Thurlestone during the war...
“I REMEMBER ….”.
My name is Derek (Robbie) Burns, the only son of Leslie and Gertrude Burns of Plymouth. I was born in 1929, and brought up in Plymouth before the war. Reading in the ‘Village Voice’ about the 50th Anniversary of the Royal Marines taking over Thurlstone Hotel as their Officer Cadet Training Unit during the last war brought back memories of my life at that time. My mother and I left Plymouth after our home had been damaged by bombs during a raid and we came to Thurlestone to live with my mother’s sister and husband, Mr and Mrs Hoskins, who lived in a cottage within the grounds of Thurlestone Hotel, My uncle being employed as a gardener at the Hotel.
Living in the cottage and so being within the ‘Establishment’ meant that we had to have access at all times. For some time this was made difficult by our being challenged by the Marine sentry on duty with the words ‘Halt. Who goes there?’ I would reply ‘Derek Burns’ and he would say ‘Step forward and be recognised’ When he was satisfied with our identity we could go into the cottage. After a while we were issued with passes and it became easier to go about our daily lives.
Once we had settled into the daily running of the Establishment, we were invited to functions in the Sergeants’ Mess and to the ENSA shows. We were also allowed to the picture shows; the villagers were also allowed to these shows on one day of the week.
I remember there being an assault course in the field opposite the Village Inn with ropes and nets hanging from trees. We used to watch the Officer Cadets climbing these ropes. One chap became stuck about 20 ft above the ground on a rope slung between two trees. He shouted to the Instructor that he couldn’t go on. Two Cadets were told to get a blanket in a hurry from the Hotel. Four cadets held the blanket beneath the chap on the rope. ‘Drop!’ shouted the Instructor. Down he came, but hit one corner of the blanket, wrenched it out of the holder’s hands and hit the ground with a thump. He was told he was all sorts of an idiot and told to get back onto the assault course pretty damn quick.
In the field behind the church, the Cadets carried out their horse riding training with all sorts of jumps built around the field. Watching the activity one day I was amused to see the cadet going flat out to take the horse over a jump, the horse stopped dead at the jump, and the cadet went over the jump on his own. The Sergeant bellowed at him ‘Who told you to dismount, Sir? Get back on that horse, - Sir!’
During my stay at Thurlstone, I became a choir boy. One day after choir practice we were larking about in the church and I tripped over a mat, hit my head on a radiator and got as nasty cut near my eye. Across from the church, the Marines had their hospital. I was rushed over there and the Marine Doctor put two or three stitches in the cut, without any pain killers I might add. Some days the Marines would be exercising on the cliffs above Yarmer Beach and one day they were using Sten guns and firing down into the sand from the cliff top. When they had gone we used to collect the empty cases and then go down and dig in the sand for the bullets. Then we put them back into the cases and stuck them in our belts.
I remember the mines all around the beaches and the day the Wren was killed; very sad day. At the end of the war I watched the Americans clearing the mines at Thurlstone Beach near the Links Hotel. At Bantham you could see the mines sticking up out of the sand after a high wind had blown the sand away.
The Wrens were a very smart detachment and they lived in the big houses by the Golf course. I used to watch them in the garage of the Hotel marching up and down and very good they were too.
The big event for the village came with the Passing Out Parades. The Royal Marines Band would march and play down through the village and the actual parade was held in the field behind the church, always it would seem on the hottest day of the summer. Several Cadets would faint and seemed hours for the ceremony to be carried out.
I remember some nights we would hear whistles blowing and shouting and then a banging on the cottage door and a voice saying that enemy aircraft were attacking Plymouth and we were to get out and away from the main building in case the Hotel was bombed. As it was painted white, it must have been easy to see on a moonlit night. I think the German aircraft used the Hotel as a marker when approaching Plymouth.
We became very friendly with the Marines and used to give them rabbits when we caught them and my uncle who kept ducks and chickens would let them have some eggs. One of the Marine Officers had some chickens which he used to keep in our garden.
