Torquay may owe its very existence to a war in Europe. This was, of course, the French war at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. It was, however, many years later in the 1840s that a guidebook writer confirmed that the village "was first brought into notice by the families of naval officers stationed in the bay during the war, who bore testimony to the salubrity of the climate and to its sheltered situation, being protected from the north and east winds by the range of hills which partly surrounds it. Its reputation rapidly spread abroad, and attracted invalids who were either unwilling or unable to make a journey to Italy or the South of France".

In 1793 Britain declared war on the French Republic and, at the same time, Lord Howe was appointed commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet. It was lying in the Bay for more than a fortnight in September, 22 ships of the line and five frigates, sailing out but returning to anchor when winds or weather was contrary. Over the next five of six years the Fleet was a regular visitor. Occasionally a "south-easterly" blew in and the vessels at anchor suffered damage to varying degrees. Howe was succeeded by Earl St. Vincent, the Fleet being frequently in Torbay, particularly when south-westerlies drove him from his blockade of the French at Brest. St. Vincent was a disciplinarian and took the line that officers should share the hardships of the men. It is likely that the shore leave which the former had enjoyed, and which had brought their families to Torquay, ended or was curtailed after his arrival. He was, however, in poor health himself when he took command and was forced to live ashore from October 1800, taking a house but apparently spending much time with his relative, Mr Cary at Torre Abbey.

In the two years up to the victory at Trafalgar in October 1805, Admiral Cornwallis was in command and the blockade of the French coast was strengthened, the large three-deckers returning to Torbay during storms and to take on water and stores. On one visit in February that year 13 sail of the line, and their smaller escorts, took on board 44 bullocks. After the Battle the Channel Fleet continued to visit the Bay although there were no more sea battles to be fought. Those visits of the Fleet, and the general improvement of the roads in South Devon, had probably ensured Torquay's future as a "watering place".

The VOLUNTEER movement played an important role in Devon during, and after, this War. Among those formed was the Torbay Troop of Yeoman Cavalry in 1805. They were 50 strong and were under the command of Captain Henry Studdy. A decade later, the movement was allowed to decline although a complete company of the "Rifle Volunteers" still existed in the town in the 1850s. The method of recruitment is clear from a paragraph in the Torquay Directory early in 1846. "Recruits" were drawn by ballot which "will ere long be taken". Men worth less than £100, with two children, were exempt, so too were the "lame". Clubs were set up to enable those who had been drawn to arrange substitutes: however, there is no evidence of one being set up in Torbay. In February 1853 a meeting approved the formation of the Torquay Volunteers and a "Town Committee" was formed to raise funds. They were required to provide their own uniforms, arms, etc., although the committee assisted where necessary. On 25th July 1855 there was a "field-day and sham fight" in Torre Abbey Meadows. A lithograph of the event was reproduced widely at the time. By the end of the century there were the Torquay & St. Marychurch Volunteer Engineers, a local corps of the Devon & Somerset Engineers (which had been started in 1861) and the Torquay Artillery Detachment (which held a "shoot" on Walls Hill in December 1899). In 1908 all Volunteers became "Terriers", members of the Territorial Army.

The only tangible evidence of the land battles fought between Waterloo and the start of the 20th century was the arrival of the "Sebastopol trophy", the captured Russian gun, at Torre Station in May 1859. It was on Cary Green (with brief spells in the Market and at Ellacombe Green because it might offend the Russian "Royals" staying in the town) until the "Princess Gardens" was built.

The wars in South Africa at the end of the century saw the arrival of "war wounded" for the first time. In February 1900 "Villa Syracusa" on Daddyhole Plain became the "Syracusa Convalescent Home for Invalided Soldiers". By the time that it closed in December 1901, 225 men had been patients there. Later it became a hydropathic establishment; it is today one of Torquay's larger hotels, the "Overmead".

There were active-service volunteers from Torquay, the first leaving in January 1900 after a Mayoral "send-off". More left on the 8th February. It was also reported that, in mid-January, "Cockingtonians leave for war ambulance service"; these were five members of the Fire Brigade. The relief of Ladysmith was greeted with rejoicing as 22 Torquay soldiers serving in the Devonshire Regiment were there. One of the Cockington Fire Brigade members, Private George Sanders, did not return.

