The War Years


1914 and all that.

At the beginning of 1914 Launceston, like so many other towns in the country had a lot to look forward to. Contact with the outside world was so much easier with the coming of the railway and goods could come and go at a more rapid speed. More importantly, the railway terminus had provided the town with an upshift in its fortunes, after nearly 70 years of stagnation when the assizes were closed and moved to Bodmin in 1835. A new water supply had been built at the Windmill and electric lighting was available from the Launceston Electricity Generating Station at Newport. A new County school had only just opened the previous summer at Windmill Hill, built at a cost of £3000 and with room for 300 pupils. Yet even as the opening of the school was being reported in the Western Times newspaper of 2nd August 1913, there appeared on the same page, an article detailing the fragile relationship between the peoples living in the Balkans. A year and 2 days later that fragility unleashed a storm that encompassed the whole World and affected the lives of so many people forever. The men and women of Launceston and its district did their bit for King and Country, with many paying the ultimate price for victory, but at home much was done to help the national cause as the letters to the Cornish and Devon Post show: (With thanks to Jim Edwards)

Post & News, 15 August, 1914. Borough of Launceston. Patriotic Needlework.
Launceston District Working Party.
Sir, It may be remembered that the following letter was inserted in your paper last year:- “It is suggested by Mrs J C Williams, that a working party should be organised in this district to work should war occur.
The arrangements of the meetings which are being formed in various places exist only on paper at present, and it is hoped may long remain so. The object is that when occasion arises the members
may be called together at once to work from instructions from headquarters on suitable and useful articles for our soldiers and sailors. Mrs Williams will act as president and it is at her request that I ask any who are willing to join to kindly send their names and addresses to me. The vice-presidents are asked, on being called to work, to give 5s., and members 2s 6d., towards expenses and materials.”
In response nearly 40 sent in their names. Unfortunately the time has now come to organise these meetings, and as soon as instructions and patterns can be obtained from headquarters and arrangements made, these who have joined will receive a notice. In the meantime, there may be others who, now that the necessity has arisen, may care to join. Will any such send in their names and subscriptions to me before Wednesday 12th instant?
Yours faithfully, LB Peter, Hon.Sec.
Finance Committee (V.A.D. Cornwall 18), Craigmore, Launceston.

Post & News, 29th August, 1914. Garments For The Wounded.
Letter to the Editor:
Sir, May we suggest that many people have stores of worn sleeping suits, men’s shirts, and other garments suitable, after repairs, for the use of those convalescents leaving the hospitals. We feel sure that many articles of this description have been put aside by their owners for emergencies, and in sent to the undersigned would be gratefully received and put in thorough order for the use of the wounded and others in distress in consequence of the war.
All parcels kindly address to: Mrs Turner, Pen Inney, Lewannick: Julia E. D. Rodd, Trebartha Hall: Susie S Kittow, Tredaule House: Mrs Wramgham, Bowden Derra.
Florence Turner, Pen Inney, Lewannick, Launceston, Cornwall. August 26th.

Post & News, 6th January 1917:
Royal Appreciation of War Hospital Supply Work In The Launceston District.:-
To The Editor of “C & D Post:” –
Dear Sir, I beg to enclose a copy of a letter just received showing the interest H.R.H. Princess Christian is taking in our branch of War Hospital Supply Work. I should be greatly obliged if you would be so good as to publish the letter in your next issue, also the acknowledgement. Yours Faithfully, A.S. Cope, Trelaske. January 2nd.

Schombury House, Pall Mall, S.W., Dec. 31.
Sir, I am desired by her Royal Highness Princess Christian, to write to you and ask you to convey to all those who belong to the Carpentry Branch of the Belgravia W.H.S.D, Launceston Branch, the Princess’s great appreciation of the excellent work they have executed and so untiringly carried on for the benefit of our own wounded and those of our Allies.
The work is of the utmost value, and the Princess is anxious that all should know how much the appreciation all that is being done by this energetic branch in the noble cause of ministering to the needs of the sick and wounded..
Believe me, Yours truly, [signed] Enid du Cane, Lady-in-Waiting.

Launceston Branch of the Belgravia War Hospital Supplies Depot,
Carpentry Depot, Trelaske, near Launceston. Jan 2nd. 1917.
Madam, On behalf of the Launceston Branch of the Belgravia Work Rooms, W.H.S.D., I have the honour to acknowledge your Ladyship’s letter of the 31st, ulto. conveying to the workers here Her Royal Highness Princess Christian’s gracious message.
Will you kindly express to Her Royal Highness our warm thanks for her encouraging words and our high appreciation of the interest she takes in the progress of the work to the success of which she herself so greatly contributes.
Your most obedient servant, A.E. Cope, Hon. Sec. To the Lady-in-Waiting.

