KEEP SMILING THROUGH!
The Brixham Home Front
Startled Brixhamites gathered on the Quay, watching in disbelief, as a grim flotilla of Belgian motor trawlers arrived in the port with decks, topsides and sails scarred with bullet holes from enemy machine gun fire, their gear left behind in a desperate attempt to escape. The vessels had been sailing for some three days from Ostend, Zeebrugge, Nieuport and Heyst-sur-Mer, dodging magnetic mines in the harbours of their home ports, where buildings had been destroyed with shattering impact and German soldiers utilised historic churches as watchtowers; floating mines further impeded their journey, which was accompanied by Nazi bombers, as the refugees endured ‘nights of dreadful terror, which would never be forgotten by anyone on board’.
Appalling conditions prevailed as the trawlers were crammed with hundreds of fearful Belgians, frail elderly people and sobbing and screaming children, who had been without water or sustenance since fleeing. On reaching their destination, they clamoured noisily for bread, water, milk and medical attention, but most of all they craved freedom, believing they would find a safe haven in Brixham. Harrowing scenes occurred on disembarkation at the port, which long ago had seen another dramatic arrival, when William, Prince of Orange stepped ashore and vowed to maintain the liberty of England. Some families had managed to bring furniture, bedding and portmanteaux of clothing; these items, scattered along the Quayside, reminded many Brixhamites of the days when local skippers conveyed their families to the East Coast for the fishing season, taking their belongings with them. Mr Ashford was haunted by the sight of a Belgian grandmother sitting on a chair amidst the chaos, crying out in horror, while two women were taken to Brixham Hospital for treatment, another giving birth to a son in the cabin of a trawler berthed at the Pier Head before help could reach her.
BUDC and the Food Control Committee did all they could to assist: cars were dispatched to bakehouses and dairies to collect all available commodities, several premises working until well into the evening, using precious rations to provide nourishment for the refugees. The WVS accommodated large numbers of distressed people and distributed tea. ‘Bountiful supplies’ were also given by townspeople from their own stores. Quickly cleared through immigration, several larger trawlers left for ports such as Dartmouth, Newlyn, Milford Haven and Fleetwood, where the fishery would provide an income for the Belgians, however, 80 boats remained at Brixham, having carried nearly 2,000 immigrants to swell the town’s population. The new Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill, who had replaced Mr Chamberlain to lead the Coalition Government, confirmed the surrender of the Belgian Army during business in the House of Commons.
Mark Boyce, Foreword, 2011