'Possibly of more interest in 200 years time, always supposing that, by then, anybody will be able to read' - so wrote the erstwhile commander of the Lympstone Home Guard platoon, in his covering letter to the Lympstone War Book which he passed to the rector for safe keeping in 1955. In 1987, during a clearance of the rectory, a file was spotted beneath the stairs which it was thought might interest me, and so an interesting piece of local history was saved from the bonfire.
At first sight, the Lympstone War Book was not a very impressive looking document, being hand written on some twenty-two sides of foolscap. It soon became obvious that it was written to some sort of standard format or proforma. Sadly its author did not always repeat the question or heading of the proforma but merely wrote in the answer. However, some of the questions become apparent from the answers, and the lack of others does little to detract from the general interest contained in the War Book, with its fascinating details of local personalities, where they were living, and what they were doing. It is, in fact, a little gold mine to anyone interested in village affairs in 1940.
According to the Imperial War Museum, in the face of the threat of a German invasion of this country in 1940, all local civilian responsibilities were made the concern of 'Invasion Committees', each of which looked after the interests of its own district. These committees were to prepare War Books in accordance with a standard proforma issued by the Ministry of Home Security. Should hasty evacuation become necessary, the war books were to be destroyed. There are twenty-two parts starting with a statement of the perceived local invasion threat and continuing as a very detailed list of local assets and personal responsibilities with location and telephone number of the various key individuals.
The actual composition of the invasion committee gives a good idea of the amount of organisation that the threat of invasion brought into being in the early 1940s. A note on the front cover, probably by the same hand but seemingly a different pen, gives the dates of six meetings of the Invasion Committee, the first on 14 October 1941 and the last on 18 April 1944. This suggests that there must have been a lot of activity long before October for achievement of the degree of organisation stated in the War Book.
Headed by a chairman and deputy, with a nominated operational and alternative headquarters, the committee comprised representatives from the Police, Air Raid Precautions (ARP) including National Fire Service (NFS), Home Guard, and Women's Voluntary Service (WVS). There were Parish Organisers, a Voluntary Food Organiser and the Exeter Food Executive Officer's liaison officer. The local doctor spoke for local medical arrangements and the Parish Council had two representatives, both of whom were heavily involved in various aspects of the committee's work and, indeed, one was its chairman. Many of the functions in Lympstone were headed by parent bodies in Exmouth. Police control came under an Inspector and a Sergeant at the Exmouth Police station to whom Lympstone's Policeman Constable and twelve specials reported.
Part VII entitled 'Police' is of particular and probably wider interest as it specifies the policy and duties of the police which must have applied generally rather than just in Lympstone. Two states were specified, 'Stand To' and 'Action Stations'. On 'Stand To' being ordered, the police were to enforce the 'Stand Firm' policy by controlling the roads and any movement of population likely to interfere with the operations of' the armed forces. They were also to enforce the immobilisation of vehicles and control the display of notices. There were additional duties related 'to Security which could not be disclosed'. When 'Action Stations' was ordered, in addition to the above the police were to assist the military in immobilising petrol pumps. Contingent on military requirements, roads needed by the military at certain periods might be closed to all traffic other than that of an operational character. At other times when such drastic restrictions were not necessary, civilian vehicles with EL labels might be allowed freedom of movement. Police were to man barriers at the exits from the town and non-essential vehicles were to be immobilised in convenient parking grounds. Pedestrian traffic was also to be controlled.
This 'Stand Firm' policy is interesting to compare to the elaborate arrangements during the Napoleonic invasion threat for 'flying the country'. It seems the 1940 lessons learned in France, where refugees had clogged roads and impeded the movement of military vehicles, were quickly taken to heart and policies put in place to avoid a similar state of affairs. Things did happen quickly in 1940, the threat of imminent invasion quickening authority's reactions and obtaining a rapid response in a time when 'action this day' orders were accepted without demur. It might also be of passing interest to note an apparent inconsistency between the ministry's instructions to destroy war books 'should hasty evacuation become necessary' and the police duty to implement a ,stand firm' policy!
