The Palace Hotel

A prominent building has been removed from the Torquay landscape.  Although of no particular the  architectural value, it nevertheless took with it a great deal of history and many memories.  That building was the Palace Hotel.

The building was formerly known as Bishopstowe.  It was built in 1842 by the architect Gribble for Henry Phillpotts, Bishop of Exeter (1831-1869, 38 years and 9 months).  The Bishop spent much of his time in Torquay because the Bishops Palace in Exeter was in a poor state of repair and he was reluctant to subject his large family to the health risks prevailing in Exeter at that time.  Such was his liking for this property that he spent his final days there.  He passed away on September 18, 1869 age 91 years.  He still held the living of Exeter at the time of his death.  He is buried in the churchyard of St. Marychurch parish church in an adjoining grave to his wife Deborah who died some six years earlier.  The graves can be seen to the left of the lych-gate with two simple, identical but distinctive headstones.  The church tower is dedicated to Bishop Phillpotts.

Following the death of the Bishop, Bishopstowe was occupied by a number of notable people.  1860 marked the arrival of Prince and Princess Frederick of the Netherlands.  In 1871 Sampson Hanbury the brewing magnate took up residence followed by Lord Arthur and Lady Havelock.  He was a former Governor of Tasmania.  1921 saw the purchase of Bishopstowe by a company who changed its name to the Palace Hotel.  Quite a modest building for a hotel, the new owners immediately set about extending the property to the size we all remember.

At the outbreak of World War 11 in 1939 the Palace Hotel was requisitioned by the Air Ministry and converted into a hospital for Royal Air Force officers.  This property was chosen for a number of reasons the climate, good accessibility by road and rail and being relatively safe from air attack.  It seemed to be the ideal place for airmen to convalesce and be rehabilitated following sickness or injury.  Many returned to front-line service.  This, however did not prove to be the case. The presence of a military hospital did not escape the notice of the Luftwaffe.  It was said there was a large red cross on the roof.  Hospitals were not normally deliberate targets but perhaps the thinking was that eliminating a number of aircrew with two bombs was preferable to picking them off individually in aerial combat.  Pilots were more valuable than aircraft.

On Sunday October 25 1942 tragedy struck.  Just after 11 am the hospital was attacked by enemy fighter-bombers from their base near Caen in Northern France.  Eye- witnesses reported seeing enemy aircraft approaching the hospital from low over the sea.  This was followed by machine-gun fire and two loud explosions from two 500 Kg. bombs.  One bomb scored a direct hit on the hospital leaving a trail of death and destruction. The second bomb missed the target, exploding in Babbacombe Road. Extensive damage was caused by the blast.

The number of those killed varied widely depending on which reports read.  At that time news was heavily censored.  It was most likely reported on the lines of a military installation in a south-west town was attacked by enemy aircraft leaving widespread destruction and many dead.  It was not until recent times and the coming of the digital age that information became available to the general public.

Searching the internet revealed one report in which it was claimed sixty-nine people had been killed.  Further research led to a magazine entitled AFTER THE BATTLE published some years ago.  Again through modern technology a copy was obtained.  Contained within this magazine is a nine page article covering the raid on the hospital, the author going into great detail, because of the amount of research put into this article, I believe it to be an accurate report on what happened on that fateful day.  It includes eye-witness accounts, interviews with survivors and numerous photographs of staff and patients giving names, photographs of the damaged building and quite surprisingly a photograph of Luftwaffe pilots relaxing at their base in France.  They are all named and there is a suggestion that more than one were involved in this air-raid and others in the West of England.  Perhaps the most interesting to me were two lists, one giving the names, rank and home bases of those killed and a similar list for the injured.  The first list shows fourteen Royal Air Force/allied officers, one sergeant physical training instructor, two members of the Womens Auxiliary Air Force ( WAAFs) and two members of the British Red Cross- Voluntary Aid Division (nurses).  With so much detail I believe this to be an accurate number of those killed ( nineteen).  To this total must be added two members of the local Home Guard who were on exercise in the grounds of the hospital when the attack occurred.

The fact that the raid occurred on a Sunday would perhaps explain why the death toll was relatively low.  On that day patients were dispersed throughout the hospital.  Had it been a week-day they would, at that time congregate in the NAAFI which bore the brunt of the attack, almost certainly the casualty count would have been much higher.  Read the names of those who died.

Having positively identified the deceased, the logical next step was to determine where they were finally laid to rest.  The British & Commonwealth War Graves Commission website provided the answers.  All have been found.  Eight did not leave Torquay, they are buried in the local cemetery.  If you happen to be at the Crematorium and you wish to pay your respects to those who made the ultimate sacrifice you will find the War Graves section on the hillside overlooked by a large cross.  They must never be forgotten.

The hospital was attacked again on January 8th 1943, further damage was caused but as it was under Care & Maintenance there were no further casualties.  The hospital did not re-open, it reverted to the Palace Hotel and resumed business in March 1948.

Although quite young, I well remember this particular air-raid. I was in Western Road Methodist Chapel, Sunday school had ended and the morning service had just commenced.  We had no regular minister or organist and services were conducted by whoever was available.  Often we had a father and son who were members of the Salvation Army.  On this particular Sunday the service was being taken by a Mr. Austin.  As well as being a minister he was also a musician and accompanied the hymn-singing with his concertina.  There was a loud explosion, the building shook and the windows rattled.  Mr. Austin squeezed every last puff of air out of his instrument in an attempt to muffle any further noise.  As far as I can recall, the service continued as normal.  It was not until sometime later that news got out that the Palace Hotel had been hit leaving much damage and a number killed.

It was a sad day in the history of Torquay.

John Gale.