During the summer of our discontent in 1939, as war clouds gathered and the Conscription Act passed in June held all young men aged over twenty one years in a state of tension, Senior Officers of the Royal Marines, and other interested persons, finalised their plans for the building of a Special Reserve Depot. Tankerton, on the north Kent coast had been suggested as a possible site, and also Littleham on East Devon's coastline, between Exmouth and Budleigh Salterton, but instead the choice finally favoured the historic Nutwell Court Estate just north of Exmouth on the eastern bank of the River Exe, on land owned by descendents of Sir Francis Drake.
Why Tankerton and Littleham should have proved unsuitable I cannot say, for my original theory that the latter was discredited by Their Lordships for fear of disturbing the eternal rest of Lady Nelson lying buried in the village churchyard was dashed on finding out that straight point firing range was set up on the presumed camp site shortly afterwards! Whatever the reasons I feel confident that all who have sampled the delights of the modern Commando Training Centre at Lympstone that has emerged from the ruins of the old Exton Camp will agree that 'The Creators' chose well.
The area selected to be segregated from the remainder of the Drake Estate formed a large part of the Lower Nutwell Farm, and land preparation commenced well before the declaration of war on 3 September, and it's first intended inmates assembled at Eastney Barracks as the 'RM Special Reserve' on 12 October under the care of Major G W M Grover RM during their Portsmouth lodging, whilst the CO Lt Col C R W Lamplough RM was detained on urgent work at the Admiralty. The first 250 militiamen soon swelled to 400 as the 'intake machinery' geared into action, undertaking a six weeks disciplinary course (HO 1-10 Squads) which they completed by the end of November, the majority being turned over to the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation for Anti Aircraft Artillery, whilst their still warm beds were quickly filled by the second 400 (HO 11-20 Squads) who occupied them until 26 January in the new year. The first six of these squads also went to the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation and the other four remained at Eastney to form part of the RM Brigade, whilst one man from this entry achieved notoriety as 'the Marine who never was', for a Marine Murray reported sick on the day of joining at Eastney, was rushed to Haslar Hospital for an emergency operation and thence discharged without ever having been in uniform or slept in a barrack bed!
Move to Devon
Now Devon beckoned even though the campsite was nowhere near ready, the severe winter ice and snow conditions having held up the first bricklaying for two months. Permanent staff had begun assembling there since November and were billeted in Exmouth or villages of the surrounding area, being collected in lorries each morning and returned later in the day. On 22 February 1940 the first trainees arrived and were greeted by Lt Col Lamplough the CO who had been released from the Admiralty since November to supervise the building programme, and with them came Cpl A P Thompson a recalled pensioner who had completed his full 21 years in 1937. He was to become the 'Globe and Laurel' correspondent for the next two years, as a staff member, and in his introductory writing offered at first the only clue to the location of 'this future nursery of the Corps' as '.... somewhere in the heart of the country (south) on the banks of the River E, where the soil is red clay and a railway station lies nearby'. Well I'm sure that fooled nobody, and least of all the Germans I should think who, if they did not already have their agents in position that three years later were to report to Hitler their observations of 'D' Day preparations at nearby Slapton Sands, might easily have learned from any self respecting historian that their Saxon ancestors made settlements at Woodbury and Exeter (Escanceaster) by the attraction of this same fertile red soil in the 9th century! What DID cause some confusion perhaps was the subsequent renaming of that railway station from 'Woodbury Road' to 'Exton' while the camp which had originally taken its name from that hamlet later associated itself with the next village along 'Lympstone'...and had another village Topsham for it's telephone number!
Albert (Pat) Thompson recalls that they left Eastney under great secrecy and were at first also billeted in with local families, leaving their comfy 'digs' to fill up each wooden hut in camp as it was completed and furnished with new pattern white enamel kit lockers, chairs, tables, and beds etc. (both single and double bunk variety with white Naval counterpanes). Despite the many trials and tribulations experienced during this protracted building period the recruits were said to be much impressed with their quarters when they moved in, remarking on the constant supply of hot water available, and although this last facility has been disputed as 'propaganda' by some reminiscing former inhabitants recently there can certainly be no doubt over the chaos outside the huts where unmade roads were mud tracks and the whole site was littered with pipes, cables, tractors, steamrollers and such like paraphernalia. During those early months there was no Sick-Bay, Gymnasium, or Drill Shed, and only the smallest of parade grounds...which no doubt helped to give recruits that professed good impression! A newly completed garage belonging to Standfield and White Ltd on the A30 Honiton Road just out of Exeter was commandeered as a store for all the camp equipment, under RM Guard, until being relinquished at the end of June, by which time the greatly improved climatic conditions had permitted building progress to leap ahead.
