Devil’s Dyke mobilised for war

Military plane shot down over Devil's Dyke

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.

Although Devil’s Dyke retained some of its allure as a natural beauty spot, sheep farming became the main peacetime activity between the First and Second World Wars.

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.

The peace of sheep farming came to an abrupt end during the Second World war
Flocks of sheep grazed over Devil's Dyke during interwar peace years

However, the War Office commandeered most of the area as a training ground in the early 40s. The Saddlescombe Farm flocks were moved further down the coast to Eastbourne and never returned. 

Military Occupation

By 1942, the menace of war had returned to Devil’s Dyke. Sheep were 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, which were rigorously enforced. 

Barb 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.

The Canadians were undertaking large scale training exercises to prepare for the 1944 D-Day landings and liberation of France.

Listen to farmhand Stan Hollingdales’ tales of life around Devil’s Dyke during the Second World War by clicking here.