There had been a major growth of the German Navy from early in the 20th century, with a matching one by the British, so the declaration of War in August 1914 caused little surprise. The chronology of events was:


In the early days many volunteers signed on for military service and columns of young men were seen marching through the town following recruiting campaigns. Later, there were harrowing sights of wounded officers and men arriving to convalesce at the Red Cross hospitals. In August 1914, the Red Cross Hospital opened in the Town hall with 50 beds, the first convoy of wounded arriving on 21st October "when a hospital-train arrived at Torre Station with eight British officers and 40 wounded men from France". The officers went to Stoodley Knowle, owned by Torquay's MP Colonel Burn, but they were greeted by the Hon. Mrs Burn and Miss Burn "who were attired as Red Cross nurses". In addition to Stoodley Knowle, other war hospitals were set up at the Mount (but later moved to Rockwood); the Manor House (Lady Layland Barratt); Lyncourt (Hon. Helen Cubitt) and the "Western Hospital for Consumptives". There was also a home at Royden, described as a "Convalescent Home for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors". Queen Mary visited the Town Hall (and Oldway) in November.

One of the units which was later to be cut to pieces at Gallipoli arrived in the town in December. Some 900 men of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers came from Plymouth. Before they "left for the Front", their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Rooth, handed over the colours to the Mayor for safe-keeping. They did not go to France as expected but to be part of the ill-fated attack against the Turks when many were killed. Recruits for Lord Kitchener's New Army (men of the Royal Army Medical Corps) were also in the town at Christmas.


In September the King and Queen visited the Town Hall and Stoodley Knowle hospitals where they saw wounded soldiers from the campaigns in France, Flanders and Gallipoli. There were then five hospitals, two of which "flew the Red Cross flag" (the Town Hall and Rockwood). By this time the Western Hospital had become the "Auxiliary Military Hospital" (with an annex at Underwood). There were so many casualties that the Torbay Hospital had allocated more than 50 beds for war wounded. The civilian population was also caught up in the struggle for men to serve in France after those, and other, battles. The "Torquay Local Tribunal" was set up under an ex-Service (or other) chairman to hear cases of local men seeking deferment. The grounds had to be good ones and, in the case of those seeking it for health reasons, supported by two doctors. One case before Mr F. J. Crocker in June 1916 warranted the granting of "conditional exemption only". It concerned William Rowe of Ilsham Manor Farm, who sought to delay his registration because he and his two sons "had to deal with 46 cows. The farm had 340 acres of which 200 were arable; 70 were tilled with corn, 25 with roots and five with potatoes, which were of importance". This was just one of many cases heard.


From May onwards wounded soldiers from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force began to arrive and entered a permanent convalescent camp at St. Marychurch, a "Special YMCA" being opened for their use.


The continuing presence of the New Zealanders resulted in the opening of a YMCA in Torquay at Maycliff in St. Luke's Road in April and, a month later, the Kia Toa Club (now the Victorian Arcade) for those awaiting repatriation. The Council gave each serviceman "suitably inscribed views of Torquay"; in all, 22,000 were distributed. Many sailed home in RMS Ruihine (10,000 tons) which was anchored well out in the Bay.

September 1918 saw the serious outbreak of influenza which is said to have caused more deaths than there had been on the battlefield. Over 100 US servicemen died at the Oldway Hospital in a fortnight. They were buried in Paignton cemetery but were exhumed later and taken to the USA.

Armistice was declared in November and some weeks later there was excitement at the Harbour when the German submarine U161 arrived while British "water-planes flew in the air [and] descended on to the water" [possibly an early "victory roll"]. These were seaplanes from the base on Beacon Quay which had been there throughout the War, the Coastlines shed being altered for use as a hangar. It was operated by the RNAS with Short 184 seaplanes but became "239 Squadron RAF" after the amalgamation of the RFC and RNAS.
There was a sad aftermath to that War. On Boxing Day 1918 the Mayor handed back to a Colour Guard from the 1st Dublin Fusiliers the colours which had hung in the Council Chamber for four years. Out of a battalion 1,100 strong, only 40 were now left: it had been decimated at the landing at Suvla Bay.

World War 2 had a profound effect on many local people and the lives they led, particularly after the "blitzkrieg" by the Germans across Europe in 1940, as a diary of those years shows:


Although training in "air-raid precautions" started as early as 1935, recruiting only began in earnest in January. Wardens were recruited and every house was visited and between 20,000 and 30,000 civilian gas respirators fitted. In March the Torbay ARP Committee decided to purchase Upton Schools as headquarters for the Torbay Area at a cost of £3,350. Trained volunteers totalled 2,033. There were then on order 2,200 sandbags, 200 suits of clothing, 69,000 respirators and 140 steel helmets "and the Home Office was waiting for an address to sent them to".

