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Exeter Stories

Exeter folk and friends in their own words - 1890's to the 1990's │ << Previous story │ Next story >>  │

James Bell - A Child's View of the War in Exeter 2


Collecting Bombs and Helping the Police!

On the 6th of May 1942 I was walking along New North Road intending to go along the path leading to Queens Street, under Northernhay. It was blocked a sign saying no admittance. I went past the sign as I could see no reason for this. I turned up the second path on the left which led up to the top of Northernhay - near the top on the last bend before the top, there was a pile of fresh earth, and a shaft about 12 to 15 feet deep. Looking down I saw two soldiers steaming out the explosive from a large bomb.

When they saw me they shouted and told me to go away as it was not safe, I thought if it is safe enough for them, then I would be alright, so I stayed. One of the soldiers had to climb up the ladder, caught hold of me and led me up the path where two soldiers were on guard stopping any one approaching. They did not expect any one to come up from the lower path which was clearly closed. They sent me away with a flea in my ear! I understand that having made the bomb safe they left it there. It would be difficult to lift out owing to the slope of the ground. It is still there to this day.

At the end of 1942 I was searching the Southern Railway goods yard bank next to New North Road, opposite the prison, for incendiaries, tail fins and bits of bomb. I saw a fin sticking out of the ground and pulled it up. It was all there, about three feet long coming to a point. I had this strange idea that if I took it to the Police Station I would get a reward.

I wrapped it up in my blue gabardine mac - it was quite heavy. I took it to Waterbeer Street Police Station. There was a long corridor to the reception desk, where there was a high counter as high as a fish shop counter. There were three policeman standing talking. The sergeant said:

"What do you want son"

"Please" I said "I have found a bomb"

"The boys found a bomb! ....  be with you in a minute son"

After two or three minutes the sergeant stopped talking and said:

"OK son, tell us about the bomb, where did you say it was?"

They all looked about seven feet tall. I said:

"I have gotten em yer, under me coat"

With that I removed my mac and lifted the bomb up to place it on the high counter. All the blood went out of their faces and they went as white as sheets.

US troops arrive in Exeter

In a letter from father to Gilbert (my elder brother in the RAF) dated 6th June 1943.

'The town is now filled with American soldiers who have come here within the past few days. They seem quite a respectable lot of men in appearance, and have dress uniform to wear when out. It is sad to think what these men may have to face presently.'

Later coloured Americans came and there were near riots between the blacks and whites. The coloured Americans, stayed on the St Thomas side of the Exe. and there was no movement between the two groups. I remember that Exe Bridge was closed off, on both sides by American Military Police, and each group shouting dreadful insults across the river at each other. I am sure that if they were allowed to get across there would have been murder. After about a week, the black Americans were moved.

There was a lot of fraternisation between the Americans and Exeter girls. The Richmond Hotel at the top of Richmond Road was full of ATS girls who supplied some of the American boys needs. With the railings and gates removed from the city parks, not to mention cemeteries, there were plenty of places to go for a kiss and cuddle. The air raid shelters had their doors kicked in, the bunks inside were in use other than during raids! As in other places during this time, there must have been an increase in illegitimate births. It is not too late to trace the paternal line through DNA! The off spring of these relationships are still in Exeter today. I learnt about sex, watching - if you hung around, the Americans would give you a packet of gum or two and six and told to clear off! The boys would make water bombs with you know what, tie the top off and throw them.

The Bailey Bridge - Bonhay Road

That bailey bridge in Bonhay Road was opposite Rockside a few yards to the left as you come down the steps.

The bridge in Bonhay Road was built from the Flowerpot Fields side of the river, and all the bridge material was piled up on that side. They erected a number of tents which remained while the bridge was there. There was a small vegetable garden on the river bank, with a gate leading from the path to it. I think it must have been owned by a water bailiff because there was often a small rowing boat kept there as well. The bridge was there for about 8 weeks - I watched the engineers build it. They first cut through the railings, put a ramp across the path and down to the river, and got the bridge across; the whole lot took less than a day. They then drove lorries across and parked them in Flowerpot Fields. When the soldiers were not there, I squeezed through a gap in the now broken railings and went across the bridge many times. About 1942, Flowerpot Fields was used as a training ground for light tanks - I used to watch them from my bedroom window.

There was another bailey bridge built about the same time some three hundred yards down from the Cowley Road Bridge, which went across the river Exe. This went across the river into the side of the railway embankment. I think this site was chosen for training purposes, because of its access facilities.

As far as I can recall the bridges were built in the early months of 1944, February or March, but may have been a little earlier. I do recall there was a lot of military activity at the time. I can not remember if it was the Americans or British who built them.

When the invasion was threatened in 1940, both river banks, and the weirs were covered in coils of barbed wire, which remained until they were washed or rusted away. The wide pavement between the weirs was also covered in barbed wire.

There was a gun site either side of the New North Road bridge, one on the embankment, and the other on top of the New North Road Station entrance, which was closed during the war. There was a wooden staircase to the roof. It was a strange place to have a gun site. After the blitz, the town was covered with barrage balloons - locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. For a short time there was an anti-aircraft gun just inside Northernhay at the top of Northernhay Place. 

© 2005 James Bell/David Cornforth

James Bell - was born in Exeter in 1932, to a Plymouth Brethren family, and was one of twelve children. This article is an edited selection from a series of emails I received relating his memories of Exeter during the Second World War.

During July 1940, Flowerpot Fields, along with Heavitree Pleasure Ground, Wonford Playing Fields, Exwick Fields and others had trenches dug across them to prevent the Germans using the open spaces for landing troops.
Exeter in the 1940's - Todd Gray

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