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Casualty of war

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[Times art: David Williams]

By PATRICIA MCCRACKEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2000


The village of Tyneham, in the peaceful, green English countryside, was not a victim of German bombs during World War II. It was destroyed instead by friendly fire.

Throughout the years of World War II, emotional turmoil, desperation and sacrifice battered the English psyche far more than most Americans could ever comprehend.

No place in England sacrificed more than the village of Tyneham. In fact, the village itself was sacrificed at the demand of the War Department. It no longer really exists. Tyneham is a ghost town now and as ghost towns go, it is filled with legend, sadness and what ifs.

The villagers of Tyneham, safely outside the war-torn city where bombs struck nightly, never thought that they too would have to evacuate. But they did have to flee the countryside -- under order of their own army, which swiftly commandeered the land for its own use in an operation that even now, more than half a century later, seems cruel.

The evacuation of Tyneham happened suddenly, but the military had for years been using the surrounding countryside as a gunnery school. Tanks would lumber through the valley like huge turtles and because they were supposed to be top secret, villagers had to hurry inside and draw the curtains at the first sound of them, so the "Hush-Hushes" could roll by unseen.

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[Times art: David Williams]
It must have been an odd sight, these enormous Sherman tanks creeping across the stunning landscape that is the Isle of Purbeck. This is Thomas Hardy country, with mile after mile of rolling hills and chalky cliffs that drop dramatically into the English Channel. The beauty here is powerfully quiet, elegant and graceful. And right in the middle is Tyneham.

It was a small village. Just more than 200 people lived and worked here, mostly as tenants to the manor house. They were farmers, tailors, gardeners, and many of them grew up in houses that had been occupied by their families for generations. The residents of Tyneham worked together, went to church together, raised their families together.

Then came the war. By 1940, Purbeck was teeming with soldiers who had moved in -- to vacant houses, spare bedrooms, wherever there was room. Tyneham's schoolhouse, closed for years because of low enrollment, was turned into a dormitory for nurses. The Bond family, who lived in the manor house and owned Tyneham and half the valley, were kicked out of their 440-year-old-mansion so it could be used to house the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.

At first the Bonds lived there with the women, all 60 of them, cramming as many as 11 into each room while moving themselves into two rooms in a small wing of the house. But by the next year the family sought refuge at one of their tenant's cottages. Although no one knew it at the time, everyone would be forced from their homes in Tyneham, and no one would ever come back.

The news was a shock at first because no one really saw it coming. Even the Bond family, who owned the properties, was not forewarned. Since the gunnery school was located here and the open spaces were just right for shelling practice, the War Department decided that this land would be ideal for training British and American troops for the D-Day invasion. So there was to be an eviction.

The notice sent to all the villagers read, in part: ". . . in the National interest, it is necessary to move you from your homes . . . The government appreciates that this is no small sacrifice which you are asked to make, but they are sure that you will give this further help toward winning the war with a good heart."

The notice was dated November 16, 1943. Residents had one month to get out.

It was a crazy month. Since the soldiers had moved in years earlier, there was virtually nowhere to put anyone. Evelyn Bond frantically helped her tenants look for other accommodations, not having yet secured anything for herself.

Everyone scattered to different towns and villages. Some families were temporarily split up and put in separate homes, and at least one family moved into a house that had been condemned. One resident, off fighting the war, returned home only to find it had been taken away from him.

Despite the chaos, the rush, the upset, at the end of the four weeks Tyneham was cleaned out. All the furniture was moved, the farm animals had been sold, and the houses were tightly secured. Reportedly, there was not a spoon, blanket or pillow left in all the village, and the last family to leave got out just hours before the deadline.

On a bitterly cold day, less than a week before Christmas, Tyneham was emptied of its people but not its heart, as shown by the note pinned to the church door by a grieving community:

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[Times art: David Williams]
Please treat the church and houses with care. We have given up our homes, where many of us have lived for generations, to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day, and thank you for treating our village kindly.

They never did return, of course, although they fully believed they would. After all, Winston Churchill had promised that they could come back. In what became known as Churchill's Pledge, he vowed that they should fully expect to return to their village when the war was over.

