RMITC (INFANTRY TRAINING CENTRE) DALDITCH CAMP
Searching for Dalditch Camp today is like undertaking an archaeological survey of some ancient civilisation, for much of the remains lie buried in the tangled undergrowth of East Budleigh Common, leaving just a few traces of red brick walls, concrete foundations and steps. Apart from the rifle range walls in the SE corner of this WW2 site, only four of the original buildings remain; a solidly constructed garage plus three decontamination centres, one of which is open to view, another partially so, but the third entirely encased by creepers. Provided with an original map, photographs, and a vivid imagination it is possible to mentally reconstruct this camp.
The camp took its name from a minute hamlet half a mile distant that consists of only about six dwellings, a farm, and livery riding stables which I understand were utilised by Corps Officers at the time. A further quarter mile down this valley comes the slightly larger community of Knowle which boasts one public house 'The Britannia' run then, as now, by Olive Doney, a lady who well remembers the camp and her few regular customers mostly of the permanent staff. The young trainees preferred to trek the couple of miles into either East Budleigh or Budleigh Salterton, then gratefully clamber aboard trucks for the uphill return trip; whilst the more adventurous took themselves off to the metropolis of Exmouth some four miles distant.
It was to the peaceful little Knowle that Cpl W Turner brought his wife for a quiet weekend break from the Portsmouth blitz during his camp building programme, only to be greeted by a stick of bombs being dropped across the village by a stray German aircraft! This was probably the same enemy plane that Cpl A P Thompson, the Straight Point range warden spotted, and following his urgent telephone call to the local RAF airfield it was last seen disappearing into the sea off Teignmouth with a Spitfire on his tail. I have had no other reports of bombing raids on either Exton or Dalditch camps, although Exeter of course suffered terrible damage, and to a lesser degree Exmouth also. This is all the more surprising in the case of Dalditch on learning that an urgent signal was sent by the War Office to the Commanding Officer there ordering a check on its vulnerability from the air, and a reconnaissance aircraft reported that the camp was entirely visible whilst flying above Exeter. Attempts were then made to try and camouflage the site.
Comparisons, Construction and Complications
Dalditch differed in many ways from its neighbour RMRD Exton, firstly it was built on 'common' instead of 'private' land and commenced as a tented encampment (remaining a mixture after huts were erected) whilst Exton (as we saw in Part One) rose directly out of the farmland mud, having 'boxed' wooden huts in contrast to the semi-circular corrugated 'Nissen Huts' of Dalditch, (so named after their designer Col P N Nissen (1871-1930) although the accommodation lay-out within was similar in both types and heating came from enclosed coke stoves.
So many units passed through this camp, of varying durations, that not only is it possible to miss a few but space prohibits a comprehensive detail here anyway, and amongst the earliest, if the information contained in the Exton Photograph Album in the Corps Archives is correct, were recruits of X110 and Xlll squads who, passing for duty on 1 May 1941, claim to have been the first to march out to Dalditch but if this is so they must have trailed their tents behind them for certainly no permanent structures appeared before that July, and the first four huts erected (approximately 100 yards east of Four Firs X-Roads) were occupied by Cpl Turner and his men who built them! Four Firs was not destined to form part of the main camp site however, although it was used as a training area, tank circus, and many men lived here under canvas; the selected tract of heathland started about half a mile southwards and divided into five sub-areas known as 'Frying pans', 'Tuckers', 'Triangle', 'Hayes' and 'Wheathill' covering a vaguely rectangular section a good mile in length to half a mile in breadth at its widest point.
At the time building started on this vast project, the 7th and 8th RM Battalions of 103 RM Brigade were forming up again after their disintegration at Exton the previous January, and 648 men were living under canvas (mostly on the Wheathill site) with their Commandant Capt A D B Godfrey. Accommodation for 5,000 men was being planned, to be housed in 378 twelve-man Nissen Huts 36' x 16', with a further 107 huts for office, stores, workshops, drying rooms and medical use; each sub-area to be fully self-contained with a share of all the basic facilities. Wheathill was the first site to be completed and by the end of that November of 1941 there were 2,100 all ranks housed within it.
