Maritime Cornwall in the Era of Two World Wars

G.H. and R. Bennett

At the turn of the twentieth century there was an acute realisation in naval circles that Cornwall’s position in the strategic defence of the United Kingdom had changed fundamentally. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, when Britain’s main enemies had been France and/or Spain, Cornwall had very much been in the front line guarding the Western Approaches to the English Channel. From 1905 onwards, however, as Germany became Britain’s most likely enemy at sea, the emphasis switched to the north and east and to bases such as Rosyth, Scapa Flow, Chatham and Dover. This strategic shift would be accompanied by the development of new weapons of war, especially the mine, torpedo and submarine. The dangers of an enemy fleet forcing the Channel to effect a successful seaborne invasion of the United Kingdom decreased. However, the importance of the Western Approaches as the eastern end of the trade route from North America increased as the German Navy contemplated waging commerce war against Britain to force her surrender or at least dramatically damage her war economy. In two world wars the Western Approaches and thus Cornwall would become a vital battleground. On the outcome of the battle would depend the survival of Britain.

Cornwall was directly involved in this battle as her ports, seamen and ships were caught up in it. Many Cornish fishermen were naval reservists and thus the outbreak of war in 1914 was immediately felt in the coastal towns and villages as men were called back to the colours. As Cornish seamen served and took casualties in the Royal Navy and Merchant Marine during the First World War Cornish shipowners suffered several losses to enemy action. Edward Hain and Son of St Ives, which operated cargo ships of 3,000 to 4,000 tons with Cornish names such as Trevarrack, Trefusis and Trevose, lost sixteen ships to U-boats during the First World War and a further fifteen to enemy action in the Second World War, although by this time the company’s headquarters had relocated to London. Other losses to Cornish shipowners during the First World War were sustained by George Bazeley & Sons of Penzance (one vessel of 975 tons) and R.B. Chellew of Truro (five vessels ranging from 1,700 to 4,300 tons). Losses to the Cornish trawler fleet, with some vessels being taken up from trade by the Royal Navy for use as minesweepers and auxiliaries, were a feature of both wars.


26.1 Anti-submarine motor launches at Padstow c. 1918 (Tony Pawlyn collection)

At least for the First World War some Cornish war memorials offer detailed insights into the impact of the struggle at sea on the county. For example, the Fowey war memorial lists forty-one names for the First World War, eight of which resulted from maritime action. This includes Royal Naval reservists and merchant seamen. Rolls of honour tell other stories of the impact of the war at sea on Cornwall. That for St Columb Major, for example, highlights the local women serving as nurses in the naval hospital at Truro. It also suggests the impact on a community of forgotten tragedies such as the sinking of the troopship Royal Edward in 1915. Seven men from the parish were on board when the vessel was sunk at the cost of a thousand lives. Two of the seven did not survive the event.

Further insights can be gained from the contemporary press as the Cornish newspapers reported the war service of the county’s mariners in the Royal Navy and merchant services. For example, in September 1939 the West Briton reported that six Falmouth/Penryn men were known to have been lost with the sinking of the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous.1 The following month the same newspaper reported that a Falmouth man had been lost in the sinking of the battleship HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow.2 Reports in the local press emphasised the extent to which Cornwall was intimately involved in the war at sea in two world conflicts.

In both wars the Western Approaches became a killing ground for the German Navy. Its principal weapon was the submarine, although mines were also utilised, especially in 1940 and 1941 in the approaches to the Fal estuary. The impact of the German submarine campaign in the Western Approaches was especially marked in the First World War, as Germany’s naval position and the pattern of trade concentrated the first submarine campaign in the waters around the British Isles. With airpower in its infancy German submarines were able to prey on shipping heading through the Western Approaches with relative impunity until 1916. For example, during the course of a single day in March 1915 U-29 sank four vessels off the Scilly Isles. Although anti-submarine vessels operated out of Falmouth and Plymouth it was the adoption of the convoy system in 1917 that proved the most effective counter-measure to the U-boat arm. Most tellingly of all for the outcome of the First World War were the sinkings of American merchantmen around the Scilly Isles in 1917, helping to precipitate American intervention in the war.


