Castles, forts and batteries: how Cornwall has been defended through time from the land, the sea and the air.

 


The Threat from the Air

 

Introduction

This view of Torpoint shows the effects of German bombing. The town’s location west of Plymouth meant that it sustained heavy bomb damage during the Plymouth Blitz in early 1941. Towards the left is the circular concrete hard standing of a barrage balloon base. To the right of this a row of terraced houses has been cleared after being destroyed during a bombing raid. Following this street down to where it forms a junction with another street a small circular structure can be seen. This is an emergency water storage tank; these were used by fire fighters in the aftermath of bombing raids. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: 106G/UK/1274/5084 This view of Torpoint shows the effects of German bombing. The town’s location west of Plymouth meant that it sustained heavy bomb damage during the Plymouth Blitz in early 1941. Towards the left is the circular concrete hard standing of a barrage balloon base. To the right of this a row of terraced houses has been cleared after being destroyed during a bombing raid. Following this street down to where it forms a junction with another street a small circular structure can be seen. This is an emergency water storage tank; these were used by fire fighters in the aftermath of bombing raids. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: 106G/UK/1274/5084

 

The inter-war years were dominated by the spectre of aerial bombardment. The widespread fear was that any new war would bring devastation to Britain’s cities and industrial centres. When war with Germany was declared Cornwall was one of the areas where children were evacuated from London and other cities to escape the expected bombardment.

 

When the aerial offensive did come in the spring of 1940, it was at first directed against military and strategic targets. Falmouth was bombed many times, there were a number of attacks on Cornwall’s airfields, and Saltash and Torpoint were badly damaged during heavy raids on Plymouth. The bombing campaign continued and intensified until June 1941, when Hitler’s invasion of Russia heralded a lull. After this attacks on Cornwall by German bombers were only intermittent.

 

Fighter aircraft from St Eval airfield, and later from Portreath, Perranporth and Predannack, provided stiff resistance against the attacking bomber formations and these airfields themselves were frequently attacked. To try and minimise the damage to vital aircraft, the planes were provided with blast-proof pens. These were dispersed around the airfield so as to spread the target; this reduced the chances of large numbers of aircraft being destroyed in a single raid.

 

The runways and airfield buildings were camouflaged to make them less visible from the air, and at some airfields attempts at concealment went further – the lines of field hedges were painted over the airfield in bitumen or tar. Decoy airfields were built in remote locations within a few miles of the actual bases. These consisted of sets of electric lights arranged to resemble the runway lights of an airfield at night. Decoys were also established around towns such as Falmouth; these replicated the dim lighting visible from the air during ‘blackout’ hours. Later these urban decoys also contained elaborate arrangements of braziers which would be lit once an attack started so that it would appear that the bombs were setting buildings ablaze.

Start of page^

The German bombing offensive

The inter-war years were dominated by the threat of a completely new form of warfare; strategic bombing. During the Great War of 1914 to 1918 aviation was in its infancy. There were sporadic German raids on Britain by Zeppelin airships and in the summer of 1917 the country was subjected to a series of more accurate and systematic attacks by winged aircraft; one of these attacks was on London.

 

The German raids had wide-reaching implications. A government report on the 1917 raids concluded that air power could be used as a means of war and that ‘the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands may become the principal operations of war, to which older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate.’

 

The expectation was that any new war would begin with a heavy attack on military, industrial and, especially, urban targets by large formations of bombers. The objective of this attack would be to bring about a sudden collapse of communications, industry and morale – a ‘knock-out blow’.

 

St Eval airfield in June 1941. There are bomb craters within the airfield itself and beyond the perimeter track towards the bottom right of the photo. Note also the camouflage paint applied to the runway and to three large hangars and other buildings. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: WLA 11 1PRU/09 St Eval airfield in June 1941. There are bomb craters within the airfield itself and beyond the perimeter track towards the bottom right of the photo. Note also the camouflage paint applied to the runway and to three large hangars and other buildings. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: WLA 11 1PRU/09

 

These fears were proved misplaced. War with Germany was declared in September 1939 but there was little action in Britain until the spring of 1940. In Cornwall at this time many children were evacuated from London and other cities to protect them from the expected bombardment. This period, known at the time as ‘the phoney war’, provided a vital breathing space during which many far-reaching decisions about how best to prepare Britain’s defences were implemented.

 

The situation changed in May 1940 with the fall of France. Operating from captured French bases the German air force did launch a major air offensive. However the aim was not the anticipated knockout blow but the preliminary phase of a wider strategy, aimed at weakening Britain’s defences and military capabilities – in particular immobilising the air force, as a prelude to a full blown invasion code-named ‘Operation Sea Lion’.

