Widecombe History Group Talk on Military Activity on Dartmoor


Discussion of Military Activity in and around Widecombe 1900 onwards.

(& other bits of information that came from it!)

The discussion began by listing places used as military camps, barracks and bases during 1939-45 World War II.

On the moor just east of Watergate where there were Nissen Huts and a Searchlight.

At the top of Blackaton Hill by the plantation a Camp and Searchlight.

At Holne Park an R.A.F. Base

Another at Sigford. (Betty Andrews said that she had worked there).

U.S.A. Camp at Hele, on the left going from Horse Hill to Ashburton, and at Dart Bridge.

Americans also at Halshanger Manor and at Buckland Court.

The Haytor Hotel at Ilsington (now named Ilsington Hotel), and The Moorland Hotel.

Guns were at the top of Lock’s Hill, Dunstone Down, Blackaton, Bittleford Down.

This list above could well get added to in future discussions.

This led to the memory of the two Bailey Bridges across the Dart at Newbridge and Holne Bridge.

It was suggested that as this is an important part of our history it would be helpful if these sites were marked on the Ordnance Survey Maps.

Prior to the camp at Hele, Jim Churchward remembered seeing two small American Planes circling and then landing there. This must have been a reconnaissance party that chose that site for the camp.

Michael Nosworthy then said how the straight road near The Warren House Inn was used as a landing strip for ‘Lysander’ aircraft.

Several fields in the district were used for landing small planes, known as ‘Flying Jeeps’, on Lizwell Farm, ‘Knell’s Close’, ‘Longlands’ and ‘Higher Grattons’ came to mind.

The memories of the two landmines dropped at Leusdon by parachutes c1939/40 to be more precise at ‘Daggs Hill’ (Anthony Beard still has a piece of shrapnel from one of these), landmines also dropped at ‘Ley Ridge’. A cluster of bombs dropped into ‘Kiln Close’ on Broadaford, rumour at the time said that a German plane dumped its load in an attempt to escape quickly from anti-aircraft fire.

Homeguard was mentioned. There were two platoons, one at Leusdon and one at Widecombe under the combined command of Col Hankey of Leusdon Lodge. They of course often trained together and it was mentioned that the group has an original copy of a joint exercise that once took place, (this is kept in the Parish Chest Archives). This was presented to the group by Sir William Van Straubenzee. This will be looked out and copied for our minutes. The exercise went wrong because of a communications problem----------? Dad’s Army all over again! There were two Homeguard look out posts, one at Corndon Tor and one at Kingshead Corner, simple huts of four poles and a corrigated iron roof. The circular building at Scobitor is a Victorian Follie not a W.W.II Pillbox. It is a beautifully built structure with a stone roof, built by the owner a Mr Gough as a play house for his children.

On any flat part of the open moors that could possibly be used by the enemy to land gliders, poles were erected, the top of Hameldown and Pudsham Down were well remembered and to date there are still a few poles in existance.To make things difficult for any invading armies, any signs that could be of help were removed, this included the famous Widecombe Fair sign that was at the entrance of the now Parish Carpark. Unfortunately it was dropped and broken in the process and in 1948 the present one was given to the parish, designed by Lady Sylvia Sayer and paid for by Francis Hamlyn of Dunstone Court. All the arms of signposts were also removed at the time.

Food happened to come into the discussion. Firstly how those that lived in the country could always kill a chicken, catch a rabbit or poach a fish, make a bit of butter and even get a dish of cream, (whitewash was the local term so as not to incriminate anyone!)

By utilising all your waste food by products, potato skins etc, you could keep a pig, many a pig was killed in the back-kitchen late at night, shared around amongst friends. This led on to the rationing and ration books, coupons had to be exchanged for butter, bacon, tea, sugar etc etc. At harvest time farmers could get extra rations to help feed those that turned up to help. There was no shortage of helpers, a harvest tea, some cider, cold tea, and of course last thing at night a good supper before making your way home. No money changed hands but a full stomach was ample repayment!

Then came the talk of farmers having to grow a certain amount of potatoes,turnips, corn and how ministry officials were sent around to farms to see that this was done. What upset many farmers was that some of these officers telling them what to do and not to do, were farmers that had failed in their years on the land, and were now acting as ‘experts’, and in some cases even had the power to remove farmers from their farm if ‘they’ considered that it was not being farmed correctly. Acres of good pasture were ploughed up and acres of rough ground reclaimed so as to ‘Feed the Nation’. Sometimes acres of potatoes were tilled but not harvested as the price made it uneconomical. Many farmers that did harvest their potatoes had them stored in sheds with no hope of selling them, government interference then was just as inefficient as today. After the war The Potato Marketing Board was formed and those growing potatoes were restricted to certain acreage, there were cases of farmers being fined if they grew too many, aerial photographs were used to check, this early ‘big brother / spy in the sky’ had begun.

It was noted that the whole attitude towards farming has changed in the past 50 years. Then it was production at all costs. Now it is all environmental, no shifting of rocks, no draining of wet areas, little fertilizer, what will happen if there is a national food shortage? - The mind Boggles!!

