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With the ATS in Weymouth

After re-reading The Trumpet Major in the 1970s, Anne Barrett jotted down some reminiscences of wartime Weymouth which her daughter, Gay Doggart, recently discovered. Here she introduces them and provides a postscript.

My mother spent five years at Sherborne School for Girls, where her love of the Dorset countryside was first kindled. After school and the obligatory ‘finishing’, she persuaded her father to pay her fare out to China, where her elder brother was stationed in Canton. There she met and fell in love with a young captain in the Lincolns, Myles Boxer.
In August 1933 Myles and Anne were married in Portsmouth Cathedral and between postings made their base at Myles’s family home, Conygar, in the village of Broadmayne. Here she fell completely under the spell of the county while walking over the hills to Osmington Mills or around Hardy’s Monument, or visiting friends at Athelhampton. All the old romantic memories from childhood, the naval tales of Nelson and Thomas Masterman Hardy and the novels of Thomas Hardy fed this passion within her.
Then came the war and with Myles away more and more, my mother joined the ATS in Weymouth, travelling to and from Conygar each day. It was during these early days of the war with all the pent-up fear and excitement that was in the air that Anne met my father, Kenyon Barrett, a major in the Dorsets, and fell head over heels in love with him. Disgrace! One did not at that time forsake one’s husband and run off with someone else. However, Myles was very forbearing and they remained friends; indeed, my mother remained at Conygar until her second marriage in August 1940.

ATS in Weymouth in the war
An inspection of the ATS in Weymouth early in the war. Anne Barrett is in the front rank in the foreground.

Recently I re-read The Trumpet Major and the setting of a South Dorset preparing for invasion brought back vividly my experiences in the Weymouth area during the early part of the last war. In the summer of 1940, after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, it was commonly expected in Dorset, as elsewhere, that Hitler (fully as great a bogey as Napoleon) was going to invade England. Lyme Regis was rumoured as a likely spot.

At the time I was in the ATS. Our HQ was in a back street in Weymouth and we had girls at the Red Barracks there, on various bits of the harbour fortification, such as Northern Arm, and at the Verne Citadel on Portland. I was engaged to be married to Kenyon Barrett, a major in the Dorsetshire Regiment; he was then stationed at Biggin Hill in Kent. So firmly did we all believe in invasion that we made arrangements to meet – for we also believed that all communication would subsequently break down – in a certain part of the woods where we had courted, on Puddletown Heath.

Almost every day that summer, until the Battle of Britain in the air turned the tide, there would be alarms and rumours of landings: someone had seen parachutes dropping on Ridgeway Hill (until they turned out to be sheep), detours were made because the landings were said to have been made on certain roads. We had to pack small bags with our essential washing things and so on in case we were trapped in the office; I was only on local service then, and working daily from home at Conygar, Broadmayne. Spy fever was rife, and a piece of mirror or tin found by the roadside was a signal to enemy aircraft. Washing hung out on a Tuesday, when the Monday had been perfectly fine, was deeply suspect, too. We were instructed, if confronted with a possible spy, either to ask him how tall he was (it was confidently expected he would answer in metres) or stamp on his foot and see in what language he swore – if a Teutonic curse should then be forthcoming, a bag of pepper was recommended to shake in his eyes!

wartime pillbox near Weymouth i
This wartime pillbox at the Nothe
was still there in the late 1970s

It was hard to remember Weymouth as a holiday resort as the beach sprouted barbed wire and all references to the town’s name were removed. Our girls appreciated the efforts of the Weymouth townspeople to welcome them and make them feel at home. The Palladium Cinema near Town Bridge had been turned into a Services Club and there were other places in the town made available where we could go and relax and get away from the military atmosphere.