26.2 Barnstaple ketch Result, a decoy ship during the First World War, seen here passing inside the Longship’s lighthouse off Lands End (Morrab Library)

Cornwall was also involved in the submarine campaign in two other interesting ways. The first saw the use of Cornish ships based on Falmouth to act as decoys for German submarines. The Q ships, with naval gun crews aboard, would resemble in every respect the type of small coastal sailing vessel plying the Cornish coast. Enemy submarine commanders would typically prefer to surface, force the vessel to stop and sink her by gunfire rather than waste an expensive torpedo on a vessel of less than 2,000 tons. Once the submarine had surfaced the Q ship would appear to comply with orders to stop and abandon ship. Once in range Royal Navy colours would be hoisted, hidden guns cleared for action and the submarine engaged. The 366 Q ships taken into service during the First World War accounted for 11 U-boats, but their greater significance lay in influencing the minds of submarine commanders as they planned their attacks. They could not be fully certain that a defenceless merchant vessel was not the maritime equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

A further development during the First World War that was to have a larger impact in the Second was in the field of maritime aviation. By 1917 an elaborate network of seaplane bases, including Royal Naval Air Stations Padstow, Newlyn/Land’s End and Tresco, allowed observation of the Western Approaches from the Scilly Isles along the Cornish coast and beyond. Working alongside surface units, Cornish-based aircraft scored a number of successes against U-boats in the First World War.3 Moreover, aircraft could force a U-boat to dive and lose contact with an intended victim. Airships also played a role in the development of maritime aviation in Cornwall during the First World War. Royal Naval Air Station Mullion was commissioned in June 1916 as a base for airships. From it some eighteen airships operated between 1916 and 1919, while outstations were developed near Bude and at Bochym Wood. Airships could carry a heavier payload than seaplanes and had greater endurance on patrol.

In the Second World War maritime airpower was to become a far bigger factor. In the first phase of the Second World War the Western Approaches again became a graveyard for British merchant ships. After the fall of France a steady shift in the Battle of the Atlantic began. Increasingly U-boats had to hunt further afield, away from Cornwall and the Western Approaches. Increasingly, also, the Bay of Biscay became a graveyard for U-boats heading out of bases along the French coast for the convoy routes of the mid-Atlantic. The same thing – Allied airpower operating from bases in the South West of England – was responsible for both trends. Most of these bases were located in Cornwall and from them thousands of anti-submarine patrols were conducted between 1939 and 1945. From St Eval, St Mawgan, Predannack, Portreath, Perranporth and Davidstow Moor anti-submarine aircraft operated alongside aerial reconnaissance and strike squadrons to combat U-boats and the enemy surface fleet which remained an important factor in Allied Naval considerations until the end of 1943. Cornwall was to play a vital, and largely overlooked, role as the unsinkable aircraft carrier permanently on station in the Western Approaches.

The striking swiftness of the development of the Royal Air Force’s network of airfields in Cornwall was a good indication of the county’s significance in the war at sea. St Eval opened in 1939, Portreath and Perranporth in 1940, Predannack in 1941, Davidstow Moor in 1942 and St Mawgan in 1943. From these bases at various times would be mounted fighter operations, anti-shipping strikes, anti-U-boat patrols and bombing missions by both the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Army Force. The airfields would also play host to aircraft making emergency landings on their way back to other bases and being ferried from the USA to bases in the UK and the Middle East.

Davidstow Moor serves as an exemplar of the kind of maritime work done from Cornish airfields during the Second World War. Although the base opened on 1 October 1942 it was the start of 1943 before it became home to anti-submarine aircraft from No. 612 Squadron. They were joined in the summer of 1943 by aircraft from No. 304 (Polish) and No. 547 squadrons as Davidstow Moor played an increasing role in Coastal Command’s anti-submarine campaign. The base also played temporary host to American B24s on bombing operations against German naval facilities at Bordeaux and St Nazaire. Coastal Command squadrons came and went from Davidstow Moor and it was also host to air sea rescue and Coastal Command’s strike squadrons. Anti-submarine operations took a steady toll on U-boats and aircraft operating from Davidstow Moor. In July–August 1943 No. 304 squadron lost five aircraft while having little success against the enemy. Nevertheless, the anti-U-boat offensive built up steadily, so much so that in the first six months of 1944 aircraft from No. 304 squadron were involved in seven attacks on enemy submarines.4 Coastal Command strike squadrons operating from Davidstow Moor could make an even more dramatic impact on the enemy. On D-Day Nos 144 and 404 (RCAF) attacked and sank three enemy destroyers in the Gironde estuary.5 Operations would continue from Davidstow Moor until 1945.

