Just one mans memories of the War in Ilfracombe


This story was written by my father, Mr L.F.C. Knight (1912 — 1991) as part of our Family History, which includes stories of life as family members knew it, photos, family trees and other relevant information. Ilfracombe was my father’s second location in RAPC during the war after starting out in Shrewsbury.

I was posted to Ilfracombe and it became a winter and spring by the sea-side but very much different conditions in peace-time. Initiation into the mysteries of Pay Office work began.
Many fellow workers were from Birmingham and had learnt how to cope with the situation. Birmingham was a long way off seemingly unattainable, but ways and means were found for unofficial visits. In Ilfracombe no taxis were available at week-ends as several would combine and hire them for the long trip to their home town or to the nearest main line station at Exeter.

All hotels in the town had been commandeered. Three of the most prominent, The Ilfracombe, The Imperial and The Dulkusha were used as Pay Offices, and others for the Pioneer Corps who were also stationed in the town. Some of the better placed and higher classed hotels were used for officers quarters. We were billeted in the smaller places, cafes and small guest houses and so on. Wives could live with their husbands and several including myself enjoyed this occasion. Our honeymoon, the 17th Jan 1941 was at Ilfracombe whilst a member of the Pay Corps. We travelled down from Birmingham in complete pitch dark conditions by rail and on arriving at Ilfracombe were greeted by the sight of the monster fires from enemy air raids across the Bristol channel in South Wales. I was at first billeted with about fifteen others in a terraced house off High Street which in peace time was a smaller type of guest house. Newcomers were always allocated to the front bedroom down. I thought this excellent until I found it was an arrangement to answer the front door to let in others any time up to well after midnight.

Amongst the duties were fire-watching and guard duties. For fire-watching we were allowed to remain in our billets but on the sounding of the sirens were to proceed in all haste to our place of duty. This theory did not work for reasons of sleep interfering with hearing and eventually the plan was abandoned. Guard duties were performed, all dressed up, at the hotels we used as offices. Mine was on the sea front and the two hour stretches were spent whatever the weather patrolling the terraces facing the sea, and thinking how these same terraces would have contained the holiday makers of former days enjoying summer sunshine and sea breezes. It was no wonder we always said that we never wanted to see Ilfracombe again. There would be snow on the surrounding hills but none came at sea level only the cold and damp conditions.
In the hotels used as Pay Offices the former smallish bedrooms were used as offices each having a small fire-place for heating. It was so cold no scruples were made in using anything burnable. There was a coal store in the basement and a newcomers job was to keep the coal bucket full. The coal had become no more than leavings of dust. Our fire had become no more than smouldering heaps of dust. Our section of three were in the top storey room of the Ilfracombe Hotel.

Outside day-time duties attempts were made in activities of varying sorts. Welshmen were amongst our company and a choir of sorts was formed which I joined. We practised various items, well known to them, and were asked to sing at a local National Savings effort in a local church and after sitting on the stage whilst local dignitaries spoke were not even asked to sing. Obviously we were there for effect, ornaments on the stage.

As better weather conditions approached on off duty occasions we enjoyed a Spring time in Devon, walking many miles in the surrounding valleys and exploring the sea coast, together with my wife who had joined me in Ilfracombe lodgings.
Her brother was with the R. Warws Regt and had a mortar course on Braunton Dunes near Barnstaple. He was able to visit us and ourselves to visit him, making a welcome interlude from our Army duties.

Our stay in Ilfracombe came to an end after about six months when I was transferred to the Reading Pay Office, and where was found a more serious aspect. By now I had become a more knowledgeable and useful member of the Royal Army Pay Corps.
contributed by John Smith, WW2 People's War ''WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC.



Baptising the troops in Ilfracombe

St Davids Uniting Church Pontypridd

My father was a Baptist minister and in about 1944 my father took a church in Ilfracombe. They had virtually never heard of the war there: they had rationing of course, but no bombs. One of the mines blew up in the harbour and that was all they had of bombs.

A lot of my father's parishioners were farmers. My parents were assiduous visitors. They visited everyone, including the farmers. We went round the farms and ate very well. I didn't have a big appetite in those days but we ate chicken and so on and for afters there was always a huge bowlful of devonshire cream on the table. You had thick crusts of bread and you put a very thick helping of devonshire cream and then on top, some golden syrup or honey - and that was known as 'thunder and lightening'. I've never had it since, but it was absolutely marvellous.