Each hut contained two or three coke-fired stoves, with an additional one in the SNCOs cabin at the end, and covered walkways connected to the ablution rooms which were 'tastefully decorated' in brown (top) and cream (bottom) restful colours! Recruits at this time were attending lectures and church services in No 2 Dining Hall (a trifle confusing as there was only one built at this stage I) and concerts given in the canteen during this springtime.
Lt Col Lamplough's stay at Exton proved short, for on the 4th February that first year he was recalled to the Admiralty and handed over the camp to Lt Col F W Dewhurst RM whose subordinates included Capt C F Phillips (Commandant), Sgt Major 'Jumper' Cross and QMS (Barrack) Jewell.
Marine Smith-Howell from Sussex was recorded as the first 'client' to sign in at this establishment, although it is extremely doubtful that he was actually the first to pass through the simple barrier at the main gate, spending his first day in joining routines and kitting up.
According to my calculations, of the first 360 lads brought down from Eastney on 22nd/23rd February (21-28 Squads) only 320 were left by the completion of their training, and these were posted to 101 RM Brigade at Bisley. The public were treated to a glimpse of these men at work when a full page of the 'Daily Mirror' for Thursday 7th March featured them in text and photographs as 'Britain's great hope' although the camp was not named of course due to censorship. The normal six weeks course covered the basics of field-craft, weapon handling, physical training and Drill, so that those in need of specialised training went on to other centres.
29 Squad seems to have disappeared without trace (if it existed) for the next recorded were 30-40 who came direct to the RM Reserve Depot during the three days of April 9th-11th, and totalling 550 formed the largest intake; but after only two weeks a number of them were sent immediately for Sea Service training, leaving the remainder reformed into 30-37 Squads to pass for duty on 25th May. At this stage it was decided that 'Hostilities Only' recruits should be reclassified, when it was arranged to send Exton HO men for sea service, to differentiate from HO recruits trained at the Divisions, therefore HO 38 Squad became HOX 1 and so on. No's 1 and 2 went to Chatham for sea service, X4 and 5 to Portsmouth for similar duties, and X7 plus X8 went to Plymouth ships, leaving x3 and X6 to join the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation. (The latter claiming they were the unlucky ones!) This 'X factor' in Squad numbering should not be confused with that attached to Divisional Numbers. 'X' was added to the Divisional prefix in October 1925 to denote men re-entered under revised rates of pay after a break of less than 5 years. A new series, starting from 'one,' reached four figures when the practice ceased in 1948 (although the Band Service continued to use the 'X' until August 1955). In wartime the original HO entries bearing EX prefix changed on reaching four figures to CH/X, PLY/X, PO/X and RMB/X with six figures, whilst CS men remained in the four figure series.
By this time the gymnasium was completed, the cinema/theatre taking shape, with the church dwarfed between the two...and 400 copies of the 'Globe and Laurel' were sold in the camp that month.
Elsewhere on the war front Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg had been over-run by the Germans, HMS Royal Oak, a major battleship, had been tragically sunk at Scapa Flow and retaliation came with the enemy's forced scuttling of their prize ship Graf Spee in the River Plate; whilst even as HO 30-37 Squads were dispersing from Exton for their various duties on 25th May orders were being despatched to France for the commencement of the great Dunkirk evacuation that would end on June 4th with the subsequent fall of that country also on the 23rd leaving Britain virtually alone and threatened with her own invasion... things could hardly have been worse, but what country doesn't have it's little ups and downs?
