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Beaminster at war

Jenny Cuthbert describes life on the home front in the town between 1939 and 1945

A joint demonstration by the AFS and ARP draws crowds to the Square

3 September 1939. A fine Sunday morning. The people of Beaminster were about their normal activities, worshipping in church or chapel, working their gardens or preparing the family’s lunch, when the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, made his radio broadcast telling the nation that the country was at war with Germany. Cecil Smith, the manager of the gasworks, was polishing his dining room floor. He wrote, ‘The feeling was one of shock, although we were half expecting it.’

The authorities were prepared. Gas masks and sandbags had been issued, materials purchased to repair war-damaged houses, arrangements made to deal with civilian deaths caused by gas or air raids, and a site for a mortuary identified. By the autumn of 1939 an ARP post had been set up in Beaminster, wardens recruited and equipped. Food and fuel offices were opened in Fore Place to deal with the administration of rationing. The fire brigade, based in a courtyard behind the town offices and later supplemented by an Auxiliary Fire Service unit, prepared for incendiary devices and high explosive bombs. Volunteer fire guards were recruited and fire-watching became another part of the war effort. The town’s pharmacist, Mr J W Sill, was appointed as Gas Identification Officer and lectured on ‘What to do in a Gas Attack’.

A month before war was declared, the Bridport News proclaimed: ‘Billeting of Children in Beaminster District. Response Extraordinarily Good’. This proved to be somewhat premature. By December 1940 another headline, ‘Difficulty Experienced in Billeting. Threat to Prosecute’, was prompted by the Chairman of the War Emergency Executive Committee. ‘A lot of people in Beaminster must be getting unhealthy,’ he said, ‘for many of them have medical certificates to show they are unfit to receive evacuees.’ Nevertheless, by July 1941 Beaminster Rural District hosted 734 children, 451 being unaccompanied.

Schools had to adapt, one by teaching evacuees in the morning and local children in the afternoon, another by relocating classes to an old mill to allow the evacuees use of classrooms. Air raid drill appeared in the curriculum and pupils helped to dig school trenches. A local child remembered, ‘There was a whole school brought down from London – John Perrin School in Acton …. My brother and I sat here whilst Mother went off. Supposedly she was going to come back with two little girls, that’s what she was prepared to look after, but when she came back about ten o’clock at night she came back with four teenage boys.’ For children unused to rural life it was all very strange. A Beaminster evacuee wrote, ‘On my first night I lay hearing animal night calls so unusual for a town boy.’

A parade for War Weapons Week seems to represent all the uniformed organisations in the town

Full blackout was imposed from 1 September 1939. Fortunately, Beaminster folk were used to the dark as the only streetlights were in the central part of the town. There were those, however, who did not manage to comply with the new regulations and a crop of prosecutions at Beaminster’s Petty Sessions were heard with fines imposed on a pedestrian with a bright torch, cyclists with uncovered front lights, car drivers with unobscured headlamps and householders with ineffectively screened windows.

On a stone plinth in the Square stood a German gun captured in the 1914-18 war and commemorating Lieutenant Rhodes-Moorhouse VC. The town’s ARP Controller warned that it was so conspicuous from the air that it was certain to draw enemy attack. The gun was removed and sold for salvage.

‘E’ Company (Beaminster) Home Guard was based at the Drill Hall on Stoke Road. Nearly half the men were World War I veterans with fighting experience. Major Hornor commanded with Leonard Colborne, the town’s postmaster, as sergeant. Shooting practice took place at butts towards Stoke Abbott and grenade practice in sandbagged ‘zigzag’ trenches on Beaminster Down. The lookout post was above the Horn Hill Tunnel. A member of the Home Guard recalled that Major Hornor collected up a huge store of plastic explosive, grenades and sticky bombs which he stored in an open-fronted shed in his garden, no more than twelve feet from the main road. There was enough to send everything within about 40 yards sky high and blow out the windows in a quarter of the town! A mounted patrol of up to ten men led by a local doctor, Herbert Lake, covered the more sparsely populated areas. At least one local lady, Mrs Kathleen Tennant, is known to have ridden with them as they sought to intercept German parachutists.

