Three or four volunteers from the Brixham Battery Heritage Centre are expecting a group of pensioners from Torquay to arrive at any moment. As it’s a Tuesday morning this must be a special visit because the hand-painted sign says the museum is usually only open on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays.
David is about to get dressed up as Winston Churchill. “I think you’re supposed to photograph me before and after I get changed,” he says to me.
“Am I?” I now remember I had mentioned to Angela that photographing the volunteers transforming themselves might be a good idea. I take David outside and we take shots of him standing in front of a Second World War anti-aircraft gun. I tell him I feel like Karsh, the Canadian photographer, who famously photographed Churchill looking furious.
“He’d taken his cigar out of his hand,” David reminds me, “and so he’s staring into the camera with a very stern look on his face.”
“Which is what Karsh wanted,” I say.
During the war Brixham was one of several coastal towns that could have been a landing point for a German invasion. The Brixham Battery was equipped with anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and two ‘big guns’, ex-navel 4.7 inch Mark V quick-firing types that were, ironically, built in Japan in 1918. The 362 Battery was originally manned by a 100-strong regiment of the Royal Artillery stationed in what is now a holiday camp. The adjacent Artillery Training Station (ATS) is the heritage group’s museum and the Brixham Battery prides itself on being one of only seven of the original emergency coast defence batteries that remains intact.
But, as Phil is telling me as we wait for the visitors, it’s been an uphill struggle. Ten years ago the place was derelict. The ATS building was deemed a safety hazard and at risk of being demolished; the 14-acre gardens in which the battery is located were frequently vandalised, and the pillboxes were full of needles and, as Phil says, used as a latrine.
A group of volunteers stepped in, battled with the local council to keep the place open, raised funds and eventually persuaded English Heritage to list the gun emplacements, gardens and the ATS building with its corrugated metal roof.
Another volunteer, Rod, has joined us, happy to be quizzed about his motives for helping out. “These guys did what they did so we could be free. You can’t let places like Battery Gardens be wiped off the map because once they are gone, they are gone. That’s our philosophy: to preserve it for future generations. I want people to come here and see what their forefathers did for us.”
“Did you have relatives in the Second World War?”
“My father was in the Worcestershire Regiment and I did 10 years as a regular in the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, but that’s not why I do it. I’ve always had a passion for military history so helping this get off the ground has been a dream come true.”
“So what is your day job now?”
“I used to sell militaria, but I’m a full-time carer now.”
The minibus has arrived and Phil goes outside to help. Half a dozen or more older men and woman then make their way slowly into the museum to sign the visitors’ book. There’s a brief discussion about the date.
“It’s definitely the 20th,” says ‘Winston Chuchill’, “because it’s my birthday today.”
If this were a group of schoolchildren they would have been tearing around the place, in awe of the bomb fragments and gas masks. Fascinated by the rifles and machine guns. Maybe asking questions of their teachers about the ration books and small boxes of instant powdered gelatine. But this group seem nonplussed; familiar with most of the memorabilia on display in the same way today’s schoolchildren might be less than impressed with a display cabinet of Xboxes, iPhones and Nintendos when they are in their 80s.
Some are drawn instead to the group photographs of local battalions and fading newspaper clippings from local papers, scanning the captions for names of old friends or family members.
“Good morning!” calls Phil as he brings the pensioners to attention to tell them something about the battery.
“About here,” he says, waving one arm expansively, “was a large table with a relief map of Torbay on top of it. At night, with the shutters down and the lights out, they would do their firing practice. Someone under the table with a magnet would draw a ship or submarine along the table top and they would have two torches: one representing the gun and the other a searchlight. Once the enemy had been located they would then go through the firing routine… it was all very ‘Heath Robinson’.”