An Evacuee's Recollections
These recollections have kindly been provided by Jeff Watts of Gualala, California, USA.
During the London blitz my mom and I were in the back yard Anderson Shelter of our home at Gants Hill when it was hit by bomb blast and condemned. Shortly thereafter we evacuated to Brixham staying at the Clift (sp.) Hotel. My granddad, Henry Thomas Franklin, who was of some means and a retired builder, grandmother Lottie, my mom, Evelyn Elsie Watts, and me, Godfrey James Watts (my name changed to Jeff Watts when I became a US citizen) were all there several months. My dad, James Watts, was in RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) at Farnborough, involved eventually with the planning for D-Day.
While at Brixham, Granddad met Farmer Hill who offered Ridge Cottage for rent. So around the Spring of '41 we moved to Ridge. At this time, I was five years old and my earliest memories began. We had no phone, electricity, potable water, etc. There was a well in the barn at the back where brackish water was pumped up to the attic for toilets and baths. There was a family down the lane half way to Lower Upcott, the "Perry's". Two of the teenaged Perry kids hauled drinking water up to Ridge once a week or so on a cart made with two bicycle wheels. The Perrys were a poor family of about eight kids and I became their pal and roamed the fields and woods with them learning to find wild strawberries, gooseberries, beech nuts and to scrump for apples and walnuts. There was a small alluvial field upstream from Kerswell Cottage where we would collect Peewit eggs, prick the shell with a thorn, blow out the whites and collect the yolks for cooking. Here is a photo of me behind Ridge with a makeshift blanket tent near the limestone cliffs.
Jeff at Ridge Cottage in 1940
Farmer Hill offered to sell Ridge to Granddad for £500 but he thought it too expensive. Granddad had been gassed at the front in WWI and dampness at Ridge bothered his lungs so Farmer Hill had us all move to Lower Upcott and we lived on the upper floor. Across the hall was a Miss Wedgwood. She was a spinster, wore very tweedy clothes. In her apartment there were ceramic spools of molds for cameos so we have always believed she descended from the Burslem potters. I have tried to find one of her relatives or any family history over the years but never succeeded.
In 1941 or so, one evening we were sitting in our apartment at Lower Upcott and we heard a rumbling in the distance. Granddad, being a WWI Veteran, immediately identified it as bombing. He said to me, "Come on, Sonny, let's go out and take a look." My grandma retorted, "Don't do that, you might get killed". He replied "Damn and tarnation, woman. it's safer out there than in this pile of rocks". From the meadow down hill from the house, we saw flashes over the trees followed a second or so by a rumbling boom. This was the night Exeter was bombed.
When I started school, I walked the mile and three quarters from Lower Upcott to the elementary school on the hill not far from the cricket field. My route went alongside a brook upstream from Hams Barton, then through four or five meadows to the cricket field. I believe these were tributaries of Kate Brook. Farmer Hill paid me sixpence a week for herding about 50 cows to Hams Barton gate on my way home from school, for afternoon milking.
On June 6, 1944 I sat on the steps of Lower Upcott and all day airplanes flew overhead, some towing gliders which were at a slightly lower elevation than the towing aircraft. They were all heading south, row upon row, filling the entire sky, heading towards Normandy. The reverberations of their engines seemed to be in cadence and this low frequency and loud humming verberation continued all day, wave after wave. Occasionally, aluminum foil in about one inch by ten inch strips floated down, which I learned later were to interfere with the German radar. Some I collected in the fields and saved to make silver Christmas chains. Flares of various colors were dropped, I presume for signaling between aircraft in order to maintain radio silence. Chudleigh changed that night, the allies had all left and the "fly over" was momentous, for me it is the greatest air show of my life. As an eight year old, little did I realize that many of these brave men parachuting into the French countryside and those in the plywood "one way only" gliders, skidding onto the slick grass, some crashing into stone hedges and trees, would be shot by the enemy before they were able to regroup.
In 1943 or '44 an RAF Lysander training aircraft made an emergency landing in the meadow across from the lane in front of Hams Barton. The pilot made a safe landing with no damage to the plane. This was a great thrill but the local Bobby kept the public at bay.
[Editors Note – further research has found that this incident occurred on 7 February 1942. Lysander IIIA serial V9292 of 16 Sqn flown by P/O D H Leonard made the forced landing due to running out of fuel. The aircraft was written off but P/O Leonard suffered no injury. Two years earlier – on 24 November 1940 – there had been another forced landing invloving a RAF Lysander III. On that occasion, the crash happened close to the south-west parish boundary near Huxbear Barton. The aircraft, serial T1530 of 225 Sqn flown by P/O M Jubb was again written off after demolishing a row of trees. The pilot and navigator were unharmed.]