There are so many things I remember about these times … One summer day a Marine went to sleep while sunbathing on the balcony rail at the front of the Hotel. He rolled over and fell about 15 ft breaking his arm…. One year the Marines were given the task of attacking the village from seaward. The village was defended by the Home Guard. We school children were to be casualties. I had a label attached to my coat stating that I was a stretcher case as I had a fracture of both arm and leg, cuts and bruises about the body. I was laying on the cold step of the house opposite the village pump, waiting for the stretcher party to arrive, when some clown thought it would be more like the real thing to let off thunder flashes and tear gas. Then I became a real casualty, crying my eyes out and was rushed off in the back of a lorry with some other affected people to ‘Swallows’, near the War Memorial which was to be the hospital for the exercise. After treatment we were given a fancy cake and a strong cup of tea, patted on the head and told we could go home, quite good fun really.
Living in Thurlstone during the last war may have seemed to some people that they lived a life of peace and tranquillity, the upheaval and noise far away in the cities and towns. Far from it. Life here became very much in the fast lane with the Royal Marines in the Hotel. The RAF at Malborough; the Americans at Slapton Sands and Salcombe; even the American tanks, jeeps and troops taking cover in the woods at Huxton Cross.
Many children evacuated from London were sent to the West Country and on to live in Thurlstone. Some were in houses by the Links Hotel and others in Merchants Field near the tennis courts. I remember happy days when playing with my evacuee friends, going to Merchants Fields and having big mugs of tea and thick slices of bread and dripping … lovely grub!
One afternoon when I was at school in Kingsbridge we had just finished playtime and were lined up to go into classes when several aircraft suddenly came over the hills. We were waving and shouting at them when machine guns started firing and we could see bombs falling on Kingsbridge. Only then did we realise they were Germans. The teachers yelled at us to get on the floor. I watched the last aircraft coming directly at the school, but the pilot must have seen we were children for he flew right over us without firing his guns. Thinking about it, Kingsbridge School does look very like a barracks so it was fortunate that we were out in the playground at the time of the attack.
After bombing raids on Kingsbridge and Aveton Gifford — ‘Scatter raids’ they were called aimed at non-military targets to cause panic among civilians — anti aircraft guns appeared all around the area. We had a unit of the Army, the “Buffs” stationed at Bantham Ham at the mouth of the river. The troops dug trenches and dug-outs all around Ham. They did the same below the Links Hotel and on the cliffs at Leas Foot and mounted a machine guns and anti-aircraft guns there. Some soldiers lived in the house below the Links Hotel just by the second green of the golf course.
I remember the day a Liberator bomber crashed at Malborough. My friend and I cycled over after school to see what had happened as we heard a big explosion while in class. The wreckage was all over Malborough. A large section of wing was up against a house with the engines in the middle of the road. The aircraft had crashed through two fields behind the village. I believe all the crew were killed.
One day Field Marshall Montgomery came to Kingsbridge by train. I remember us all crowding round him and cheering away like mad, very good for morale.
Earlier, on December 7, 1939, a Belgian steamer, the Louis Sheid, was wrecked at Leas Foot. She had the Belgian flag painted on her side. My uncle was involved in the rescue of the crew by breeches buoy rigged up on the cliff top. The ship was making for Antwerp with a cargo of grain. When she broke in half the grain was kneed deep all over the beach and smelled awful. One good thing was that much coal from her bunkers came ashore too. We collected it in sacks and took it home. Another shipwreck later was that of the Persier, near Challaborough when tons of ‘Sunlight’ Soap came ashore near Thurlstone. People came from miles around to collect it as soap was rationed. Customs Officers came to the beach and if we found a complete crate of the soap we were paid a sum of money for handing it over to them. At the same time many tons of food were washed ashore — tins of sausages, tins of pork and soya links, tins of biscuits. We had a good time scratching round the rocks at low tide and any we found we hid away and had feasts on the beach at weekends. My chum and I found a large tin among the rocks one day. When we opened it we found it contained powered egg, about 20 lbs of it. Our parents were very pleased as it helped out with the food rations.
One day the golf course was covered with paper strips, silver on one side, black on the other. Bombers had dropped it to confuse the radar. We collected a lot of them and made Christmas decorations with them.Copyright BBC.