Padstow is the biggest port on the north coast of Cornwall situated in the mouth of the Camel Estuary. In the summer of 1940 its defence was considered essential and so the Royal Navy appointed a highly decorated veteran of World War One Q ships to serve as the Resident Naval Officer. Commander Gordon Campbell was in his mid-fifties, a retired Rear-Admiral and brought from the Reserve to organise the defence of Padstow. Having won the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and two bars, plus a plethora of foreign accolades, he cut a distinguished presence on the streets of Padstow. His penchant for the sherry bottle had prevented him rising further up the ranks in the Senior Service.
Campbell had got Admiralty to provide a series of sea mines that could be detonated individually on known bearings by remote control. These stretched from St Saviour’s Point across the river to the far shore below the old quarry on the side of Cassock Hill. An 8.5ft square control post was built on the western side of the river with one large embrasure facing the estuary.
The Royal Engineers under Captain Pockles from Bodmin were modifying the War Department’s 1868 battery at Gun Point. They were erecting a gun house on top of the old barbette which was encased in a Cornish concrete block cladding, and building a new one 150 yards to the north. Two four inch breech loading Mark VII naval guns were ready for action on 14th August 1940. The battery was manned by 397 Coast Battery, Royal Artillery under Captain Thin with 212 Coast Battery RA taking over in 1941.
Campbell was concerned about Padstow being attacked from the landward side and had appealed for troops. His request was met by the army sending a platoon (No 11) of 8th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers from Falmouth under 2nd Lt Dare Wilson. This young twenty year old was given the job of planning and overseeing the construction of Padstow’s landward defence. He requested and received approval for six pillboxes, and constructed a number of defence posts, roadblocks and observation posts covering any move from the nearby beaches on the north coast such as Harlyn and Trevone. This young star went on to have a distinguished career in the SAS and later donated his map of the defence of Padstow to the town’s museum where it is displayed today.
Horrified at having only a platoon to defend two miles of estuary shoreline as well as the harbour itself he requested greater firepower. Campbell, through his Admiralty contacts, rustled up two Vickers Machine guns with parts and ammunition. A beach battery was also constructed on the south side of the town next to the railway overlooking the Town Sand Bar. It housed a four inch gun with a traverse out over the estuary of 175 degrees. It survives today as the home of Padstow Sailing Club.
Among the pillboxes Wilson had built were two at Daymer Bay. The base of the northern one can still be found on the edge of the cliff by the car park, soon to fall due to coastal erosion. The southern one was just north of the stream, its base now buried under the dune reclamation.
On the western side of the estuary there was one just north of St Saviour’s Point. It is almost square shaped, measuring 8.5ft by 9.5ft, with two embrasures on the walls overlooking the estuary with its door on the Padstow side. It survives but is buried under impenetrable blackthorn. The only hint to its location are the apple trees that grow in the midst of the blackthorn, thought to have come from the discarded apple cores of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.
Next is the minefield control post which Dare Wilson used as his command post as it afforded a good view of the estuary. In his autobiography Tempting The Fates he recalls spending a Sunday night here with Commander Campbell at the end of August 1940 as the naval man had received intelligence of a possible invasion and had calculated the best tides for the enemy to sail up the estuary. Padstow’s defences were placed on a full stand-to while the two men sat in the Control Post peering into the darkness as the dim light of dawn spread across the sky. Eventually the Commander broke the silence after several glances at his watch, ‘The buggers – they’re late!’
While the Home Guard manned a 6 pdr gun at St Saviour’s Point, the next of Wilson’s pillboxes was built on the wall of the old boatyard. This type 24 pillbox was destroyed in the 1960s when a block of waterside flats was built on the site. Another Type 24 pillbox was built on the end of the northern breakwater and still stands there today used as a harbour store.
Auxiliary Patrol Boats and River Patrol Boats plied the waters of the estuary and were known locally as Parkyn’s Navy. Later in the war 44 Air Sea Rescue Unit, RAF, moved into Hawker’s Cove, bringing all three services to Padstow.
The defences of Padstow were never put to the test by an invasion. The only enemy vessel that tried entering the estuary was a submarine but its demise was not brought about by Padstow’s guns but by the famed Doom Bar – the treacherous sand bar near the entrance of the estuary. Jean Puddephatt of Padstow recalled the crew being brought ashore and marched through the streets to the police station to the jeers of the townsfolk.
The war came to Padstow at 8pm on Saturday 5th October 1940 when a lone raider dropped 6 High Explosive and a number of incendiary bombs. Most fell on a row of cottages in New Street. In one home three generations of the family were killed. They were grandmother Ellen Priscilla Cock, aged 80, her son William Edred Vivian Cock, aged 39, and his son Vivian Edred Cock, aged 2½ . The boy was being dropped off by his father as he was about to go on fire duty. Six houses were extensively damaged and 61 other buildings sustained minor damage. Many others had remarkable escapes including policeman John Pomeroy who was out in the street. The fin of one of the bombs is on display in the Museum. The Cock family are buried in Padstow Cemetery.
Many of the scenes in the first half of No Small Stir are set in and around Padstow. Further details of the defences can be found in the YouTube video series on the Bodmin Stop Line in Part One which covers the Camel Estuary.
However, the people of Padstow rallied to support the troops who were defending their harbour, their homes, their freedom. Dare Wilson reported that his platoon arrived in the town on a Wednesday and within four days every soldier had been adopted by a local family for Sunday lunch. Maybe this month we need to spare a thought for the people of Ukraine as they seek to defend their towns, their homes and Europe’s freedom. May those who treasure freedom be willing to pay the price to protect it and may we support the people of Ukraine by giving them the tools they need to do the job. The history of the Second World War shows us that if we don’t stop the aggressor at the first opportunity they’ll simply keep taking more. Freedom isn’t free.
Until next month, stay safe and guard your freedom.