Weymouth Harbour, next to the beach where The Trumpet Major’s King used to bathe, was full of drama. For a few days at the beginning of 1940 it was full of neutral shipping waiting, I suppose, to be sorted out, a forest of strange-coloured funnels and unknown flags. After Dunkirk, some of the small ships rescuing the BEF put in there. Desperate for news, one threaded through the heaps of weary men, tired to the ultimate degree of tiredness, some asleep on their feet: there is no name for the expression in their eyes. Even so, they tried to comfort. ‘Lincolns? Oh yes, they’ve got away all right.’ ‘Major …? Yes ‘e’s all right, I saw ‘im.’ Ships, heaps of chains, anchors and exhausted men were piled along the jetty where the pleasure boats used to go across to the Channel Islands on holiday.

A few days later, the English soldiers were gone and the French ones came, evacuated from the east of France to be put in again further west, to try and stem the advance – I shall never forget them. Still in their steel helmets, still with their rifles, absolutely without speaking, they sat along the front in rows like seabirds perching and stared and stared at France. Then they too were gone. Later, Channel Islanders who were evacuated to England arrived at that same jetty: the receiving centres for them before they were distributed were in the local cinemas. Dutch and Belgian civilian refugees were also landed at Weymouth, often still clutching the bicycles which had carried them to the coast and safety.

ATS in Weymouth in the war
These Weymouth ATS girls seem to be keeping cheerful. Anne Barrett is standing on the other side of the corporal.

Bombing was the next thing, for the West Country, on the way to Bristol, was one of the first areas to suffer it. One of the first Messerschmitts was shot down near Chickerell. A ship burning slowly in the harbour was a familiar sight: in lighter vein, two wardens or some such, caught on Chesil Beach in an air raid, were seen with their heads under their car for protection, their steel helmets held protectively over their bottoms which still stuck out! Two of our girls were caught in an attack on the Verne, losing a leg and an arm. An army sergeant was blown flat on his face by blast and then picked up again by the next one, his expression and his language beyond compare.

painting of HMS Foylebank
John Hamilton’s painting of HMS Foylebank
under attack in Portland Harbour

One of the very first bombing raids was the one in which Leading Seaman Jack Mantle won a VC, standing by his gun on HMS Foylebank in Portland Harbour as the bombs and bullets from a squadron of attacking Stukas raked the ship and mortally wounded him.

The Home Guard assembled in little pubs all over the county. They were classically commemorated in an inscription in – I think – the inn at Folly (though it may have been Mappowder). By 1942 I was expecting a baby, Gay. She was born at Upwey in a little thatched cottage next to Upwey Manor, in Stottingway Street. Hearing the horrible, undulating wail of the air raid warning sirens and then the crump of bombs not too far away, I was frightened. Then, in the silence that followed, I heard the comforting noise of someone clearing their throat beneath my bedroom window and the re-assuring crunch of boots as the Home Guard patrol moved on up the street.

A shot-down Nazi plane in Weymouth in the war
A shot-down Nazi plane near Weymouth

My parents dreamed of and planned for living between Dorchester and Weymouth after the war, near their romantic trysting place of Egdon Heath. Sadly, for financial reasons they ended up in a rented flat in Paddington. However, all our holidays were spent in Dorset. Family and regimental friends had homes in Charminster, Alton Pancras, Dorchester and Lulworth Cove and we still went to Conygar, now lived in by Myles’s brother, Charles, and his family. My mother hated London and, escaping into her dreams, she started to write children’s books. Two of these books, Stolen Summer (the tale of a widowed mother and daughter leaving London and caretaking an empty country house in Dorset) and The Journey of Johnny Rew (the tale of a fostered boy in London running away west to find his roots) were set in the Dorset countryside in and around Weymouth. Sadly, my mother never lived in Dorset again; after this second marriage too broke up, she moved to East Sussex and continued writing and reviewing books for the Times Literary Supplement as well as a stint working on scripts for the Children’s Film Foundation. She died in 1986 and my husband and I scattered her ashes up near Hardy’s Monument for her final homecoming.

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