A Home Guard Memorial Service will be held at Corbyn Head, Torquay, on August 11

Special service to remember Corbyn Head Home Guard tragedy

Torbay Weekly

The evening of August 11, 1944, was clear after a typical warm summer’s day, writes DAVID SCOTT.

On Corbyn Head, the Home Guard volunteers and regular soldiers manning the battery of coastal artillery guns held a practice shoot in front of army top brass and spectators gazing seaward.

The guns fired at a target 3,000 yards distant when suddenly one round plunged into the sea 1,000 yards away after a muffled explosion.

To everyone’s horror, a sheet of flame crept out of the gun emplacement.

At first, nobody realised a tragedy had occurred. Then came the realisation that the breech of the gun had blown, men were dead and others were seriously injured or badly burned.

Only the very lucky ones had escaped.

The casualties were hurried to Torbay Hospital but four members of the Home Guard had died instantly, and another regular soldier and a Home Guard member died later.

This tragedy will be commemorated at 11am on Thursday, August 11, at a special service to be held on Corbyn Head to which everyone is invited organised by the Torquay branch of the Royal British Legion supported by Paignton branch members.

As far as is known, it is now the only current service of its kind in the country to mark the loss of Home Guard personnel.

Captain Charles Fursdon, of the Devonshire Regiment, said after the explosion: ‘Our medical officer took charge of the lecture hut which was rapidly turned into a dressing station and in his quiet, efficient manner proceeded to do his best for the injured. The flames were soon under control.”

To break the spell which had descended on Corbyn Head, another gun was fired successfully. The men were then dismissed.

A full military funeral took place four days later for Lance Bombardier F.G. Wellington, Lance Bombardier J.H. Fishwick, Gunner G. Buckingham and Gunner W. Kinch. Their bodies were interred in the ‘Heroes Corner’ of Torquay Cemetery.

Regimental Sergeant Major Frederick Blackett died three days later, while Gunner Walter Houghton died of extensive burns and shock on August 19.

A court of inquiry investigated but the exact cause of the explosion was never determined, and no blame was ever attached to anyone.

The sole survivor of those who had been in the gun pit was Donald Mackenzie-Fraser, who immediately left the Home Guard and went to work as a miner in Wales, a job he felt was much safer.

Before he moved from Chelston, he told an inquest into the men’s deaths how the gun would not fire because of a problem with the striker.

When another striker was inserted, three rounds were fired satisfactorily, but further problems arose when a shell was not properly rammed.

He had just turned his back on his colleagues so he could telephone the battery observation post, when the explosion flung him eight feet from the gun pit.

Royal Artillery officers told the coroner of the risks involved with an over-sensitive chemical charge, but no satisfactory conclusion was reached.

A verdict of ‘death from misadventure’ was recorded.

On the 61st anniversary in 2005 a national cliff-top memorial was unveiled at the site of the explosion, thanks to the perseverance and hard work of Peter Foreman and the Turning Point Heritage Trust.

He said at that time: This project was inspired by the sacrifice of a few, but it is dedicated to all those members of the Home Guard who lost their lives on active service. We felt they deserved a proper memorial.’

Scores of veterans proudly wearing their medals took part in the ceremony including Gordon Rendle, then aged 77, who was at Corbyn Head that fateful day. He had used forged papers to sign up for the Home Guard when aged 16.

For further details contact Gerald Arnold via email at arnold_gerald@hotmail.com or Richard Pearce at  Richard.lpearce@btinternet.com