Under the powers of the National Service Act passed by Parliament HM the King signed a proclamation on 1 January 1940 conscripting an estimated eligible 2,000,000 men between the ages of 19-28, and this was followed by another signed on 9 May, raising the age to 36, and then later on it was deemed necessary to revise this to 18-41 years, eventually reaching 51 years for males, and unmarried females between 20 and 30...business was becoming brisk at Exton! Thus it proved necessary to expand to take in the field opposite the main gate (sports grounds today) from the beginning of May for use as a tented site, and this was first occupied by units of the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation on 10 May, to be joined on 15 May by the 11th Searchlight Regt HQ and 'S' Battery (prior to moving to Andover), then also came the 1st RM(H)AA Regt, making quite a large canvas annex. These men used the main camp ablutions and other amenities, eating in the main dining hall in advance of the Depot meal times, and fortunately enjoyed good weather and plenty of sport.
All of the old 45-49 Squads (now HOX8-l2) went for Sea Service in the Divisions after initial training, as did HOX13-l9 recruited 30 - 31 May (of whom we know that half were volunteers) with the exception of X17 who went to London for Admiralty Guard duties, and due to their employment in preparing suitable defences around the camp the men of these five squads had their stay at Exton extended by a week as compensation to complete the curriculum, passing for duty at the end of July. They were the last of the renumbered squads, for the next batch HOX20 and onwards joined directly in the X category.
Deal Temporarily Indisposed
Meanwhile across at Deal in Kent (nicknamed 'Hell-fire Corner') things were getting a bit too hot to handle, being on the direct bombing run to London as well as coming within shelling range of Calais, thus was the Depot hastily vacated by all but a Holding Battalion of caretakers. Continuous Service squads 390 and 391 moved out on 1 July, to continue their training at Exton, occupying the tented camp recently emptied by the AA and SL Regiments, preceded on 30 May by the boys of the School of Music under their senior assistant musical director Lt A C Green. They had travelled down on a special train, and moved into 'A' Coy huts in the main camp, messing in No 1 dining hall and receiving instructions at the Gun Battery. The Military Instructors unit and NCOs School also came along, as did the new CO for RMRD Brig A P Dawson to succeed Lt Col Dewhurst RM, plus Major E Bowring RM and many other officers, NCOs and men of the Deal Staff...and to complete the complement the first three Wrens to enter the all male Exton domain! One of these, Wren Patterson, (now Mrs J Snowden) is a member of the RMHS.
The Band Boys had come to continue their training in a comparatively safe area, learning to become proficient on two instruments; woodwind or brass for the Military Band, and stringed instruments for the Orchestra (although solo instrumentalists played in both), many of them learning also to play dance band instruments. In addition the boys continued their education under the Head Master, Capt Grey, and the schoolmasters from Deal were there in full force; there was military training, P and RT sessions and First Aid instructions; then when the boys were free of all these duties, they acted as Cyclist Orderlies and stretcher bearers for the Passive Air and Defence organisations.
Soon it was realised that, as more men were called up, the boys would be taking up too much room at the Depot, so efforts were made to find suitable accommodation for both wings of the School of Music to be together again. The Seniors, having moved to Plymouth, had practice rooms in the dungeons of an old fort, administration in an old stable block, and the music room in a disused chemical laboratory; a small piece of waste ground was used for parades, and the men were in billets, so the Admiralty made a special camp at Malvern for the complete School of Music. Ten months later this was taken over by the Navy as a 'stone' frigate (HMS DUKE), and once more the school had to be split up; the junior wing to Howstrake Holiday camp on the Isle of Man, and the seniors to the Clifton and Norbreck hotels at Scarborough. Then in the late summer of 1946, a former American Army camp at Burford, Oxfordshire, brought the two wings together once again, remaining there until January 1950, when they returned to Deal. Exton Camp had its own 20 strong band of RN School of Music Pensioners since- 29 March under B/Sgt E King, but in the continual game of 'musical chairs' even the 'old and bold' moved on a month after the boys, headed for Wales, and in their place soon after came B/Sgt Wally Smith's 24 musical pensioners (average age 46 years) from the Divisional Bands.