Ask any former Dalditch man what he remembers about the place and he will invariably answer Oil Lamps (pre-electric light installation), rats and 'The Dog'. The latter does not allude to the four-legged variety but the well-known intestinal disorder, and since the facts have been revealed one can only wonder why the entire population of Budleigh Salterton was not wiped out by an epidemic resulting from this camp's insanitary conditions at the off-set! Small house-holders, frustrated by local council planning restrictions, can take heart from the fact that 'even the mighty can tumble' as in this instance when the Ministry of Health for Exmouth and East Budleigh was not consulted when plans were drawn up for the camp. As the men from the ministry discovered what was going on they respectfully pointed out to the War Office that the site covered long established watersheds supplying their area and 'Could they please move on!' By this time it was a bit late as galleys and latrines 24 had already been erected adjacent to drains, and 'Their Lordships' were not prepared to dally much longer (Didn't the MOH realise there was a war on?!) so a compromise was made whereby the huts were resited some distance away from these amenities. The problem did not end here however, but without elaborating into lurid details of the sewage disposal twixt latrine elsan bucket and the four 9000 gal tanks in lower Hayes section, it was soon discovered that through a defect causing overflowing at this source, 'effluence' was running via drains into the Hayes Barton stream and thence into Budleigh Salterton's water supply!
It is noted that a 'Professor of Applied Hygiene' visited the camp on 27 July 1942, so perhaps we can assume that between then and November following, when MOH Inspectors arrived to check the new filter beds in Hayes Woods, Dalditch had got it's plumbing in order!
Each of the sub-areas had two dining halls and galleys of 250 man capacity, with a SNCOs Mess attached to one galley, but only four had Officers Messes (with galleys) as the one at Wheathill was double the size to cover Hayes Lines also. Wheathill being the main centre contained the only cinema, which opened on 3 Aug 1942 with the film "49th Parallel", made the previous year and starring Robert Beatty, Leslie Howard, Glynis Johns, James Mason, Anton Walbrook, Eric Portman and Laurence Olivier. It also had the central Post Office from which sub-area 'posties' carried out a two-way traffic, the telephone exchange, and the electric power transformer supplied from the East Budleigh grid... as well as the largest parade ground. Frying Pans had a gymnasium that doubled as a church (as did the cinema) whilst Triangle and Hayes boasted NAAFI buildings; there were recreation huts in each section.
Dalditch turned to a number of sources for its supplies, of which a 28 days emergency ration was supposed to exist; vegetables by local purchase, bread from an Exmouth bakery, meat from Exeter, and the bulk of dry stores from Plymouth's victualling Yard. Water in the initial stages came by road in tankers from Exton Camp until it could be piped from nearby Squabmoor Reservoir and stored in 20,000 gallon tanks at Wheathill and Frying Pans.
On 21 January 1942 the advance party of 10 RM Battalion arrived to take over Tuckers Lines, and the remainder filed in on the 30th to a strength of 660 all ranks; they were closely followed by 3 officers and 147 other ranks of 'Q' Coy Engineers on 9 February plus a rear party of 24 next day. 4/5 May saw the influx of 31st Light Battery RM (formerly the 31st RM Howitzer Battery) having already served in Norway, Calais and at the Combined Ops Centre Inverary...they might well have added Dakar to the list but for the fact the officer leading this ill-fated expedition (Operation Menace, August 1940) noticed one man drop his rifle on 'Present Arms' and mistakenly assumed that they were not sufficiently trained to be included in his venture! The 32nd Light Battery RM joined them soon afterwards from the Orkneys, but from thence onwards they seem to have got involved with a mixture of other units and drifted on their way six months later, collecting 130 recruits from Exton on the way.
Another group of nomads were the North Irish Horse, a Territorial unit who drifted in groups between 6/10 May to a total of 11 officers and 149 ranks (plus tanks in lieu of horses)...but the situation obviously didn't suit them as they moved on elsewhere just 15 days later!
