"Don't mention the war"

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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

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.


The centre of Exeter, May 1942.

The 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.

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