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The 1939 - 1945 War Years


Shortly after the outbreak of war, sixty houses in Royal Avenue West, Imperial Terrace and Belgravia Road were commandeered to form the Onchan Camp, the first in the Douglas area, for the internment of enemy aliens. These were mostly boarding houses and provided around five hundred bedrooms. Double fences of barbed wire were set up and ran down the centre of parts of four roads, including Royal Avenue West and Belgravia Road. The Main Gate was near the corner of Royal Avenue and Royal Drive and the Camp Head Quarters was across the road in the block of houses at the bottom of Royal Avenue. In June 1940 the first internees, 1,200 Germans, arrived at the Onchan Camp.

The majority of these were not anti-British and amongst them were refugees from Nazi oppression who had fled from Germany and from Austria before the war. Many were craftsmen, but there was also a high proportion of professionals such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists, writers, teachers and musicians.

One such intellectual was Professor Herbert Frohlich, although not necessarily in the Onchan Camp. His obituary in The Telegraph of 31st January 1991 recalls how the Nazis arranged his dismissal in 1933, as a Jew, from Freiburg University. After making his way to England by way of Leningrad, he worked in a laboratory at Bristol University. The university secured his early release from internment and he remained at Bristol, at first as a lecturer and later as Reader until 1948 and worked on several war-related projects. He became Professor of Solid State Physics at Salford University and gained an international reputation in his field.

Another internee, Hans Peter Schidlof, was an Austrian of Jewish parentage and had been sent to safety in Britain at the age of 16 in 1938 and it was at the Onchan Camp that he met Siegmund Nissel and both later became members of the celebrated Amadeus quartet. In 1991, during the filming of Border Television's program "His Majesty's Most Loyal Enemy Aliens", two former internees who were billeted at what is now the Park Hotel at the corner of Royal Avenue West and Belgravia Road made a nostalgic return visit there.

By July 1940 the Onchan internees had produced a duplicated camp newspaper, "The Onchan Pioneer", which reflected not only their intellectual and artistic abilities but also their desire to use their talents in the British war effort. Soon they had set up shoe maker's, tailor's, barber's and joiner's shops and a dry cleaners within the camp. They also set up the Popular University which offered thirty different courses which around six hundred internees attended daily. For Christmas 1940 hand coloured cards were produced and some were sold outside the camp. In September 1944, another activity at the Onchan camp came to light when an Italian internee was charged with operating an illicit alcohol still.

By August 1940 the Island held more than 14,000 internees, about 4,000 women and over 10,000 men. As the months went by individual cases were examined and large numbers were cleared of suspicion of Nazi sympathies and released back to the U.K. Many volunteered for the forces and served with the Pioneer Corps, the only branch for which they were accepted. Some were later transferred to the Intelligence Corps to make use of their linguistic abilities. By July 1941 those in the Onchan camp were moved to other camps and Onchan was closed, but following the entry of Italy into the war in 1940 the Onchan camp had to be re-opened in September 1941 to hold the Italian internees. These proved to be somewhat troublesome with an attempted break out and, in 1943, a near riot in the Spring and suspected arson in the Summer. The guards now usually patrolled the perimeter fence in pairs.

From 1941 the Onchan camp issued its own internal currency in the form of notes and coinage. Three denominations of notes were issued. These measured about 120 by 70 millimetres and bore the words, in copper plate style type, "Onchan Internment Camp" in the top left hand corner, a representation of the Tower of Refuge in Douglas Bay, a serial number, and the value in both words and figures, namely, 2/6, expressed as half crown, five shillings and ten shillings. The coins were of 6d and 1d values, (six old pence and one old penny) and were struck in brass. A half-penny coin was also issued and was larger in size than the one penny coin but it is said that supplies of this coin had disappeared within a few weeks of issue, having been snapped up as souvenirs.

A memento of the Onchan Camp, an oil painting of the Virgin Mary, predominantly in blue, by an Italian internee, was displayed in the old St. Anthony's Church until its demolition and is now kept at the Presbytery. The artist was V. Hainisch and the picture is dated 1942. The Madonna is depicted rising into the sky over Douglas Bay, with the road along Onchan Head to the left and Douglas Harbour to the right. On a similar theme and purely by coincidence, the new church has an engraved glass window by Mr Christopher Spittall which, when viewed from within, gives an impression of Christ walking on the waters of Douglas Bay. The origin of this however, is St Faith's Church in Ohinemutu, Lake Rotorua, New Zealand, which has a similar window, and was the suggestion of Mr Albert Gubay the principal benefactor of the new Church.

The Onchan camp was finally cleared of internees in November 1944 and was made ready as a prisoner of war camp.

The Majestic Hotel also played its part during the war and served as a Military Hospital. In 1945 some 380 books from the hospital library were donated to the Village Commissioners and formed a nucleus of the Village Library.