For reasons best known to themselves, 20 (Training) RM Battalion of 104 (Training) RM Brigade had moved out of Sunshine (Holiday!) Camp, Hayling Island that January setting up a new HQ at Langbrook on the Langstone Road leading into Havant on the 11th whilst deploying many of the men on Stobs Castle Exercise. Other units of Brig A N William's Brigade, 15 (MG) and l8RM Battalion were meantime occupied at Pennally and Saudersfoot (South Wales) when word reached him about Dalditch, so a 'recce party' was sent down on 15 March and HQ advance party swooped down to Exmouth on the 3 April, with main party following 5 days later, to set up business in the Palm Court Hotel (additional accommodation at 'Harbour View') and like the cuckoo sat casting envious glances at the 'very desirable Dalditch nest' as somewhere to bring all their chicks into one roost!
Surprisingly during all this upheaval they had managed to pass out their first intake of trainees in April, and then mysteriously HQ issued an order on 14 May instructing all the Brigade to undertake a standard swimming test of 30 yards in Battle Dress and equipment 1 were they planning to infiltrate Dalditch by swimming across the reservoir I wonder!?
Lt Col F B Pym, Commanding 20 (Training) RM Battalion arrived in Exmouth from Hayling Island with Major G P Pease 6 June and during the next few days discussions took place with the Brigadier and staff of 103 RM Brigade already in residence, resulting in a complete 'take-over bid'. Admin control then passed from 103 to 104 (Training) Brigade on 17 June and the very next day an advance party of 20 (Training) Battalion moved in to Tuckers Lines (Main party 8 July) followed by 15 RM Battalion from Wales the day after (their main party 3 July). Major G Underhill OBE DSC joined 'Camp Staff Dalditch' on 26 June and assumed the Commandant's duties from Capt Godfrey who became Barrack-master, with the rank of Major.
On 16 July Brigade HQ moved out of the Palm Court Hotel and into Lympstone Grange at the top of Strawberry Hill road leading from that village, and where new bungalows have recently been built to the right of this house, some Nissen Huts were erected at some stage after the commandeering, to accommodate HQ Staff.
The only other point of interest that month was 'Exercise Howitzer' that took place between 25/28 July in which 20 (Training) Battalion took part. One had to imagine the whole of Cornwall plus that part of Devon west of a line between Barnstaple and Teignmouth as an island captured by two battalions of Japanese, concentrated around Plymouth and the 'capital' Tavistock. Fortunately for the citizens of Plymouth 102 RM Brigade met with complete success following a surprise dawn raid putting the enemy' to rout, but the same cannot be said for 101 Brigade assault in the Tavistock area.
101 RM Brigade moved out of Dalditch shortly after this 'Paper Battle' to make way for Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation 2 (Engineer Coy) who chose now to move in.
Now 20 (Training) Battalion and 21 (Holding) Battalion amalgamated on 20 October to form the RM Infantry Training Centre, undertaking Phase 2 of the training syllabus as a follow-up for recruits passing out from Exton on completion of Part I, and likewise later on Continuous Service Squads came from Deal when the Depot opened for business again, following the run-down in 1940 due to bombing.
104 (Training) RM Brigade then began looking for other straws to clutch, and on 12 November a new unit 22 (Training) RM Battalion formed with Major D A C Shephard as OC, Capt J "M Buckett (Adjutant) and Major D Stewart as 2 i/c...their purpose 'To be a Young Soldiers Battalion for the holding and training of marines under 19 years of age'. They occupied Frying Pans Lines on 23 November and brought out their first Daily Orders that same day, started the first Cadre Course on the 25th to train suitable JNCOs for instructional duties as the first 218 'young trained soldiers' arrived next day from RMITC. 'A' Coy came under the watchful eye of Sgt Gilden and 'B' Coy had Sgt Shephard (not to be confused with the Commanding Officer!) backed up by Sgt Fish with drill and discipline in the hands of QMSI A Webb, and Field Training under Lt W H Ollis. In addition to evening instructions from 1730 every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday they had to carry out at least one night exercise per week, and with the directive from the Commanding Officer to instructors 'It will be appreciated that only the highest standards can be accepted' I imagine everyone in that unit was kept well on their toes!
