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- Linder Philip . Leading Stores Assistant
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Leading Stores Assistant Philip " " LinderTORQUAY AT WAR.
I am standing in the nave of St John’s Church, Torquay. The morning sun illuminating the stained glass windows; projecting multi-coloured patterns through the swirling dust mites on to the tiled floor. It was 10am; and my thoughts returned to that momentous day seventy years ago. A day that changed my life and countless millions of others as well.
It was Sunday September 3rd 1939 and I was in the church vestry, with my brother Tony. I was twelve year’s old; my brother a year and a half older. Angelically dressed in our cassocks; surplices and ruffs; together with the rest of the choristers, we prepared ourselves for the morning service. The organ softly started to play as Mr Vernon Read; the choirmaster began the introductory music. We filed into the choir stalls as we had done so many times before, not knowing then, that this Sunday would turn out to be so different!
We were barely into the service; half way through a hymn, when the churchwarden came into the nave and conferred in whispers with the Vicar, the Reverend Robert Boggis. The hymn finished and there was an unnatural silence; the puzzled congregation whispering amongst themselves. The warden left; the Vicar hesitated briefly; then slowly made his way into the pulpit. From where he solemnly announced,
“I regret that we must terminate the service earlier than usual, as the BBC has just announced that the Prime Minister, Mr. Neville Chamberlain, is going to make an announcement of national importance at 11.15”.
After a brief blessing, the congregation rose as one and the church quickly emptied. My brother and I rode on our bicycles to our home on Beacon Terrace, and joined our mother and father who were seated in front of the radio set; tuned into the Home Service. At the designated time, Mr Neville Chamberlain was introduced by the announcer and after a pause, the Prime Minister began his speech; his voice filled with suppressed emotion.
"I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by eleven o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.” He continued on, giving further details.
When his speech ended, we were silent as we tried to take in the full import of what we had heard. My parents were worried and apprehensive as the radio played some quiet music, but my brother and I were inwardly excited. It would mean that we would now get issued with and get to wear the gas masks that we had been fitted with at Torwood school a few weeks earlier. But as the days went by, the pattern of life we had known changed. Blackout restrictions were imposed; at night the streets were pitch black with all windows completely covered. Without any moonlight, finding your way around after dark was extremely hazardous! One night my mother inadvertently left a small gap in the curtains, which was spotted by a warden; she was reported and made to appear in court like a common criminal and fined the sum of ten shillings for this offence.
The air raid sirens chillingly sounded at all hours of the day and night, for no apparent reason. Within days, plans were announced for rationing all food products and petrol throughout the country, the ration books issued. Fuel rationing was added to the list before the end of the month. The population were restricted to one egg, half a pound of butter and margarine, half pound of sugar and a quarter pound of meat, each person per week and clothes could only be bought with clothing coupons. We were urged to paint a black line around the bath; five inches from the bottom to remind us to economize the use of water and fuel.
By 1940, Torquay had changed beyond recognition. The harbour area was requisitioned by the military which was festooned with barrage balloons and all the large hotels in Torquay and Paignton, other than the Imperial, were taken over by the RAF as accommodation for the recruits of the Initial Training Wing for their basic training as prospective air crew. Unfortunately, in June 1940, Beacon Terrace was also requisitioned and we were given two weeks notice to move ourselves and all our belongings out of our house. Ironically, this was history repeating itself, as Beacon Terrace had been similarly used by the military in 1918, when it was taken over as convalescent accommodation for New Zealand troops, recovering from the trauma of trench warfare in France. It was only when that war finished and the houses lay empty that my parents bought our present home. In the meantime, we found a temporary accommodation in Babbacombe Road opposite Lisburne Square. My father, at the age of 60, was directed to essential war work; employed in Sampson’s garage in St Marychurch, which built parts for Sunderland flying boats. My mother also worked part-time in a small factory in Braddons Hill Road East, making army bunk beds. I was also working, after school and Saturdays’, delivering groceries on an errand boy’s bike, from a shop in the Lisburne Square. I also did two nights a week as a fire-watcher at St Johns Church, with another boy and a senior member of the choir. We boys were paid the princely sum of one shilling and sixpence per night. We had a stirrup pump and a bucket of sand; which was all that was deemed necessary to protect the church from being burnt to the ground,in the event if there was a incendiary bomb attack!