It was also noted that an agricultural mechanical revolution took place on the land as a result of the war. In the early 1940s there were depots or pools of tractors and implements about the country where farmers could borrow/hire what they needed for a few days at a time, then after the war more tractors etc came onto the scene. The machinery that the Americans brought over here did make a difference. This led to the tales that when the Americans left our shores jeeps, harley-davidson motorbikes, machines of all kinds were buried, but to date we do not think any of it has ever been found!

Some of the soldiers used to help their neighbouring farmers with harvest and even hoeing the swedes and mangolds. Some also used to help themselves to a few eggs and the odd chicken, that was wartime!

Locally Bill Miners had the first Standard Fordson Tractors, there was also a tractor at Lizwell (Case International possibly!) In about 1946-7 the first Fordson Major Tractors came about model E47N? An even bigger revolution was Harry Ferguson’s "Little Grey Fergie Tractors" complete with a vast range of implements made especially for it, c1950, but that is another subject.

The aftermath of the war brought problems. A young farmers son, Clifford John Riddaway, was killed at Hedgebarton, he was out ploughing or working down a field ready for tilling and his implement hit a ‘grenade’ or something similar, he was buried in Widecombe Churchyard, died 5th August 1942.

Ukranians were employed to clear many areas of the moors of munitions, they opted to do this rather than be returned to their homeland. From Hedgebarton to Foales Arrishes was an intense training area and they swept that area. In Setember 1998 a handgrenade was dug up at Dunstone Court during the digging of a water pipe trench. Some Officers were billeted there, did they leave it behind?

Rippon Tor Newtake Firing Range must be remembered, the Butts and brick building still there. Red flags were hoisted on poles at Cold East Cross, Hemsworthy Gate, Rippon Tor and other points around the site when firing was taking place. This was used, well after the end of the war, for training cadets. Bob Butler and Phill Germon, both from Ashbuton were range wardens. There was also a tin shed with wooden benches just inside the entrance gate where soldiers sat to wait their turn for practice.

The Homeguard photographs in Leusdon Memorial Hall and The Church House have been cleaned and reframed recently, and most of those in them have been named.

Arch Mortimore remembers Prisoners of War working on his family farm at Marldon.

Prisoners of war worked on many farms but no one could remember them in this parish. They were at Scoriton and at Sandy Lane, there is a patch of concrete still there to this day with G.P.O.W. marked in it.

Landgirls did however come and work here. Freda Wilkinson was one, Jean who married Fred Miners was another,

The removal of many iron railings around churches and civic buildings, all in the name of the war effort was mentioined. There is a tale that this was more propaganda, to make all people feel involved more than anything else, and great heaps of this scrap was found after the war, just dumped.

Blackouts, everyone had to be most careful that no ‘chink’ of light was visable at night. It was only oil lamps in this area at that time, and candles. Vehicle lights were all fixed with metal hoods with small slits, it must have made driving very difficult.

Gas masks were issued to everyone, some children had little one, in a ‘Mickey Mouse’ style. These were tested at school every so often. It is believed that Lord Haw Haw,of Germany Calling ‘fame’, had family relations living at The Mansion, Ashburton. Ashburton would be mentioned some nights in his bulletins. It is also said that Goering visited Dartmouth during the 1930s and went to the Manor Hotel, which he said he would like to have as his country mansion, was this why that building was never damaged during the war? Many large houses were used as hospitals, Wooder Manor was for a while and then Miss Lewin and Mrs Lithgow came from the Calstock area with a school and stayed several years. The East Dart Hotel, Postbridge was also a school. The war virtually stopped the agistment system, of bringing livestock out from Marldon, Denbury and the like to summer out in the newtakes of Dartmoor. No one wanted their cattle out there being shot and killed during the military training. Dartmoor was used for target practice for heavy ammunition, so much was being fired at it even from further south than here.

Other memories led to the story of an exercise at Trendlebeer involving the Americans who were camped at Bovey Tracey. A bunch of local Homeguard were positioned at the top of Trendlebeer and had to defend against this large attacking U.S.A.Force. When the ‘battle’ got well under way the local Homeguard decided that the best way to stop these’yanks’ was to drop a match, Trendlebeer was ‘swaled’ to the benefit of the local farmers, the American army retreated in disarray, - local knowledge is a fine thing!

Several evacuees came and lived in the district.

The wireless was run from accumulators that were taken to Ashburton to get recharged at Maurice Mann’s shop, they also had two dry batteries, one large ‘higher tension’ and one ‘grid bias’. A wireless was taken into Leusdon Church by the vicar on the Sunday Morning that war was declared, so the congregation could hear it first hand.

Two local farmers had a wireless, one a Murphy and one a Bush. They would meet up each day and compare weather forecasts!!

They each thought that they had -"A monshus true little set!"

Bells were not rung as they were kept as an invasion warning.

Jim said his father was the kind of man believed - Men Don’t Cry! However when War was declared he remembers seeing tears run down his face. It must be remembered that Cecil Churchward was one of those that had fought in World War I, the war to end all wars, and to realise that another war had begun must have been a great sadness to him and thousands like him.

These open discussion evenings never cease to amaze with the volume of material that comes from everyone. This is what can result from the proposed "Oral History Project!"

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