D-Day 1944 and the disappearing peacocks and ducks of wartime Paignton Zoo

Photographic proof! Peacock (or peahen) sized garden pests peck away at our salad leaf selection, World War Zoo Gardens, Newquay Zoo.

Peacocks are an unlikely garden pest but I have posted photographic evidence – proof – that what I thought was slug and snail damage was pecking by birds. 

It could also be the egg shells donated by the zoo’s Cafe Lemur staff that are intended (crushed) to deter slugs. Might they attract a peahen preparing to nest? A rich source of calcium and we know peacocks to be nest raiders and wreckers around the zoo, especially of other free-ranging birds. 

The D-Day anniversary passed quietly nationally on the 6th June, not being a major anniversary year. For many of those involved in the Normandy  Veterans Association, it would have been a day to remember quietly or in company of other veterans.  However many sites around the SouthWest coast mark the occasion of D-Day, such as at Trebah Gardens in Cornwall, marking the moment when thousands of young British, Canadian and especially American troops left the South(west) coast bound for Occupied France. For many, they never speak of the events; Peter Dwyer, a much-loved zoo volunteer and  nature columnist into his eighties in our past zoo newsletter Paw Prints spoke and wrote often colourfully about local bird life, the zoo’s exotic inhabitants but rarely about his D-Day experiences aboard LST Landing Ships. 

Diary of an anonymous South London woman involved in Civil Defence, 1944 - D-Day, Tuesday 6 June 1944 "D-Day Invasion started. troops landed at Cherbourg. Went to Clapham & Brixton and to Oberon ..." nOte also the entry for Thursday 15 "Germany started sending pilot-less planes" - the first mention in the diary of V1 "doodlebugs" (Copyright: Diary in the World War Zoo wartime life collection, Newquay Zoo)

Diaries in the zoo’s  wartime life collection quietly mark the events amongst all the clutter of everyday life queuing for rations or working on the farm. 

D-Day saw a strange emptying of many South coast and West country towns in Devon and Cornwall, as tens of thousands of US, Canadian and British troops left their army camps and headed for the Normandy beaches from 6 June onwards. 

 Some of the American servicemen had an infamous last supper. Part of the Paignton Zoo estate is the nature reserve at Clennon Gorge in Devon, featuring wildfowl ponds and a stream through a limestone valley down to the sea. This part of Herbert Whitley’s estate was being developed in the 1930s just before the outbreak of war. Whitley had  vision of wildfowl ponds, woodland haunts of a wolf enclosure, old lime kilns turned into small mammal dens and converting old quarries into bear and carnivore enclosures, much in the style, ironically, of Carl  Hagenbeck’s zoo at Hamburg in Germany. Work had been completed by stonemasons on the first bear dens when war broke out in 1939. The bears never arrived in their dens, but the quarry enclosures were used as cookhouses for US troops camping in the adjoining zoo paddocks whilst waiting for D-Day in 1944. (At the same time, RAF and American bombing raids were targeting Berlin, Frankfurt, Nuremberg and other German towns with renowned zoos.)  

 As Jack Baker wryly notes in Chimps, Champs and Elephants, his history of Whitley and Paignton Zoo’s early days, “A clearing up exercise provided ample evidence that many a zoo peacock and ornamental bird had varied the diet of the visiting ‘doughboys’ …” 

So maybe those pesky peacocks pecking away at the plants of the World War Zoo “dig for victory garden” at Newquay Zoo 70 years later  is their way of extracting compensation or reparation. 