After Dunkirk, the threat of immenant invasion was very real. The country was on full alert; beaches were closed to the public; ringed by tall barbed wire fences and rumoured to be mined. The ringing of church bells was forbidden; to be rung only in the event of an invasion. The volunteer army of The Home Guard was formed; air raid shelters were built on The Strand and all other populated areas. The Royal Navy commandered the harbour and twin torpedo tubes were installed on the end of Haldon Pier. Similarly, the Royal Artillery mounted two 4.7 inch coastal guns on Corbyn Head to protect the Bay from enemy shipping. Tragically when on a practice firing; one of the guns misfired causing a breech explosion, which killed five local Home Guardsmen who were manning it, together with their army instructor. A memorial plate was installed on the site in 2007, marking this very sad accident
The Princess Pier was closed to the public and a large section of the boardwalk was removed to prevent any foreign invaders from using it as a landing platform. But it was still possible to access it by sea So one day, my brother Tony and I and a couple of other boys, took a rowing boat to the pier, and after climbing a metal ladder, managed to get inside the wooden pavilion on the pier itself. Under the stage, we found boxes of roller skates, which in peacetime were hired to people wishing to skate on the pier. Now we had our own private skating rink, in which to spend many happy hours skating. We never skated out in the open on the pier itself so were never apprehended. Many years later, I was devastated, when standing on Beacon Terrace, I watched this lovely old wooden Victorian building completely destroyed by fire; accidentally set alight by a workman’s blow torch! So many happy memories going up in flames!
An old cargo ship, full of scrap iron, was moored across the outer harbour mouth; acting as a block-ship, intended to be scuttled by an explosive charge, to stop any German invasion craft using the harbour. Occasionally, this ship was towed from its mooring and berthed in the inner harbour, alongside South Pier for repairs and servicing. In one of the many regular tip and run air raids, a German fighter-bomber; when trying to sink it; swooped low across the harbour and dropped a bomb; narrowly missing the boat by about ten feet. The bomb hit the pier alongside, but was on such a low trajectory, it didn’t explode but bounced off the pier, skipping over the ship and over the dome of the Pavilion Theatre; exploding harmlessly in the side of the cliff of Rock Walk The scrape furrow mark of the bomb could still been seen on the pier long after the war ended, until it was filled in one day by an over-zealous council workman.
I attended the Torquay Grammar school, then situated in Torre. When the London Blitz began, St Olaves Grammar school, from Bermondsey in London, was evacuated ‘en masse’ and accommodated at our school. The local pupils used the school buildings in the mornings and the evacuees in the afternoons. It was nice to have time off school, but I think the lack of the many lessons I missed, had a lasting detrimental effect on my overall education.
I joined the Air Training Corps when it was formed at the school. The Commanding Officer was A C Ellis, the school’s history master, who was designated as Squadron Leader. We cadets endured many hours of ‘square bashing’ in the schoolyard and were taught the Morse code, air navigation, shooting, and aircraft recognition, etc. On the lighter side, we visited various RAF airdromes for flying experience. Exeter, Locking, near Weston-super-Mare and the Royal Naval airdrome, HMS Heron 2, near Teignmouth, flying in planes of the Royal Naval Fleet Air Arm.
On one occasion, I was in the observer’s seat, of a Fairy Fulmar, from Haldon, flying high over Lyme Bay, near Teignmouth. The pilot was practicing aerial combat and was attacking and firing his machine guns at a drogue target being towed through the air by a Blackburn Skua aircraft. Suddenly, we were radioed by the airdrome controller to break off from the exercise; take evasive action and return immediately to base, as there were enemy aircraft reported in our immediate area. As the pilot took a steep diving turn back towards the airdrome, from 3000 feet, we could see five German fighter bombers below us, swooping low over Teignmouth; dropping their bombs. One demolished the Berkley Hotel on that day, causing death and injuries. On landing back at Haldon, I was very relieved indeed to get my feet safely back on to the ground once again.
Our Squadron 1528 of the ATC inherited a complete set of brass band musical instruments donated by a well-wisher. Cadets were asked to volunteer to form a brass band. I put myself forward; taking up the cornet; later becoming the band sergeant. We had a musical instructor and everyone in the band had to practice and learn their own various instruments from scratch. It was almost a year before we were skilful enough to appear in public. It was a proud day when on ‘Salute the Soldier Week’, we made our debut and marched down the town from the Castle Circus, through the streets to The Strand, where the Mayor took the salute. We preceded our own 1528 squadron, the rival 200 squadron and a contingent of the local Home Guard. At the time, our repertoire consisted of only three marches. We eventually received complaints from Squadron Leader Eric Perry, the Commanding Officer of 200 squadron, that we always seemed to play “You’d be far better off in a home” as his squadron marched past!
