A Squatter's Write - Part Two of Dick Sturch's life at 'The Camp' in Millwey Rise

  Posted: 08.10.20 at 11:20 by Dick Sturch

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What as always proved a mystery for me is finding who in fact owned the ground on which the US army hospital was built at Millwey Rise.

I have approached many people on the subject but to date have drawn a blank. I presume at one time it was part of the Cloakham Estate which was finally broken up and sold so this is where I start my time line:

1916 - FOR SALE THE CLOAKHAM ESTATE AXMINSTER 927 acres comprising of: Pennsylvania Farm, Chubbs Farm, Cloakham House, Gardens, Coach House and Stables, Millbrook Cottage, Axminster Cricket and Tennis Clubs, Blackhakes Farm, Uphay Farm, Greatwood Farm, East Membury Farm, Willhay Cottage.

1938 - Axminster`s invitation to hold the Devon County Show in 1939 is accepted. This announcement was made at an adjourned public meeting at Axminster on Saturday, when the Chairman (Mr. G H Morrish) reported that Devon County Agricultural Association had accepted the invitation.
The Chairman stated that the Sites Committee had recommended a site near the Chard road at Millwey Rise. just under a mile from the town.
1943 - The American Army 315th Station Hospital is built at Millwey Rise in readiness for the anticipated casualties of the planned 1944 D Day invasion.
1944 - The American 4th Division arrived in England to prepare for 'Operation Bolero' the assault on Europe. The 29th Field Artillery Battalion, a unit of the 4th Division, arrived in Axminster late January 1944. Some personnel were billeted at the 315th Hospital and others around the town. The George Hotel was commandeered as the Battalion Headquarters and Officers Mess and what is now the Guildhall for the enlisted men’s Mess.

6th June 1944 - The invasion of Europe began and the following is the obituary of an American soldier who became a casualty:
Pfc Felix Swan Bigham
Service# 18105278
82nd & 17th Airborne/507th PIR
HQ 2nd Battalion/Machine Gunner

Pfc Bigham was born May 22, 1921 in Bell County, Texas and, was wounded on July 5th, 1944 and died July 26th, 1944, at the 315th [US] Station Hospital, Millwey Rise, Axminster, Devon, England of wounds incurred during the Airborne invasion of Normandy.

Pfc Bigham, known as Swan to his family, friends and fellow troopers, was the son of Edd Newt Bigham a farmer and Union Grove country store proprietor.

Chard Road looking up from Millbrook. The old Trout Inn can just be seen in the top right while the cottages and trees on the left have all now gone

Pfc Bigham was a graduate of Belton High School, an Eagle Scout and a member of the Methodist Church in Belton, Bell County, Texas. Swan was an employee of J.H. James & Sons. War Department records indicate that Pfc Bigham enlisted in the US Army on May 12, 1942.
Pfc Bigham was awarded the Purple Heart Medal , the Bronze Star and the Croix de Guerre Unit Citation [French] the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Bronze Star and Arrowhead, the World War II Victory Medal, the World War II Honorable Service Lapel Button and the Parachute Badge.

The body of Pfc Bigham was returned to his family in Belton, Texas on July, 31st, 1948 via Santa Fe Railroad Train 73 arriving at the Belton Station at 4:30am. Pfc Bigham is interred at the Sparks-Bigham cemetery in Union Grove, Bell County, Texas, with the following inscription 'PFC 507th Prcht Inf/17 Abn Div WWII.

In a letter from T/Sgt John W Early of HQ2, dated prior to Dec 28, 1944, to Pfc Bigham's sister Marjorie, Sgt Early states 'Three members of your brothers gun crew were hit, but he stayed with his machine gun about two hours afterwards until he was hit himself. I join you in your sorrow because Swan was not only a brave and good soldier, but a very good friend"

T/Sgt Early himself was killed in action on Feb 7, 1945 during the Battle of the Bulge, Belgium, his remains were found in 1998 by a Belgian farmer and returned to the US Army authorities who interred T/Sgt Early at the Lorraine American Cemetery, St Avold, Moselle, France.

1945 - 10th August Axminster Council's Public Health Committee reported the receipt of a letter from the Ministry of Health stating that the Minister was not in a position at present to express any opinion regarding the future use of the Chard Road Hospital (used by the American Army during the European War).

Me and Nippy outside my first home on the Camp

The committee recommended the Council to ask Mr. Cedric Drewe. MP to make inquiries with a view to obtaining information as to the future use of the hospital, it being suggested that a portion should be utilized for occupation bv persons inadequately housed, pending the erection of post-war houses. Col. D. J. Greenshields said even supposing quite a number of German prisoners went to the hospital they would still not occupy half of it. He was certain that, with a little pressure part of the premises could be obtained to help the council over the building period.
The attitude of the Ministry was most un-cooperative and unhelpful. Thev must know perfectly well what was going to happen Any young man coming home from the Army would be very glad to "rough it" for a year or so with his wife and not more than one child. They could live there and be perfectly happy and comfortable, as the Americans had been. He, himself, he said, would live in the Camp cheerfully. The recommendation was adopted.

1946 - 10th September the Pulman`s Weekly News reported: "Several families have taken occupation of the empty wards at Chard Road Hospital, Axminster which has not been used since the Amereicans vacated it some months ago.

First to move in was Mr and Mrs Percy Huntley with their four children, aged nine, six, four and two years. They had been living with Mrs Huntley`s mother in a Council House at North Streeet, Axminster, where all six of them have slept in one bedroom. The house had nine occupants. He described his new home as “Better than a Council House” because of its ample accomodation. They are using an oil stove for cooking and oil lamps for lighting. Water and electricity are cut off but there is an ample supply of pure water close at hand

Unloading after midnight Mr.Huntley found the door of a ward open when he went to the Camp on Tuesday. He took possession and other families followed his example on Thursday when furniture was being unloaded until after midnight. All found accommodation in the wards, the Nissen huts being locked.”

Click here to read Dick Sturch's first part of this series.

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