After reading my post about a visit to Lynmouth in 2007, Gillian Riddoch left a comment saying that her father was in the 102 Corps Engineer Regiment (TA) and he was in Lynmouth at the time of the tragic flood in 1952. I’m very pleased to be able to publish J. Gordon Killin’s account of what he experienced on that dreadful night of the 15th/16th of August as he and his Army colleagues worked tirelessly to assist the residents of Lynmouth in their time of dire need.
Friday 15th August 1952
Job — to collect petrol-driven 10-ton roller from Garrison Engineer Oakhampton, on loan to us for use on the road for the beach exercise. Jenkins and McDonald with Albion and trailer, with Carlin as dispatch rider, left before 0730. There had been heavy rain during the night and they were lucky to get out of the car park.
Photo: J. Gordon Killin, aged 19. (He was 23 at the time of this account.) Used with kind permission.
I left about 0930 in a jeep with no screenwipers on the driver’s side, meaning to ensure that the load was properly secured and come straight back. I had on a double texture waterproof coat, but the heavy rain soon began to penetrate the left-hand side exposed to the weather. The absence of screenwipers when trying to hurry on unfamiliar roads made driving a stress. However, about 1100hrs I got up the steep hill onto the moorland outside the camp where the Albion was parked, waiting on word from Carlin about which gate to go in.
By this time I had climbed into the cab of the Albion. Carlin came back and we drove into the car park. The Garrison Engineer wanted the trailer up to a bank outside the shed where the roller was kept. We started off by going up the wrong road and having to nose the trailer back down again. By this time the rain was really lashing down. Eventually we got it round to the bank, and amid blinding rain the roller was driven onto the trailer, slipping precariously due to mud on the rollers. The paths were swimming with water.
We broke off for lunch at 1300hrs, everybody soaked, cold and pretty miserable. A hot lunch put new life into us and we returned to the task, rain still pouring down. We took turns to go over to the boiler house to get thawed and dried. The boiler man was most hospitable. Jenkins and I returned to the job and McDonald and Carlin went to get dried. We were soaked within minutes. We got the ramps and gave up the struggle against a chain that wouldn’t [budge] and moved off. I went along to GE office and told Thomas that we were ready, but wouldn’t take the civvy operator as we would be too late to unload.
We collected McDonald and Carlin went for his motorbike, which he had left on the vehicle park. The three of us hauled the ramps onto the trailer and went down to the car park, where Carlin had left his bike. He was standing in six inches of water in the park, kicking fruitlessly at the starter.
Further over in the park, the water had lifted a 2ft manhole cover and a 10ft jet of water was spouting out all the time. We scrounged a new plug for the bike, but it still refused to start and we had to leave it behind. We set off, jeep leading, burning our sidelights for the heavy rain which made the 5pm sky like dusk.
The steep hill down to Okehampton town was running with water and strewn with stones washed out when the edges of the road surface had broken up. We stopped at a café for egg, chips and hot tea, knowing it might be hours before our next hot meal and the eating places between Okehampton and Bideford were hard to find. Back at the jeep there were large pools of water where we had been sitting. As we left the café, water was entering their basement.
We set off again, the Albion taking ages to crawl up the long hills, almost at walking pace. Rain was still pouring down, the sides of us that faced out from the jeep getting wetter and colder and our feet squelching every time we moved them. Several parts of the road between Okehampton and Torrington were under 3ft of water and there were queues of cars waiting to be pulled through by farm tractors.
Photo: FCPA Blog.
Most of the road was under running water a least a few inches deep, sometimes running into the road, sometimes churning across it, a brown foaming torrent. I tried to keep conversation going to stop Carlin thinking too much about how cold and wet he was. I was just as miserable, but driving, even at walking pace, occupied my mind to a certain extent.
Many of the bridges were up to the arches with flood water. I remember thinking how tremendous the pressure must have been and, as we later heard, many older and weaker bridges were carried away.
We saw one man standing in the porch of a newly built house as water rushed down the path from the road straight to the front door.