Sometime in 1942, with no given reason, all local ATC squadrons were ordered to muster at eleven hundred hours one Saturday morning, on the roadway opposite the Imperial Hotel. It was a very hush-hush operation, amongst tight security, and only later on that day did we learn the reason. We lined up in columns of eight; behind us were many hundreds of the airmen who were training in the area. The Central Band of the RAF was assembled beside the Triangle at the top of Beacon Hill. As they struck up with the RAF March Past, we lead the whole procession down towards the saluting base. On the dais was King George VI, smartly dressed in his RAF uniform accompanied by his wife Queen Elizabeth charmingly dressed in her outfit of light blue. We were very proud cadets indeed, as we marched past the saluting base and were given the command of ‘eyes right’ and gazed at such important and well-known figures!
I and some other young lads formed a small five-piece dance band, in which I played my trumpet. We performed at various venues including the regular weekly Saturday night dance held at the Pengelly Hall, at the rear of Torquay Museum. For which I received the sum of ten shillings a gig; a small fortune to me at the time! This was the only youth dance in the district. We used to practice our sets every Sunday at a hall in the Teignmouth Road, near the Havelock Arms public house!
On Sunday; the 30th May; I cycled up Union Street on my way to a practice session. I had just reached Castle Circus; next to the Town Hall, when the air raid sirens began to wail. Almost instantaneously there was a deafening roar of racing engines. I looked up and saw a formation of six German planes flash across the sky above me at about two hundred feet; temporarily blotting out the sun. Immediately there was a deafening explosion, and I was literally blown off my bicycle by the shock wave. A bomb had landed less than 100 yards away and demolished a terrace of houses and shops opposite Woolworths, where the Argos store is now situated. I picked myself up from the road and walked; wheeling my bicycle back to the top of Union Street. It was like a scene from hell. The smell of the cordite and crushed masonry pervaded the air and I could barely see the demolished houses through the thick swirling clouds of dust and smoke. Then I heard the sound of demented howling, when through the dust haze staggered a man dragging three frenzied greyhounds straining against their leashes, all completely white; covered with the cloying dust. The man was dazed and walking like a robot. Opposite the bombed buildings, all the windows and shop fronts of Woolworths and the many others had been completely blown out. The emergency services were soon at the scene, clearing the road and searching amongst the debris, looking for any survivors. It was very fortunate indeed that it happened on a Sunday and the shops were closed, otherwise there would have certainly been countless dead and wounded shoppers..
Realizing that there was nothing I could do to assist; I continued my journey along Lymington Road towards the Havelock Arms. Just before I reached it, I could see smoke and flames rising from the side of the road ahead of me. One of the raiding aircraft had crashed on the terrace of houses on the right-hand side of Teignmouth Road. As I drew level with it, I could see the wreckage of the plane buried in the roofs of the houses; burning fiercely, the body of the pilot still in the cockpit. A fire engine arrived and played water on the conflagration. This plane had had been flying so low over Babbacombe, that its wing had clipped the spire of the Roman Catholic Church. It immediate lost height and fell into the houses in Teignmouth Rd. Tragically, before crashing, it jettisoned a bomb, which fell on St Marychurch Church, where a Sunday school service was just commencing; killing twenty-one children and five of their teachers. It was the biggest loss of life in a single air raid on the town! Being a Sunday, fate had decreed that although no shoppers at Castle \circus died, tragically, many unfortunatel children and teachers, suffered untimely cruel deaths!
I became a member of the ARP as a Wardens Messenger. I was issued with a steel helmet with a white ‘M’ emblazoned on it. Our post was situated in the sandbagged basement of the Norfolk Hotel on The Terrace. The task of a Messenger was to deliver messages by bicycle, in the event of the telephone network being damaged by enemy action. One weekend, our section; all volunteers, were loaded into a lorry and transported down to Plymouth, which was experiencing severe bombing by the Luftwaffe. On so many nights, over Paignton, the clouds reflected the ruddy glow of the inferno that raged in the stricken city. On our arrival, we were not quite prepared for the carnage that met our eyes. The City centre that I remembered, was unrecognizable; being all but demolished; the flattened buildings lying across the roads. We spent the day helping to clear the roadways of the rubble; returning home before dark, before the bombing started again! We repeated this exercise many times afterwards.