We now progress through into 1943 as Major Shephard became A/Lt Col in the New Year, Lt (QM) Norman Finch VC (of Zeebrugge fame) joined 22 RM Trg Battalion on 25 February, and another celebrity, pianist/composer Vivian Ellis ('Bless the Bride' and many other musicals) as a Lt RNVR moved into HQ on 8 March (his association with the Corps also included a period at Stonehouse Barracks) and two days later Lt Col B J D Lumsden visited Dalditch to lecture on 'Hints for Budding Escapists'...I have heard that conditions there were pretty bad but until now I hadn't realised the situation was quite so desperate!
In the New Year also Lympstone Grange changed from being Brigade HQ to HQ Royal Marines Training Group (Devon) and Brig A C St Clair-Morford arrived on 25 January to relieve Brig H T Newman in office.
By April RMITC had doubled its intake of recruits and at the same time ranks completing this course were being drafted to the new set-up at Towyn (RMTG WALES) (see 'G & L' Feb 1976). An interesting entry in the 'Top Secret Signals' at this time was the arrival of sixty six Royal Navy commandos in the last week of October, and staying only one week then moving on to Plymouth.
Having visited Dalditch myself in all seasons, viewing it through swirling mist, incessant rain and brilliant sunshine, I can understand how its varying moods influenced men's opinions of it...mud featured in many of the 'G & L' reports issued from this quarter but by April 1944 the journal was able to state that all tracks had been gravelled and main roads tarmaced and signposted (Church Lane and Wheathill Road etc.). Major Alastair Donald, the Corps Historical Records Officer, recalls the pleasant tasks he undertook as a recruit in 1943 engaged in collecting rubble from bombed sites in Exeter and how to ease their load on the return trip, sat tossing lumps of rock, from the back of the truck to ensure a speedy conclusion of this fatigue duty on their return to Dalditch where the rubble was used to lay road foundations.
On one such engagement, after nonchalantly heaving one chunk of concrete over a roadside hedge, an irate courting couple jumped up and hurled abuse at the quickly disappearing truck!
Whether 20 (Training) Battalion brought its 'Sunshine Band' in the move from Hayling Island to Dalditch I cannot say, but not to be outdone 22 (Training) Battalion formed its own 'Marineers Dance Band' during this period, destined for fame (and fortune?) throughout the surrounding district; at about the same time an RN School of Music Band was attached to RMITC, sharing themselves amongst 22 and 23 Battalions as well as Camp Staff and Holding Coy...but I have no indication as to whether the two bands were connected in any way. Dalditch was also now well established on the ENSA Circuit and like Exton was producing much of its own talent, which attracted audiences from the nearby American Base as well as entertaining their own mates.
By June 1944 RMITC were Football League Champions, and at Whit weekend the unit held a big public sports day at Exmouth's Cricket Ground, with the Band in attendance, proving so popular that the experience was repeated the following August Bank Holiday! Between these twin events Dalditch suffered three losses as 22 (Training) Battalion moved to Towyn, closely followed by 23 Battalion with whom it shortly merged...and 'Sally' the camp's canine mascot sadly died after three years duty!
Brig R H Campbell CB MC ADC came in May to open a YMCA in Triangle Lines which proved very popular, and shortly beforehand also opened a .22 rifle range; then about the same time the khaki clad trainees there witnessed an event which filled them with awe and envy...this strange phenomenon being a ship's detachment marching into camp dressed in Blues!
I can't say when the 'School of Mines' (formerly RM Siege Rgt) crept in from Dover, but their going was noted on 14 November 1944, bound for RMTG (Wales). Through the winter and spring of 1945 the 'production line' continued turning out young eager men whilst the Allied troops, including many trained here, battled their way through Europe and the Far East drawing the war to a close. Amongst the many originating at Dalditch were the 8th Battalion (now 41 Commando RM), 9th Battalion (46 RM Commando) and 7th En (48 RM Commando); then on 24 August 1944, 27 RM Battalion formed up here under Lt Col P W O'H Phibbs (replaced by Lt Col N H Tailyour in January, by which time they had moved up to Gailes Camp near Irvine in Scotland) and 30 RM En (Lt Col T K Walker) formed up here in January to team up later with 28th Battalion (Lt Col J A Taplin) as 116 RM Infantry Brigade serving in Holland and Germany under Brig S G B Paine OBE.
