Henry's dramatic DVD catches Weston at war
PUBLISHED: 17:06 07 July 2011
A NEW DVD written and presented by best-selling Somerset author Henry Buckton tells the story of the county's war effort.
Somerset At War takes a geographical tour around the county, visiting places that have a connection to Somerset’s war effort and begins on the coast at Weston which, in the summer of 1939 was bustling with holidaymakers.
Shortly after the start of hostilities, evacuees arrived in the town to escape the anticipated bombing of London. But as it turned out, Weston was far from being a safe haven and it soon found itself in the firing line.
The first major bombing of the town took place on January 4, 1941, when, at around 10pm, aircraft appeared over Sand Bay, but instead of continuing up the Severn Estuary towards Bristol the bombers turned inland and launched a heavy attack across the town.
More than 30 people were killed during this raid, including several evacuee children, and more than 80 others were injured.
But why did the Luftwaffe target Somerset’s most popular seaside resort? The truth was that like most other large towns in the county, Weston was involved with the war effort in a number of different ways.
To start with there was RAF Locking, home of No 5 School of Technical Training, where tradesmen learned to work on and service a variety of aircraft.
Weston also had a pre-war civilian airfield, requisitioned in May 1940 for service with the Royal Air Force. At one time it was a selection centre and initial training facility for men who wished to join the RAF as pilots. Today, the town’s renowned Helicopter Museum is housed on part of the original site.
Then there was Birnbeck Pier which, although derelict in 1941, was commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Birnbeck, and taken over by the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development. This was a group of military and civilian scientists who developed and researched new top secret defence projects of a nautical nature.
There were also two aircraft factories in the area belonging to the Bristol Aeroplane Company, one at Oldmixon and the other at Banwell, where Beauforts and Beaufighters were built.
So there is no doubt that the town played an important part in the war effort and could have been regarded as a military target by the Germans, although in reality, the various attacks appear to have been aimed solely at the civilian population.
By far the worst of the raids took place on the nights of June 28 and 29 in 1942. On the first of these, the sirens sounded at about 1.20am as over 50 German bombers carried out a concentrated attack on the town.
On this occasion, the affected areas included Moorland Road, Montpelier East, and Southside. The Tivoli Cinema, one of the town’s premier attractions, was destroyed. Among other well-known landmarks to be hit were the Grand Pier and Uphill Church.
By morning many streets were impassable. Civil Defence personnel from all over Somerset searched through the rubble for survivors as the fire brigade damped the smouldering ruins.
But the ordeal was far from over, as just after midnight, the raiders returned to finish the job. This time they appeared intent on ripping the heart out of the town. At one point the whole of High Street seemed to be on fire.
Around 50 shops and offices were totally destroyed. An unexploded bomb at the railway station caused a temporary suspension of trains, which led to a proud boast on German radio that nothing was left of Weston and the railway had been destroyed.
The human toll of the two nights was 102 dead and nearly 400 others wounded, many being visitors to the resort.
During the course of the war, the Luftwaffe cruelly killed many innocent people in this corner of Somerset, but as well as the graves of local people, in Weston’s Milton Road cemetery, are the graves of German airmen who died while perpetrating such acts, including the crew of a Heinkel He III shot down at Hewish on April 4, 1941.
Their aircraft was claimed by the guns of Flying Officer Ted Crew of 604 Squadron, while flying a Beaufighter. Crew went on to become one of the most successful night-fighting pilots of the war, accounting for 12 enemy aircraft, plus one shared kill.
After filming at Weston, Henry Buckton takes the viewer on a trip around the rest of the county, visiting places such as Brean Down, Burnham, Bridgwater, Doniford, Watchett, Minehead, Taunton, Yeovil, Shepton Mallet, Wells, Glastonbury and Bath.
n Somerset At War is available direct from the film company 1st-Take Ltd at £14.95, by visiting www.1st-Take.com or calling 01454 321614.