One sunny afternoon, a lone Messerschmitt 109, flew very low along the coast from Brixham. It machine-gunned the beach at Paignton and then carried on towards Torquay at cliff top level. An army cook whilst taking a smoking break at the gun site on Corbyn Head saw the aircraft approaching and quickly appreciating the situation; ran to the nearby twin Lewis guns, which were mounted on the edge of the cliff. He swiveled them around and with no regard to his own personal safety, bravely fired point blank into the oncoming plane. His accuracy was unerring and immediately the plane’s engine started smoking; exploded and caught fire. Climbing frantically to gain height, the pilot, flew the plane out to sea and then turned back to try to make a crash-landing in the shallow water off Torre Abbey Sands. Although he made a perfect wheels-up belly landing, the unfortunate pilot was trapped and could not get out of the cockpit as the plane was devoured by the flames. I arrived on the scene only minutes afterwards and watched the plane burning itself out. There was a sequel to this incident,. The brave cook was charged with firing the machine guns on which he had not been trained and without obtaining prior permission. When the news leaked out about of this injustice, there was a public outcry and rightly so, the charges were promptly dropped. I understand that later on; he was belatedly commended for his bravery!
On October 25th 1942, members of our ARP post, was dispatched to the Palace Hotel, which was then an RAF hospital for rehabilitating officers, who had been badly wounded and burnt in combat. We would often see patients walking the streets of the town, with badly burnt and disfigured faces! The hotel had just been bombed by a German aircraft. When we arrived, it was a very disturbing scene, with many casualties; dead and injured. I counted at least nineteen bodies in the make-shift mortuary in a wooden hut in front of the hotel. I was given a container and allotted the task of collecting clothing and articles of personal possessions, which were scattered around the badly damaged bedrooms, whilst the work went on searching for any further survivors in the broken shell of the building. The memories of the horrific scenes I had witnessed that day caused me to have nightmares for many nights afterwards. In the aftermatth of this raid, the RAF abandoned the hotel as a hospital, as it was fairly obvious that the enemy had gained knowledge for what this hotel was being used. It was a wise move, as some months later, the empty building was bombed once again.
In 1944, Torquay went through another dramatic change. Almost overnight, the Torbay area was filled to bursting point with American soldiers. Camps sprung up all around the outskirts of the town and the Grey Car garage in Torwood Street, became a PX, (an American forces supermarket). The Bay itself was full of naval ships, both British and American. My mother, father and myself, were now living at Morden Hall in Warren Road; where we had a bird’s eye view of the goings on. My mother was acting caretaker. For many months the house had been empty. Suddenly, without any warning, twelve soldiers of the American 4th Infantry Division, (the Ivy Division) were billeted on us. They were very friendly; well-behaved and generous tenants. I was now seventeen and I now learned to smoke, with the unlimited free cigarettes, which were given to me. My mother fussed over these young boys; they called her ‘Mum’ and she spent many hours sewing and making repairs to their clothes. We were given many boxes of emergency K rations, in which there were many long-forgotten delicacies; tinned steak, spam, tinned fruit, chocolate bars, chewing gum and a luxury that we had not seen for many years; soft toilet tissues!
Regularly, they left their billet for a couple of days on exercises. They were taken to the harbour slipways; which had been built in May 1943, by the Royal Engineers, and loaded on to landing craft and shipped down the coast to Slapton Sands, This stretch of coast had been designated as a operational mock French beach and there they practiced getting ashore under ‘live fire’. This continued for many weeks throughout the spring. On their free nights, they frequented the town’s pubs and local dance halls. I can still remember the over-crowded smoked-filled ballroom of the Marine Spa; above Beacon Cove; the ‘Yanks’ dancing and jitterbugging with the local girls, who were enamoured and completely knocked off their feet by the appearance of these glamorous young men. They talked like Hollywood movie stars, continually chewed gum; smoked cigars and had unlimited money to burn. There was a fantastic atmosphere at the Spa in those days, as we danced to the music of Art Jennings and his band! I am afraid that we local lotharios, were ignored by the girls and really had our noses put out of joint.