Life on Cornwall’s maritime front line was never easy. Coastal Command’s facilities in Cornwall came under repeated attack early in the war. Such attacks were invariably hit-and-run affairs, but on 25 January 1941 twenty-one people were killed in an attack on St Eval. Even without the enemy the bases proved cramped for the number of aircraft using them. For example, the First and Second Anti-Submarine Squadrons of the United States Army Air Force arrived at St Eval in November 1942. They encountered considerable difficulty in moving into the Coastal Command Base, especially with the mess facilities, which were considered to be far below American standards.6 Base facilities were inadequate for the number of squadrons expected to use the airfield and in March 1943 the American Squadrons departed for a new home in North Africa. Sea fog dogged operations at St Eval and hill fog those at Davidstow Moor.

Anti-submarine patrols were an unglamorous, dangerous and wearisome duty and anti-shipping strikes had an even lower public profile. The toll on aircrew was heavy. Davidstow Moor’s roll of honour records the names of fifty RAF aircrew, twenty-seven Polish aircrew from No. 304 Squadron, eight Royal Canadian Air Force personnel and two members of the Women’s Royal Air Force. It was nevertheless vital work that undoubtedly saved the lives of hundreds of Allied seamen.

With air cover and light patrol vessels based at Fort IV at the mouth of the Penryn River driving German submarines away from the Cornish coast in both wars, the lifeboat stations around the coast of Cornwall were called on rather fewer times than would perhaps be expected. The wars provided relatively little extra demand on the lifeboat service in addition to the ongoing flow of normal marine casualties. In 1916 the Falmouth lifeboat saved nineteen lives from RFA Ponus and in April and May 1944 it would be called on to rescue one British and one American landing craft. The Lizard lifeboat station was the most actively engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic, participating in a variety of rescue work involving downed aircraft, torpedoed merchant vessels and ships’ boats.7

Following the fall of France in 1940 Cornwall became home to a considerable number of foreign vessels fleeing the advance of Nazism. Forty or so made their temporary home at Fowey as Dutch and Belgian refugee trawlermen and their families arrived to augment the Cornish fishing fleet for the duration of the war. The availability of French fishing vessels, the proximity to the enemy coast and the availability of anchorages in remote creeks meant that from late 1940 onwards Cornwall became the base for an unusual maritime trade. British intelligence, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) developed small flotillas of vessels that could be used to land and pick up agents, drop supplies and retrieve intelligence from the enemy shore. In 1940, while SIS used Falmouth and the Free French Mylor, the Helford River was used by SOE.8 SIS later moved to the Helford River after concerns over security in Falmouth. Disguised vessels such as the Mutin, a 65-foot Breton tunnyman, would get in close to the coast, with landings being effected by kayak and later plywood tender. SIS turned the process of disguising the vessels into an art form. Radio and other secret equipment would be carefully concealed in the vessels. Operating on moonless nights, they would sail from Falmouth in the grey paint of a naval auxiliary. On arrival at New Grimsby in the Scilly Isles they would be repainted in the colours of a French fishing boat then suitably distressed to look the part. The return leg would see them repainted at New Grimsby for return to Cornish waters.9


26.3 Slipway at Brazen Island, Polruan, where special operations vessels were maintained and repaired (Helen Doe)

The largest clandestine operation conducted from the Cornish coast involved the exfiltration of thirty-two people, including a large number of downed aircrew, from Brittany on Christmas Day 1943. Routine exchanges of intelligence were effected by rendezvous at sea between vessels operated by British intelligence or the Free French Navy and French tunnymen operating out of Brittany.10 After 1943 the number of covert maritime operations being conducted from Cornwall declined markedly as a result of the increasing availability of aircraft for cross-Channel intelligence operations and the opening of the second front in Europe.

