The GI’s In Bideford
7th December 2011 was the 70th Anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the action that led to the Americans entering the Second World War. To celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the arrival of GIs in Bideford in 1942 we gathered together, to share with future generations, some reminisces of local people who lived here during the war about their life in Bideford when the American GI’s were here and the important part that Bideford played during the war.
1942 the American GI’s arrive in Bideford.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on the morning of 07 December 1941 brought America into World War 2 and in early 1942 the first GIs, named after their General Issue uniform, arrived in Bideford.
Initially a small number of GIs were stationed in and around Bideford on military experimental work and in the chain of North Devon radar stations detecting incoming enemy aircraft. As the plans for an allied invasion of Europe began taking shape increased numbers of American troops became involved in many diverse top-secret projects such as testing landing craft, training in underwater combat as “frogmen”, removing underwater obstacles, waterproofing vehicles and the ill-fated Great Panjamdrum (surf the internet for this one!)
It is believed that the Prime Minster at the time, Sir Winston Churchill and General, later President of the USA, Ike Eisenhower visited Bideford to view the top secret work taking place.
In 1943 training for D-Day began in earnest and because the North Devon and Normandy coastlines are very similar the American troops taking part in the landings were all trained on the beaches and surrounding hills of Woolacombe, Saunton and Croyde.
Literally thousands of GI’s came and went through Bideford during the second world war, this was due to the fact that Bideford had been chosen to play an important part of the Ordnance Service for the preparation of D Day. In early 1943 Commanding Officer Lt Colonel Frank Holmes of the 72nd Ordnance Battalion, lead the arrival of the 72 Ordnance HQ & Detachment Unit, the Medical Detachment, 107th Ordnance Medium Maintenance Company and 33rd Ordnance Bomb Disposal units to Bideford to set up the Bideford Ordnance Experimental Station Depot O-617. This was to be used for the experimental development of waterproofing of vehicles and all equipment that would be used by the troops in the D day landings. Waterproofing was recognised as one of the biggest problems facing Ordnance during the pre invasion period, it was necessary to find a way to counteract the damaging effects of sea salt and water to the vehicles and the equipment that would be used when landing on the beaches. The Engineers, Quartermaster, Signal and Chemical Warfare Service sent their experts in order to develop the waterproofing processes on the special purpose equipment assigned to their various services. Therefore many of the GI’s that were based in Bideford were qualified tradesman such as car mechanics, welders and technicians and also perhaps a little surprisingly film cameramen from Hollywood. Once the waterproofing process had been perfected the Bideford Depot O-617 became a training centre for the instruction of key personnel on waterproofing of vehicles and equipment. ETOUSA ( European Theatre Operation USA), records states that during the period from 8th December 1943 until 8th July 1944 a total of 3,570 personnel were trained as inspectors and instructors.
It was necessary to build barracks for the US Army, arrange for additional feeding centres and of course provide entertainment as well.
The American’s Facilities. The Americans built their GI camp near Bowden Green, some locals referred to it as Bowden Camp, others Handy Cross Camp, where there was not only Barrack huts but also their own cinema! A Vehicle Repair Shop was built and operated off of Kingsley Road. The Pill was commandeered by the US Forces for parking their numerous vehicles, the Quay was frequently used for the unloading of the 1000’s of tons of ordnance that was brought to Bideford. To show the strength of the “Hands Across the Sea Co operation” between the two countries Union Jack and Stars and Stripe flags were erected on the Quay. However according to Town Council minutes even the World War couldn’t suppress the “mischievous” side of Bideford people, the flags went missing’ one night in 1943 never to be recovered, the flags were of course replaced,
Due to a further influx of GI’s into the town in February 1944 an application was made by the US Army to requisition the premises of the Church Lad’s Brigade Hall at the end of Allhalland Street which was being used as a ‘British Restaurant’ for the town. The US Army wanted to use it as their ‘Messing Center’ for 3 months to feed all those hungry troops coming to Bideford. This was allowed by the Town Council, as Bideford by that time had two British Restaurants in operation, a second restaurant had opened using part of the Pannier Market n December 1942.
October 1943. Due to the large number of American GI’s in the area, the American Red Cross Service opened a American Red Cross Club in Bideford, the club this was located in a converted private property called ‘Upover’ near Chudleigh Fort, East the Water. Run by two American Red Cross Hostesses, Miss Ruth Druskin and Miss Ruth Hauck, and local volunteers. The club was a home from home to the GI’s, with a games room, lounge, snack bar providing the GI’s with more familiar food, the all American Hamburger and Pepsi Cola, along with local newspaper and magazines from home. This imposing building is still in existence in Bideford as a private dwellings. In total during the war years, the American Red Cross opened 80 Red Cross Clubs, Bideford’s ‘Upover’ was 79th of those 80. This excluded the ‘Clubmobiles and Donut Dugouts’ that were also part of the Red Cross Service.
Equally the generous people of Bideford wanted to help the GI’s socialise and they arranged many different types of entertainments including organised Boxing Matches at the Pannier Market, sporting tournaments in the park, where some of the local school boys took the opportunity of learning how to play the unknown American game of baseball, concerts were given by local children, the ‘Geneva Revels’ were one example, dances and on Sunday nights the Strand Cinema provided ‘Forces Night’ shows held strictly for members of the forces, no civilians were permitted!