In the latter stages of the War, a number of POWs were exchanged with the Germans on the understanding that they would not serve in operational theatres of the war. 88 Royal Marines went to Dalditch via Exton during August 1943, repatriated from Stalag VIII B having been taken prisoner at Crete.
A month after VE Day the 'veterans' were released to 'civvy street', and the first three from Dalditch were Lt Finch VC (who transferred from 22 RM Battalion to Camp Staff in October 1943) CSM Parnham and Sgt Goodman; Lt Col Wooley handed over command of the camp to Lt Col J C Westall and Major Gen A N Williams OBE returned from RMTG (W) to relieve Brig A H E Reading of RMTG(D) at Lympstone Grange. From there Marine George Lowman went through the demob process and then returned to do precisely the same job as gardener in plain clothes...but the continuity could not last, by May of the next year HQ Staff had to vacate the country house in favour of 'Belsen Grange' (as they termed Dalditch!).
Decline and Fall
At the camp the surrounding barbed wire entanglements had been removed by October 1945, as 60 RHU moved in and MT Driving and Signals Schools followed in March next year; then the Military Instructors Dept prepared to move to the Infantry School at Bickleigh, Holding Battalion ceased to function and all other departments started running down...rumours abounded over the future of Dalditch! An EVT Centre moved in from Ivybridge at the end of 1945, but the two Captains T H Jones and G Yeomans with their staff of four Corporals and four Marines hardly had time to settle before being packed off to Plymouth in August.
By September 'Camp Staff', who had transferred from Triangle to Tuckers Lines, now closed down whilst the MT School found better accommodation at Alsager (Nr Crewe) and Signals School moved on also. With the once packed camp now looking decidedly forlorn, with only ITC and HQ in residence, it is perhaps ironic that in its demise Dalditch reached the peak of its achievements on the sporting field as 'Tunney cup' Football champions (beating Plymouth 5 - 0), winners of the 'Mead Cup' and their marksmen carried off most of the trophies (10 in fact) at the Browndown Small Arms Contest! It is believed that 450 Continuous Service Squad, coming from Deal, was the last to carry out Phase 11 training with RMITC at Dalditch.
Isolated and insanitary it might have been, but Dalditch surprisingly had its loyal subjects who sung its praises and earnestly hoped that their 'home' would survive when the final choice was made on which of the two camps to keep open...but it really stood no chance for a number of reasons, not least of which was Exton's superior accommodation. With almost indecent haste workmen began dismantling the huts as they emptied, and whilst all records of Exmouth ranks were despatched to Plymouth HQ a fleet of trucks loaded up men and equipment for the transfer to the new ITCRM Lympstone (Exton having by now virtually disappeared in favour of the new name)...yet even here as they prepared to take on Phase 1 and 2 training the future was not certain, after all Towyn and newly acquired Bickleigh vied for importance, and no doubt all but the 'Top Brass' watched and waited to see the outcome. I wonder if anyone then envisaged the transformation that would overtake Lympstone during the next four decades!?
But for Dalditch the fight was now over, although this heathland that through the centuries felt the tread of invading Roman, Saxon and Danish armies, and civil war 'Royalists' and 'Parliamentarians' campaigning hereabouts, has not yet borne the last Royal Marine boot whilst CTCRM continue training upon it. Here, where Sir Walter Raleigh played during his childhood at nearby Hayes Barton Farm, and today's recruits amble nonchalantly past on map reading exercises without perhaps a thought to what hallowed ground they tread, nature reclaims its wilderness. "Dalditch Camp is no more," the "Globe & Laurel" dramatically declared at the end of 1946.
© - RMHS 1986
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