Military use of the Commons
The Pebblebed heaths have a long history of military training dating back to Napoleonic times. The first recorded modern-style military exercises date back to General Simco in the late 18th century. Credited with saving Devon from the threat of invasion by Napoleon’s army, his exercises reputedly involved more than 200 pieces of artillery. Subsequently Woodbury Common was used in the early 1900s as a First World War training camp for the Royal Devon Yeomanry.
During World War 2, a large Royal Marine training camp was established on the heaths at Dalditch on East Budleigh Common. At its height Dalditch Camp contained over 5,000 personnel (more than the population of Budleigh Salterton today!) and comprised over 500 buildings, including 378 Nissan huts that could each sleep 12 men and even a cinema. Now deserted and largely reclaimed by nature, the concrete and brick footprints of the buildings can still be seen within the heath, with some structures now acting as bat hibernaculae. American forces also used an area on Hawkerland Common, and there was a decoy airfield on Bicton Common with further decoy lights on Aylesbeare Common
The Royal Marine Commandos still train on the Pebblebed heaths today, although their camp is based at Lympstone oin the edge of the Exe Estuary. The Commandos total about 7,200 personnel, representing 3% of the armed forces, but just under 50% of the special forces. About 750 trainees go through Lympstone camp each year with training taking 32 weeks. A significant proportion of their training time is spent on the heaths, with their famous endurance course based on Bicton Common. This is also the site of the annual Commando Challenge charity event .
Prior to training beginning on the heaths, all recruits are given a briefing on the conservation significance of the site and of the importance of respecting wildlife. The Royal Marines are important conservation partners for the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust. Their presence acts as a useful deterrent to illegal activities, and they assist with some conservation activities.
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