons became more and more frequent. All schools were overcrowded and ours shared its premises with a complete London school of 300 pupils, together with its entire teaching staff. It was therefore necessary to accommodate the influx by attending school on Saturdays, a move which was very unpopular with the boys.All day and every day the Fairey Fulmars droned away, towing the drogues for aircraft target practice. Occasionally a Swordfish would crawl across the sky, returning to its carrier somewhere in the Western Approaches, and as time went by an increasing number of Sunderland Flying boats took time off from U-Boat hunting to touch down in the Bay and rendezvous with the R.A.F rescue launch stationed at Beacon. (Beacon Cove?).
Each night the anti-aircraft units camped out at the Beacon (where the radio masts are today) would crank up their apparatus, which would then send three powerful shafts of light rotating through the night sky. From the air the light was visible for a distance of some 50 miles and their purpose was to act as a landmark for our own aircraft, many of which were now commuting nightly from the Coastal Command Stations in Cornwall. It was a miserable and monotonous posting. Occasionally one of the airmen would come to our house for a meal, and then bang out a few tunes on the piano, but they tended to live like hermits next to their own lighthouse and surrounded by the rabbits caught up in the revolving beams of light.
The arrival of the navigation aid heralded the quick departure of the anti-aircraft guns, together with the now well known Marldon military dance band, but the fact that the light revolved unmolested throughout the war was a clear indication that it assisted the German aircraft as well as our own.
During the time the guns had been in Marldon, they had not fired once. The only time when they might have been used was when a lone enemy aircraft dropped a stick of bombs at Compton, but the gunners insisted that the artillery could not be deflected low enough to hit the low flying plane. This may have been true because the guns were heavy 3.7’s, more suitable for engaging high flying aircraft approaching towns. One day at school we heard that an aircraft had landed on the golf course on the Marldon side of the windmill, so we went along later to gawk at it. The plane was an Avro Anson, or flying greenhouse as we knew it, and it had made an incredible safe landing, missing all the tees and bunkers in the short landing space. (NB The stump of the windmill still stands at the top of Marldon Road, leading up from Paignton).
As fortunes changed in 1942, and the possibility of invasion receded, the camps emptied and the (British) troops moved away, although the Devon Coast camp was still occupied mainly by Italian aliens interned for the duration. However, in that year, a decision was made which would have a major effect on villages like Marldon. Operation Bolero was agreed between England and the United States to move two million American servicemen to England to assist in the assault on Hitler’s Europe.
The first United States troops reached Marldon in the early months of 1943. Initially the soldiers were the coloured non-combat engineers, whose job it was to prepare the camps and to lay on various services for the main body of men which was to follow. In battle their duties would include such things as following up the fighting units to clear the debris and bury the dead.
Nevertheless, in Marldon they represented the first arrivals of the American Army and were treated as absolute equals in a way which they had not enjoyed in their own homeland. The troops were a credit to the Army, and as their popularity increased social evenings were arranged for them and many were invited into people’s homes.
As the build-up increased, the young white conscripts arrived, taking over the camps and bringing with them their American brand of youthful ego, together with centuries of inbred colour prejudice. From time to time violent scenes occurred both in the village and in the towns, more often when girls became innocently involved. It was difficult for the village to understand at a time when the whole country seemed united and indeed racial discrimination was as yet almost unheard of anywhere in England.
Anyway, something had to be done, and the military authorities allocated various units to separate zones. One boundary line was drawn at Churscombe Cross and soldiers from an outside area crossed this line at their peril, whether they were walking a girl home or not.
All the American troops had an affinity with the local schoolchildren and they quickly recognised that we were the first link in the social chain. We told them such things as which part of England they were in, and where the best girls were to be found, and they responded in their easygoing manner and natural generosity, with luxuries we had not seen since the war began. Moreover, they seemed especially well-equipped with all the good things in life. Their PX (Post Exchange) unit within the camp was one of the largest and most important buildings. In this warehouse the troops could buy anything from gramophones to lipstick and nylons, and many of the goods overflowed as gifts or currency into the village.
In the pubs, trade became brisk as glasses chinked away in the evenings. If the war continued like this, life would not be too bad.