Launceston immediately sprung into war action with many men volunteering for service at the War’s beginning. Just as important was the towns infrastructure, with the town hall being used as a Voluntary Auxiliary Detachment Hospital for the wounded for the first few months of the war before it removal to Werrington House under the command of Mrs. J. C. Williams on January 5th, 1915.

Launceston through the First World War 1914-1915   Launceston through the First World War 1916    Launceston through the First World War 1917    Launceston through the First World War 1918

Western Times Saturday 05 September 1914 Western Times Tuesday 08 September 1914

Western Times reports from the 8th and 5th of September 1914. 

The old British School building in Western Road was utilised as a branch of the Belgravia War Hospital Supply Depot, begun by Mr. A. S. Cope and whom acted as its hon. secretary until he left the area in January 1917. Here 18 female and 16 male workers manufactured crutches, bed cradles, and knitters. Launceston was also at the forefront of women helping to replace the men in agricultural. As early as 1916 exhibitions organised by Lady Molesworth St Aubyn, showing the aid women could provide to the home front, took place at Scarne Farm on March 9th (below). Those that took part are:  Mary Franics Vivian Lobb, Treguddick, South Petherwin: May Billing, Exwell, Linkinhorne:  Miss MS Dinnis, Trecarell: Louisa Thomas, Warbstow Cross:  Harriett Baker, Meadwell, Kelly:  Mary E & Alberta A Wood, Sellick, Clawton:  C Reddicliffe, Hill Cottage, Stowford: Letty Wood, Sea View, Tresmorn, St Gennys: Emma Butler, Tatson, Pyworthy:  Mrs Burgoyne, Pendowrie, St Gennys:  Mrs Hodge, St Gennys: Mary Bartlett, Tamar Villa, Tavistock Rd:  Mrs Jury, Northgate St:  Edith Mary Hancock, Newham, Otterham:  Emily Gay, Well, North Tamerton:  Mary Pearse, Higher Dizzard: Mrs Bailey, Grinnacombe, Broadwood:  Mary Skitch, Rosecare:  S Webber, Hill Park Cottage, North Tamerton:  Mrs Toll, Grinnacombe:  Beatrice Evely, Down House, Kelly.

Women compette in a hedge laying competition at Scarne Farm, Launceston during the First World War. Women compette in a hedge laying competition at Scarne Farm, Launceston during the First World War.Women compette in a hedge laying competition at Scarne Farm, Launceston during the First World War. Women compette in a hedge laying competition at Scarne Farm, Launceston during the First World War.

These four images were taken at the 1915 Scarne Farm demonstrations organised to show the skills of female labour and how they could aid the war effort. The King’s very own farm at Stoke Climsland was at the fore front of hiring women to fulfill the role left by the men departing to the front.

Miss C. Matheson at work for the Womens Volunteer Land Army at Home Farm, Stoke Climsland in 1917
Miss C. Matheson at work for the Womens Volunteer Land Army at Home Farm, Stoke Climsland in 1917.

The terrible plight of ordinary Belgium’s facing the might of the German army, caused many to take flight from their homes. Writing home from his hospital bed after being wounded in December 1914, shoeing-Smith Alfred Vosper said of the Belgian’s nightmare; 

The plight of the Belgian refugees was simply terrible, remarks Mr Vosper. Scores were to be met with every day, tramping from the battle area. On one occasion an old woman of about eighty was seen, being pushed along in a small cart by her son, who was himself grey-headed, whilst all their parcels and clothes were packed o the top of the old lady. The roads, which were like ploughed fields, were full of men, women and children with cycles, to which to which were attached their sole worldly belongings, tied in small parcels, their owners not knowing where to go. Babies were seen seated in small boxes on wheels used as a substitute for perambulators. In the 35th standing camp, many refugees passed their time, coming down at intervals when the kind-hearted soldiers saw that they did not want of food, going without themselves rather than the unfortunate people should be short.”

