In Chapter Sixteen of A Place And A Name, the Major pays a visit to Major Edgar Hare, the Chief Constable of the Cornwall Constabulary in his headquarters in Bodmin. The policeman was an historical figure. He had served in the First World War with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and was a much respected Chief. In my fictitious conversation between the two men, the policemen referred to reports of lights being shone on the hills above the aerodrome at St Eval during the recent spate of bombing raids. Those reports were genuine giving rise to concern that a Fifth Columnist was signalling to the enemy. When to the Chief Constable’s annoyance, the Major burst out laughing, he then revealed that the lights were in fact real and deliberate. They were the decoy designed to get the Germans bombing the Downs rather than the important RAF base. In the blog last October when I covered the decoys for the port of Falmouth I promised I would return at some future date to cover the airfield decoys. So here we go.
In 1939 Col Sir John Turner was put in charge of British decoy and deception schemes. His team were based in the Sound City Film Studios at Shepperton in Surrey and were made up largely of the technicians who pre-war had worked in the film industry making sets and special effects.
When the Germans started bombing Cornwall from the end of June 1940 there were just two airfields on the north Cornish coast. RAF St Eval had been built as part of the 1938 expansion programme and during the Battle of Britain was a Group 10 Fighter Command Sector Station playing an important role in the defence of the south-west from the Isles of Scilly to Weymouth. The other, a few miles to the east, was HMS Vulture, the Royal Naval Air Station St Merryn. To the west was RAF Trebelzue which later in the war was enlarged and became RAF St Mawgan on 24th February 1943.
The first bombing raid on RAF St Eval occurred during the afternoon of 12th July 1940. It was quickly decided a decoy should be established and the first was situated up on Denzell Downs, the hills above the airfield on the inland side. This consisted of a couple of airmen lighting gooseneck flares as a raid developed and taking shelter from the subsequent bombing. It proved effective as on the night of 27th/28th July a number of bombs were dropped south of the airfield causing some damage to scattered rural properties.
A more permanent arrangement was soon constructed on the nearby Trelow Downs. It consisted of a control bunker on the north side and an accommodation hut on the south side near Winnard’s Perch. It was classified as a Q site (Q61) – a night-time decoy with lights simulating an active airfield. It worked by Corporal in Charge Jim Cant and his three airmen – Taffy Cochrane from Neath, Ted Davies from Blackburn (who actually married a local St Columb girl) and one other – dashing along the flarepath across the Downs with a box of matches lighting 20 gooseneck flares before dashing back to the safety of the bunker. They were fired on once by a low-flying German plane and the site was bombed on several occasions. It is still possible to find some bomb craters on the Downs and several bombs did not explode landing on the heather and gorse and soft peaty earth. In time the site was provided with a generator and electric lights so the airmen could stay in the bunker and just flick some switches to give the desired lighting effects.
In 1941 a second site, known as Q61B, was opened on Tregonetha Downs. Again this was a night-time decoy with a control bunker, generator room and electric lights to simulate the flarepath of an active airfield. This site seemed to attract a number of British aircraft who approached as if to land so the airmen on the ground were provided with a red Aldis lamp to warn them off. The Downs had had trenches dug across them in the summer of 1940 as an anti-invasion measure so any touchdown would have resulted in a nasty crash. The men were provided with a Nissen hut for their accommodation in the nearby village of Tregonetha.
A third site was constructed in 1942 at Colan in the Gannel Valley. This site, known as Q61C, also consisted of a control bunker and generator and lines of electric lights to simulate the flarepath of an active airfield. This was sited to be the decoy for RAF Trebelzue, soon to become RAF St Mawgan, and an airfield much used by the Americans.
The site at Trelow Downs was in use until the 12th August 1942. The sites at Tregonetha and Colan were kept operational until just after D-Day when they were mothballed. Today the remains of the bunker still stand on open access land at Trelow Downs, although the shell of the accommodation block is on private farmland and has seen much deterioration to its roof structure in the storms of the last 12 years. The one at Colan is also still standing but is on private farmland and should only be visited with permission. The only trace of the wartime concrete at Tregonetha is a small pile buried under the undergrowth on the verge of the lane, although the Nissen hut remains in the centre of the hamlet.
Further west the control bunker for the decoy for RAF Portreath is probably the one in the best condition but is again on private farmland. RAF Portreath opened on 7th March 1941 and took over as the Fighter Command Sector Station from RAF St Eval. It only took the Germans a month before they started bombing the new aerodrome fairly regularly. Decoy Q111A was opened on fields at North Cliff on 1st August 1941.
The decoys were effective. The sites at Denzell Downs, Trelow Downs, Tregonetha Downs, Colan and North Cliff at Portreath all received attention from the Germans and so one has to conclude that they saved lives and saved damage to resources vital for the successful prosecution of the war. We pay tribute to the men like Corporal Jim Cant and his crew for their brave contribution to Britain’s victory. The photo of the fins of incendiary bombs came from Phil Ellery whose uncle had collected them off his farmland on Trelow Downs the day after a raid and the photo of a young Jim Cant next to a UXB on Trelow Downs show the nature of the ordnance the decoy sites were attracting to themselves.
Jim recalled after the war, “My biggest memory of Ted Davies was one night during a red alert, with the lights in operation and finding him on his knees praying to God for Jerries to drop some bombs on us! He was only an AC1 and thought a good raid on our site would help him get his LAC rank and the extra cash involved. However, he was unlucky that night: we heard the bombers pass over heading for South Wales!”
Cornwall also had a Starfish Decoy and several Naval Decoys, but they are a story for another time.