The ARP and NFS arrangements in the village were also controlled from Exmouth. In the village there were two group wardens and fourteen wardens, including two specifically for the school. There were then four squads of fireguards, each with a nominated leader, covering specified parts of the village, with four auxiliary fire-fighters who could be called upon in an emergency. The Wotton Brook had been dammed in three places where concrete troughs enabled fire engine hoses to draw off water. There were no public or private air raid shelters and the committee decided not to dig slit trenches in the belief that 'plenty of shelter was to be found in deep lanes with high banks', suggesting this policy had been devised before air raids started in earnest. Neither were there any provisions in Lympstone for decontamination following mustard gas or similar attacks.
There were sixty-four members of the local Home Guard platoon, the War Book recording 'ii Very few, say 5' leaving us to guess whether this referred to equipment or trained personnel!
The Local Food Officer made arrangements for eight days' emergency rations to be stored in the village and for the local store to be used as a distribution centre. Six members of WVS and seven others were nominated to help with the distribution while arrangements for an emergency field kitchen behind the Village Hall were made. Members of the WVS were trained under a Group Housewife to provide hot drinks in an emergency, to shelter casualties until help arrived, to care for invalids and the aged and to assist mothers with small children. The WVS also helped in the Rest Centre and held a store of clothing. The local doctor set up a First Aid Point in his own house, staffed by himself and one trained nurse and the district nurse. There was a first aid party of two partly trained nurses. Accommodation could be provided for ten in the doctor's house and one hundred in the Methodist Schoolroom, normally used as a service canteen, but it appears there were only three actual beds available. Stretchers were located at three points and instructions issued on how to get the wheeled bier out of the church.
There were plans to set up rest centres at three locations catering for 113 people under the supervision of the rector. There were also provisions for billeting soldiers, passing through'; 150 being in private houses and 400 in eight local barns. Two local builders were noted as sources of emergency labour supported by 'all the fishermen who are at home'. The two builders could provide planks, poles, ladders, wheelbarrows, picks and shovels. It was also noted that there were two picks and shovels available in the ARP squad giving the impression that such items were in relatively short supply. Two local farmers would be able to provide four horses, three wagons and three carts as emergency transport.
Emergency supplies of water were to be obtained from local wells and pumps but the public were to be warned to boil all water for drinking. An interesting schedule lists the location of eighteen pumps known to be working and a further eleven that 'could probably be made to work'. In Part XXI, dealing with 'Sanitation' the author again fails to repeat the question leaving the reader to ponder, with a certain amount of trepidation, on the answer -'a. Old Laundry in Old Fire Fighting Field, gardens. b. (blank)'.
A messenger service was to be run by lst Lympstone Company, Boys Brigade, mounted on cycles. Information was to be conveyed by notice boards located outside the Police Station and the Church. Loudspeaker vans were also mentioned.
The War Book concluded by commenting on the morbid subject of the burial of the dead, making the remarkably optimistic comment that there was 'ample space in Lympstone Churchyard' and the reassuring view that Mr Tapscott, churchwarden and undertaker, 'having had extensive experience of mortuary arrangements in the RAF during the last war, would be quite capable of making all necessary arrangements'- in the emergency mortuary to be set up in the Old Drill Hall.
The War Book names some seventy individuals (excluding members of the Home Guard), their addresses (including telephone numbers) and their responsibilities. It gives an idea of the great willingness of people prepared to take on various duties and to be of service to others In emergencies during World War Two. In the main, they must have been the middle aged or older members of the village, the younger ones being either in one of the services or intending to join.
The Imperial War Museum was pleased to copy the Lympstone version as this brought its collection of War Books up to three! At the same time we 'lent' Devon Record Office a copy which was the first it had received. Considering that in 1940 every town and village in the country must have been charged with the task of preparing one, it seems astonishing that only three versions ever reached the War Museum and only one the Devon Record Office. This led me to do a quick trawl of the Record Offices in the South West and 1 found that the West Devon Area has none, Dorset three, Somerset four and Cornwall nineteen, which may or may not be the Ministry of Home Security version. As yet I have not had the opportunity of seeing whether the Public Record Office has a copy of the original proforma or any completed war books.
The defence of Britain project was launched locally at a symposium held in Exeter in June 1995 when I briefly mentioned War Books and suggested people might be on the look-out for them.
lan Angus, TD, B.Sc., is a northcountryman but has lived in Devon for 35 years. He is vice-chairman of the Lympstone Society with a particular interest in aspects concerned with the armed services. Since completing his article he has circulated all Record Offices in the South West with consolidated lists of the results of his War Book studies.