Part 5 – The Big Build-up Begins
A local smallholder obtained a contract to carry away the occasional dustbin of kitchen refuse from the army camp, but as time went by so much waste was being generated that he was completely overwhelmed and eventually a special cooking centre for pig food was created at Edginswell to take the waste from all the Service establishments.
As the camps bulged with new arrivals the roads also became saturated with military transport. Their four wheel drive vehicles were outstanding and superbly designed for the job, and convoys of all types driven by exuberant young drivers became a regular feature.
On the social front, dances were still held from time to time, but the sheer weight of numbers created difficulties in the Village Hall so the camps organised their own events which creamed off most of the pretty girls.
When the British soldiers had arrived earlier, they were, in the main, regular and older troops who had been drawn into the fighting first, and their equipment had consisted of a few trucks, an Austin 8 staff car, a Bren Gun carrier or two, and some bicycles. Much of the other equipment had either been lost in France or sent overseas for the North African offensive. In contrast, the young Americans arrived with more than a touch of Hollywood, in their smart uniforms and with a seemingly endless supply of money, goods and transport at a time when there was a general improvement in the conduct of the war. We had come through the Battle of Britain, the U-Boat menace had been beaten, and the first victory had come in the desert.
The times were tremendously exciting and the most vivid memories were those of happiness and gaiety as the visiting army whooped it up at night – and the daytime was a continuous cabaret with performing military hardware. It was an unbelievable transformation, yet the Americans had acquired an image of glamour and invincibility which they had not yet earned. This would come in the following year.
At school we came down to earth when the Headmaster read out the weekly list of Old Boys killed in action. Schoolboys who can fall into hysterics of laughter if one of their fellows breaks a leg listened impassively as the lists were read out during morning prayers. We briefly recalled the faces which we would not see again, not visualising the last moments with which each person met his death, so the next day we forgot and looked for more action on the Home Front.
The action came on 30th May 1943, during the last Torbay air raid that year, when St. Marychurch Parish Church received a direct hit. At the time of the explosions, I was cycling towards Marldon Cross with a friend, and we raced off to Torquay to see what had happened, not knowing that in those few seconds 45 people had been killed and 50 buildings demolished.
We arrived almost as the dust was settling on the rubble in the road, and we joined a few men pulling away pieces of timber and brickwork. Very soon a pair of legs appeared under the debris and I wondered how I would react to seeing my first dead body. After about 10 minutes a man was dug out who must have been walking along the pavement when the bombs fell. Miraculously, he was still alive, for he muttered something like “bloody Germans” as they carted him off on a stretcher and everyone was rather pleased.
I wonder how many of the rescuers on that day remember the hundreds of “naughty” French girlie postcards scattered in the rubble. One shop had previously been a newsagents, so they could have come from there. By present-day standards they were fairly tame, but in those times an adult rarity, so I picked up several and took them to school the next day, to the delight of the boys, but they were confiscated by a master and I got a ticking off. On that Monday, we learned that several of our friends were among those killed at St. Marychurch.
Unknown to us, whilst we were scratching away in St. Marychurch, an even greater tragedy had occurred a mile further away. As a consolation for our loss, we went along to look at the Focke Wolf 190 which had crashed onto part of a house in Teignmouth Road, and evading the police cordon, we boys managed to get at it to drag away a few souvenirs.
In 1943 there was a steady build-up of American troops and vehicles in and around the camps at Marldon and by 1944 the vast accumulation could not be bottled up any longer. There was an urgent need for additional training space, so almost without notice pieces of land were considered and the army moved in. This was wartime and anything could happen.
At school we were horrified as the American soldiers took over our playing field at Cricketfield Road and surrounded the encampment with barbed wire. Then a Headquarters unit and coloured American engineers took over land at Shiphay and moved in perilously close to the Girls’ Grammar School. The next to go were the fields and gardens of Cadewell, which had previously been the grounds of a large country estate. This latest move went some way to supplement our sports activities for it was here, surrounded by the magnolia trees, that we learned to play the “Yanks” at baseball.
In the early months of 1944 when the air was crisp and the ground hard with frost, the bulldozers and cranes arrived. At the time some of the machines were a novelty in England and were still in the development stage. Without notice, they moved into three fields off Farthing Lane, the missing pieces of hedgerow today still marking the spot where the entrance was made. The Engineers would spend all day moving piles of earth around and getting used to the machines, and sometimes in their boyish ways would relieve the monotony by holding silly competitions and races with the lumbering giants. In the evening after school we would go along to the site and they gave us rides and taught us how to drive them.
