Childhood Haunts Revisited
Ten days have lapsed since my last update and this will be an extended Log entry. On many occasions since leaving Portsmouth I’ve thought about eventually walking the coastline where I’d spent my childhood. This was the week, with other commitments thrown in too. For once I’m going to indulge myself!
Hopping onto the East Portlemouth ferry at Salcombe, I was soon deposited on the estuary’s opposite bank. The path I walked towards Gammon Head, Prawle Point and on to Start Point lighthouse was like an old friend to me. The familiar 3 flashes and 10 sec pause at Start Point had been visible from my grandparents’ bungalow, and on foggy days the moan of Start’s foghorn could also be heard there as well as on our neighbouring farm.
Rounding the Point I was presented with the familiar sight of Start Bay and was soon passing the eerie remains of Hallsands fishing village. This settlement of 29 cottages was overrun by stormy seas on a winter night in January 1917. In just under two days the inhabitants lost both their homes and livelihoods. Eventually it was acknowledged that the disaster had been man-made and could have been avoided.
In a plan to extend Plymouth’s Naval Dockyard in the late 1890s, there had been a systematic removal of sand, gravel and shingle from the seabed along the coast from Hallsands over a four-year period. The mistaken assumption had been that the seabed would realign itself and the fishing village’s natural sea defences would not be affected. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case and Hallsands suffered the disastrous consequences.
Today, banks of shingle with additional sea defences still protect the neighbouring villages of Beesands and Torcross with both remaining constantly vulnerable to storms. Yet again last winter the main road which stretches the length of Slapton Sands was breached. This road, known locally as ‘The Line’, separates its shingle beach and sea from the freshwater Ley and Nature Reserve on the landward side.
There are two significant WWII memorials on The Line which stand as testament to the different sacrifices made by local residents and also those of US servicemen. One is at Torcross and the other stands a mile further along the shingle beach.
During the autumn of 1943 inhabitants of ten local villages and numerous outlying farms were given just six weeks to vacate their homes. Referred to as ‘The Evacuation’, my father was one of over 3,000 people affected as he struggled to find a farm elsewhere to take his livestock, implements and at the same time salvage any crops and fodder he could take with him from his fields and barns. Classed as being in a Reserved Occupation and therefore not required to serve in the Armed Forces, he never complained about the challenge set him by the War Office. He felt this was his contribution to the war effort.
The purpose of the evacuation was to allow US Servicemen to practise simulated landings and assaults before D-Day the following June; the coast layout was considered comparable to Utah Beach which would be their designated battleground the following year. Some of the rehearsals were undertaken using live ammunition and there were inevitable fatalities, however, the worst disaster was to unfold in late April 1944, barely six weeks before D-Day.
Exercise Tiger was designed to take troops through all aspects of the planned Normandy invasion, culminating with an assault on Slapton Sands. Although assigned naval protection, an American convoy consisting of 8 LSTs (Landing Ships Tank) was intercepted by 9 German E-Boats (fast attack craft) which inflicted devastating damage. In total over 750 lives were lost in the attack and this figure increased after friendly fire incidents contributed to other deaths during the final beach assault.
Although kept secret at the time, the full horror of that dreadful episode was revealed in 1984 by a local man’s research. Ken Small eventually raised a Sherman tank from the seabed and placed it at Torcross as a memorial to those men who lost their lives on that fateful night, or subsequently at Normandy. Meanwhile, the villages and their inhabitants that were evacuated are commemorated in a separate monument further along the beach. For many years after my father returned to his farm, live ammunition was often ploughed up in his fields or found on Slapton Sands. He also had to be careful when cutting trees because some still had shrapnel embedded in them.
Stokenham was one of those villages evacuated and it’s where my parents are buried. As I’d not visited them for almost two years, I took some time to visit their grave which is shared with other family members, including my favourite Uncle Michael. Unlike my father, Michael served in the Fleet Air as an observer, flying in Swordfish over the Mediterranean. During his service he was shot down in the sea and feared for his life as sharks circled him. Although he survived, it’s clear to me that he suffered from what we’d now recognise as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Whilst doing the Victory Walk I’ve since learned this was not the only area of the UK to be evacuated for D-Day training. While up on the east coast of Scotland I found a memorial in the Tarbat area of the Highlands where residents were ordered to leave. Another area used to train 10,000 American troops were the sandy beaches of Woolacombe and Saunton in North Devon.