There was a straw rick in the meadow where the Lysnader had crashed (near the stile and brook across from Hams Barton) and when last season's hay was depleted the faggots were replaced, at which time there was much excitement when the field rats ran for cover in the surrounding hedges. I joined in the sport of stabbing the rats on a pitch fork and brandishing my prize in the air. Later when I proudly told my mom, she was quite disgusted, to say the least.
There was an old Morris touring car at the farm, license number EOD 207. It was used for hauling tools and feed for the stock. After Pearl Harbor and Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill signed the Lend Lease agreement, two Oliver 80 wheeled tractors arrived from the USA together with a tow-behind Minneapolis-Moline combine harvester. The former looked huge to us kids and the combine, with its golden yellow enamel paint, was gargantuan. I was so disappointed when it was repainted in a drab gray color. It would, of course, have been an easy target for German aircraft. Farmer Hill was responsible for loaning/sharing these implements with surrounding farmers. Before their arrival, the threshing machine in the fall was a special attraction with the roar of the tractor driving a very long belt and the unique hum of the threshing mechanism whilst the grain poured from the side into huge sacks and the chaff flew out the end. To a small boy, it was a veritable menu of odors.
I attended school in Chudleigh for five years. The headmaster was Mr. Barnicote (sp) and my teacher was Miss Edwards. In 1976 we visited some friends in Chudleigh and when we entered their parlor, what a surprise, Miss Edwards was sitting there. She remembered me right away and asked my wife, Pearl, if I still asked so many questions.
It was a three room school. I had lunch every day at Mrs. Lee's house at 60 New Exeter Street. She was the village laundress and I recall the smell of bleach and soap. If I had an allowance, a halfpenny would buy a bread roll at the bakery across from the war memorial.
I believe the arrival of the American troops in 1943 aroused my curiosity about the United States. At first there were warnings that their uniforms were quite like the Nazi uniforms and that we should be alert for spies but us kids were quickly overcome by their kindness and generosity. One day I walked home from school along the road to Kerswell Cross, a route forbidden by my mom. Just across the road from the walled estate before the Kerswell turn-off, a US truck was parked and two soldiers were hunkered down at the roadside taking a break. One said, "Hi kid!" and I must have replied, "Hi Yank!" "Would you like to share some cake?" came their reply. Now I had been told never to accept things from strangers but this cake in my eyes was monstrous and I succumbed. They asked me where I lived and I pointed in the direction of Lower Upcott and said I lived with my mom, grandmother and granddad. "Here," they said, "take some home for them". What a dilemma, to choose between guilt at having disobeyed or accepting a gift? My stomach prevailed and I carried the precious cake home. Needless to say, my indiscretion was overlooked and we all had a very "high tea". Another time a Yank gave me a banana, I don't think I had seen one before. I put it in my trousers pocket and there is no need to describe the outcome.
As D-Day, June 6, 1944 approached, convoy after convoy passed down New Exeter Street passing the school and, if we were at recess in the school yard, often the GI's would toss sweets ("candy"), K-rations (emergency energy tablets), Life Savers, oranges etc. over the fence. Mr. Barnicote insisted that the loot be placed in a box in his office to be shared equally among the students when there was sufficient. The greeting, "Got any gum, chum?" was coined in those days. As the embarkation neared, the convoys included huge trucks and heavy duty trailers carrying tanks, guns, DUKW's (Ducks) and larger landing barges called LST's. I learned much later that some of the porch roofs were removed to provide truck clearance. All of them were not replaced after the war.
Granddad died of lung cancer around February 1944. He had often quizzed my dad when he was home on leave about the Second Front, as D-Day was called, but dad was subject to court marshall if he had even intimated what the plans were. Granddad died without having the satisfaction of the Allied victories. He was cremated and his ashes were laid at a garden of remembrance in Plymouth.
We left Lower Upcott in March of '45. A Pickfords van arrived and the last item to be roped onto the tailgate was the sofa. The driver and his mate let mom, Grandma and me ride to Exeter railway station in style on the sofa. I plainly recall the sensation of the highway retreating in the distance, not realizing what an adventurous life I had gained in Chudleigh and I was not yet nine years old.