By Paul Rendell
The flat piece on moorland between Whitchurch and Horrabridge called Plaster Down was once a busy army camp run by the 115th Field Hospital Unit. The unit was formed in America in 1942 and most of the men came from New England and the mid-Atlantic states while the nurses were from mid-Atlantic and mid-west states. The unit arrived in the UK on 2nd July 1943 and were sent to Tavistock. From there they went by lorry to the camp on Plaster Down which had recently been built by the British.
After a couple of days the hospital was opened. It had 750 beds and was to be used mainly by the US Army and US Navy who were stationed in Plymouth and on parts of Dartmoor. Some British Army units were also sent there. In just five months around 10,000 patients passed through the hospital and such high numbers meant that it was always under staffed. In addition to looking after the patients, the unit also had to run the camp and maintain the buildings which was not easy in the bleak moorland setting. Many of the additional tasks were undertaken by local people.
The invasion of mainland Europe was expected to bring thousands of casualties to Plaster Down and the 750 beds were thought to be insufficient. So very quickly ward tents were erected which brought the bed numbers up to 1180. This may still not have been enough as later the spaces were re-arranged to accommodate even more beds. By D-Day (6th June 1944) there were beds for 1487 people. On 28th June 292 men arrived for treatment. By October the numbers were increasing with 290 arriving on 6th October, 270 on 9th November, 319 on 27th November, 270 on 21st December and a further 279 on Christmas Day. The total at the end of 1944 was 1364. When the train arrived on 25th December there was nearly two feet of snow on Whitchurch Down and the roads leading out of Tavistock. This must have been a shock to the casualities being taken to the hospital but more of a problem for the Field Hospital Unit which now had the job of transporting them to Plaster Down. Some of the unit’s vehicles were turned into snow ploughs to enable the ambulances to get through and many locals came out of their houses to help clear the roads.
The following year the numbers of patients reduced because field hospitals were built in Europe closer to the fighting. By April the hospital was closing down and the unit was being sent to Europe. At the end of the month the remaining patients were being sent to the field hospital near Newton Abbot and by the end of May the 115th Field Hospital Unit had left.
During 1946 the buildings was used as a general hospital for local people and families of the US Army. By end of July the hospital closed for good with just 150 beds.
During the next 30 years there was no real use for the camp. Various British military units were stationed there but only temporarily. In January 1948 the SS Otranto (Orient Steam Navigation Company) sailed from Port Said to Southampton with 223 displaced Poles from Lebanon, arriving on 19th of January 1948. Three of the passengers, all from the same family, were sent to Plaster Down. They were Mr J Moczkoj, aged 55, and his two children aged four and eight. It is not known how long they stayed at the camp.
By 1951 the site was owned by the Ministry of Defence. Brian Timbrell of the Wiltshire Regiment was transferred there in the summer of that year. Brian remembers how suddenly fog would descend, just like drawing a curtain. They would carry out field exercises on and around the camp and on Sheeps Tor, crawling through the ferns. When they went on leave their coach would be stopped and searched by police at every road junction if a prisoner had escaped from Dartmoor Prison, and it took ages just to get off of the moor.
In 1973 the site were used as a refugee camp for Ugandan Asians. Sadly in 1976 the buildings were demolished and just about every sign of the old hospital was removed. Today very few people who wander across the moorland know the history behind Plaster Down.
The 115th Field Hospital Unit of the US Army on Plaster Down by Roderick Martin, Tavistock Diary October 2011.
The Book of Whitchurch by Gerry Woodcock, Halsgrove 2004.