Still in the field of entertainment, the Globe Theatre had it's grand opening night one Sunday in July 1940 when Recruit Greenwood's piano recital was followed by a cartoon film, then the main feature; thus was a whole wonderful new spectrum open to them...even if there was only one projector for the first month and the story line (not to mention the audiences patience) waned at times! Programmes changed thrice weekly, and when the silver screen was not in use action continued on the stage with the 'illustrious boards' being trodden by 'Home-grown' as well as ENSA artists; the first big concert was in October when the entire second half, lasting an hour, featured 'The Loonies', a section of the band, attired in fancy dress, under their leader, Leading Looney Perratt! The succeeding years brought some notable stars that included Anna Neagle, Claude Hulbert, 'Coco' the Bertram Mill's Circus clown, and actor Hugh Williams who, in the fourth year, brought his successful play 'Claudia' down from London following a two year run at the St Martin's Theatre. It was a 'captive' if not 'captivated' audience, for little leave was given to the recruits, until the completion of the six weeks training.
Although perhaps not in the 'entertainments' category but at least next door, the Church of St Albans opened at about the same time as the theatre, or as they say in the profession 'was dedicated' by the Chaplain to the Fleet the Venerable Archdeacon T Crick CBE MVO MA KHC RN for the Reverend Leonard Coulshaw MC AKC and E Williams to house their respective flocks.
Meantime CS 390 Squad had passed for duty to Chatham on 10 August with CS 391 following four days later to Portsmouth, and the tented camp, now vacated, was struck on the 27th day of that month. (All other CS Squads trained at the Divisions) with Deal drastically contracted, Exton then assumed the Depot role although it was not until October 1941 that the 'Globe and Laurel' actually referred to it as such (RM Depot Devon) as prior to this it variously went under the guise of RMRD (Devon) or RMRD (Exmouth) and (Exton).
The layout of the camp in 1940 was that, on entering the main gate and passing down the main road, the guardroom, CO's Office, and HQ Offices were on the right hand side, and behind these were the officer's accommodation huts, the Officers' Mess, Sick-bay and Dental Block. The Gymnasium, and cinema/theatre were situated further down, below Sylvan Glade, while the Company Offices, SNCOs Mess, Recruit Lines, main galleys and stores were all to the left.
In June anti-invasion defences were built around the camp, to be manned by recruits. Heeding the governments appeal to the country to 'Dig for Victory' the Exton men turned the spaces between their huts into vegetable gardens, vying with each other for competitive produce that found it's way into the cookhouse.
Change and Completion
Command of the Reserve Depot changed hands once again in this first year, passing from Brig A P Dawson to Brig N K Jolley OBE on 29 September, but as he was also Commander of 103 RM Brigade now seeking temporary accommodation at Exton the administration of the Depot passed to Lt Col M H Spicer RM for the time being. Training intakes were thus curtailed for about three months whilst these lodgers took up residence so that by the end of the year there were only three squads left occupying 'A' and 'B' Lines, the 7th Battalion having taken over 'C' and 'D' Lines as squads completing training moved out, and the 8th Battalion 'F' and 'G' Lines.
So it was a rather mixed bag of lads who sat down to Exton's first Christmas Dinner of Lentil Soup, Roast Turkey, baked potatoes, sprouts, parsnip, Xmas pudding and white sauce, followed by afternoon tea consisting of pineapple and custard with Xmas cake and mince pies, then supper offering cold ham and pickles... a somewhat sumptuous menu one might think for a besieged country facing bleak prospects; the resultant product of course depending on the state of the cooks at the time!
Barely were the festivities over however when 103 Brigade were broken up, mostly to reinforce the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation now ordered overseas, but leaving those under-age and permanent staff of the 7th Battalion to find other billets at the RM Division Reinforcement Depot (Hayling Island), while 8th Battalion staff moved westward to the Thurlestone Hotel near Kingsbridge to prepare an OCTU for future young RM officers.
Now the way was clear for Exton to get down to it's real business again and from" 22 January 1941 recruit intakes rapidly built up to about thirty squads at anyone time (hitting a peak of 34 in one instance) with around forty men per squad. To provide enough instructors for this sudden inrush it proved necessary to second 18 JNCOs from the 7th and 8th Battalions to fill the breach, seven getting their own squads whilst the remainder acted as 'rear rank instructors'.