But governments never have been known for keeping promises. In effect, Tyneham was captured from England by its own army.

"It's sad what happened," says Range Warden Tim Mills, who works at the military range in Tyneham. "The people really expected to return to their homes. But many were given better homes, with electricity and heater access for the water."

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Most people were, if not happy, at least content with their new houses, which were indeed equipped with conveniences not yet available in Tyneham. But to say that they were better off because of such things as electricity and water heaters is to dismiss a way of life generations old. Like the Bonds, who had lived there for seven generations over 400-plus years, this was the life they knew, and in a dizzying 33 days it was all over.

The Bonds were eventually paid about $50,000 in compensation, a pittance considering they lost 3,000 acres and an Elizabethan mansion. The rest of the villagers just about broke even, ending up with adequate housing and reasonable rent, although minus the charm and history of the land they were forced to leave.

To assume that the villagers felt betrayed by what the government had done to them would be wrong. It's true, a few of them were angry and bitter about the broken promise. But the British have an infinite capacity to take what life hands them and get on with it. The residents were to file no lawsuits, stage no group protests, make no demands of Parliament. They simply felt they did what their country asked of them and that was that.

Now, people are certain of one thing: If the land had been returned, Tyneham and the surrounding countryside would not be the thriving natural habitat it has become.

Ironically, it is the presence of the gunnery school that is credited with protecting the natural beauty. Without it, most people think, the area would have been built up and overdeveloped, at least by English standards.

"Had it not fallen into military hands, it would have been hit by all the things of the agricultural revolution . . . (and) there would have been holiday cottages, caravan (RV) camps. It would have been nice to imagine that it would all stay like that, medieval and Saxon fields staying intact, but it couldn't have done," says Rodney Legg,

Legg is founder of the Tyneham Action Committee, which 30 years ago worked tirelessly to liberate the land from government control, despite the fact that most of the former residents no longer wanted to come back. Legg failed at efforts to put the region in the care of the National Trust, an organization similar to the National Park Service.

The land was retained by the gunnery school, but concessions have been made throughout the years, and the military has cleared and opened up 90 miles of valley and coastal footpaths to weekend hikers -- weekdays remaining off limits because of firing practice.

Another victory for hikers was won last year when Parliament agreed to consider granting even more access -- no small feat considering the possibility that thousands of live shells contaminate the grounds.

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[Photo: AP]
Not all buildings in Tyneham were saved; this shell is all that’s left of a cottage abandoned during the war.
Not many of Tyneham's final generation are still alive to tell about the evacuation. There's John Gould, who gave up his long fight to regain the village but held on to his bitterness; and there's Arthur Grant, who tried to capitalize on his status by attempting to charge a reporter $160 for his story.

What Grant failed to realize is that the story of Tyneham did not die with the people. It lives on as a reminder of what war does, and it lives on as a legend of the England that used to be.

Tyneham is forever stuck in a time warp, knowing nothing of the Cold War or computer glitches. Tyneham was not perfect then, but it is perfect now, having been recreated in the minds of those who long for a bygone era. In this accidental paradise, time has stopped.

Wandering through the skeletal remains of Tyneham, it's hard to believe only 56 years have passed. The broken walls and the roofless, windowless houses look more like the ruins of the 900-year-old medieval castle up the road than the village abandoned just two generations ago.

The 16th-century mansion was demolished in the '70s, but not before local gentry swooped in to "salvage" precious beams and pillars. After falling into disrepair, the 600-year-old church was restored by the military as part of an agreement with a church council.

The schoolhouse has also been restored by the military and turned into a museum, although one that, oddly, recognizes the ecology and wildlife of the region, not the evictees. In a museum that logically should be dedicated to Tyneham and its people, no mention is made of what happened here December 19, 1943.

There is no formal dedication to Tyneham, no honor to the sacrifice that was made here. There are only the rolling valleys, the footpaths scattered with scampering rabbits and deer, the spectacular panoramic views along the cliffs.

To walk these paths is to be engulfed in a beauty so touching it brings forth tears, which in itself is a dedication, a thankfulness for all that was given.

-- Patricia McCracken is an American freelance writer who lives in England.

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