South Hams at War

The picturesque South Hams, lying thirty miles south west of Torquay, and to the east of Plymouth saw more than it’s fair share of suffering and damage during the Second World War, experiencing the intermittent terror of Tip & Run raids from Luftwaffe fighter-bombers, and, as with North Devon, a large area of fertile farm land being decimated by the live fire areas of the UK Battle Training Area around Slapton; famous now for the Exercise Tiger disaster.

A microcosm of the effect that the tip and run raids had on small rural villages, Aveton Gifford is typical of any that lies in this region; its only notable features being a small thirteenth century church and a bridge across the River Avon, built in the 1400s. The census of 1931 showed a registered all time low of 563 inhabitants; rising to only 883 in the census of 2011.

Clearly not a strategic target of any industrial or military value, all the same,  at 4pm on 26th January  1944, seven Focke-Wulf FW 190s swept in low over the adjacent hills and began bombing and strafing the village.  Of the 110 houses, only five were undamaged, with the heart of the village, the church, being all but destroyed.  Twenty villagers were injured and a five year old girl, Sonia Weeks, who had been evacuated to the village from Plymouth following the air raids on that city, was killed. Thankfully she was the only fatality. Emergency services were non-existent in the rural areas, and it took around half-an-hour for a rescue squad to arrive from Kingsbridge, the largest town in the region. Doughty quotes resident, Emily Ellis, who observed, that, “It was a never to be forgotten sight to see one’s village so shattered. The church, so essentially a part of the life of the village now reduced to a mere ruin.” Doughty states that proportionally, Aveton Gifford suffered as much as the big cities; this being a statement to which the author concurs; reminding the reader of Connelly’s observation that these intermittent raids had a far deeper effect on morale than where the Luftwaffe visited on a continual basis.

However, bombing wasn`t the only way that civilians in wartime Britain could lose their homes; one such case being the evacuation of the South Hams, to establish the UK Battle Training Area in 1944.  Unlike the training areas around Braunton and Woolacombe in north Devon; the training area established in the South Hams was fully evacuated, leading to hardships for the inhabitants of the area, both during the evacuation, and upon return to their homes. The region was selected for its likeness to the intended invasion area of Normandy and its relative remoteness.  As a child the author played on these same beaches, used by G.I.s many years before.

Inhabitants of the area were informed of the evacuation at public meetings on 12/13 November, 1943, and were expected to have left the area by 20th December; having just six weeks to pack, find accommodation and move out. Grace Bradbeer, a Women’s Voluntary Service driver during the event, described in her book that, the quiet acceptance and cooperation of the inhabitants was ‘wonderful’ after the initial shock. This was despite many people, particularly the elderly having never left the region before.  Accommodation was hard to find as many villages had been swollen by evacuees from more densely populated towns and cities.

Owner farmers faced particular hardships having to evacuate or sell their livestock, and two special cattle sales were held; but these were abandoned as the local market had been flooded. MP for the area, Ralph Rayner wrote to 10 Downing Street, protesting that, ‘This is the richest and most important area in Great Britain ever to be taken over on complete evacuation, and nine villages and over two hundred farmers have been affected’. Arrangements were made with the Bishop of Exeter to remove or protect valuable architectural monuments in churches.

Compensation for damage was available from the Admiralty; with the author discovering during research for this essay, that consideration was given to asking for help from the American Red Cross, but this idea was rejected due to worries of predicted headlines suggesting how the ‘Generous Americans had come to the rescue of the poor British’. 

Little was known of the evacuation outside of the South Hams, with it being expected to last for about six months, although inhabitants were warned that it might take much longer due to the removal of unexploded ordnance. Surveyors assessed the damage for compensation claims as ordnance was cleared, and eventually the inhabitants returned to a land ‘wounded and shabby’. In some areas which had been shelled extensively it was some years before inhabitants could return. Shells had ripped massive holes in the land, many of which can still be seen today; with many buildings being totally destroyed.

Bradbeer quotes one farmer as saying, “The land had changed its face you see; the richest ground suffering the most”. Far worse however, was the looting and vandalism.

Between the U.S. Army moving out, and the inhabitants returning, both looters and vandals had further destroyed villages, churches and farms. Bradbeer makes much of this in her book, with many sorry tales to tell; firmly destroying the myth that during the war, ‘we were all in it together’. As Harris wrote, ‘unanimity against Hitler was one thing, however: social solidarity and brotherly love towards fellow citizens is quite another.

Ade Pitman, MA. Military History


Ken Doughty, The Bombing of Aveton Gifford,  

G.Bradbeer, The Evacuation of Devon’s South Hams 1943-44,