Exmoor's secret visits from German U-boats
PUBLISHED: 15:00 24 October 2013
Exmoor's rugged and uncompromising coastline for long sheltered one of the best-kept secrets of World War Two
It was not until a decade after World War Two that the truth emerged about visits paid by German U-boats in the dead of night to isolated inlets along the North Devon coast, in search of fresh water supplies.
The wartime escapades came to light through a moving human story, which illustrated how one man’s attachment to the beautiful Exmoor landscape survived the cramped on-board conditions and the dangerous missions synonymous with the legendary German submarines.
Alan Kift of Ilfracombe was owner and skipper of the Devonia Belle, a pleasure boat which specialised in carrying up to 75 passengers along the coast between the resort and Lynmouth Bay.
A regular companion of Alan on the trips was a fellow boatman, the late Les Gear, who in the 1950s had been chartered by a German visitor to take him to the waterfall at Sherrycombe, under the Great and Little Hangman cliffs, near Combe Martin.
Alan recalls: “Les was a plain-speaking sort of chap and he asked the German why on earth he wanted to go to that particular spot, and how he knew exactly where the waterfall was located.
“The visitor, a Captain Martens, said that during World War Two he had been the captain of a U-boat operating in the Irish Sea and the Bristol Channel. His vessel, and other U-boats, would lay up off the beach, probably during the spring tides, and land sailors by dinghy to fill casks and other containers with fresh water.
“The submarines were not only cramped but also stank of things like diesel fuel and battery acid. Not only was the fresh water needed by the crew, but the sailors also welcomed the chance of fresh air and exercise.
“Captain Martens was very emotional when the boat reached Sherrycombe and had tears streaming down his face when he told Les Gear that although he had landed at night, by the moonlight that often accompanies spring tides, he had been so impressed by the beauty of the scenery and the height of the cliffs (at 800 feet or 244 metres Great Hangman is the highest sea cliff in England) that he wanted to come back and see it again in the daylight.”
The 1950s incident had a sequel some years later, involving a major coincidence. The Devonia Belle was a favourite with the Country Cousins Language School and Alan Kift used to relate the story of the U-boat landings during his commentary to the passengers.
On one occasion, during the cruise, he was approached by the man in charge of a party of German students on board that day, who introduced himself as Captain Martens’ son, Wolfgang.
“It was such a coincidence that not only was Wolfgang Martens a passenger, but that Les Gear was also on board that day.
“I was able to introduce them and Les was able to give Wolfgang a first hand account of how he had taken his father to Sherrycombe. It was an unbelievable coincidence, and in many ways an unbelievable but moving story, but one that is completely true.”