 

Cornwall was within reach of the occupied French bases and the first air raids began towards the end of June. During July the main target for these raids was Falmouth docks. In August the attacks intensified. Mid August marked the beginning of a concerted attack against Britain’s air force and a number of heavy raids were made on the airfield at St Eval. There was also regular bombing of Saltash, Torpoint and the Rame Peninsula around the western periphery of Plymouth which was a major strategic target.

 

Bomb craters at Hayle Towans. The area around Hayle Estuary was of immense strategic importance as the site of the main electricity power station in western Cornwall. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: S494/0034 Bomb craters at Hayle Towans. The area around Hayle Estuary was of immense strategic importance as the site of the main electricity power station in western Cornwall.  © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: S494/0034

Air raids over Cornwall tailed off during the autumn and winter of 1940/1941 but resumed with renewed intensity in February 1941. The frequency and ferocity of the bombing raids in this second wave of attacks far exceeded those of 1940; the peak of the bombardment of Cornwall was reached in May when thousands of bombs were dropped. The nature of the raids differed from the previous year in that a high number of incendiary bombs, designed to cause fierce fires, were used as well as explosives.

 

There were repeated attacks on Falmouth docks, St Eval and Portreath airfields, and in the south east around the periphery of Plymouth. Devastating raids on Plymouth in March and early April 1941 caused extensive damage to Torpoint and Saltash. Large numbers of bombs were also dropped on open country. Whilst some of these may have been intended to start fires in the countryside, many were likely to be a result of aircrews mistaking their position (night bomber crews were often aware only of their approximate position).

 

This map shows the general distribution of attacks during the bombing raids on Cornwall during 1940 and 1941. The three principal targets were St Eval airfield, Falmouth docks and Plymouth. This map shows the general distribution of attacks during the bombing raids on Cornwall during 1940 and 1941. The three principal targets were St Eval airfield, Falmouth docks and Plymouth.

 

June 1941 saw a dramatic change to the pattern of attacks. At the height of its intensity the bombing onslaught suddenly stopped. This coincided with Hitler’s invasion of Russia and the redeployment of resources to the eastern front.

 

Throughout the remainder of 1941 and 1942 there were intermittent air raids; the only concerted campaign occurring during August 1942. This campaign was part of an offensive against seaside towns throughout southern England. Raids were carried out in the daytime by one or two planes flying very low so as to avoid radar. The targets were often strafed by machine gun fire as well as being bombed. Several towns, including Truro and Bodmin were raided in this way.

 

From September 1942 until June 1944 air raids were few and far between. This phase of the war saw Britain moving onto the offensive and the gradual erosion of German military power. The last bombs were dropped on Cornwall at the end of May 1944; the threat from the air had passed.

Start of page^ 

The Front Line

‘Sunderland’ flying boats at Mount Batten, Plymouth. Mount Batten was the only operational military airbase in the South West Peninsula at the outbreak of war in 1939. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography 106G/UK1286/6222 Sunderland flying boats at Mount Batten, Plymouth. Mount Batten was the only operational military airbase in the South West Peninsula at the outbreak of war in 1939. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography 106G/UK1286/6222

 

The first line of defence against the threat from the air was the fighter aircraft of the RAF. During the summer of 1940 these fighters famously prevented the German air force, the Luftwaffe, from gaining command of the skies over southern England during the Battle of Britain. The Battle of Britain fighters were a hastily built force operating from bases to the south of London originally conceived during the 1920s as bomber airfields facing France (at the time France had the largest air force in Europe; Germany was disarmed under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles).

 

Part of Britain’s response to the rise of Hitler during the 1930s and the rapid rearming of Germany was a series of Airfield Expansion Schemes. The main thrust of these schemes was the construction of bomber airfields in the eastern counties facing Germany. The emphasis on bombers was driven by the doctrine of ‘offensive deterrence’ – that the expected heavy attack by bombers could be prevented by the ability to respond in kind.

