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Dorchester — The county town at war

Colin Churchill’s recollections of Dorchester during World War 2

A poor-quality photograph but a powerful image as a Hurricane pursues an Me 109 across Dorchester with the Keep prominent in the skyline

In 1939, Dorchester was a small bustling county market town. Its population of around ten thousand was well catered for by a variety of shops and businesses: market days were Wednesdays and Saturdays and early closing was on Thursdays. Life was good. All this was to change when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast to the nation at 11.15 am on 3 September to tell us that we were at war with Germany.

Even before the declaration, requests for ARP wardens were made by way of posters and from the town’s cinemas. The Women’s Voluntary Service for Civil Defence (WVS) was formed in Dorchester in May 1939 (it soon became known as ‘Widows, Virgins and Spinsters’!) and plans were made for the town to receive 1600 children evacuated from London, with the reception area set up at Maud Road School.

The Observer Corps post at Poundbury on a wintry day

Conscription began in April 1939 and gas masks were available for collection from distribution depots around the town. We even had the first blackout exercise – an imaginary air raid with mustard gas being dropped in North Square. For several days afterwards, members of the public reported a smell of gas – but they were all mistaken, as no gas of any kind had been used. Many pamphlets were published, such as ‘The Protection of Your Home Against Air Raids’ and ‘Your Food in War-time’.

When war was declared, no-one knew quite what to expect, but we gradually got used to identity cards, gas masks, shortages, food rationing, the blackout, queuing and coping with all the evacuees from London. The period up to Dunkirk was known as the ‘Phoney War’, but precautions against the predicted air attacks were taken by setting up air raid sirens and building air raid shelters.

Four American officers at the tented camp at Poundbury. The one on the right may be in distinctly un-military garb, but at least he remembered his cap!

The evacuation of our troops from Dunkirk in May 1940 brought a sense of reality to the war, and the residents of Dorchester witnessed for themselves the exhausted soldiers pouring into the town. Gifts, free baths, food and drink were showered on the survivors, who filled the town’s streets and buildings. The evacuation was a wonderful achievement, but we were brought down to earth by the new PM, Winston Churchill, who reminded us that war was not won by evacuations and that Dunkirk represented a colossal military disaster. He went on to talk of the dangers of invasion.

This led to frantic work in Dorchester preparing anti-invasion devices – large concrete blocks known as ‘dragon’s teeth’, anti-tank ditches, pillboxes, bridges prepared with explosive charges and large holes into which could be inserted iron bars, barbed wire everywhere and poles placed in fields to prevent enemy gliders and planes from landing. Dorchester, being a garrison town, was always packed with soldiers and the Parachute Regiment was just outside at Piddlehinton Camp.

After France formally surrendered on 2 June 1940, Britain was left alone to fight Germany, and Dorchester police station was jammed by male volunteers to join the newly-formed civilian defence force. It was to be called the ‘Local Defence Volunteers’ (LDV) – but was quickly dubbed ‘Look, Duck and Vanish’. The name was changed to the ‘Home Guard’ on 31 July 1940.

Although people born after the war often base their views of the Home Guard on the TV series, Dad’s Army, these were extremely brave men who initially paraded with broomsticks for rifles and who would take up their defence positions with .22 rifles and even pitchforks. Less well-known but equally brave were Home Guard members who volunteered to form a British Resistance Movement. Their role was to occupy ‘hides': after letting the enemy pass they were to re-emerge and do as much damage as they could behind the lines.

Luckily, no invasion came, but German documents captured after the war showed that the intended invasion force was to have landed between Weymouth and Lyme Regis, thrust northwards through Dorchester and consolidated. In addition, glider-borne troops were to be landed on the outskirts of Dorchester.

A A Luftwaffe photograph indicating the radio station on Bridport Road (A) and Poundbury Camp (B) as possible targets. In fact, neither was bombed.

With Warmwell aerodrome but a few miles from Dorchester, the town’s residents witnessed the Battle of Britain, which lasted from 10 July until 31 October 1940. We would see the Spitfires and Hurricanes take off from Warmwell and soon afterwards hear the air raid sirens. The small silver specks of the German aircraft appeared, with white vapour trails billowing out behind and their engines making their distinctive drone. Then came the crack of the AA guns placed in and around Dorchester, their shells exploding in puffs of smoke like cotton wool. Suddenly the sky would be criss-crossed with vapour trails as our planes attacked, and we would hear the distant sound of machine-gun fire both from our planes and from those of the Germans. Shot-down planes would fall out of the sky and we would count the number of parachutes, hoping that there would be a cluster – this would signify that they came from a German bomber. Once the siren had sounded the ‘All Clear’, the returning English aircraft would be counted, with the hope that the total would tally with the number which had taken off. We also counted the planes’ ‘victory rolls’.

During the war Dorchester had 784 air raid warnings and was hit by 32 high explosive bombs, one oil bomb and approximately 400 incendiary bombs – but the only casualties were three slightly injured and 254 buildings damaged. But life went on in the town: there were dances, two cinemas and of course the many public houses. We also listened on the wireless to such popular shows as ‘ITMA’ and ‘Workers’ Playtime’ and the all-important news items.

A sign in South Street pointed the way to the large shelter in Trinity Street

Although the German invasion did not materialise, we did get a friendly invasion from the US Army! Their main force arrived in the town on 8 November 1943 – the US 1st Infantry Division (the ‘Big Red One’) – and we were introduced to peanut butter, instant coffee, Coca-Cola, canned tomato juice and doughnuts with holes in the centre. They were very polite, addressing everyone as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ with a language all their own and we had to get used to the sidewalk (pavement), trucks (lorries), gas (petrol) and candy (sweets). They were welcomed by many Dorchester girls – and their mothers – but some residents were upset by their attitude of ‘OK you guys, you can relax now, we’re here to win the war for you’, apparently ignoring the fact that the British had stood alone against Germany for many years. The build-up of the American forces just before D-Day was enormous, with every road in the town packed nose to tail with vehicles. It was later estimated that 149,000 vehicles travelled along Weymouth Avenue during D-Day and a few days thereafter.

I first knew the invasion was about to start when, on the night of 5 June 1944, I saw Lancaster bombers flying over Dorchester towards the coast. Then, in the early hours of 6 June, hundreds more aircraft flying comparatively low, many towing gliders, took more than two hours to fly over. They had taken off from nearby RAF Tarrant Rushton and were carrying troops of the British 6th Airborne Division who were to be the first troops to land on French soil on D-Day. It was an unforgettable sight. Later, on Sunday 17 September 1944, the skies of Dorchester were filled with more British aircraft, this time carrying soldiers of the British 1st Airborne Division on Operation Market Garden, their target Arnhem. A second airlift took place the following day.

Those of us who lived in Dorchester during World War 2 will remember the celebrations of VE Day on 8 May 1945 and of VJ Day on 15 August the same year. The war was won and Dorchester had survived, but life would never be the same for those residents of the town who had lived through it. Dorchester had certainly done its part in helping to win the war, but the cost of victory was high: 83 Dorchester men had been killed and many more wounded or imprisoned in German or Japanese POW camps.

[Colin Churchill is the author of Dorchester versus Hitler, published by Dovecote Press.]

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