The town itself took up the mantle of helping by offering a safe haven for about 60 refugees in the October of 1914. Initially, twenty two were chosen at Exeter by the Mayoress and Sister John Berchmons of St Joseph’s Convent, and Mrs T C Reed, who were brought by train to Launceston. Seven of the party that arrived were put up at St Joseph’s Convent, namely: Madame Donnay, Madame Tengels, both from Antwerp, Mademoiselle Wauthor, Ostend, and a family named Pitois, consisting of a mother and four children – Philomel (16), Julia (14), Joseph (10), and Melanue (8). The father, a carpenter, died six years ago. This family witnessed some of the terrors of the attack on Malines. Mde Donnay left Antwerp at midnight, when the bombardment opened and walked for sixteen hours. She was going to take a train, but before she could do so, the train was struck by a shell, four being killed and several wounded. Among the other refugees were an Antwerp policeman named Meuleman, and his wife and two daughters – Julia (16), and Bertha (11), who stayed with Mr and Mrs Cartwrights, the Ferns, St Stephens Hill.

Over time various houses were made available to the families throughout the area. The Belgium’s soon became important members of the community right up to their departure on January 25th, 1919.  As well as offering this refuge, the town and surrounding parishes raised a total of £2,497 to help the Belgium families who came to the town with very little of their own possessions. Over the 4 years, the Belgium’s were also able to find work, earning a combined wage of £709. 

In the end 83 men from the town, 10 percent of the total who went to war, fell during those fateful four years, with many more receiving wounds and or being taken prisoners. In 1921 the impressive memorial (below left ) was erected on the site of the Butter Market with the foundation stone being laid by the then Prince of Wales. A standing monument to commemorate the ‘war to end all wars.’ 

Launceston and District’s Fallen from both World Wars pdf.

war-memorial-dedication             war-memorial-dedication-in-1921

Unfinished business.

With just a little over twenty years passing, the country was once again at War with Germany which must have been a difficult situation for many to deal with considering the carnage and sacrifices made in the previous war. Well over 100 men from Launceston district gave their lives in what was supposed to be the war that ended all wars. However, the seeds for the second world war were already sown in 1918, and not just in the flawed Treaty of Versailles which many on both sides felt inadequate. The French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who felt the restrictions on Germany were too lenient fortuitously predicted that “this (Treaty) is not peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.”
The treaty certainly did nothing to conciliate with Germany and in later years many felt the Germans to be within their own right to ignore the treaty Ramsay MacDonald commenting after Hitler’s re-militarisation of the Rhineland in 1936, that he was “pleased” that the Treaty was “vanishing”. This ‘guilt’ was played very well by Hitler with the result that Germany was soon a strong military force.
The Treaty of Versailles a failure as it was, on its own didn’t contribute to the 2nd world war for we also have to look back at the general feeling of many Germans in 1918, particularly the returning soldiers. The surrender had taken place with the German army still on French and Belgium soil and for many, they felt undefeated. There was a perception for many that the country had been stabbed in the back, that it was the home front that had lost the war. General Eric Ludendorff was a strong proponent of the ‘stab in the back’ theory, citing that Social Democrats and leftists were to blame for Germany’s humiliation he also blamed the business element (especially the Jews), as he saw them turn their backs on the war effort by letting profit, rather than patriotism, dictate production and financing. This sense of injustice was nutriment that fed the Nazi’s rise. This is a rather simplistic explanation to the cause of the war, but once you put the depression of the early 1930’s into the mix there is little doubt how strong an attribute this all played in the lead up to 1939.
However, the individual views of the causes of the war, for the country and more importantly for Launceston and its district the whole way of life was changed.
In World War Two Launceston became a large military centre, with Army units stationed throughout the district; two camps were set up in the town, one at Scarne and the other at Pennygillam. Hotels and houses were commandeered to house secret units, in Dunheved Road were the headquarters of the Royal Navy, Army intelligence, Royal Air Force and planning units, all making plans, firstly, for the defence against German forces invading the coast, then for the coming D-Day invasion of Europe by British and Allied forces when the Americans arrived in the area.
For this invasion, thousands of tons of ammunition, food, clothing, fuel, tanks and means of transport were brought into the area, dumps being set up in fields and woods, etc, all around the area and near the railways. Many of these dumps in sheds, or disguised as haystacks, barns or rises in the land. With this preparation, the many Americans arrived to enhance the planning operations, and to provide the necessary manpower for the handling of the stores, both in the storing and the maintenance and for the swift loading for onward movement to the many ports on the peninsula.
As in WWI, when many horses, complete with harness in many cases, were conscripted for service, guard dogs, active mousing cats, homing pigeons and the likes were put into factories and food dumps, etc., to keep down losses by theft, contamination, and the Western weather.

Above Launceston Homeguard in 1945. Back row, extreme right, W.S. Cottle. Middle row, 5th from left, W.H.(Bill) Jones, agricultural engineer and blacksmith. Front row, 5th from right, W.T.(Bill) Gynn, postman and part-time farmer. Photo courtesy of Chris Gynn.

