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The North Devon Jewish Pioneer Corps

249 Company, Pioneer Corps, Ilfracombe © Courtesy of Dr Helen Fry.

The extraordinary story of North Devon’s Jewish Pioneer Corps.

How did over 3,000 Jews come to be in North Devon during the Second World War? Why did the Victorian seaside town of Ilfracombe become the intellectual and cultural centre of Central European society in 1940 and 1941?

It is a little known part of North Devon’s history, but one that saw the arrival in the area of thousands of German and Austrian Jewish refugees who were about to train in the British army’s Pioneer Corps. Some were temporarily trained at Westward Ho! and Bideford, but the majority in Ilfracombe. Theirs is a remarkable story of loyalty to this country. They wanted to fight in the British forces because Britain had saved their lives from certain death in the Holocaust. In May and June 1940, with the threat of a German invasion by Hitler of Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered for 30,000 ‘enemy aliens’ – those of enemy nationality (German refugees from Nazism) – to  be held behind barbed wire in camps on the Isle of Man and other places around the country.

By September 1940 they began to be released if they enlisted in the British army. They swore allegiance to King George VI, even though they were not given British nationality until after the war. I was lucky enough to interview many of these veterans some 65 years later. In 1940 and 1941, they were sent to Ilfracombe to train and were billeted in various hotels in the town.

Many were professionals and intellectuals who were forced to flee Germany and Austrian because they were Jewish or anti-Nazi, and no longer allowed to practice their profession under the Nuremberg Laws (1936). Amongst them were lawyers, doctors, surgeons, dentists, scientists, engineers, architects, actors and musicians. By a twist of fate they enlisted in the British army and so it was that Ilfracombe became a microcosm of German and Austrian intellectual and cultural life. Ex-refugee Pioneer soldier, Harry Rossney, recalled: ‘we secretly prayed for survival. England, at that hour, was the hope of the world, of freedom and tolerance.’

Pioneer Corps Orchestra, Ilfracombe © Courtesy of Dr Helen Fry.

'...a highly unusual bunch who formed the most intellectualised unit of the British Army'.

In the hours outside of their army training along Ilfracombe seafront, they set up a mini university and lectures were given by some of the finest brains of Europe on their specialist subjects. Amongst them were Martin Freud, a Viennese lawyer and eldest son of Sigmund Freud; six Nobel laureates; the author and journalist Arthur Koestler; business and newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell; artists Walter Nessler and Johannes Mattheus Koelz, actor Peter Ustinov, and Ken Adam who after the war became a production designer for over 70 films, including 7 James Bond movies.

They were a highly unusual bunch who formed the most intellectualised unit of the British Army, the like of which had never seen before in British military history. An army orchestra and entertainment section was formed under the direction of Coco the Clown (real name Nicolai Poliakoff, himself a refugee from Russia). Classical concerts and plays became a regular feature in the life of the town for nearly two years, often performed in aid of local charities. They raised over £3,000 for the war effort – a significant amount of money in 1940.

Prima ballerina Hannah Musch had fled Austria just before giving a performance to Hitler in which she was going to be arrested (her story was the inspiration behind The Sound of Music) and now she was working alongside Coco the Clown to raise morale and entertain the local population at a difficult time when Hitler was trying to bomb Britain into surrender in the Blitz.

Ballerina Hanne Musch and Coco the Clown (Nicolai Poliakoff) © Courtesy of Dr Helen Fry.

The soldiers didn’t witness any anti-Semitism in Ilfracombe and they had fond memories of their time there. They were formed into Pioneer companies and from Ilfracombe, sent out across the countries on vital defence and forestry work, and clearing bomb damage in cities and towns, including the West Country.

But ultimately, they wanted to fight and their chance came from 1943 when the British government permitted them to transfer to fighting regiments. They went on to make an incredible contribution to secret operations behind enemy lines as well as landing on the beaches of Normandy as part of the D-Day landings, or being involved across all major operations of the war

Jewish Pioneer Corps, Ilfracombe Harbour 1940 © Courtesy of Dr Helen Fry.

'...It was a very formative year of my life'.

Continental refugee women serving in the ATS also arrived in Ilfracombe to work for the British army. They were stationed in local hotels, working for the Royal Army Pay Corps in the Runnacleave Hotel, or preparing meals for the thousands of soldiers billeted in the area. They formed a choir and also entertained locally. Interestingly, they delivered meals to a team at Watermouth Castle who were working on the top secret experimental project, PLUTO (pipe-line under the ocean).

There are incredible stories, too, of Jewish refugee youngsters living in a hostel at 62 South Street in Braunton and Bydown House near Swimbridge. They had fled Nazi Germany on an agricultural permit and lived in North Devon for nearly a year, to learn how to work the land so they could emigrate to (then) Palestine and live in Kibbutzim (communal camps). Meir Weiss, who was at Bydown House, told me: ‘Bydown and its surroundings encapsulated for me all that is best in rural England.

We grew potatoes, cabbages, cereals, and ploughed the fields with the help of horses. It was a very formative year of my life.’ These stories provide examples of how Jewish youngsters were saved from the Holocaust if they were not part of the Kindertransport.

ATS refugee girls, Ilfracombe © Courtesy of Dr Helen Fry.

After over a decade of research the amazing legacy of the Jewish communities of North Devon have been documented and told by historian Helen Fry. As a result of the research, ex-refugees were reunited for the first time in over 60 years since their Ilfracombe days. These and many other insightful stories are in her two books Jews in North Devon during the Second World War and Churchill’s German Army.


Written by Dr. Helen Fry
Editor Adam Murray

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