On 1st September, two days before War was declared, permanent "Wardens' Posts" were established and sand-bagged. Just eight days later, the first air-raid exercise took place during which a "mustard gas bomb was dropped in St. Marks Road". Within days of the declaration, plans were announced for rationing meat and petrol. The books issued for the latter covered two months but did not say how much each coupon would be worth. Coal and coke rationing was added to the list before the end of the month. An early slogan was: "Walls have ears... The enemy has a spy system. Chance remarks are often dangerous. STOP TALKING". The possibility the enemy might use gas was a real one and the town's Wardens went from house-to-house preparing residents for wearing their respirators.

Local inhabitants had two other innovations before the end of the year; in late September the "Food Control Office" opened in the Electric Hall and "Registration Day" was on the 29th. Every inhabitant received a Registration Card with his/her own unique number. There was little or no adverse comment.

Not long after this, in October, the Palace Hotel opened as a convalescent hospital for RAF officers, originally with 48 beds but soon expanded to nearly 250. Until it was bombed in October 1942, many aircrew recovered there, including James Nicholson, the only RAF VC.


Wrighton of Walthamstow took over Sansom's garage opposite the Chilcote Memorial. Up to 300 worked there where parts of aircraft (including the Short Sunderland flying-boat) were manufactured.

After the Fall of France the invasion of Britain became a real possibility, machine-gun posts and pill-boxes were built (in Torquay the work was done by the East Kents, the Buffs). Naval guns were also placed on Corbyn Head. In May, Anthony Eden made his historic broadcast appeal asking those men between the ages of 17 and 65 who were not already on War Service to join the LOCAL DEFENCE VOLUNTEERS; they would be "unpaid but would wear uniforms and be armed". In two days 400 had joined and by Monday the 20th the register had closed with 600 "on the books". In July the name was changed to the HOME GUARD.

Torquay's major contribution to the war effort was by providing hotels for the RAF in which to train aircrew. No 1 ITW (Initial Training Wing) was formed at Babbacombe in June 1940. Headquarters were at the Norcliffe Hotel, the Sefton, Oswalds, Trecarn, Foxlands and Palermo Hotels being used for sleeping, etc. Postings were made from Babbacombe to Elementary Flying Training Schools (including overseas in Canada and Southern Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe]) where they became pilots, observers, W/T operators and wireless operators/air gunners. From the first intake of 579 recruits in July 1940, almost a further 27,000 airmen were to trained there before the Wing left Babbacombe. No 3 ITW also came to Torquay in June. Its headquarters were at St. James' Hotel (now Harbour Point). Hotels in Beacon Terrace were requisitioned, together with Park Hall Hotel and the Regina Hotel (which was slightly damaged during a "tip and run raid" in June 1942); the Dorchester and Devonshire Hotels were requisitioned later, from February 1943. St. Vincents' Hotel (now flats) was taken over for use by the WAAF. Some 8,000 trainees passed through before it was disbanded in February 1944. A third ITW was No 5. which also moved to Torquay in June 1940. Headquarters were in Castle Chambers, later moving to Hotel Metropole (now the Cavendish). A full list of hotels used is not known but they included the Majestic and Stanbury Hotels which were damaged on 30th May 1943 and had to be evacuated. Some 10,000 men completed their training at No 3 ITW. No 13 ITW was formed in Torquay in June 1941 and trained pilots, observers and navigators principally from the Commonwealth and Allied Air Forces. The intakes were smaller and the courses longer, so only about 3,000 passed through the Wing. The Headquarters were in the Belgrave Hotel at first and later at Torre Abbey. The logbook of this Wing records the arrival of the US Forces in Torbay. In January 1944 1,500 troops in transit were fed in relays. In February 1944 when the Wing was about to move to Bridgnorth, first the Rosetor (now the Riviera Centre) was handed over to the US Army, to be followed by the Belgrave shortly after. Another ITW, No 21, was in the town for a brief spell. Numbers trained were small, only about 1,000 but it helped to raise the total number of airmen trained in Torquay to some 49,000.


The first "War Weapons Week" was held and on the first day raised £150,007 towards the half-million it was eventually hoped for. During the early part of the year evacuees came to Torbay from Bristol and Plymouth (during the blitz of both cities). The deteriorating war situation resulted in a survey of railings "available for munitions" (i.e. melting down); their removal started later early the next year.
On 22nd April 1941 Torquay had its first serious raid (at the time of the Plymouth "blitz") when the house of the chief warden in the Warberries was destroyed and two of his children killed. On 4th May there was another when 31 HE (High Explosive) bombs were dropped in Forest Road, the Daison and at Maidencombe.