Above Launceston Homeguard in 1945. Back row, extreme right, W.S. Cottle. Middle row, 5th from left, W.H.(Bill) Jones, agricultural engineer and blacksmith. Front row, 5th from right, W.T.(Bill) Gynn, postman and part-time farmer. Photo courtesy of Chris Gynn.

Homeguard Map

One of the big changes for Launceston after 1942 was the influx of US army service men that were billeted at Scarne cross No. 406 (Mainly Administration) and Pennygillam No. 257(Living quarters). These camps were already in existence on a temporary base due to original use for refugees. The policy of segregation that existed in the USA was continued with the Black soldiers being placed in different buildings to the White soldiers at Pennygillam. This segregation continued within the town as an infamous incident one Saturday night on the 25th of September 1943 proved.
Five black GI’s from an ordnance unit were told to return to camp by MP’s when it was found that they did not have passes, forcing them to miss the local dance. Being unhappy at this request they became quite belligerent with one threatening an MP with what’s in his pocket. But eventually they did leave however, the next night eighteen black soldiers entered the lounge bar of a pub in the town. White soldiers were drinking there too and the barman told the blacks that they couldn’t be served in that part of the house. The black GI’s clearly took umbrage at this as although they reluctantly left, they returned back into the town later on this time armed with tommy guns, rifles and bayonets.
Two MP’s challenged them and ordered them to return to their barracks which the black GI’s ignored and began to open fire causing mayhem. Bullets rang around and people ran in all directions. The two MP’s ended up with wounds to their legs. Fourteen black GI’s were arrested and court marshalled in Paignton with the charge of mutiny and attempted murder. Sentences of either death or life imprisonment were handed out after a three day hearing. It is not know if the death sentences were carried out, but many were still serving time some years after the war.
Sid Broad, who then worked for Truscotts (opposite Town Hall) at the time, found one of the Tommy guns used in the gun fight the following Monday morning hidden in a gutter above the back door to the garage (they used to keep a spare door key in the gutter, so whoever got to work first could open up). Bullets marks littered the town with Lloyds Bank in square wearing a couple and for years after a thick glass window of the Orange Tea Rooms in Church Street bore a bullet hole.
David Thomas  remember’s “ I was only twelve when the yanks came to Lanson but I had five sisters all older than me and the yanks used to swarm around our house like bees around honey. Father loved it because they never came calling without bringing The Chesterfield cigarette or Lucky Strike and some candy for me and me younger brother, then every so often they would arrange a party at Scarne camp where we would get ice cream. Imagine that lovely ice cream what a luxury.” Ann Caddick can also remember the Scarne parties “I remember going to a party at the Pennygillam camp given by the Americans. We had to take a spoon with us to eat the ice cream – a real treat for us.” Terry Duke, who was about 10 years old when the Americans came to the town, remembers the black GI’s singing at St. Stephens Church and “boy could they sing” he said. He also remembers St. Stephens Church Hall being commandeered and used as the American Post Office. Terry’s father won the Military Medal during the Normandy landings in 1945.