The Cafe Royal, opposite to the Gate Lodge of the Majestic Hotel, was taken over as a convalescent unit for the Military Hospital and patients could sit on the glazed verandah and look out over Douglas Bay.

Many training establishments were set up in the Island during the war. In addition to the air bases at Jurby and Andreas, more than 40,000 men and boys of the Royal Navy came to the Island. Over 8,000 boys were trained at H.M.S. St. George and more than 26,000 ratings learnt to operate newly-invented Radar at H.M.S. Valkyrie and thousands more became Communications Ratings at Valkyrie II. The Royal Naval Air Station at Ronaldsway produced more than 500 crews for the Naval Air Arm.

The Howstrake Holiday Camp had a war-time function from the early days of the war. By January 1940 it had become a naval establishment for boy sailors and operated in conjunction with the Cunningham Camp in Douglas which was also taken over for a similar purpose. A postcard of the camp exists, sent by a boy sailor to his grandmother, postmarked 5th January 1940 and which gave his address as "A Division, Howstrake Camp, I.O.M.". He wrote "..Dear Grannie, Just a line to say that I am getting on allright.....we crossed the Mersey from Liverpool to Isle of Man on a steamer which took us five and a half hours..".

Another boy sailor at the Howstrake Naval Camp was Boy Second Class John Larkin of B Division at Howstrake. He wrote detailed letters to his mother covering his time both at Howstrake Naval Camp and at the former Cunningham's Camp at Douglas, H.M.S. St George, during the period February 1941 to around July 1942. These letters are preserved at Manx National Heritage. (File MD 1249).

His first letter was of 22nd February 1941, by which time Howstrake had functioned for over a year as a Naval Camp. Boy Larkin explained that the camp was made up of three divisions, A, B and C, each consisting of four watches. He went on to say that "..This is only a preliminary camp here, and I'm here to learn routine, drill, etc., but no signals till I get to the Main Camp in six weeks time..". He noted that "..We are right on the sea-shore and the scenery is absolutely marvellous..". He continued, presumably with a degree of exaggeration, that " snows every night and the cold is very."

The weekly pay of a boy sailor amounted, during his initial training, to 5/3d (about 26p) and of this he received between 5p and 7p. The balance was placed to his credit until he was 18 years of age. Boy Larkin's letters, in addition to extremely literate comments about his life at Howstrake, contained frequent pleas for "tuck", (he was an former public schoolboy), and for postage stamps with which to write home.

In addition to intensive training, he played hockey, "...the sticks were awful and the ground worse...", and a letter of March 1941 noted that "..Yesterday, a Royal Marine band turned up and played to us..". He went on to report that "..Tomorrow....we march down to the main camp, St. George, at Douglas.....I may be able to get some jam in the town (as there is no rationing in the I.O.M.) to bring home..". Boy Larkin’s comment was inaccurate as a regime of rationing of food supplies was in force in the Island similar to that which operated in the United Kingdom.

Boy Larkin's first letter from the former Cunningham Camp, H.M.S. St George, was dated 4th May 1941 and in two of his subsequent letters he mentioned the Howstrake Naval Camp. In November 1941 he wrote that "..We had a marvellous treat last Friday night. Anyone of us who was interested could go to an orchestral concert held in the gym by the R.N.S.M. (Royal Naval School of Music which is now here at Howstrake Camp)..". In March 1942 he recorded that "..we had a dance (no women) and the music was supplied by the Royal Marine Boys dance band....The Royal Naval School of Music (for R.M. boys) is now at Howstrake Camp..". Boy Larkin was still at H.M.S. St George in July 1942 awaiting posting to a warship as a signalman.

In July 1941 the Howstrake camp had been taken over by the Junior Wing of The Royal Naval School of Music. This was made up of Royal Marine boy musicians under the command of Capt. H.L. Smith. R.N. A photograph of the camp, dating from the war years, shows the addition of two galvanised iron "Nissen" huts to augment the accommodation.

An account of Naval activities in the Island written by Capt. A R Halfhide, Naval Officer in Charge, which appeared in the "Mona's Herald" of 28th. August 1945, referred to Royal Marine Bands and the Howstrake Camp, as follows -

"Royal Marine Bands have proved a vital asset to the morale of the Fleet particularly in the Pacific War and in ships on detached service where ships' companies are forced to rely on their own entertainment. Today, every battleship, cruiser, aircraft carrier and light cruiser carries a band, varying from 11 to 23 personnel - the number allocated for a Fleet Flagship...In addition to their musical duties, Royal Marine Bandsmen are employed in the fighting organisation of the ship as fire control ratings and in first-aid parties. So far in the war, the R.M. Band Service has suffered about 200 casualties. Twenty-three honours have been awarded. The Junior Wing of the R.N. School of Music at Howstrake Camp has given a valuable supply of trained personnel for these duties in the Fleet."