For a while, American troops were stationed in Ilfracombe, getting ready for going across to Normandy. At the time they were stationed my father was assistant chaplain to the Forces.

The regular chapain to the army, a Baptist minister like my father, used to come up to the house and for the first time, we encountered popcorn. The first time he came he said 'I'm coming up to your house to pop.' We couldn't imagine what he meant!

Anyway, my father dined in the officers' mess and on one occasion my mother and I joined him. It was a terrific banquet. There must have been four or five courses and the food was amazing. As a young child I just remember the last course, which was a huge knickerbocker glory. You didn't have ice cream during the war.. but the American Forces had it!

A lot of soldiers used to come to my father's church. Many of them - perhaps the majority - were Baptists and the gallery was always packed with Forces. Whenever my father had a baptistmal service it was very moving because we'd come to the end, and, as was the custom in Baptist churches in those days, he would make an appeal for anyone who wanted, to come forward and be baptised - and very often it happened, on the spot. The Americans used to slide down the pillars, one after another, and just take their jacket off and go straight into the water.

As I child I was amazed - how were they going to get home! I didn't understand the full significance of it, but the atmosphere was very charged; they were going and they may not be coming back again. Quite a few of them almost certainly didn't come back.

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Reminiscences of Ilfracombe at War 1939 to 1945

by Jo Challacombe


At the start of the War Ilfracombe was designated a demilitarised town and the old gun carriages dating from the Napoleonic wars located on Hillsborough were removed in 1940. at this time gas was the fuel in general use for lighting in people’s homes, electricity generated by diesel power being very expensive. Coal for the gas was brought in by sea from South Wales by two ships, The Snowflake and the Florence. An emergency supply of coal was provided on the pier which was almost completely covered by huge stacks of it. The only clear areas were in the vicinity of the old lifeboat house and on the Northern edge where a popular dance hall was sited. This can still be seen as the village hall at Muddiford. The Snowflake was damaged at sea towards the end of the war and was towed to Watermouth where it sank and with this the summer export of Combe Martin strawberries to Wales by sea ceased.

From 1940 train-loads of evacuees arrived in the town and were billeted in any house that had a spare room. Also a complete school, Dagenham county High, arrived and was superimposed on the local Grammar school but was not integrated into it as the pupils used classrooms which were vacant while the Grammar school classes were in laboratories etc. They also used the adjacent St Peter’s Church house.

Virtually all the hotels were requisitioned for troops, the Ilfracombe Hotel and St Petrocs housed the Pay Corps and their offices while the Collinwood was the naval equivalent the WRENS being housed in the Mount Hotel. The other hotels had an ever-changing population. This continued until the Americans arrived and they also requisitioned empty houses and had camps at Liscombe. They had a “donut” factory in Parkers Yard and a glasshouse in the Albermarle which was festooned with barbed wire, also a PX in St James’s church hall. There were other canteens – a YMCA over the Chocolate Box, a NAAFI in the old Town Hall and a British Restaurant in Oxford Grove. Outside the town was a Pioneer Corps camp which contained mostly eastern Europeans.

In the harbour were two RAF launches for rescue purposes and towing targets. For bombing practice a triangular raft was used with a central pole on which was mounted a circular wicker ball and for machine gun practice a square raft with honeycomb wall.

The town was slowly fortified with machine gun posts on the NE corner of the promenade by the Ilfracombe Hotel and on the cliff east of Rapparee and in addition two guns on Larkstone which I think were 4 inch ones.

No memory would be complete without reference to the Home Guard which consisted of old sweats from the 1914-18 war, some of whom were remarkable shots, and also lads like me at 16. Unusually the unit was designated as mobile which meant we had allocated duties, one of which was a nightly patrol from Mullacott Cross to Lynton Cross. An amusing incident occurred one night when footsteps approached the patrol and were challenged three times. A shot was fired in the air then at a distant object – result – one dead cow! All members were issued with ammunition to keep at home. My mother went quite pale when I came in with a rifle, 200 rounds of ammunition and 2 hand grenades!

The experimental fuel line PLUTO (Pipe line under the ocean) was tested between Watermouth and Swansea, police stopping all vehicles at the coastguards and the Sawmills to ensure nobody was smoking. Another wartime feature was the double decker buses on the Barnstaple route which ran on gas produced in small trailers behind the bus.

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