The Cornish ports were ideally placed not only for intelligence operations but also for the conduct of cross-Channel raids. The largest of these was Operation Chariot in 1942. The objective of the raid was to cripple the port of St Nazaire and rule out the possibility that the German battleship Tirpitz might return to the French port after commerce raiding in the North Atlantic, the Normandie dock at St Nazaire being one of the few which could accommodate a vessel as large as the Tirpitz. As planning for the raid progressed in 1941 it was realised that only by a direct assault, involving the landing of troops, could the dock be put out of commission. It was decided that the most effective means of attack would involve the dock gates being rammed by an obsolete destroyer, HMS Campbeltown. The destroyer would provide covering fire for motor launches to deploy commandos to conduct demolition work. Campbeltown would be packed with explosives set with timers to give the crew long enough to vacate the ship and retire via the motor launches. The operation was tricky and dangerous. It was made a success by the extreme heroism of men who pressed home their attack despite enormous odds. Five Victoria Crosses would be won as an exploding Campbeltown wreaked havoc in the port and among inquisitive German forces left perplexed at the desperation of an enemy that had taken to ramming dock gates with destroyers. More than 600 men left Falmouth for St Nazaire on 26 March 1942 in a strange flotilla of motor launches and the destroyer. Of those, 225 would return, with 160 men killed in action and the remainder taken prisoner. Some of the dead from Operation Chariot are buried in Falmouth and a memorial to the raid stands on the Fish Strand Quay.

The Campbeltown raid was given added significance by the fact that on 11 February 1942 three major German surface vessels, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, had forced the English Channel on their way to home ports in the Baltic. It was the first time since the Armada that an enemy force had made its way through the Channel and, as in 1588, Cornwall was to play its part in the drama. The three vessels had taken refuge in Brest after raiding operations in the Atlantic in 1941 and were the target for Coastal Command photo reconnaissance and strike operations from Cornish airfields. The three ships had progressed a considerable distance from Brest when they were finally identified on 12 February 1942. Efforts to intercept the ships with the handful of strike aircraft covering the Channel proved ineffective and at about 13.00 hours on 12 February twelve Beaufort torpedo bombers set off from St Eval to chase after them. After refuelling at RAF Coltishall the force set off but were unable to find the ships before darkness closed in.11 Although the German Navy would not attempt to force the English Channel again the Channel dash was a major embarrassment to both Coastal Command and the Royal Navy.

The cross-Channel operations conducted from the Cornish coast between 1940 and 1944 were book-ended by two invasions (one threatened and one realised) with which Cornwall was intimately involved. In 1940 Britain faced the possibility of a German invasion. Hurried preparations were made along the Cornish coast involving the rapid construction of beach defences, minefields and pillboxes to cover possible landing sites at places such as Praa sands. Further defences were established to cover harbour entrances and moorings which might be penetrated by light enemy forces. Ancient fortifications at places such as Pendennis Castle and St Mawes Castle were augmented by the emplacement of coastal artillery and photo reconnaissance spitfires from St Eval kept a close watch on the build-up of barges in the Brittany ports.12 In August 1940 alone St Eval’s spitfires flew thirty sorties.13

By 1942 the danger that Cornwall would play a key role in a cross-Channel invasion remained but had taken on a completely different cast, thanks to American entry into the Second World War. As Allied leaders planned the defeat of Nazi Germany it was evident that an invasion somewhere on the coast of Europe, followed by a drive on Berlin, would be necessary even if the proponents of airpower were substantially correct in their assessment that Germany could be brought to her knees by the ongoing heavy bomber offensive. Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset became the principal receiving area for the American troops that would launch the invasion. American planners reluctantly agreed with their British counterparts to invade the coast of Normandy rather than go via the more direct route to Berlin via the Pas de Calais. This decision raised the strategic importance of Cornish ports, particularly Falmouth, which could be used to support the massing and launching of an invasion force along the south coast of England. Cornwall would be required to support key units of the invasion force, such as parts of the US 29th Infantry Division, which would spearhead the assault. It could also provide coastal training areas in which the US Army could practise assault techniques. Thus naval combat demolition units used Praa sands as a place to practise blowing up beach obstacles and the cliffs of North Cornwall were used by the US Rangers, based at Bude, to practise the rock-climbing skills which they would put to use on the Pointe de Hoc in Normandy in June 1944. While towns such as Bodmin and Launceston and great houses such as Antony, Mount Edgecumbe and Lanhydrock could provide homes to troops and ammunition, fuel and vehicle dumps, a major problem remained in that the Cornish ports did not have the capacity to handle the flow of men and equipment which logistics experts determined would be required on and immediately after D-Day. The result was that US Army and Navy engineers set about making improvements to the port infrastructure of Cornwall. The development of advanced amphibious bases on the Tamar and the Fal called for the development of facilities at places such as Saltash and Mylor to handle the beaching and maintenance of amphibious vessels. The need to increase the number of loading facilities to embark US troops saw the building of concrete slipways (“hards”) for use by tank-landing ships around the Fal estuary. At Trebah Gardens a large concrete apron was built across the beach. The result was that in June 1944 Cornwall played a leading part in the largest amphibious operation ever attempted.