About 10 o’clock we reached Bideford and I decided to stop again for a hot drink. The road by the river was broad and we parked our convoy outside a café and went in for tea and sandwiches. It was a cheerful meal, we were within 30 miles of bed, but when we went outside again, a policeman was nosing around the Albion and trailer, to which he had obviously taken a dislike. He objected, quite rightly, to the small and dim tail lights and the danger thereof. Jenkins then told me that the dynamo hadn’t been charging all day and that we might have trouble starting up. I parked the jeep behind the trailer. The starter was giving unresponsive clicks. I suspected that water had got into it. Attempting to investigate would have meant opening the bonnet, which would have let more rain into the engine. [Eventually though], we got back to camp and our welcoming beds.
Our avuncular C.O. Bob Muir had no hesitation at getting me out of bed at 3 o’clock in the morning — “Gordon, go and see what’s happening.” I stood at the top of a 1 in 4, running with silt and pebbles washed down from higher upstream.
Photo: Everything Exmoor.
Carlin, who had been invaluable in reporting roads damaged by the torrent and bridges destroyed, said I might get the jeep down the slope but probably wouldn’t get it back up the hill again as more and more silt from upstream poured down it.
In the dark I trod warily down the hill and stepped over rubble to examine the force of the torrent descending on Lynmouth. The next morning revealed that I had been standing on the first floor of a hotel that had been destroyed by the torrent. The damage assessed, I scrabbled back off to my jeep to radio in my report to H.Q. Meanwhile Carlin’s details of impassable roads and damaged bridges allowed me to plan for Bailey bridge materials to be delivered to the site.
Willing Z reservists were pleased to tackle the building of replacement Bailey bridges at these sites, much better use of their knowledge and experience than the “refresher” course listed on their papers.
Photo: Everything Exmoor.
The next thing that we obviously needed was to get an excavator down to Lynmouth as boulders were obstructing the outflow from the East and West [Lyn] rivers, which normally discharge over the beach. I radioed Leo Fielder and a 19 R.B. was duly dispatched using the coastal upper leg of the A39. This involved another 1 in 4 descent to Lynmouth. I found it sitting immobile at the top of Countisbury Hill.
The rig was driven by Jenkins, who was unwilling to risk the descent with the weight of excavator and trailer. An over-confident 23 year old lieutenant sure of his own ability, but lacking in judgement (me) jumped into the driving seat of the Albion, ignoring Jenkins, who complained about the tail wagging the dog. We set off swaying down the hill at a gathering speed towards an offset bridge at the bottom. I still don’t know how I managed to negotiate the bridge without wiping out the parapet. The upper slope beyond the bridge slowed us down and I was able to examine the brake lines and discovered they were parallel instead of crossed over as they should have been to provide braking to the trailer. My words to Jenkins would be better imagined than repeated here!
At least we now had the excavator where it was needed, and its first task was to clear a big enough area of foreshore to turn round the trailer. The ever resourceful Carlin had found a quarry owner who wanted the river bed raised to its old level before it was gouged out by the surge. “If only it had stopped here instead of landing on the foreshore.” I felt like sending him to join the miserable Jenkins, so that they could moan together.
Photo: BBC Archives.
Once we had a turning circle big enough to turn round the trailer rig, we sent it back to H.Q. at Braunton. Carlin had arranged for the quarry owner to send a convoy of dump trucks to convey the material to where it was most wanted. This cleared the foreshore at Lynmouth to allow the outflow of the two rivers to flow into the sea.
The digger driver carried the gratitude of the owner of the Tors Hotel which was empty because the picturesque village of Lynmouth was no longer a tourist attraction. Dinner, bed and breakfast were provided free of charge until Lynmouth village recovered.
Here, in this BBC Archives footage posted on YouTube by geographyalltheway, the aftermath of the disaster can be seen. Tom Bevan, owner of the Lyndale Hotel, and fisherman Ken Oxenam describe what they witnessed. Then, towards the end of the footage, Major Elliott from the Army explains the work his troops have been doing — and just prior to him appearing on screen, an excavator can be seen moving rocks and debris on the foreshore (at 04:55 on the timeline). Perhaps this is the very excavator for which Gordon and his colleagues risked life and limb to manoeuvre down the steep and treacherous rain-filled road into Lynmouth!