 

St Eval airfield in early 1942. Like many RAF bases of the late 1930s St Eval was originally a grass field site. These proved completely unsuitable in wartime; water logging in wet weather meant that grass airfields were unusable for lengthy periods. The runways in this photo were built during the spring of 1940. The layout of the airfield is typical of the period, with one main runway roughly 1000 metres long and two shorter ones arranged in a triangular pattern. Beyond the runways is a perimeter track from which parking bays were reached; this arrangement ensured that the runways would always be clear for take-off and landing. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: NLA/31/5016 St Eval airfield in early 1942. Like many RAF bases of the late 1930s St Eval was originally a grass field site. These proved completely unsuitable in wartime; water logging in wet weather meant that grass airfields were unusable for lengthy periods. The runways in this photo were built during the spring of 1940. The layout of the airfield is typical of the period, with one main runway roughly 1000 metres long and two shorter ones arranged in a triangular pattern. Beyond the runways is a perimeter track from which parking bays were reached; this arrangement ensured that the runways would always be clear for take-off and landing. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: NLA/31/5016

 

This principle of deterrent is precisely the same as that adopted by the nuclear powers during the Cold War in the second half of the twentieth century. However the 1930s arms race was one that Britain lost: by 1938 it was clear that the production of large numbers of new fighter aircraft offered the best chance of preventing the vastly superior Luftwaffe bomber force from landing a knockout blow.

 

Against this background the South West was seen as remote from the front line. In September 1939 when war was declared with Germany, an airfield at St Eval, near Padstow, was under construction as part of the Airfield Expansion Scheme but the nearest operational base to Cornwall was the flying boat station at Mount Batten, Plymouth.

 

During this early phase of the war, known at the time as the ‘phoney war’, the feared aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe failed to materialise, the British army was active in France, and the construction of airfields earmarked as part of the Expansion Schemes continued.

 

St Eval was designed as a base for anti submarine patrols and protection of merchant shipping convoys. Several other airfields were planned for the South West but once St Eval became operational a month after the declaration of war no further bases were built. Cornwall had little defence against the threat from the air.

 

The fighter station at Perranporth on Cornwall’s north coast which became operational in April 1941 as a satellite for Portreath. © English Heritage (NMR): US/7PH/GP/LOC213/4072 The fighter station at Perranporth on Cornwall’s north coast which became operational in April 1941 as a satellite for Portreath. © English Heritage (NMR): US/7PH/GP/LOC213/4072

The situation changed overnight with the fall of France in May 1940, the withdrawal of the British army from Dunkirk, and the immediate threat of invasion. The Luftwaffe launched a concerted assault against British air forces during the summer of 1940. Having failed to neutralise the RAF they changed tactics in September, carrying out a massive bombing offensive – The Blitz - against cities; at first London and later the industrial midlands and north.

 

During the twelve months from June 1940 a rash of new airfields were hurriedly brought into commission to counter this aerial offensive. The German occupation of France meant that the whole of England’s south coast was vulnerable to attack from bases in northern France. And with French naval bases as far west as Brest now in German hands, the South West was vulnerable to landings by invasion forces.

 

Fighter aircraft were deployed to St Eval and fighter stations were built at Portreath and Perranporth on the north Cornish coast, and at Predannack on the Lizard Peninsula. Fighter aircraft from the Cornish airfields were active in breaking up Luftwaffe bombing raids, particularly during early 1941 when there were heavy attacks on Plymouth and Bristol.

 

Start of page^ 

Concealment

Dispersed aircraft pens, consisting of characteristic E-shaped earth banks at St Eval airfield in 1942. Each pen has room for two aircraft. The placing of these pens attempts to conceal them; they are sited on farmland and are laid out along the lines of existing hedges. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: NLA/31/5016 Dispersed aircraft pens, consisting of characteristic E-shaped earth banks at St Eval airfield in 1942. Each pen has room for two aircraft. The placing of these pens attempts to conceal them; they are sited on farmland and are laid out along the lines of existing hedges. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: NLA/31/5016

 

During the summer of 1940, when the Luftwaffe carried out its first significant air raids over England, the primary targets were military installations and strategic points such as dockyards. High on the list of targets were airfields and the layout of military airfields included a number of features designed to minimise the risk of serious damage.

 

Some airfields were satellites, to be used by aircraft from their parent airfields in the event of attack. Thus the distribution of aircraft could be spread and a successful attack on any one base would immobilise only a portion of the overall force. Perranporth and Predannack were both satellites of Portreath, and Trebelzue near Newquay was a satellite of St Eval.

 

A key principle of airfield design was the need for the dispersal of parked aircraft around the perimeter of the airfield rather than clustered together in hangars. Spreading the target in this way would significantly reduce the chances of a large number of aircraft being put out of action in any one attack.