By the summer of 1941 the camp was really taking shape with trimmed lawns, and vegetable plots growing to such profusion that the first of several annual 'Horticultural Shows' was held to raise money for charity, with the camp's hay crop yielding an estimated £180 towards it; and just to prove that war was not 'all work and no play' they held their first public sports day, between showers, on 16 August. Not until two years after it's inception however could we report in February 1942 that RMRD was complete to it's original plan, with made-up roads and all 'ship-shape'. Some of the larger buildings such as the Gymnasium, theatre and workshops were entirely of brick construction, but the majority were of wood and metal on concrete foundations, and this included the Officers' and Sergeants' Messes as well as .all the accommodation huts. Sgt Major R J Ashby held the first post as President of the SNCOs Mess that functioned almost from the very beginning, as did a JNCOs Club.
leave their mark
The original reservists had been given the prefix BR to their service number, later changed to EX for Exton, to differentiate from the three Divisions Chatham (CH) Portsmouth (PO) and Plymouth (PLY), but this practice ceased in October 1940 when they reverted to Divisions again. The relatively few who were allotted EX numbers started in three figures and ended in four, and the man who by chance drew EX 1664 (the year of the Corps' formation) was Marine Alfred John Hider who on joining in February 1940 went on to serve in Crete, Egypt, Ceylon and Normandy, and although surviving the war the experience obviously 'drove him literally to drink'...for his employment after demob was as a manager of a wine merchants branch!
Undoubtedly the most famous recruit to pass through this establishment however did not survive the ravages of war unfortunately. He arrived almost unnoticed on Tuesday morning 23 June 1942 at Woodbury Road Station (Exton) after an all-night journey from Edinburgh and was just 'one of the crowd' with a number CH/X 110296 allotted that was of no significance at the time. Completing training on 10 August this 18 years old lad passed to 20th Training Battalion and thence on to the 2nd Battalion on 9 October. From his camp on the IOW he made countless training landing assaults in the Southampton area before the Battalion reformed as 43 Commando and went through the 'dreaded Achnacarry Course' in August 1943; and from there he went, via Algeria and Tunisia, to an untimely death at a then little known place called Comacchio in Italy 2 April 1945, as war in Europe was drawing to a close.
The name Thomas Peck Hunter lives on however with the memorial bell dedicated to him a year later in the camp that trained him, as the only Corps VC holder of that war, and on display just inside the main gate. His 21 years life span began in Aldershot, and after schooling in Tynecastle and Stenhouse took up a peaceful vocation as a stationer with Waddie and Co Ltd in Edinburgh a single man still when he died, Hunter made L/Cpl rank 6.10.43 and Temporary Cpl in his last month.
But before this all happened a new development was taking shape nearer home; more important than the arrival of a further twenty Wrens under L/Wren Ferguson's care in September 1941, or the fact that one of them, Guy by name, was shortly to marry the Padre (Rev L Coulshaw) and also by the end of that year oust our correspondent Cpl Thompson from his cushy administrative job to the more rigorous task as first warden of Straight Point; Range. More important even than that the said corporal had managed to sell 600 of the total 6,200 'Globe and Laurels' produced at the time of his departure, or the fact that in September Brig A P Dawson had returned to redeem his command of the Depot!
Previously, apart from specialised grades such as the 'All Norton Drivers and Mechanics Squad' (HOX36) and 'Cooks, Clerks and Drivers' (HOX57 & 70), plus the usual quota of Signallers etc. going on advanced training elsewhere, the bulk of the men had passed for duty either to one of the Divisions, the Beach Engineering Battalion at Havant, or the newly formed Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation 11 at Hayling Island's 'Sunshine Camp'; now, as Tom Hunter appeared on the scene, they were marching out of Exton, led by the Staff Band and with the Commandant taking the salute outside his office, (as he did on every occasion no matter the time of day) down narrow deserted country lanes just a few miles to Dalditch.
- 000 -
Note - At this stage the new khaki 'Battle Dress' was replacing the khaki 'Service Dress' (compare photographs on pages 9 and 12). This rough serge 'Ginger Suit' which buttoned right up to the neck looked rather ungainly compared to the smarter 'open-neck with tie' version that superseded it in 1948. Best blue serge uniforms would only be in the possession of permanent staff (CS) but those recruits who passed for duty on Sea Service would draw utility blue dress and working uniforms at their respective Divisions.
(This wartime tunic did not have bottom pockets, and the two top ones were unpleated.) The headgear in vogue at the time was the khaki field service cap; the blue beret not making an appearance at Exton until late 1943; and the green one well after the war.
- RMHS 1986
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