When we hear of wartime evacuation it usually conjures an image of anxious London children wrenched from families and sent to safer regions. But in November 1943 a different kind of evacuation took place across a huge area of countryside behind Start Bay. The vestiges of rural idyll not already wrecked by the Second World War were shattered. It was an episode that deeply affected the people of this part of Devon and helped shape the course of the war.

To enable American troops to practise for the planned D-Day landings, some 30,000 acres behind Slapton Beach, covering many villages and 180 farms, were evacuated in a massive and traumatic operation that displaced around 3,000 people.

Posters advertising public meetings were displayed, declaring that the area was to be ‘requisitioned urgently’. People were given just six weeks’ notice to leave.

Great British Life: Pam as a child by one of the posters that alerted people to the evacuation.Pam as a child by one of the posters that alerted people to the evacuation. (Image: Pam Wills)

One of these was 11-year-old Pam Wills. She still lives in the cottage in Strete in which she was born, and from which she and her family were evacuated.

‘We were suddenly told we had to find somewhere to live,’ she recalls. ‘No help was given unless you were absolutely stuck with nowhere to go. In this village practically everyone found somewhere nearby.’

American troops arrived in the area before all the villagers had moved out and were billeted in camps around the outside edge of the evacuated area.

‘I was the last youngster to leave the village,’ says Pam. ‘My family stayed to the very end, as we weren’t moving far away. It was very strange. There was no one about and as I was ambling through the empty village two American soldiers came along and asked if they could take a photograph of me. They said: “We want to send this back home to show our people what you are all doing for us”.

Great British Life: Pam pictured on the right in her WAAF uniform. Pam pictured on the right in her WAAF uniform. (Image: Pam Wills.)

‘As a kid, my sister and I loved it, it was exciting! But for our parents it was very upsetting. We went to my aunt and cousin’s farm at Beeson. They gave us a corner of their big kitchen and mother set up our tables and chairs there. Sometimes we’d eat with them, sometimes on our own in our part of the kitchen. Auntie let mother use the stove to cook on. What mother went through...’ Pam pauses reflectively. ‘She had to share the kitchen, share everything and help auntie clean the house. And we used to help on the farm, hand-milking the cows, scrubbing buckets and so on. Mother used to do all that and I helped too. Thinking about it now, I never realised then just how much mother did and what she went through.’

She says it wasn’t quite so hard for her father, who could carry on with his work as usual, outside the evacuated area.

‘My father, grandfather and great grandfather were builders. They had run the business from Strete for more than 100 years, but when the evacuation came father had to empty his workshop, taking all his materials, tools and machinery to Beeson. He carried on the business from there. My grandfather and great uncle were the owners of the business. Grandfather went to live with his sister at Paignton and my great uncle rented a house for the duration.’

Great British Life: A booklet given to Pam's father, entitled 'The protection of your home against air raids'A booklet given to Pam's father, entitled 'The protection of your home against air raids' (Image: SGHaywood Photography)

No compensation was made for the disruption and, although the army helped to move things from churches, ‘as far as I remember we had to arrange our own transport to move our furniture. Father moved all ours with a small trailer. It took him some time to get everything to Beeson’.

Although the displaced families were told that the land was needed for American troops to practise on, they didn’t know the details of what they were practising for, or much about what was happening down at the coast.

‘Father may have known a bit more,’ Pam adds, ‘as he was in the Royal Observer Corps and was stationed at Start Point during our evacuation – he’d previously been stationed at Dartmouth. From Start Point he could see a lot of what was going on, but he never said much about it, he probably wasn’t allowed to. I think he and my cousin Dick, who was in the Home Guard, would probably discuss it privately.

‘Father said that every day there were ambulances coming up from the coast, because live ammunition was being used. I think casualties were being taken to field hospitals. We didn’t know anything about the disasters around Exercise Tiger until after the war. No one breathed a word of it. We didn’t know this was all for [what would become known as] D-Day.’

Great British Life: Pam Wills. Pam Wills. (Image: SGHaywood Photography)

After 11 months the families were allowed to return, though not everyone came back.

‘Two farms round here changed hands,’ says Pam. ‘One farmer had bought a farm elsewhere as his wife died the day they were evacuated, there was so much stress. He didn’t want to come back here. The other one bought a market garden.’

And there were other sadnesses. ‘My parents had left some of our belongings in our loft, some brass that grandfather had brought back from India after the First World War and some tilly lamps. We’d been told everything would be safe as the houses would be locked and unused while we were away. But when we came back it had all disappeared. The army never touched it. People reckoned it was taken by those who came to repair the houses – there was lots of damage due to the use of live ammunition.’

On her mother’s side, Pam comes from a long line of farmers and had already had a childhood taster of farming before the evacuation.

Great British Life: Pam Wills in the doorway of her home, the house where she was born. Pam Wills in the doorway of her home, the house where she was born. (Image: SGHaywood Photography)

‘When I was seven I used to go and collect eggs at Bowden’s Farm, feed tame lambs and bring in the cows for milking,’ she says. ‘When it came to Saturday Mrs Bowden would declare I was due some wages – and she paid me a penny and an egg!’

When she was older, after the war, Pam joined the WAAF where she served for four years during the 1950s with my aunt Niki – a family friendship that has lasted since before I was born. After the WAAF Pam took up farming alongside other civilian jobs. I well remember her first cow, a Jersey called Susie whom she taught me to hand-milk when I was a small child.

Decades have passed, but Pam’s memories are very fresh.

‘Twenty years ago I met one of the Americans, then in his eighties, who was back here for the 60th anniversary commemorations. He recalled how they’d been sent here straight from college; he was 19 at the time. He’d had no idea what military life was going to be like. They left America, arrived in London and travelled through the night by lorry to Tavistock. There were no signposts so they hadn’t a clue where they were going. He told me he did most of his training on Dartmoor and was then told they were to go to Slapton for practise landings. The next time this man was due to practise he was ill, and missed the tragedy of Exercise Tiger, which may well have saved his life.

‘He said that if it hadn’t been for all of us, giving up this land for them to practise, there would have been many more American casualties. He thanked us for letting them come here. He was such a nice chap.’

Great British Life: Pam Wills in the doorway of her home, the house where she was born. Pam Wills in the doorway of her home, the house where she was born. (Image: SGHaywood Photography)