Recreational activities for the junior bandsmen included football matches against visiting schoolboy teams from Douglas. These were played on an improvised pitch on fields on the Clay Head side of Groudle Glen and no matter how the pitch was laid out it sloped one way or the other!

On two occasions the lads found leisure time to take part in the Manx Music and Drama Festival, the "Guild", and in both 1944 and 1945 competed in the junior section of one act plays. The naval authorities shared the view of the former Holiday Camp management that the camp was for males only. This presented a problem with their 1945 production of "Papa Haydn", a period piece set in the Vienna of 1809, as this contained a female part, (no fools they!), and Miss B. O'Mara of Onchan played this role and was admitted to the camp for rehearsals. From time to time the boy musicians took part in public concerts, such as one given at The Villa Marina in September 1944 when they were billed as the "Grand Orchestra from the Royal Naval School of Music".

Although the Douglas Bay Hotel was a spacious building with its own grounds, little was known of any wartime role which it might have played. It was reputed to have been used, for a time, to accommodate around 250 survivors from the Dunkirk evacuation and, later, to have served as a billet for army personnel stationed on the Island. It was also rumoured locally, and this may have been the officially preferred version in the interests of national security, that it was being used as a military convalescent unit.

However, a report in a Manx newspaper after the war stated that " Douglas there was established an important Station of the Royal Signals manned by....members of the A.T.S....For two years or more there was not a single message in morse, even in code, sent by a German signaller anywhere in Europe, which these girls trained in Douglas did not pick up and send to be translated or decoded...". It was not until 1995 that the true nature of this work came, by chance, to be revealed.

In the Summer of that year, during a guided tour of the site of the former Onchan internment camp, a member of the Friends of Onchan Heritage recalled that his parents had assisted in the running of a British Legion canteen in Main Road, Onchan, and that they had known two members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the fore runner of the Women's Royal Army Corps, who had had a connection with the Douglas Bay Hotel. One of these ladies was living in America and the other was in England but their addresses were known. Contact was made and they revealed what must have been the best kept secret ever to involve the Island.

An extract from a letter from one of these ladies, now living in Chelmsford, reads as follows -

"Y" Operators intercepting                                                                                   SQUAD  36
messages from the enemy                                                                                    W.O.Y.G.
which were decoded
at Bletchley.                                                                                      (War Office "Y" Group)

The whole unit moved from Trowbridge, Wilts in Jan. '43 (where our Squad 36 had already done 3 months training) to Douglas and our "Camp" was on the sea front taking over several hotels. The ground floor rooms were used for training in Morse code speed (receiving) & learning the workings of a wireless set. Douglas Bay Hotel also had Set Rooms (good reception). Physical training took place at Villa Marina, plimsolls only to be worn when on the dance floor. In April we returned to the mainland for our operational work on the "Y" stations.

A group of us "girls", out walking in Onchan found the BRITISH LEGION FORCES CANTEEN !   It was great - a home from home - a cosy fire and a huge welcome. I think we were the first A.T.S to visit, and our host George Errington treated us as his daughters. Later we met Margery who welcomed us in her home...and we have kept in touch all these years..".

The second of the two ladies, now living in Illinois, replied -

"..You asked about our work in the A.T.S...I'm not sure if it is still "Secret" or not!!  We didn't do codebreaking, but were part of "Enigma / Ultra", as we spent our time listening in to the German's wireless signals & took down their messages ( in code) which were then sent on to Bletchley Park for the codebreakers to do their bit. I guess most of the wireless traffic was from the German Army - we were never told much! And, of course we were sworn to secrecy. We'd started learning the Morse code soon after being chosen for this program & had intensive sessions in becoming "fluent" in taking Morse before actually "going on ops" in England. The Douglas Bay Hotel was where we had part of our training. It took 9 months to a year to train an operator & we were attached to the Royal Corps of Signals & were part of W.O.Y.G. - (the War Office "Y" Group), but served as members of the A.T.S. (or Auxiliary Territorial Service). Now they are the Womens Royal Army Corps - I believe.....Our quarters in the boarding houses. No hot water (as I can recall) & not much heat. Traces of macaroni in the dresser drawers from the Italian P.O.W.'s who'd been moved to another location..".

The billets which these personnel occupied appear to have been the former Palace Internment Camp on Queen's Promenade which had closed in November 1942. Around 2,000 War Office "Y" Group operators completed their training there and at the Douglas Bay Hotel between 1943 and 1945.

The coded enemy radio signals which the "Y" Group intercepted were decoded by one of the "Enigma" mechanical decoding machines which, unknownst to the Germans, had been captured intact. The fact that Britain was able to decode these signals, and to know in advance of enemy submarine intentions, was to prove a decisive factor in the battle of the Atlantic. The defeat of the German U-boats permitted the resumption of shipments of arms and supplies from the United States and this was a crucial factor in an eventual allied victory.

In anticipation of an end to the war in Europe, some of the girls in the Y Group were posted back to England and began to learn the Japanese morse code