Devil’s Dyke mobilised for war
The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 signalled the end of peacetime tranquility enjoyed by Sussex sheep farmers on Devil’s Dyke. By 1942 Canadian soldiers had moved onto the newly requisitioned South Downs Training Area to defend the south coast against invasion.
Between the First and Second World Wars Devil’s Dyke had retained some of its allure as a natural beauty spot but sheep farming was the main peacetime activity at that time.
Local shepherds drove their sheep over the South Downs to local markets in Albourne and Findon. A flock of around 300 breeding ewes reared at Saddlescombe Farm were also kept at the Dyke.
However the War Office commandeered most of the area as a training ground in the early 1940s. The Saddlescombe Farm flocks were moved further down the coast to Eastbourne and never returned.
By 1942 sheep had been replaced by soldiers and farmers had to adjust to a new way of working the land.
The 1st Canadian Army took over Devil’s Dyke Hotel as its headquarters and set up defensive positions around the newly designated South Downs Training Area.
Security was tight and local farmhands found themselves at the sharp end of military secrecy, censorship, and restricted movement, all of which were rigorously enforced.
Barbed wire entanglements replaced fences, roads were closed and Howitzer guns were parked in lay-bys to keep locals as well as the enemy out.
Although farm hands were allowed to go about their business and cross the Training Area, they were frequently stopped and checked for German infiltrators and spies.
For the next two years tanks, tracked vehicles and heavy military equipment battered Devil’s Dyke.
The area became littered with fox holes, flint barns were destroyed, and unexploded munitions left scattered across the land as the Canadians undertook large-scale training exercises to prepare for the 1944 D-Day landings and liberation of France.