The War years in West Bay 1939-1945
The War years in West Bay 1939-1945
As we mark the 75th Anniversary of the Second World War we look back at how life changed in West Bay during this period. Like today’s lockdown period ‘normal life’ when it resumed would be very different.
West Bay had a year-round population of two or three hundred; it had primarily been a vacation and camping spot prior to the Second World War. Despite losing its train service in 1930 visitors had continued to flock to the result on day trips, camping in the meadows in tents and wagon, staying in boarding houses or hiring the camping coach. West Bay consisted of a wide variety of houses, cottages and bungalows arranged along the shore roads and up through the hills inland. It featured a church, sand and gravel business, a general store and three public houses.
At West Bay Discovery Centre we have held two Exhibitions featuring aspects of the Second War World – the first was to commemorate Exercise Yukon and the raid on Dieppe, which took place prior the building’s redevelopment in June and August 2017. We also had a very popular exhibition about the GI’s time in West Bay from March 2019 – June 2019. We share some extracts from these exhibitions below :
Defences in West Bay
Dorset was involved in Hitler’s original plans drawn up in May 1940 to invade England. His plan was to invade England using two forces with one landing on the south east coast, with another force landing on the coast between Weymouth and Lyme Regis with the aim to head northwards to capture Bristol.
At every place along the coast where there was access from the beach to the land a series of barriers or stop lines were formed including anti-tank blocks, gun emplacements, barbed wire entanglements and concrete pillboxes were built. Auxiliary requisitioned patrol vessels were used to defend the harbour and the surrounding coastline. A pair of 5.5 guns and their ancillary structures – Battery observation post, searchlights, generators and a magazine – was complete by April 1941. The object of the Battery was to guard the approach channel to West Bay and the beaches. A trawler SS Sunlight was bought to West Bay to act as a blockship, it was moored inside the harbour the plan being to place it at the entrance if an invasion was likely.
West Bay became a restricted area with even those living in West Bay requiring a pass to access certain areas. Mary Bailey, who lived in West Bay, told the story of how her parents had a silver wedding during the war and her aunt wanted to come and visit. Her father covered her up with a blanket in the back of the car to get her in! One family had so many passes issued that they were enough to plaster a wall!
“West Bay was an area where we had our suitcases packed and you had to be prepared to move at any moment, and we never had any evacuees. We had soldiers everywhere. Friends of ours who lived on the cliff overlooking West Bay, they put the gun in their garden and our friends were moved out.”
In June 1942 the shore and cliffs around West Bay and Burton Bradstock were used for Exercise Yukon, a full rehearsal of the raid on Dieppe in 1942.
Around 4,000 Canadian troops and tanks were landed locally. The plan was for them to carry out dummy attacks in West Bay and Bridport then advance as far as Bradpole before re-embarking. However, due to gale-force winds and poor organisation, the first exercise was a disaster. So much so that it was repeated 11 days later – this time more successfully.
Those living in West Bay at the time were moved out for a period of days during the exercise. The officials didn’t realise that the Miller family were still living in the railway station. The Millers had a huge shock when they awoke to see camouflaged helmets going past the window – they thought they were German soldiers! West Bay Methodist Chapel (now West Bay Discovery Centre) was hit by flares during the exercises and so badly damaged that it was shut for the remainder of the War.
Unfortunately, the Dieppe Raid itself also failed and 3,623 of the 6,086 men who made it ashore were killed, wounded, or captured. Many vital lessons were learnt from this raid that were used for the successful D-Day landings that took place two years later.
Local West Bay boy Les Hawkins Served in the Royal Navy as a signalman with the Free French Navy. His ship was the first into the Dieppe raid as it was laying the smokescreen. He was on deck signalling when his ship was hit and although injured carried on signalling. He won the Croix d Guerre with silver star for his heroism. Sheila Meaney from Bridport Heritage Forum father was also in the Navy he took part in Exercise Yukon he was wounded at Dieppe and taken prisoner by the Germans. A plaque to commemorate those who died in Dieppe is now located on the harbour wall near the Black hut and additional information about the battle can be found at the end of West Pier.
GI’s in West Bay
80,000 US troops stayed in Dorset in the period from November 1943 to June 1944 as they undertook training for the D-Day landings.
It is hard to imagine the impact that 200 plus fit young men with their strange accents had on the close-knit, war-weary folk of West Bay, but there are still a number of people, children during the Second World War, who remember the time the GIs were billeted in West Bay.
It seems that one of the first things the young Americans set about doing was to impress these children. On the day F Company of the 16th Infantry Division arrived in November 1943, the local children were out in force for a glimpse of these strangers, and they were not disappointed.
With Britain heavily rationed this new source of sugar was most welcome and soon the phrase, got any gum, chum? became fixed in each child’s vocabulary!
And just as abruptly as they arrived, seven months later, they were trucked out at dawn, on their way to the marshalling areas prior to embarkation at Portland and Weymouth. Arthur Watson, who lived with his parents on West Cliff, remembers that day well, “One day we woke up to unbearable silence. The wonderful, cheerful, generous lynchpins of our young lives had gone.” The Americans were also equally sad to leave as US Infantryman, Don Wilson wrote in his memoirs “I would miss the little harbour, the quaint cottages with their tiny front gardens, the West Bay Hotel with its piano and dartboard and ‘ration day’ and the fish and chips. But, above all, I would miss the British people, young and old, who treated us so well, who lived such simple lives, and yet were, apart from the war, seemingly content.”
The voyage across the English Channel had been rough, cold and uncomfortable for the soldiers in all manner of the 5,000 ships that took part in the armada. The fighting of the Normandy beaches was bloody, many of those men who had been in West Bay lost their lives. D Day was just the start of the liberation of Europe. Over the following months, the Allied Forces continued to move inland towards Germany. The war in Europe ended on 7th May 1945 when the Germans surrendered. On the 8th May VE Day, West Bay was still classified as a secure area and there were no reports in the Bridport News of any celebration events here. However, celebrations took place in Bridport and the neighbouring villages with street parties, fancy dress parades and singing and dancing. There were also services of thanksgiving.
VE Day bought a sense of relief from the horrors and strains of war. It was a start a new way of life with husbands and sons returning home, and families reunited. However, life was still difficult rationing went on for another decade until 1954. The recent lockdown due to Covid19 has given us more of an insight into some of the effects on everyday life in the Second World War.