Brixham at War, 1939-45
After the invasion of the Low Countries and France in 1940, fears of bombing became real for the first time. In May it was announced [21 May 1940] that the names of air-raid casualties were to be "pasted on the Public Noticeboard at Brixham Town Hall". Towards the end of the month, Brixham received an emergency call for shallow draught motor craft to be made available immediately to assist in the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France. As soon as each trawler arrived back from the fishing grounds, volunteers went aboard, took off the gear and stacked it on the quay. The first vessel to leave the port was a pleasure boat [name unrecorded] with E. Harris and T. Bowles in charge. Pushing the engine to its limit, the boat arrived at Dover in just 24 hours. The first convoy of "little ships" left Brixham at 8 o'clock in the morning, another at three in the afternoon. These were open boats and one went missing during the night. Although it was found, it was decided to return to Brixham. Brixham Lifeboat was given permission to travel with the convoy but, before it could set off, the operation was cancelled as most of the troops which could be saved, had been evacuated. George Parker Pearson, reminiscing in 1983, recalled that after a time on the beach, he had been picked up by a Brixham trawler and brought back to Dover. This could have been the Polly Johnson or one of the others which had been requisitioned earlier for War Service. By Wednesday June 5th, the "epic of Dunkirk" was over; some 335,000 Allied troops had been brought back from the Dunkirk beaches.
Coastal batteries were set up on Corbyn Head, in Battery Gardens in Brixham and at Froward Point near Kingswear. The one at Brixham was 362 (later 378) Battery, Royal Artillery and had 4.7in guns. It was manned at first by regular soldiers but it was subsequently taken over the by the Home Guard (D3 Platoon, 10th Torbay). The main set of guns was on the slope down to the sea, with a Bofors gun post nearby but away from the main battery. The structure of the Battery Observation Post still exists. Each gun crew consisted of seven men. There were also two searchlights on the site. The Local Defence Volunteers were set up in the middle of May 1940 following a broadcast by Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary. By the end of the month there were over 130 volunteers. During July the name was changed to the "Home Guard" and, as such, continued until "stand-down" in December 1944. The first headquarters was in a " cottage adjoining Lakeman's Brewery"; it later moved to the old hospital in Cavern Road.
The Observer Corps was formed in 1925 and, two years later, operational control passed to the Air Ministry. Throughout World War 2 it was part of the RAF Fighter Command's reporting system. Its main responsibilty was the plotting of enemy aircraft as soon as they had crossed the coast. The post on Berry Head was established in July 1940, just one of some 1,400 in Britain. It became "Royal" in 1941, in recognition of the Corps contribution during the Battle of Britain. It too "stood-down" in May 1945 but was reconstituted, as a part-time force, in January 1947. One of its new functions was the reporting of radioactive fall-out and so an underground bunker was built near the original. The end of the "cold-war" meant that the Corps was no longer needed. Its final demise was effected in 1991. The Royal Artillery had a Bofors anti-aircraft gun at north end and later a US Army unit arrived to supplement its fire-power. Just before D-day a battery of 4.5in. anti-aircraft guns were located on the Head but did not see any action. Surviving cuttings from the Brixham Western Guardian show that in May 1941 "all male persons between the ages of 16 and 60 residing in Brixham must register for Civil Defence duties". [15 May 1941] This was followed by a notice explaining the role of the Fire Guard, the requirement being 48 hours of duty in each period of four weeks. [23 Oct. 1941] Finally, in December that year, there was an appeal for residents to take custody of sandbags "rather than leaving them beside lamp posts". [24 Dec. 1941] Just a year later, the people were being urged to save all fuel and keep up stocks. The were told that "purchases must not exceed 12 hundredweight and the total stock of house-coal not to be more than 11/2 tons (including briquettes not exceeding 13/4 inches in size)". [4 Dec. 1942] In May 1943 the British Restaurant opened in Rea Barn Road, another at Bolton Cross becoming available to "priority ticket holders only".
The improvement in conditions which followed the opening of the "Second Front" in Europe meant that "unwanted Morrison shelters would be collected by the Council" for use in London. [3 Aug. 1944] Fire Guard duties ended in October and all equipment withdrawn (except for armbands). [5 Oct. 1944]
As part of the preparations for "D-day", a concrete "hard" was put down inside the breakwater down which tanks and other heavy war-vehicles were embarked before the final departure at the end of May 1944. Shortly before this took place, two houses in Berry Head Road were demolished so that the US Army's largest transporters could turn into the assembly area. The occupants of the properties were given just a few days to leave. "Churchill Gardens", which occupies the site today, dates only from the 1960s.
Brixham made a major contribution to the war effort. Over a thousand small vessels were built or repaired at Upham's shipyard (for a time the old Jackman's Yard on the north side of the Breakwater was used also (this is better known today as "Breakwater Beach"). The Central Diving School of HMS Vernon, relocated to Brixham, trained many "frogmen" and other specialists for underwater operations in Europe and elsewhere.
On Monday 19th March 1945 a public meeting was held in the town to make arrangements to "welcome home ex-Service Men and Women". [22 Mar. 1945]
Because of its importance as a maritime centre, Brixham was the subject of a number of air attacks, the first raid taking place at Galmpton on 6th July 1940 when only minor damage was done. Four days later, nine small bombs were dropped at Marldon and, only a few hours after, ten at Churston. On 14 July a daylight raider dropped four bombs at Brixham and "sank a liner", according to the German News Agency. This was, in reality, the coal hulk London City, which sank at her moorings. She was later refloated, only to be sunk a second time later on. It had been assumed by the Authorities that there would be some warning of enemy aircraft; the first five air-raids showed that this was not likely to be the case - most of Torbay's were the so-called "tip-and-run" raids which were over before the sirens had time to sound. Brixham was attacked again on 17th January 1941 with little damage sustained and also on 27th February when London City was sunk again. On this occasion too, the German High Command reported a major success. A high-explosive bomb dropped at Broadsands causing slight damage and, at the same time, two trawlers were hit in Brixham harbour. Not long afterwards, time-bombs landed in Fore Street and Middle Street which caused five deaths; gas mains and the gasometer were also hit. During a raid in 1942 the London City was "sunk" for the third time.