Sunday, 15 February 2009

Colyton at War

Colyton at War is not a book I would have read --- or would ever have heard of --- were it not that I live in the small East Devon town which is its focus. Local histories can be wildly variable in quality; this one is well-written and well-edited. I was intrigued to see how the author, Geoff Elliott, would manage to fill 150 pages about a town on which just one bomb fell (and failed to explode) during the Second World War. Exeter, 20 miles west, suffered badly in the Baedeker raids; and 40 miles further west than that, my grandmother and her family took their chances a stone's throw from Devonport Dockyard. Colyton's rural idyll must have seemed a world apart.

Great emphasis is placed on those few moments of drama: a German bomber shot down a mile away, its crew captured by local farmers; a raid on Seaton (3 miles south) in which five people were killed; more German planes flying overhead on their way to bomb Bristol. However, the book is more important for the testimonies describing everyday life, which passed unaffected by the war except for the mostly welcome intrusions of evacuees and friendly prisoners-of-war. Colyton Could Take It, and seemed to enjoy it. One local farmer states that 'Whether it was pigs or rabbits, there weren't any shortages of meat. Compared with the rations endured by people in the cities, this was a land of plenty.' Accompanying his account is a photograph of happy children holding up a dozen dead rabbits. The grown-ups had fun, too. In one military exercise, Colyton's Home Guard outwitted its Seaton counterparts, capturing that southern outpost by riding past its unsuspecting defenders on the tram.

The area had its poet: C. Day-Lewis lived a mile away in Musbury. One of his Home Guard responsibilities, his son Sean recalls, was to keep watch along the Axe Valley. (The pillboxes which still line the valley are the remains and reminder of a belief that Seaton was a likely invasion point for the German army.) 'All over the countryside', Day-Lewis wrote, 'Moon-dazzled men are peering out for invaders.' As he later admitted in his autobiography, 'if the Germans had landed, I dare say we should have been scattered like chaff.'

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