The Royal Hotel played an important part too, many meetings were regularly held at the hotel by senior forces personnel. This was acknowledged at the end of the war when a plaque was presented to the Hotel along with an accompanying letter from G.S. Courteny, Colonel Commandant of C.O.X.E. (Combined Operation Experimental Establishment) Westward Ho!, and a further letter from Major-General R.E. Laycock, Chief of Combined Operations thanking the hotel. The Plaque is still displayed in the Hotel. What is not commonly known is that the letter displayed is sadly not the original, that was stolen and a replica had to be produced for the Royal Hotel by Bideford Rotary Club’s historian, Mr Basil Pidgeon.
Gone but not forgotten. Many friendships between Americans and local people were made, some were brief and others lasted a lifetime, there were also a few marriages. Today there is still a reminder of the grateful thanks given to the people of Bideford from the American Forces. In 1945 a Gingko Biloba Tree was planted in Victoria Park by LT. Colonel Frank Holmes of the 72nd Ordnance Battalio and Major Grey as a gift of “good wishes to Bideford and a symbol of the friendship between members of the US Forces and the town of Bideford” .The ceremony was held in September 1945 and today the tree still flourishes with a plaque alongside it; these can be found in Victoria Park in a flower bed close to the War Memorial and the Burton Art Gallery building.
Memories of the GI’s in Bideford by Kenneth Beer Cardiff
After the attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese, the next event was the United States entry into the war. When the American troops arrived, I remember lorry after lorry of troops going up past my house in Meddon Street to the recently constructed camp in Bowden Green. The camp was set up on the right hand side of the road going away from Bideford and roughly one hundred yards from where Blight’s garage is now. We quickly made friends with some of the soldiers who were generous with their chewing gum, and sometimes took us to the pictures at the Strand cinema or the Palace cinema in Bridgeland Street. However, the most lucrative part of it all was when we were on holiday from school. The Americans established a vehicle repair shop, behind the houses along the Kingsley Road opposite the old site of Bideford Dairies, I believe the houses were in Newton Terrace. We would gather there on our bicycles waiting for orders for cakes from the GIs as they approached a meal break. Then we cycled to a cake shop at the river end of Bridgeland Street where there was a cake shop. Then we would take them back to the soldiers who were most generous in tipping us.
It was there that I met most of the soldiers that I knew and when we were approaching D Day and they heard that they would soon be leaving Bideford, although we did not know the real reason at the time, I took several addresses from them in order to keep in touch. However, one by one I lost touch except for one- Henry “Hank” Rolf. We wrote to each other all the time that he was in France and when the war was over, we kept in touch over the years until around the mid nineteen nineties when he died from cancer. On his return home to Palma, Cleveland , Ohio , he married his sweetheart and when their first son was born he named him after me. I treasure the friendship that I enjoyed, together with his memory, to this day.
The sports ground along the Kingsley Road became a regular feature of our weekends where we could go along and see the soldiers playing baseball. Until that time, bearing in mind we only had radios to listen to, baseball was completely foreign to us other than a rather more sedate game sometimes played called “rounders“. The main delight of going to the ground was the introduction to our meagre diets of what was called “hotdogs”. To me they were something out of this world and the soldiers were only too pleased to give them to us. After a while we acquired a baseball bat together with a ball from them, and we often played the game ourselves in Victoria Park.
In Bideford the main form of entertainment was the cinema, but some former pupils of Geneva School, under the leadership of Tony Lloyd and Marjorie Webb, formed a concert party called “The Geneva Revels”. Also in the party was Dick Halbert, Joyce Gifford, Joyce Hancock, George Andrews and many others including myself. I was allowed to participate as a soprano and had a solo spot in each performance. My mother had placed me in the Church of England choir at the age of eight and under the guidance of Robert Harper, the organist, I had a fairly decent voice, although to hear me now one would not think so! Anyhow, the party performed mainly in the Church Institute, Lower Meddon Street, but also visited villages around the immediate vicinity together with the Strand Cinema itself, an occasion on which we actually had to wear makeup! I suppose this was due to the amount of lighting used and the spotlight that shone from the projectionist’s room. Another time I well remember was when we gave a performance at the American camp at Fremington because after the concert was over we were fed in the dining room and to drink we were given pineapple juice. Nectar from heaven.
Lorries were ferrying their troops in the opposite direction down Meddon Street after vacating the camp at Bowden Green. It did not come as a surprise to see them go as we knew that preparations probably had been going on for the eventual invasion of Europe, though we could only guess when and where. With a couple of friends we went up to the camp and strolled through the billets until we were asked to leave by one of the skeleton staff who had stayed behind in order to clear up. It was the first and only time that I have held a revolver in my hand which I found in one of the billets. Needless to say, I handed it over to the soldier who found us!
Before all the Americans left Bideford, I was in Victoria Park along with many others to see the commander of the camp at Bowden Green, Lt.Col. F.Holmes, plant a tree to commemorate their stay in the town. It was planted at the Kingsley Road end of the park, directly opposite the bandstand, and as far as I am aware, the tree and the commemorative plaque are there to this day.
Many thanks to Kenneth Beer for allowing Bideford 500 to use his photo of the GI in Bideford.
Thanks to the late Pat Slade of Bideford Community Archives for giving Bideford 500 this photo.