top of page

April 2023

April is certainly a favourite month for practical jokers with the chance to wind people up on April Fools’ Day. I have certainly pulled a number of pranks on my unsuspecting friends over the years ranging from fake letters from the council demanding farmers sound their tractor horns each time they drive through a gate, crème eggs with salt in them, to convincing members of the Airfield Research Group that a new airfield had been uncovered on Bodmin Moor! And while I confessed to all of the above, deception in wartime has been an important part of warfare for centuries and has been something the British have been particularly good at. (What does that say about our national character?)

In 1944 with D-Day approaching the Allies were concerned at keeping the exact landing grounds in Normandy from the German High Command. Thus Operation Fortitude was born. This was a campaign of deception designed to make the Germans think the main assault would be struck across the narrowest part of the channel. The extent to which the measures went was incredible. Whole armies were invented and made to appear to exist through the use of inflatable tanks and vehicles. The wireless traffic for an army preparing to invade was replicated. The news of high-ranking generals assigned to the task was announced and information was leaked into the German military system by double-cross agents fed a diet of believable detail controlled by British Intelligence.

The success of any deception is usually due to paying attention to the smallest of details so the whole becomes plausible. The fact that Hitler positioned troops in the Calais area and that the German High Command were reluctant to commit resources to counter the Normandy landings believing the main assault was yet to come further up the Channel shows that they had swallowed the deception.

In Cornwall, where real troops were preparing for the actual invasion, the measures of Fortitude were designed to provide some degree of protection for the invasion forces. The deep water port of Fowey was to be used to ship out all the ammunition for the US 29th Infantry Division for the far shore. Large swathes of Cornish countryside had become one huge arms dump. For example, Ammunition Dump O-655 stretched from Bodmin to Lostwithiel eastwards to Liskeard and Minions with vast quantities stored in small shelters placed on the verges alongside the roads. In many places bulldozers had pushed back the Cornish hedges to create the space. The Boconnoc Estate was used for the more sensitive types of ammunition such as demolition charges, grenades, and the like. By May 1944 55,000 tons of ammunition was stored in the depot. All of this was shipped out through Fowey at a daily average of 716 tons between 13th and 30th June 1944 to supply the American troops in Normandy.

One local eyewitness has described the scene in Fowey as being so busy you could walk on ships and landing craft across the river from Fowey to Polruan. If the Germans had realised what was going on and bombed the port and surrounding area then the whole of mid-Cornwall would have exploded! So Operation Fortitude came up with creating a decoy port for Fowey. It had to look like Fowey from the air. It had to be close to the real thing. It had to replicate the workings of a busy port.

The site that was chosen was on the Menabilly Estate just to the west of the town. The valley that ran down to the beach of Polridmouth was converted into the estuary. The shape of the cove replicated the entrance to Fowey. The duck pond by Polridmouth Cottage was then replicated by damming the valley twice further up to create three large ponds of water. On these rafts were placed with lights which could be controlled from the command post in the cottage to give the effect of lights showing from hatches opening and shutting on ships in the harbour.

Mr. Kenneth Comer, a wartime employee of the Bristol building firm William Cowlin & Sons Ltd, recalls in Huby Fairhead's booklet "Colonel Turner's Department" (about the wartime decoy sites) "We built a dam and flooded a valley near the sea near Par in Cornwall. Imitation ship's lights and dimly lit open deck hatches were mocked up on the water to represent the harbour."

The site was prepared between April and May 1943 with the electrical equipment fitted at a later date. It was known as naval coast bombing decoy QL 555. The Jones family living in Polridmouth Cottage were moved out in 1942 as the house was requisitioned by the army and became the control room and generator store for the decoy. A large water tank was built behind the house to service its needs. Apart from the three ponds with their dams this is the only remaining evidence of the decoy. The site is on private grounds within the Menabilly Estate. I was grateful to Lord Rashleigh who gave me a guided tour in 2011. The lower pond and the cottage can be viewed from the coastal footpath which runs over the dam at Polridmouth.

Menabilly House had been let in 1943 to a family called Browning. Husband was ‘Boy’ Browning who made his name at Arnhem with the comment ‘I think we might be going a bridge too far.’ Wife was better known as Daphne du Maurier whose novels about Cornwall such as Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and Frenchman’s Creek have enthralled generations of readers.

There is no record of QL 555 being bombed by the Germans. The only casualties at Polridmouth came when a teenage girl, Gladys Farley, aged 15 and from Fowey, strayed into the anti-invasion minefield to pick wild flowers for Easter on the afternoon of 10th April 1942 and was killed when she stepped on a mine, and when a soldier was killed during the minefield clearance on 28th January 1944. He is believed to be Corporal Malvin Waldof Palmer, aged 33, of 7 Bomb Disposal Company, Royal Engineers, who was buried at Lanreath.

However, D-Day was a great success and countless lives were saved by the campaign of deception that kept German troops and tanks away from the beaches of Normandy. Menabilly was one small part of that deception. There were other QL sites in Cornwall helping to protect the ports and embarkation hards on the Rivers Tamar, Fal and Helford but they are a story for another day.

39 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page