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History & CommunityVJ Day 75 by Derek Stevens

VJ Day 75 by Derek Stevens

Victory in Europe day was celebrated with teas, games and running races at Alhallows school in my village of Rousdon, where I had spent the war years with my mother and grandparents. Three months later I was visiting an aunt and uncle in New Barnet who lived right next to the railway station from which I could note passing locomotives enabling to underline their numbers listed in my Ian Allen book, the ABC of L.N.E.R. steam engines. It was that morning of August 15, 1945 when my uncle shouted up to my bedroom “Derek, the war’s over!” He then took me on a tour of street parties where everyone seemed to be singing “Roll me over in the clover and do it again,” leaving my eleven-year-old mind to wonder whether it was really as rude as it sounded.
The period since the Allied victory in Europe had seemed uneventful. The Pacific wars were far away on the other side of the world, but our attention was certainly re-focussed upon it with the announcement of the dropping of not one, but two devastating atomic bombs immortalising the names of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, vaporising most of their population. It has since been estimated that over a quarter of a million souls perished in the two attacks.
Life at home continued unchanged, grey and somewhat austere. Additional cuts were made to food rationing which was to continue for another nine years. For the first time bread was rationed because there were millions to be fed now in a devastated Europe, much of which had been destroyed by persistent Allied bombing raids. Each raid had cost a million pounds and more, and the continuous programme of nightly raids flown by RAF Bomber Command during the latter part of the war had contributed greatly to the country’s final state of bankruptcy.
White bread, as we used to know it, suddenly became darker in colour and more coarse in texture, but a great reintroduction by our Musbury baker was a split penny-bun with fake cream in it. A speciality for Fridays only, it was something to hurry home for. New delivery men began to appear as servicemen became demobilised and returned home. Local ‘Devon General’ and ‘Southern National’ bus services were reinstalled, and the Royal Blue long distance coach would pass our front gate as it renewed its daily journey along the south coast to Penzance.
At this time of austerity, an action by the British authorities was to still rankle among the villagers of Dunkeswell. At the departure of the US navy from their airfield, from which they had been operating alongside RAF Coastal command in the task of Submarine hunting in the Battle of the Atlantic, to return to the United States, they had to dump much of what they had in store including food stuff. Permission from the British Ministry of Food to offer it to the local population was refused, so sacks of sugar and sides of bacon were among some of the foodstuff which had to be incinerated by order of His Majesty’s Government.
A wartime hero, who could be found selling his catch by the roundabout on Seaton seafront, was fisherman Tom Newton. Walking out of his front door from his house alongside the river mouth at Axmouth he was alarmed to see a naval mine freely drifting upstream towards the bridge. Fortunately, he later recounted, it was attached to seven fathoms of cable impeding its progress Thinking “I’d better do something about this” he grabbed an oar and waded out to the mine and started prodding it until eventually, with the help of a turning tide, he managed to isolate it on a spit of shingle. Whereupon he called for the Royal Navy’s Bomb Disposal Squad.
They arrived with the news that the situation was a bit concerning, as there was a train load of naval ammunition in the sidings of Seaton station on the other side of the bridge due to be taken to Beer quarries for secret storage in Beer stone quarries.
Relating his experience sometime in the sixties he summed up by telling me that he was awarded the British Empire Medal by the King at Buckingham Palace, the town had had a whip round for him and the Navy “Gave me five pounds”. The red defused mine casing remained a feature on the riverside bank of shingle against the rusting tiers of anti-invasion scaffolding for several following years.
To supplement the scarcity of food at the time, standing spaces were at a premium on that old concrete bridge during evenings and week-ends as people gathered, shoulder to shoulder, tying to catch some bass or pollock on incoming tides.
Mass ownership of the motor car was yet to come so every weekend day-trips from Waterloo would arrive at Lyme Regis. Train loads of people would cascade down the hill to roam the town and sea-front for a few hours, then at about four-o’clock they would all be seen labouring back up the hill to the station to return to London. They were probably hauled back to Waterloo Station by one of the new merchant navy class locomotives, streamlined monsters rumored to thunder down Honiton Bank through Seaton Junction at 100 m.p.h. The Southern Railway was soon to be nationalised and incorporated into British Railways by a Labour government. The first election in post war Britain ousted wartime leader Winston Churchill as premier, with an unexpected landslide victory by Labour leader Clement Atlee. The newly elected majority government immediately set about establishing the foundation of the welfare state which we enjoy to this day.
A letter to my father in London at the time told him that a remaining piece of wartime detritus drifting in the channel, yet another old naval mine had drifted into Lyme Regis and exploded, “Many windows throughout the town had been broken in the blast”. At about the same time a large tank landing craft in transit along the bay broke down and was washed up on Seaton beach near the river mouth where the remaining storm broke its back. The navy towed away the section housing the engine leaving the forward section stranded to be taken over as a playground for local children. The old sewage pipe entered the sea close by, all before the days of Health and Safety awareness, the only casualty being the late “Topper” Tolman who broke a leg when he fell over the side of the vessel onto the beach. The remains of that old LST can still be seen beneath the waves a short way offshore I am told by local scuba divers.
Warners holiday camp at Seaton was reopened, having served during the war years as an internment camp during the early years of the war and a US Army base during the run up to D-Day. And the placing of a small colony of caravans on neighbouring ground laid the foundation of the future Blue Waters camp where Carry On Star Barbara Windsor and her gangster boyfriend, Ronnie Knight, bought two chalets for a seaside retreat. That area of happy bye-gone days is now covered by a vast Tesco and new homes.
German POW’s were delivered to surrounding farms from their camp at Tiverton, returning at day’s end. 24,000 elected to stay in the UK, the rest were eventually repatriated in 1948. Some returning home with thankful and fond memories of the friendly treatment they had received during their imprisonment.
One exciting picture of the world to come I remember was the announcement of the forthcoming streamlined British motor car. We had all been wowed by those super-duper streamlined cars driving high-ranking American officers about the country, now we were to manufacture one of our own, the Standard Vanguard. I was to pass my driving test in one of these vehicles during my time in The RAF. National Service was the general direction for school leavers at the time rather than a university campus. Also, for the more adventurous one could have joined one of the several colonial police forces existent at the time in Kenya, Rhodesia, Malaya, Hong Kong and Palestine being among them. Palestine was a particularly nasty area of operation at that time, the rest representing the dying embers of a once dominant world empire.
Returning from my visit to Barnet I found we had bread and breakfast visitors staying. My grandmother had found the old CTC (Cyclist Touring Club) sign in the bike shed and had re-erected it outside the gate.
I got myself ready for a new school, I had passed a scholarship for Lyme Regis Grammar school. Playing in the field alongside, we could see the corrugated iron remains of the old shelters falling into the ditches beneath the hedges where they had been built five years previously. Catching the train, ‘Lyme Billy,’ from Combpyne to Lyme Regis every day, the rule was first-class compartments for girls, third-class for boys.
Another new boy joining at the time was Major T.B. Pearn who had participated in the Arnhem landings and had now become our new headmaster. He was especially musically inclined and soon had the main hall resounding to the whole school belting out the words of ‘Jerusalem’.

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