In March the small vessel, intended as a "block-ship" across Torquay Harbour, was sunk in an air-raid and in May a British Typhoon aircraft crashed-landed on Meadfoot Beach, the pilot being uninjured. However, when a German fighter was shot down on to Tor Abbey Sands and caught fire, its pilot perished because the barbed-wire and other defences on the promenade prevented any rescue attempt being made. No 39 Air-Sea Rescue unit was based in Torquay Harbour (which is possibly why a block-ship was kept ready). Later, in 1944, HSL No 2511 was on station at Torquay; it was almost certainly a 67-ft Thorneycroft vessel designed by Robert Scott-Payne. There was also thought to have been a Sunderland flying-boat based in the Harbour for a short time, a landing platform being moored near Haldon Pier for use by the crew.

"Sunday evening, June 7, was warm and sunny, the beaches and sea front were crowded when four raiders flew in low over the sea and dropped four bombs and were gone nine minutes before the siren sounded. One exploded behind the amusement arcades near the Torbay Hotel; no one was injured here but there were casualties elsewhere". An air-raid on August Bank Holiday caused considerable damage and casualties; so too did the early evening raid on 4th September. This was the occasion on which properties were destroyed in Tor Hill Road and Rosery Road. The main gasholder at Hollacombe was set on fire; later, Mr Denton and Sgt. Richardson (of the Home Guard) were each to receive the George Medal for gallantry.

A major raid on Torquay took place on 25th October. This was the occasion when the Palace Hotel was seriously damaged and many RAF personnel killed. (The empty hotel was damaged again in a second raid just months later). The gasholder at Barton was also set on fire during this attack.


One of the worst tragedies to hit the local population was the "Rogation Sunday" attack which destroyed the Parish Church at St. Marychurch and resulted in the deaths of 21 children. One of the aircraft touched the spire of the RC church nearby and crashed into houses in Teignmouth Road.

Morrison and Anderson shelters were delivered in all the Torbay towns later in the year. Morrison indoor shelters "would be issued free to those employed in an occupation compulsorily insured under the NHI Acts and whose earnings did not exceed £350 p.a. Others could purchase them for £7" (a year later, with D-day over, the various Councils collected them for use in London which was suffering attacks by "V" weapons"). At the end of 1943 those evacuated from the South Hams Battle Area arrived in the Torbay towns.


The first of the thousands of US Army personnel arrived in Torquay early in the year. Men of the 3204th Quartermaster Service Company were billeted mainly in Chelston and Cockington. Seven GIs were in "Cypress Heights" with Mr DeSuanne; others were at "Greenhaven" and "Combe Martin" with Mr Meadow in Vicarage Road and at small homes in Sherwell Lane, Rathmore Road, Avenue Road, Old Mill Road and Tor Park Road. Another unit was the 618th Ordnance Ammunition Company, 6th Amphibious Engineers, the men being billeted in private homes in St. Marychurch and Upton. The 257th Ordnance MM Company, attached to the 6th Engineer Special Brigade, arrived in Torquay on 3rd February 1944 "on a very warm winter day". They too went into private homes in St. Marychurch. Little is known about the 31st Chemical Corps, also billeted in Upton and which served in Normandy as part of the 6th Engineer Special Brigade. The concrete "hards" at Beacon Quay had been built for and were used by the embarking troops.

In the build-up to D-day raids on coastal areas were expected. Torbay's took place on Whit Monday, 29th May when some 20 planes are believed to have been in Torbay laying mines; some carried bombs and these were dropped around the Harbour, in Chelston and elsewhere. Nos 4 and 5 Park Crescent were destroyed but the worst affected property was "Bay Court Hotel" where rescuers dug for days for survivors. This was the last recorded raid and the air attacks had resulted in well over 700 "air-raid alerts" being sounded in the Bay.

Early in 1944 a "coast ban", from The Wash to Cornwall, had come into force and visitors were only allowed in if possessing appropriate permits. It was lifted in early July soon after the beach-head in Normandy had been established. The GWR announced: "We expect a big rush of holidaymakers to the South West. There are no arrangements for running extra trains". It opened the floodgates: a fortnight later a display board outside Paddington Station reported: "Paddington overcrowded. Please use alternative routes".


Although there were still signs of war and war damage to be repaired, Torquay was "open to visitors" when peace was declared in May.

© copyright John Pike

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