Early in 1944 a coastal ban, from The Wash to Cornwall, had come into force and visitors were only allowed into the coastal areas if they possessed appropriate permits. This was to ensure absolutely security surrounded the preparation of Operation Overlord and the D-Day landings. My brother Bert had quite a task getting through the security barriers, when trying to gain access to the town after returning from Canada on his RAF duties!
It was very sad occasion when without any notice whatsoever, our tenant soldiers told us they were leaving, not to return. As we all made our fond farewells, my mother was in tears. They had become like family. We knew then that the invasion was imminent and that the next few days were going to be a very perilous and dangerous time for these young men. They loaded their kit into a lorry; never to be seen again! The house rang hollow and felt more than empty with their departure. The Bay itself, had been absolutely chocker-block with craft of all kind; so many that you could almost walk from one to the other. They all disappeared as if by magic overnight. All around the coast enemy air raids were expected and Torquay's took place on 29th May 1944 when some 21 planes are believed to have been flying over Torbay laying mines, some carried bombs which were dropped around the Harbour, in Chelston and elsewhere. Nos 4 and 5 Park Crescent was destroyed but the worst affected property was Bay Court Hotel in Park Hill Road, which was completely demolished.
Opposite the bombed Bay Court, at the bottom of Meadfoot Lane, there lived a school friend of mine called Brian Gill. The Gills were an old Torquay fishing family.1` He was one of the first on the scene. There was a small opening in the rubble where only someone as slight as he was able to enter. Ignoring advice by other would-be rescuers, he squeezed in the hole and crawled through the ruins searching for any survivors; an extremely hazardous operation as the house was virtually collapsing about him. Afterwards, his courage was recognized by the authorities and he was awarded the George Cross. Unfortunately, none of the occupants of the house survived! This was the last recorded air raid of the war on Torbay, but throughout the past four years the attacks had been many and often. One hundred and sixty people were killed; 157 severely wounded; 137 buildings were destroyed and a total of1300 were damaged in the area.
At the age of eighteen, I was called-up! I expected to go into the RAF, being in the ATC, but was enlisted instead to serve in the Royal Navy. After training, I was posted to HMS Drake in Plymouth and later was drafted to a landing craft, LST428; which had been involved in the D Day landings. We were then engaged in ferrying stores, vehicles and equipment from England to the continent. Some months’ after the war had ended, these vessels had to be returned to the United States, so we sailed with five other LST’s from Plymouth to cross the Atlantic. The ships were loaded with tanks, and after frequent engine breakdowns, it was three weeks later when we berthed in New York. It was an awesome sight as we entered the River Hudson and slowly watched the skyscrapers emerge above the morning mist. We passed the Statue of Liberty and finally ended our voyage; docking in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We then spent a glorious ten days there, exploring the sites and sounds of New York City, before returning home. After all the austrity and rationing of the past few years, it was like a fairy land that we had only seen on the cinema screens of the Hollywood movies.
On the last day of our stay, the LST was decommissioned and after a brief ceremony, was returned to the US Navy. From the Grand Central Station; we embarked on a two day train journey to Halifax, Nova Scotia. From there we sailed back to Southampton in the liner Aquatania, and then returned to the barracks at HMS Drake, Plymouth. I spent the last three months of my naval career, happily playing the trumpet; as a volunteer bandsman in HMS Drake’s Bluejacket Military Band. We played on the parade ground; ceremonial occasions in the City and on many engagements in town and villages around Devon and Cornwall. Once in Torquay. We actually marched in a procession with my old ATC band.
Finally, demobilized, I returned to my home on Beacon Terrace, which has been handed back to us by the Air Minsitry. Sadly my father had died in 1945 and so my brother and I helped my mother to settle in; decorate and open the building as a hotel once again. The town itself showed many signs of war damage but was slowly returning to be a Mecca for holiday makers, in search of the elusive English sun! But we must not forget that from 1939 to 1945, Torquay had made a massive contribution to the war effort with its part in the training of RAF personnel and its ultimate role in the preparation and success of the invasion of France.
When I was a civilian once more, with so many vivid memories of the war years, spent growing up in the town of my birth. I also had many happy recalls of my the time spent serving in the Royal Navy; and my Atlantic adventure. These many and varied experiences had broadened my horizons and opened my eyes to a new and different world. From the age of twelve to eighteen, there were happy times, sad times and tragic times; this was the war I had witnessed and lived through. These experiences forever in my memory!Philip Linder
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