What was perhaps surprising was that Cornwall’s significance in two world wars did little to halt the decline of the Cornish maritime trade. The steady decline of the china-clay ports was not radically affected by two world wars. Immediately after both wars the fishing industry enjoyed periods of genuine prosperity as trawler owners capitalised on a revival of fish stocks during hostilities. However, these periods were all too brief and the number of men and vessels engaged in the trade declined steadily. In 1924 3,110 men worked on 953 boats in Cornwall. By 1936 this had fallen to 1,849 men engaged on 704 vessels. Five years after the end of the Second World War some 820 men served 420 fishing boats.14 Cornish boat building was helped only temporarily by both wars, with, for example, in the Second World War minesweeper hulls being built in Looe and Par for completion of the vessels in Charlestown. Investment in port facilities by the Americans resulted in cheap and ad hoc solutions rather than something that would benefit Cornwall’s maritime economy in the long term. The end of hostilities in 1945 brought cutbacks to RAF Coastal Command and its network of airfields, until by the year 2000 only St Mawgan remained.

The significance of Cornwall’s role in two world wars has been lost to history. Cornwall was the unsinkable aircraft carrier defending Britain’s lifeline and allowing the Allies to launch a successful invasion of the European continent in June 1944. Public pride in Cornish achievements and a consequent desire to preserve associated heritage have not extended to the British and American aircrews and airfields who played a decisive role in determining the outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic in two wars and in launching the Normandy invasion. The ruins of Cornwall’s mining past have seemed more in keeping with the touristic demands of Poldark/du Maurier country, and more worthy of preservation, than the runways, concrete slipways and other remains of a forgotten maritime battlefield in which the county played such a vital role. Some have found it ironic that it has been English Heritage, stepping in to schedule the fighter pens at Perranporth and to consider listing the control tower at Davidstow Moor, that has begun the process of protecting this forgotten aspect of Cornwall’s heritage.

Notes and References

1 West Briton, 21 September 1939, p. 3.

2 West Briton, 19 October 1939, p. 3

3 See Peter London, U-Boat Hunters: Cornwall’s Air War 1916–19 (Truro: Dyllansow Truran, 1999).

4 See [accessed 10 September 2006].

5 Graham Smith, Devon and Cornwall Airfields in the Second World War (Newbury: Countryside Books, 2000), p. 95; see also David Keast, Memories and Records of RAF Davidstow Moor, Cornwall (Camelford: Wakefields, 2003).

6 Max Schoenfeld, Stalking the U-Boat (Washington: The Smithsonian Institute, 1995), p. 25

7 See Cyril Noall and Graham Farr, Wreck and Rescue Round the Cornish Coast (Truro: Bradford Barton, 1965), p. 57.

8 Mylor Local History Group, The Book of Mylor: A Cornish Creekside Village and Harbour (Tiverton, Halsgove, 2004), p. 151.

9 John Tucker, BBC People’s War Archive, [accessed 12 August 2006].

10 Peter Hancock, Cornwall at War 1939–1945 (Tiverton: Halsgrove, 2002), p. 84.

11 Chris Ashworth, RAF Coastal Command 1936–1969 (Yeovil: Patrick Stephens, 1992), p. 55.

12 Vic Acton and Derek Carter, Operation Cornwall 1940–1944: The Fal, the Helford and D-Day (Truro: Landfall, 1994), p. 70

13 Ashworth, RAF Coastal Command, p. 160.

14 F.E. Halliday, A History of Cornwall (2nd edn, Letchworth: Duckworth, 1973), p. 308.

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