I walked on to Dartmouth where my maternal grandparents lived for many years. Although both long gone, the town still holds some significant memories for me. When staying with them I often woke to hear the resident Royal Marines Band accompanying cadets on parade at BRNC (Britannia Royal Naval College) up on the hill. On one occasion, as a twelve-year old, I decided to march boldly in through the College gates to have a look around, only to be quickly thrown-out by a burly Chief Petty Officer!
Therefore, to be allowed to walk into BRNC, escorted by some of today’s cadets was a huge honour and I’d a very enjoyable afternoon chatting to them, meeting veterans and a group of former ‘Wrens’.
Next morning, I left via the lower car ferry, came ashore in Kingswear and set off along the coast bound for Berry Head and Brixham. Still a busy fishing port, Brixham is also remembered for being the landing place of William, Prince of Orange in November 1688. The Prince of Orange was soon to depose James II to become William III.
I prefer fishing ports to holiday resorts, so hurried through Broadsands, Goodrington, Paignton and on towards Torquay. I did stop long enough to watch a steam train chug back towards Kingswear and I also scuttled up and down Paignton’s gaudy Pier! Torquay has retained some of its classic buildings as well as introducing some concrete jungles, while nearby Babbacombe retains much of its genteel charm.
Approaching the English Riviera, I noted a big ferris wheel towering above the Princess Theatre. Torquay is immensely proud of its most famous former resident, Agatha Christie, and the Princess Theatre stages one of her plays each September as part of the Agatha Christie Festival. For my part, I recall going to my first pantomime at the Princess Theatre when I was about four years old. The highlight of the outing was eating hot buttered toast in the Lyons Corner House café after the show!
Rain joined me for most of my journey along the switchback wooded coastline between Torquay and Shaldon. Here I jumped on another passenger ferry, crossing the river Teign into Teignmouth. Initially walking by the sea, the path led me up and over red cliffs, through which the mainline railway cuts. High on a hill, I looked down into neighbouring Dawlish, famous for its sea wall which has regularly been battered and damaged by storms.
Five years ago, Dawlish achieved national headlines as Network Rail’s ‘Orange Army’ battled to save the line from being swept into the sea. Last month a new £30m construction plan was agreed in the hope that this rail link can be made secure for another hundred years. That afternoon as I walked towards Starcross I was forced to dodge rain and waves along the wall, while wondering if nature will eventually beat the engineers.
Arriving at Exmouth I was delighted to be greeted by members of the local Association of Wrens branch. Not only did they make a kind donation to the Victory Walk, my Support Team was glad to accept a donation of delicious homemade chocolate brownies!
The week concluded with my being accompanied by some Royal Marine recruits from Hunter Company, based at CTCRM (Commando Training Centre Royal Marines), Lympstone. These lads were all recovering from various injuries but are hoping to return to training very soon. Together we walked up the Exe Estuary Trail, through Lympstone village, entering the Camp via its private gate. From here a bugler ‘drummed’ me into the Camp, an honour normally reserved for recruit troops or commando squads when completing a nine-mile speed march. I felt incredibly proud to receive such treatment.
The Corps looked after us incredibly well, with Victory Walk donations being received from the Corporals’ Club and Sergeants’ and Officers’ Messes. Later that evening another collection was organised for the Victory Walk at the end of term RM Band Concert. This concluded a very productive month for donations for which I’m extremely grateful. However, with at least another 200 miles to walk I’m still hoping for a late surge on www.Virginmoneygiving.com/victorywalk17-18.
Undoubtedly the most valuable coin I received this week was the Commandant’s Medal for Excellence, presented to me by the Commandant of CTCRM, Colonel Simon Chapman OBE. From the age of five I’d always wanted to be a Royal Marine, but at that time women couldn’t join. Receiving his medal was the best consolation prize I could possibly have - it will be treasured as a ‘thumbs-up’ from the Corps.
See Photo Album Numbers 83
- Arriving at BRNC, Dartmouth
- A Solitary Parade at BRNC, Dartmouth
- RM Band Display at BRNC Open Day
- Being Drummed-In to CTCRM, Lympstone
- Childhood Haunts Revisited