 We haven’t yet identified which US regiments or divisions spent their last days in England,  camped at Paignton Zoo and Clennon Gorge, so if anyone knows we would interested to find out more. Maybe in America somewhere, there are US veterans in their 80s and 90s who remember this unusual last meal of exotic bird or camping in the zoo grounds over 65 years ago. It would be interesting to hear from them and their memories of Paignton Zoo in wartime. We can be contacted at the World War Zoo gardens project via mark.norris@newquayzoo.org.uk  

 The training for the D-Day landing formed part of the tragic events at  Slapton Ley, then part of Herbert Whitley’s  estate. It is now a peaceful nature reserve owned by the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust which runs nearby  Paignton Zoo www.paigntonzoo.org.uk , Living Coasts www.livingcoasts.org.uk and ourselves at Newquay Zoo. The similarity of the beaches and nearby countryside at Slapton matched those on the D-day beaches in Normandy. The local population was moved out, many never to return and the countryside, woods and villages devastated by shellfire. An American War Memorial lists the names of those several hundred US servicemen lost on ‘Operation Tiger’, when a secret live firing exercise practising for D-Day was interrupted by German torpedo boats. A Sherman tank has now been raised from the seabed as another stark memorial of the events at Start Bay and Slapton Sands in 1944. 

"Let your shopping help our shipping" was one propaganda message about saving food - grow your own is another, promoted by a typical piece of advertising from a wartime gardening magazine (from the World War Zoo gardening collection / archive at Newquay Zoo).

In our next blog entries, we’ll look at the rapidly unfolding events of 1940 as Dunkirk was evacuated and what effects it had on zoos, botanic gardens and the zoo staff, families, animals and visitors. It must have seemed to many people that the world or their world was collapsing quickly out of control. 

 This period of June and July 1940 is being widely commemorated by many events 70 years on; it saw the first intensive bombing raids on towns in South Wales from bases in Europe on July 10th and the Battle of Britain dawns in the sky, whilst Operation Sealion (for invasion of England) planning began in Germany and Occupied France on July 2nd 1940. The Blitz bombing on British cities such as Bristol, London, Manchester, Liverpool and their zoos was not far off in September 1940.   

Already bombed, Paris with its historic zoo was occupied on 14th June 1940. The surrender of France swiftly followed on June 22nd. The occupation of the Channel Islands and its tomato rich market gardens began on June 30th 1940 (islands later to be the site of Gerald Durrell’s hugely influential Jersey Zoo, postwar) amidst the  occupation of much of Europe which saw food supplies dwindle to blockaded Britain. Submarine attacks increased confidently from their new bases in Channel ports. 217 Allied merchant ships would be sunk supplying Britain in the next three months, crossing the Atlantic from July to October 1940. “Let your Shopping help our shipping” became a new ‘food miles’ motto. 

Britain dug in, Dug for Victory on its lawns and back gardens and drilled its Home Guard. General De Gaulle over the BBC radio on the 18th and 23rd June famously praised the flame of French resistance that had survived and found shelter in England amongst the Free French and many other Allies.  

  • So what did these events mean for many of the zoos at the time?
  • What can we learn from this for the future challenges of climate change and extreme or peak oil? 
  • Which objects of the Newquay Zoo wartime life collection best evoke this 1940 period?
  • What’s been happening in the World War Zoo ‘dig for victory’ zoo keepers’ wartime garden at Newquay Zoo?
  • What allies, sacrifices and fall guys can a wartime gardener or one today rely on in the perennial battle against pests and diseases? (we’ll look at companion planting).

 You can find out more  in future blog entries and review past ones on the World War Zoo gardens project, archived on this site (see the menu or tool bar, right).


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6 Responses to “D-Day 1944 and the disappearing peacocks and ducks of wartime Paignton Zoo”

  1. Allen Nyhuis Says:

    As a big fan of zoos worldwide, I’m always interested to hear how zoos did during World War 2. Interesting!

    Allen Nyhuis, Coauthor: America’s Best Zoos


    • worldwarzoogardener1939 Says:

      Many thanks for your comment – the Bartlett Society in the UK is always a good source of zoohistory information and there is a proposed zoo history conference organised by the Society for the History of Natural History (SHNH), the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums
      (WAZA) and the North of England Zoological Society will together sponsor “From royal gifts . . .” a two-day international conference entitled “From royal gifts to biodiversity conservation: the history and development of menageries, zoos and aquaria” on Thursday and Friday, May 19 and 20, 2011. The venue will be Chester Zoo.

      I’m working on the outline of a book on the subject which will make refernce to US collections too.


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