P.F.C. William A. Wilch served at Pennygillam Camp in 1944 aged 20, and his son Stephen J Wilch wrote a book based on his letters home. The book has the title “Don’t Just Kill Them, MURDER ‘EM. “Shoot Pee Wee, Just Shoot.” Here transcribed are the letters covering his time leading up to and at Launceston.
‘2 days after his 19th birthday Wilch entered US Army at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, for 13 weeks training at Camp Robinson, with ‘best friend Burton E Burfiend’.
Wilch wrote home letter in July 1943: “I’m in Company A, 335 Engineer Regiment.”He was training at Camp Young, California: July ’43 was moved to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to join the “Fighting 69th Division” near Hattiesburg, Mi. His home was at Middletown, Ohio.After training in various camps and States, he was sent via Halifax, Nova Scotia [aboard the Mauritania] to land at Liverpool. Late November ’43, was moved by truck to Pennygillam Camp to join the 2nd Squad, 2nd. Platoon, ‘E’ Company, 115 Infantry Regiment. He trained alongside 2 other regiments in the area – 116th and 175th Regiments, 29th Division, mainly from Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, and also other States. The division has history dating to the Civil War as the ‘Blue & Greys’.Names he cites in letter home: Sgt Siti; Pte’s. George Sucharck? Clonde Weimer, William Phillips, Steve Barnelks, Perry Tomlin, Willia Reffit, Burton Burfeind, and Vincent Mornelli.The tallest man in the platoon – Perry Tomlin- named Wilch “Pee Wee”.“Long marches and hikes with full field packs on Bodmin Moors. There was a large hill they regularly ordered us to quickly climb to the top. The hill was called “Brown Willy”, very tough.”November ’43 – “England is a pretty cold damp place. Had a little snow the other day. I’m hungry for some candy or pie. We’re hungry all the time it seems. We are rationed to five ounces of candy a week, and a lot more food.”In December wrote “Saw “The Plainsman” with Gary Cooper. Met a nice English family Christmas Eve – they wanted to know everything about us. One English lady reminded me of my grandmother. I knew them through another soldier who married one of their relations. A lot of GI’s are marrying the English girls, so they must be O.K.”The censorship officer was 1st Lt. Richard A Donnelly, from Chicago, Illinois.4th January letter: “I remember last year I went with Bill Lindsay, Frank Farmer and the rest of the boys, to the Midnight Show on New Year’s Eve.” [several photos in book taken at Pennygillam – all with names. Yanks were permitted cameras, Brits could be shot if found with one, Germans were issued with them.] April 1st: “I was one year man in the Army on March 10th. I’m now Private First Class [PFC}. In readiness for invasion of Europe, the soldiers in Launceston and other camps were moved to a confinement area – put in quarantine from the outside world – security very high – no written letters permitted – no mention of ‘Operation Overlord”. General Charles H Gerhardt C.O. 29th Division.” PFC Wilch and others of the regiment spent the night on board a LCI – Landing Craft Infantry – and due to the bad weather the next day and night. Some were allowed to paddle a rubber boat around the LCI as relief and exercise – a sniper was appointed to watch for anyone attempting to land or to speak to others and to shoot before they could.
Near the end of the war in Europe Wilch was badly wounded and was sent to a Hospital near Oxford; when recovered he was partially disabled by a bad foot, and was sent to a German POW camp as a guard. Several stories of his experiences around Britain and in Ireland, before he was returned to England and later repatriated to the USA.’
Below you can see the West Regional Agricultural implement dealership buildings which were built upon the old US army barracks from world war two. To the rear left there can be seen the last three remaining nissen huts. The Scarne Barracks housed the white GI’s. This is now the site of the Lidls supermarket.

aerial-view-of-the-scarne-nissen-huts        scarne

Behind Tannery Cottage at Town Mills, there were the buildings of the Tannery. Fred Davey can remember during the war that they were taken over by the Army. He can’t remember the order they were there, but the American army had a heavy goods repair depot there with black troops and white officers. There was also an RASC Supply Platoon. The troops lived away except 3 RASC Sergeants who slept in one of the out buildings and Fred’s mother cooked for them. Stanley Tout can remember stumbling upon an ammunition dump in the caves down in the woods at the bottom of Landlake road. He recollects ‘Our gang Me, my Brother Colin, Peter and Bob Wicks with others stumbled up-on them one day. We were pounced upon by friendly G I’s guards who gave us some fun by firing their rifles at targets we placed in the field opposite.’ Another memory Stan has with his gang was an incident that if they had been caught would have landed the whole gang in serious trouble. The American navy also had a presence in the town, with their local HQ at Trenuth in Dunheved Road (USS Trenuth) and an ammunition dump in the GPO garages at the top of Race Hill. It is here that the gang decided to investigate, and although under guard, the lads with their local knowledge managed gain entry. An aladdins cave fell before their amazed eyes as they quietly studied the warehouse and their attention was drawn to the numerous machine gun ammo belts. They hatched a plan to take one of these belts as a trophy and made good their escape. Stan recalls that he and the other boys walked down Race Hill each swapping the belt draped over their necks. It was only when having taking the item home and in the cold light of day that it was realised that it wasn’t something they could just hand back, so, at the following weekend on the Saturday evening, it was decided to slip down to the cattle market to dispose of the ammo.

Link to Bert Tremain’s oral memory of his time with the DCLI during the Second World War.

From the Cornish and Devon Post Dec 30 1944: Lt. Roy D Pugsley, RA. and Sgt Geoffrey Richard Stick, both of Launceston, have been granted
the MBE and MM respectively, for gallant and distinguished services in Italy.

L to R Ken, Ron, Ernest and Jack Hillman. Photo courtesy of Jean Harris
Family at War L to R Ken, Ron, Ernest and Jack Hillman. Another of the family, Gerald, paid the ultimate price for his country when ‘HMS Anking,’ the ship that he was serving aboard was sunk by Japanese destroyers on the4th March 1942.   Photo courtesy of Jean Harris



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