If some of us lately have seemed less than enthusiastic
about taking part in another war, perhaps it's because, not only do we
remember the last one, we were in it.
We had first hand experience of gas masks, air-raid shelters, land mines,
incendiary bombs, and the death of relatives, neighbours and friends. We cannot forget the
aftermath - living for years with a blank canvas of destruction around
us - street after street of houses and shops all gone. Towns like
Plymouth and Exeter were left with nothing at all in what had been the
very heart of their city centres but just as devastating was a
single stray bomb in the centre of a tiny hamlet.
The ruins of the 13th century church at
Aveton Gifford destroyed by bombing in 1943
Incendiary bombs caused uncontrollable fires which swept
through everything which lay in their path. Every available adult was
expected to take part in Fire Watch duties on a nightly rota basis. Shop
and office workers, bank clerks, postmen, teachers, all (except Mums with young
children) were given brief training, sand bags, a water bucket and a
stirrup pump and expected to report to designated central points for
Fire Watch Duty after work. They slept where they could, they were out on the
roof tops immediately an air-raid siren sounded and they often had to be immensely brave and resourceful. They fought fires, dealt with bombs,
rescued people and pets, and next day, went quietly back to
work as though nothing unusual had happened.
centre of Exeter, May 1942.
From Peter Thomas's Isca Collection
As the war started in 1939, Exeter was a city of narrow
streets tightly crammed with wooden Mediaeval and Tudor buildings, fine
Regency Terraces and Crescents, historic buildings, a Norman
Cathedral, and over twenty of some of the most architecturally-valuable
ancient churches in England. It was also the chief town in Devon, where
almost every important organisation had its headquarters. In 1908, The
Probate Registry in Exeter began to collect together all the
historical Probate records they could trace to which they added all
those being newly created as the 20th century wore on. It was a system that worked
well until the Spring of 1942 when every document being stored in the town
was destroyed in a single night.
Click here to