The machines would be used later to clear the invasion beaches of road blocks and no doubt may have been used to bulldoze a pathway through the decimated city of Caen.
As a change from watching the bulldozer games, we sometimes went down to the quarry at Kiln Road where the combat troops practised their climbing skills. The soldiers in this area formed a major part of the American 4th Army who would go ashore at Utah beach in Normandy. Midway between Utah and Omaha beaches were the 100 foot high cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, dominating the beaches. These cliffs, thought to be heavily fortified, would have to be taken if the plan was to succeed. The cliffs rising from the sea were not dissimilar to the rockface at the quarry in Kiln Road, so any training here would be useful.
One day, a convoy of amphibious vehicles arrived from the docks at Plymouth to add to the clutter of transport already in the village. They were directed to a field behind Singmore Road, where they carried out their compass checks and had their ancillary equipment fitted, which was supplied separately in crates. The DUKWs were buillt on the standard U.S Army truck chassis and therefore had a reasonable turn of speed, particularly when coupled with an enthusiastic driver! However, the vehicles were cumbersome and in the narrow country lanes the handling qualities left a lot to be desired. It was not surprising therefore that more than one villager had a nasty fright when the monsters returned each night from their daily paddle in the sea. Later, many of these vehicles were to sink as they carried desperately needed anti-tank guns ashore through the choppy seas off Normandy.
Someone told us that soldiers were laying mines from the DUKW field down towards Five Lanes. If this was a measure to keep the kids away from the DUKWs, thereby preventing us from climbing all over them and having rides, the matter was fairly serious, so we went down to investigate. Sure enough, hundreds of light blue anti-tank mines had been laid from Occombe to Five Lanes.
As time went by, we learned that it was part of the training programme. Mines would be buried by one group one day and located by a different group the next. Of course, the mines were not filled with explosives, but some were fitted with a small charge to keep the Sappers on their toes. The detonator was relatively harmless, but could make quite a loud bang, so now and again we went into the field at night to defuse a couple and let them off the next day for the benefit of our schoolboy audience.
By a combination of being taught and just hanging around picking up lots of information, some of the school children were becoming explosives experts and, being quick to learn, knew almost as much as the soldiers who were being trained in the art.
With the approach of Spring, stocks of the real thing began to arrive, and munitions were stacked in all leafy areas away from the population. The lanes of Churston and Galmpton concealed vast stocks, but one of the biggest ammunition dumps was located in the woods at Berry Pomeroy.
One of the last arrivals to complete this huge army was the American 7th Field Hospital. All available places had been taken, so a few cuttings were hastily made into the field opposite the Vicarage, and it was here alongside the roadway that the medics erected their tents and set up their hospital.
Up to this time a feature of the American army had been the importance they attached to all the back-up services which made life worth living and usually they had the money and foresight to send these on in advance. This latest MASH type unit was different in that it had arrived quickly as it would have in battle, without any provision for a long stay. Moreover, this outfit consisted of nurses who had become used to a laundry service. In this respect a number of people in the village came to their aid, and as the rate of pay for the Americans was five times that of our own service people, it was to the mutual benefit of us all. We also earned a few extra “bob” ferrying deliveries of laundry around on our bicycles.
1944 was also the year of the aeroplane. No longer antiquated relics crawling across the sky, but squadrons of Lancasters from the many Coastal Command stations in Cornwall hedgehopping over the Marldon rootops and sending cows galloping in all directions. Hurricanes from Bolt Head and Spitfires from Exeter screaming in from the sea as they would do on the day, and all but clipping the chinmeys at the highest bit of land at Marldon Cross.
At school we learned that for a modest commitment of one evening a week, we could join the ATC and go to Exeter at the weekends to hitch rides on some of the many training flights. Usually these consisted of towing gliders around, and occasionally we could talk a pilot into making a diversion by flying over Marldon so that we could pick out the vast American army from the sky.
When the war had started, we had been the children who were part of the things the country thought worth fighting for. Within a few years we had grown up and suddenly it was being hinted that if it dragged on we could be the next generation of fighters, so we were encouraged to take an interest in these matters.
However, few of us now doubted the outcome. Within cycling distance of home we had seen an army of half a million men and the huge mobilisation of resources. There were similar armies too in Cornwall and on the South Coast.
By now the scrapyard of salvaged metal in the school playground had gone and was not being replaced. The anti-tank obstacles along Paignton beach were collapsing and rusting away in the sea, and we had all mislaid our gas masks. Were it not for the heavy losses still being inflicted on Bomber Command, it could almost be a time of peace.