The world wars of the 20th century killed and maimed millions of people. At the end of these conflicts in 1918 and 1945 it was time for the troops to go home.
Torquay played a special role in facilitating the return of our allies – New Zealand’s fighting men after the Great War and Canadian airmen after the Second World War.
The New Zealand contingent of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (the ANZACs) had come to Torquay in 1917. When deciding where to base the troops, Weston-Super-Mare and Weymouth were considered. Yet, as soon as commanding officer General Richardson saw Torquay, he said: “This is New Zealand. It will suit our men down to the ground.”
The New Zealanders had a camp in the water meadows in Lower Cockington Valley. They used a lean-to single-storey wooden pub with a rear wall made of thick cob. This was at the bottom of Bewhay Lane, just past the Lutyens-designed Drum.
Many other contemporary sources commented on the presence of the Diggers in local pubs and other venues – such as the YMCA at Maycliff in St Lukes Rd.
At the end of the war, between 40,000 and 50,000 men passed through the New Zealand Discharge Depot in St Marychurch. Many were directly repatriated from Torquay – between 1917 and 1919, 29,000 New Zealanders left from Haldon Pier.
On October 10 1919, for example, “huge crowds” watched as 694 passengers sailed away, including “… a number of armless and legless men for whom special provision was made on the RMS Arawa”. The passengers included about 30 wives and it was noted that, “a great many (Anzacs) had married local women”.
Of course, many didn’t make it home. During the Great War, 18,050 New Zealanders died and almost 50,000 were wounded.
In 1915, New Zealand soldiers had formed part of an Allied expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula. What had been planned as a bold strike to knock Turkey out of the war quickly became a stalemate, and the campaign dragged on for eight months. At the end of 1915, the Allied forces were evacuated after both sides had suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships. New Zealand lost 2,721 men.
News of the landing at Gallipoli made a profound impact on New Zealanders at home. Though the campaign may have been a military defeat, the Gallipoli landings meant the beginning of something else – a feeling that New Zealand was a distinct nation.
The day of the first landing, April 25 quickly became the day on which they remembered the sacrifice of those who had died. Anzac Day remains one of the most important national occasions of both Australia and New Zealand.
A service to commemorate Anzac Day on April 25, 1919 was held in Belgrave Church on Belgrave Road. 1,000 ANZAC officers and men with their wives were present. Captain McLean, their padre, said:
“They honoured that day not only those who lay on the inhospitable slopes of Anzac, but also those who slept beneath the tawny sands of Egypt, amongst the mountains of the Caucasus, beneath the waters of the Great Deep, under the fronded palms of Samoa, or below the sacred soil of Palestine.”
At the end of the Second World War it was the men and women of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) who came to know Torquay. Of the 1.1 million Canadians who served in the armed forces between 1939 and 1945, more than 45,000 lost their lives and another 54,000 were wounded.
The Torquay RCAF was involved in operations in Britain, northwest Europe, the north Atlantic, Egypt, Italy, Sicily, Malta Ceylon, India and Burma and with home defence. By 1944, it reached a peak strength of 215,000 personnel, the fourth largest allied air force.
At the end of the war, it was time to go home and the men and women of the RCAF were demobilised through a depot in Torquay.
In eight months 33,000 personnel passed through their demobilisation depot. Around a thousand were women other ranks, officers and nursing sisters.
The Torbay depot was under the command of Group Captain JA Hutchison CBE of Edmonton, Alberta. It was set up in June 1945 and divided into three wings situated in Torquay, Paignton and Babbacombe. At one time it had over 2,000 permanent staff.
Over 80 of the staff had married while in Torquay, and approximately 500 of the men had married in transit, though the proportion of those who married local women wasn’t disclosed. From Torquay the men and women of the RCAF made the journey to Liverpool or Southampton and then by ocean liner or less prestigious vessel to Canada.
Many of the Torquay’s leading hotels were used as quarters while the Canadians waited for available transport. The Torquay Times reported:
“Shipping is almost as rare a commodity today as it was during the war years and the RCAF has to take its turn with the allied forces and comrades in khaki and navy blue. Some may be in and out of Torquay within 24 hours; others may stay here days or weeks.”
Even to get to Torquay wasn’t easy. The airmen travelled through many countries, with one having visited 38 nations.
In February 1946 the depot’s various sections closed down and control was transferred to the RAF bomber station in Topcliffe, Yorkshire. As a farewell gesture the airmen entertained local children at the Babbacome Concert Hall (later the Babbacombe Theatre), the children being given a film show and bags of sweets and chocolates.
At the depot’s closing ceremony, Captain Hutchison presented the last airman with a scroll and a bottle of rum. It was then announced that, on future Dominion Days, the Canadian flag of the overseas headquarters of the RCAF would fly on Torquay Town Hall.
In his closing speech, Captain Hutchison expressed his gratitude to the people of the Bay:
“At Torquay they were very happy. They came to love the people and the weather… As Canadians they fully realised what the people of this country had suffered and done to win the war. They were deeply appreciative and were proud to have been associated with them.”