History & Heritage
As a strategic place during WWII, the home of pirates, and popular place for the elite in Victorian society North Devon has a rich and diverse history which is celebrated all over the region. It isn't just the history of piracy and Britain's role in WWII you'll find here either, this is also home to some of the oldest golf links in the UK and saw several of Britain's great romantic poets move there.
Victorian North Devon
North Devon really rose in popularity as a resort for the elite in Victorian society. There is still evidence of this across the region, including in Lynton and Lynmouth where you'll find a Victorian cliff railway - one of the only remaining railways of its kind in the UK. If you love this period of history, make sure to also visit the Tunnels Beaches, in Ilfracombe, which have been there since 1820. The beaches were hand carved and give an insight into Victorian society's thoughts on gender, the tunnels were constructed so that men and women bathers were separated. Today it operates as a tourist attraction and stunning wedding venue.
North Devon and Piracy
North Devon's coastline really leant itself to piracy during the Golden Age. Lundy Island, just off the coast of Ilfracombe, was even commandeered by pirates and ruled by a pirate king! It wasn't just pirates either, the region has a strong maritime heritage, which can be explored throughout the region's museums.
WWII in North Devon
In more modern history, North Devon is probably most famous for its role during WWII. Not only was it of strategic importance, but it was also the site of D-Day rehearsals, the home of American troops and where around 3,000 Jewish refugees settled in the early 40s.
The arrival of the Americans
It was the arrival of the American GIs that saw Devon turn into a hub of training camps.
The British troops who had initially arrived in the towns were replaced with the fresher faced American soldiers who were all new to the war that had been happening in Europe. With them came a new way of life, getting treats, such as gum and candy was a rarity under rationing, but the GIs brought all those things with them. They also introduced the locals to dances which were regularly held in parish halls around the county.
New recruits were trained on the fields of Devon in the hope that it would prepare them for the battlegrounds in France, so it became completely normal to see convoys of troops travelling along the A38. You can visit what remains of these camps. There are a number of former barracks and training camps that can still be seen around the North Devon area and it is here that you’ll find the majority of the events around the time of the anniversary. Head to Appledore, Bideford, Ilfracombe, Combe Martin and Barnstaple to see what remains.
D-Day rehearsals in North Devon
One of the most important events that happened in the area’s history are the preparations for D Day, much of which took place in North Devon. Every year with the anniversary of D Day, events are held to commemorate it in North Devon.
Preparing for D Day: Exercise Tiger
One major war time memory for the people of Devon is Exercise Tiger, the disastrous D Day rehearsal, where the loss of life was actually greater than the actual invasion of Normandy, just a few months later.
The Exercise took place on 28th April 1944, when eight tank landing ships full of US soldiers and equipment converged in Lyme Bay, just off the coast of Devon, they were on route to Slapton Sands, where the rehearsal was to take place. The exercise was so vital to the military strategy, that the commanders used live naval and artillery ammunition to make the experience as real as possible, so the soldiers would be fully prepared for their actual mission. The use of real ammunition was probably what led to the survivors making it back to shore as a group of German E Boats, who were investigating the heavy use of radio traffic in Lyme Bay, intercepted the vessels.
What happened next was horrific for everyone on board, the tank landing ships were heavy, unprotected and slow moving making them easy targets for the German torpedos.
Almost 1,000 American servicemen were killed in the exercise after three of the tanks were hit and many of the men who managed to escape into the sea caught hypothermia from the cold water and wearing life jackets incorrectly. At the time of the exercise, any surviving soldier was threatened with court martial if they revealed the truth about the exercise. Allied Commanders were concerned that any officers that went missing during the attack could have found their way into Nazi hands, could end up revealing the intention for the D Day operation leading them to consider changing their tactics. Memorials for Exercise Tiger can be found at Slapton Sands where a tank marks the memorial site.
Evacuees touched the majority of people in Devon’s towns and villages, they were not just evacuated out of large cities across the country, but also from Plymouth and Exeter into the more rural locations. While this did cause logistical problems in the short term with stories of up to eight children being housed in tiny houses with existing families and overcrowding at local schools. Tiverton’s Middle School had to make room for the girls from Devonport High School when Plymouth suffered under heavy Nazi bombing. One particularly bad moment for the residents of Plymouth was in May of 1941 when there was a succession of raids on Plymouth as the enemy focused their efforts on Britain’s naval bases.
Exeter Hospital was also hit during air raids, with women in the maternity ward being given enamel bowls to hide under should they need protection. And, as with most rural places, occasionally fleeing aircraft would drop bombs over fields to aid their escape, leaving craters all over the landscape.
North Devon's Jewish refugees
During the early 40s, thousands of German and Austrain Jewish refugees arrived in North Devon to begin training for the British Army's Pioneer Corps. With them training at Westward Ho!, Bideford and Ilfracombe. Many of these refugees had been professionals prior to the rise of fascism and were no longer able to practise their profession under the Nuremberg Laws. The result was that for a time, North Devon was a hub of intellectual and culture.
Ancient and modern history
You can find out more about North Devon's diverse history at many of the region's museums, covering everything frmo the area's maritime history all the way back to the iron and bronze age settlements on Exmoor.
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