Four of Beaminster’s land girls in front of their hostel. Left to right: Eirwen Evans, Rosemary Lawford, Marjorie Cheeseman, Mary Andrews. ‘WAEC’ stands for ‘War Agriculture Executive Committee’.

In 1940 the threat of invasion was very real. Secretly, a small group of men had been formed into an innocent-sounding Auxiliary Unit. A local farmer, John Wakely, was recruited to lead a six-man team to carry out sabotage, guerrilla warfare and surprise attacks against the invaders. The resistance unit operated from a secret underground operational base hidden in woodland on the hills above Beaminster and was supplied with explosives and ammunition for fourteen days – the expected useful life of a fighting patrol. Armed with combat knives and revolvers, these men, all farmers or farm workers, knew the local terrain intimately. Over fifty years later their story was finally told. ‘The secret Home Guard was so secret that even our parents didn’t know. When the invasion started, we were to creep out at night and bring down trees to block the tunnel with this explosive that looked like a string of sausages. And then we’d be sent to set fire to all the vehicles, even our parents’, so that no-one could use them.’

The ringing of church bells was forbidden except to warn of invasion, so the key to St Mary’s Church bell tower was taken into police custody. Frank Brooks was appointed as Distress Signal Ringer. The Invasion Signal was rung at 7 am one morning in September 1940 – a false alarm.

The cellars of the White Hart Hotel were offered as a public air raid shelter. One resident recorded the air raid siren on the roof of the police station sounding 360 times between 5 July 1940 and 16 June 1944. Luckily, the only wartime casualties were some cows. The enterprising WI raised fifteen shillings for the Women’s Institute Ambulance Fund by charging to view a bomb crater.

On 16 February 1943 a damaged German Dornier bomber returning from a raid on Swansea crashed into South Buckham farmhouse on a ridge above the town, killing the crew. By some miracle, no-one in the house was injured.

New faces appeared in the town as troops from all parts of the country came and went. A Scottish piper played the bagpipes in the Square every day during his regiment’s stay. For a time the Royal Army Medical Corps was billeted at Bridge House and a Light Aid Detachment had a workshop next to Perry & Perry’s garage in Broadwindsor Road. Southern Command requisitioned the Square as a car park for motor transport from December 1939 – and Beaminster Parish Council resolved to claim rent at £15 per annum. The council was also concerned that ‘the large influx of troops and others’ might be too much for the drains!

The Spitfire bought jointly by Beaminster and Bridport was appropriately named ‘The Brit’

Numbered amongst these ‘others’ were the Land Girls. Gangs of girls were transported by lorry from the Women’s Land Army hostel on the outskirts of the town to work on the farms. They hedged and ditched, drove tractors, cared for livestock, harvested grain and flax, dug potatoes and mangolds. Some Land Girls were employed full-time on individual farms, either living on the farm or lodging in the town. Others came to Horn Park Dairy, a separate training establishment, to be taught milking, but the Beaminster hostel girls only received on-the-job training.

In 1943 American troops arrived. The 16th Infantry Regiment set up their HQ at Parnham House. Quonset huts appeared in the Parnham parkland and on the other side of the Bridport Road. Cannon Company had its motor pool at the top of Fleet Street, the Anti-Tank Company was billeted at the Red Lion Hotel, the Medical Detachment was above a hairdressers at Prout Bridge and soldiers were accommodated all over the town. Beaminster was suddenly a livelier place with more dances and bands at the Public Hall, candy and gum for the children, and many ‘gifts and goodies’, which had not been seen for years in the shops. In May 1944 the town fell quiet again; the Americans had left for the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches.

By the end of the war Beaminster had Dug for Victory, helped buy a Spitfire, given up its saucepans and railings, collected foxgloves to make digitalis, sent parcels to its own who were serving abroad and operated a Meat Pie Scheme for rural workers. On VE Day the bells rang out, the Beaminster Silver Band played in the Square and Mr G Crew, the ARP Controller, arranged a dance in the evening. A church service marked VJ Day. There was a parade with the town crier and the band and then a tea and sports for the children. Total expenditure £27 4s 6d.

[Jenny Cuthbert is Collections Curator at Beaminster Museum. The author thanks all those who contributed information and reminiscences for the Museum’s recent exhibition ‘Beaminster’s Home Front 1939-45′

Charles Smith, one of the mounted section of Beaminster’s Home Guard

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