It was a bloody pitched battle through the streets of the small harbour village on Cornwall’s south coast. German troops clashed with a contingent of British soldiers in a firefight that spread from the harbour into the narrow streets of Mevagissey. Fighters roared overhead. When it was all over bodies lay strewn among the debris. It was Saturday 21st September 1941.
When footage of the battle began to be shown in cinemas in early 1942 Churchill ordered that it be withdrawn immediately. However, Churchill’s concern wasn’t that a strategic part of the Cornish coast had been invaded, but that the scenes being played out on the big screens across the nation replicated the top-secret Commando raid that was about to take place.
What had been filmed in Mevagissey in the autumn of 1941 was not a German invasion. In fact, it was the reverse – a British raid on Nazi-held territory. For the second-largest fishing port on the south Cornish coast was doubling up as the fictitious French port of Norville for the latest film by Ealing Studios. The film, being made in co-operation with the War Department, was showing how careless talk could jeopardise a top-secret daring mission. Commandos were being sent to blow up the harbour lock gates, industrial installations and key defensive positions.
Churchill knew that this was just the scenario about to be launched from Falmouth further down the Cornish coast against the French port of St Nazaire where HMS Campbeltown, packed full of high explosives, was to be rammed against the dry dock gates in an attempt to render the port and its submarine pens unusable.
The film called Next Of Kin told the tale of German agents piecing together details of a forthcoming raid from idle chatter from troops and civilians that enabled them to inflict large-scale casualties on a raid on a French port. It starred Mervyn Johns and John Chandos as German agents with roles for Nova Pilbeam as a Dutch refugee, Thora Hird as an ATS driver, Reginald Tate as a British major, Jack Hawkins as a high-ranking officer, Geoffrey Hibbert as a private, Philip Friend as a lieutenant and Stephen Murray as a bookseller who is the German contact.
In the film, Mevagissey doubled as the fictional port of Norville and even had an archway constructed across the road from Harbourside to St George’s Square to give it a more authentic French feel. Colona Beach was used as the site of one of the landings and Chapel Point as a battleground. Charlestown doubled as the dry docks while Penrice and Heligan houses were both used as headquarters for the troops. There were several scenes shot in Pentewan, both on the main road and in The Square, and Tregiskey crossroads was also seen.
For a much more detailed look at the Cornish locations used in the film check out my YouTube video Mevagissey Goes To War.
The real-life St Nazaire raid took place on 28th March 1942. Of the 612 men who undertook the raid, 228 returned to Britain, 169 were killed and 215 became prisoners of war. German casualties included over 360 dead, some of whom were killed after the raid when Campbeltown exploded. To recognise their bravery, 89 members of the raiding party were awarded decorations, including five Victoria Crosses. The Normandie dry dock was rendered inoperable for the rest of the war and only came back into use in 1948. The naval task force, including the motor launches, set sail from Falmouth where today on the Prince of Wales pier stands a memorial to those who lost their lives.
Next of Kin then had a second release, much to Churchill’s dismay, on 15th May 1942 at the Pavilion Cinema in London. It was a commercial success, thanks to the realism of its setting, and was released in a modified, shortened form in the USA as well. It continued to be used by British and Commonwealth forces as part of their security training into the 1960s.