Launceston and World War Two

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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 for instance commented 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.

Whatever the individual views on the causes of the war, for the country and more importantly for Launceston and its district the whole way of life was about to change. 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
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 of Scarne and the war time nissen huts c.1950's.
Aerial of Scarne and the war time nissen huts c.1950’s.
Scarne aerial.
Aerial view of West Reginal Tractors and the three remaining WW2 Nissen Huts.

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. How, they were initially not sure, but once they arrived at the now deserted market, they saw a pile of rubbish. The plan was hatched that they would burn the condemning evidence, so with rubbish neatly stoked into a pile around the ammo belt, they struck a match. The fire soon took hold with the inevitable consequence. Bullets were soon firing off in all directions and the gang leapt for their lives behind a bank. Before they could gather their thoughts at what to next do, they heard the sound of an approaching ringing of a police bell and speeding right before the lads came a black Austin police car with two constables on board. They quickly stepped out to investigate the gun shots, possibly fearing another shooting incident. However, both constables were soon ducking for their lives as bullets ricocheted all around them. The gang, realising that they would be in serious trouble if found, decided that it would be best if they made less of their presence, making their escape the only viable way, down through a bramble and stinging nettle strewn bank into Tavistock Road. Having made good their escape, they quickly made their way to their respective homes vowing to never mention the incident in fear of being sent to borstal. And this was the last time the incident was ever mentioned until some 74 years later when Stan retold the story.

Craigmore House, Launceston
Craigmore House

Craigmore (above) with its commanding view at the top of Windmill Hill, was used by the Royal Observer Corps for the duration of the war, only being stood down in the July of 1945.
Post & Weekly News, 14 July 1945: Royal Observer Corps. “Stand-Down” Dinner at Launceston.
That “K 2” was indeed a fortunate post in being placed on the roof of Craigmore through the generosity of Mr G and Mrs Peter, was again and again stated at the dinner in the White Hart Hotel, Launceston, on Saturday last, when Head Observer J. H. Lashbrook, who was the generous host, presided over a “stand-down” dinner. The Chairman was ably supported by Obs/Commander N F Bushby, MC.; Group Commandant Obs/Lt. PH Austin; Obs G Peter [toast master]; and L/Obs CFJ Bradford. The Services were represented by Sub/Lt. Raymond Lowey, RNVR.; Capt HJ Wandless, Army Dental Corps; Major Branch, Home Guard; Sub Controller SL Peter, ARP; ex Obs JG Dingle, ROC; ex LAC Leslie Bradford, RAF; and Police Supt. WH Hallet.
After a really magnificent dinner, which was thoroughly enjoyed by all, the Toast Master gave the Loyal Toast, and the ‘Royal Observer Corps’ was given by Mr SL Peter and responded by Obs/Com, NH Bushby, MC., who said that the ROC throughout the country rendered a great service to the RAF, especially during the Battle of Britain, and later when the V-2 appeared.

The Launceston Post was one of the key posts, being in one of the most difficult aircraft lanes, and it was very seldom that one was missed. He asked the observers to consider seriously the question of volunteering for duty during the post-war period, as they would certainly be needed. He congratulated the post on their great luck in being placed on the roof of a house and having such splendid accommodation and hoped they would continue their association and friendships for many years. – – – -(more regarding the house and owners and their generosity with hot drinks and snacks, etc. – –)
A convivial evening followed, when many reminiscences caused much enjoyment; and L/Obs. Bradford spoke of his attempts at mad-reading and plotting ‘planes and origins of sounds of explosions. After three cheers for Mr and Mrs Lashbrook for the use of their house since the post was dismantled, the National Anthem was sung, everyone wanted to be assured that there would be a similar meeting yearly for the future.
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

Launceston’s fallen from the Second World War.

 

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