 

Portreath airfield in 1942. The runways are camouflaged and the lines of former field boundaries and a road have been painted over the grass areas of the airfield. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: FNO/27/6080 Portreath airfield in 1942. The runways are camouflaged and the lines of former field boundaries and a road have been painted over the grass areas of the airfield.  © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: FNO/27/6080

Aircraft dispersals were arranged in irregular patterns around the airfield; if they were laid out in linear rows they ran the risk of all being damaged in a single attack because bombers flew in straight lines. The dispersal bays were also protected against the blast from exploding bombs by earth banks and sometimes by mini-hangars.

 

One reason why the RAF persisted with grass airfields until the late 1930s was that solid runways are very obvious from the air and therefore easy targets for enemy bombers. However with heavy wartime traffic grass airfields quickly became bogged down; the choice was between airfields that were conspicuous and serviceable or airfields that were hidden but useless.

 

At several Cornish airfields attempts were made to camouflage not only the runways but the entire base. This was done by painting the runways with an irregular chequered pattern, and by painting the lines of former field boundaries over the grass areas of the airfield using bitumen or tar.

Start of page^ 

Deception

Decoy sites in Cornwall. This distribution includes decoy airfields (Q sites), decoys mimicking urban lighting (QL sites), and starfish decoys replicating urban fires once a bombing raid began (QF sites). The distribution also includes temporary starfish sites (TSF), set up in response to German raids on coastal towns during 1942. Decoy sites in Cornwall. This distribution includes decoy airfields (Q sites), decoys mimicking urban lighting (QL sites), and starfish decoys replicating urban fires once a bombing raid began (QF sites). The distribution also includes temporary starfish sites (TSF), set up in response to German raids on coastal towns during 1942.

 

 

Airfields constructed during the later phases of the Airfield Expansion Programmes of the 1930s and in the early part of the war were provided with a degree of security in the form of camouflage, dispersal, air raid shelters and anti-aircraft guns. Further protection came with the construction of decoy airfields – designed to tempt the Luftwaffe to drop their bombs harmlessly in the countryside.

 

There were two basic types of decoy airfields; day time sites, known as K sites, and night sites, known as Q sites. Day time sites consisted of large areas of cleared land replicating an airfield, with areas of disturbed ground and trackways to represent typical flying station activity, and a number of dummy aircraft parked about. The dummy aircraft were manufactured by scenery technicians at the Shepperton film studios.

The starfish decoy at Nare Point which was designed to mimic the town of Falmouth at night. Various arrangements of lights were used to represent the town during blackout hours and in the event of a bombardment fires would be lit, thereby drawing the second wave of bombers to the decoy target. The starfish decoy at Nare Point which was designed to mimic the town of Falmouth at night. Various arrangements of lights were used to represent the town during blackout hours and in the event of a bombardment fires would be lit, thereby drawing the second wave of bombers to the decoy target.

Q sites were designed to replicate the flare paths of runways when used at night. The main features would be a set of yellow electric lights representing a dummy runway, red lights mimicking the obstruction lights placed on buildings, and a set of car headlamps suggesting a taxiing aircraft. Decoy airfields were typically sited some five miles from the airfield they were intended to protect.

 

Cornish airfields at St Eval, Portreath, Predannack and Perranporth were provided with Q site decoys between August 1941 and August 1942. There are no hard figures to suggest how effective the decoys actually were, but there are a number of contemporary accounts of bombing raids on them.

 

 

When German bombing tactics changed in September 1940 and the blitz against urban centres began, decoys to divert bombing raids were set up around Britain’s cities and dockyards. These sites consisted of arrangements of dim lights designed to replicate urban lighting during ‘blackout’ hours.

 

Decoy sites were, by their nature, temporary and peripheral features in the landscape and have left little trace. This photo shows a rare survival in 1946 of the Starfish decoy at Erth, Antony, one of several urban decoys built around Plymouth. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography:FNO/29/8/OTU/6/12 Decoy sites were, by their nature, temporary and peripheral features in the landscape and have left little trace. This photo from 1942 shows the Starfish decoy at Erth Hill, Antony, one of several urban decoys built around Plymouth. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: FNO/29/8/OTU/6/12

Urban decoys were later augmented with apparatus producing fires which were lit once a bombing raid began. This apparatus included long braziers full of burning coal over which creosote was sprinkled. The aim was to replicate burning buildings, with occasional sudden bursts of flame suggesting collapsing roofs.

 

From November 1940, after the heavy fire bombing of Coventry, urban decoy sites were designed to mimic the effects of the raging fires caused by incendiary bombing. Dramatic walls of flame were produced by ‘boiling oil’ fires; in these a coal fire would be flooded with oil. These oil fire decoys, known as Starfish sites, were established at a number of locations in Cornwall.

 

 

Start of page^

 

A version of this page can also be downloaded as a  PDF