In these glorious sunny days we have been enjoying at the end of May and beginning of June it is hard to picture the scene in the skies above us in the summer of 1940 when Britain was fighting for its very survival. We had seen the nations of western Europe fall to the blitzkrieg of the German forces from Norway to Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and then France. The feeling that the British Isles would be next was very strong.
In Cornwall we had been experiencing air raids since the end of June with the first casualties at the beginning of July, and the first civilian deaths in Falmouth on Sunday 7th July. Tuesday 20th August started as a typical summer’s day. Few had noticed the reconnaissance flight over Falmouth at 8.30am. The main raid came at 9.20pm with a further raider flying over at 10.40pm probably in an attempt to assess the success of the raid.
The local paper reported that the anti-aircraft guns had opened up just as the children were going to school and shopworkers were en route to their businesses but few had seen the plane as it was flying at height. As people took whatever cover was available, usually in houses on their route, it was reported the guns quickly fell silent as a British aircraft appeared over the town.
The report continued that an enemy raider appeared that night and dropped four bombs. Three fell into the water, one man was killed and several injured. It said the plane dived to a low level, dropped its bombs, restarted its engine and rising rapidly made off towards the bay.
Wartime censorship had restricted the reporting of the true damage caused by the raid. Combining several sources we get a better picture of the raid. The Cornwall Air Raid Book records, “At Falmouth 2 ambulances, 2 First Aid parties and 1 sitting case car and 1 Fire Brigade responded. Ships attacked in Falmouth Docks: Drifters Alacrity & Resparra,, Dutch tug Schankee hit; Drifter St Heram sank. 1 dead, 9 injured.”
The Harbourmaster’s Journal states, “About 9:30 this evening there was an air raid and considerable damage was done to the Dutch Tug Zwarte Zee and trawlers, all of which were in the docks.”
The Admiralty War Diary states, “Result of bombing 21230/20. Resparko Mine-sweeping Trawler sunk, St Mellons tug holed forward, Zwarte Zee tug holed and beached.”
The War Cabinet Weekly Resume No 51 recorded, “In enemy air attacks during the week HM Trawler Resparko and HM Tug St Mellons were sunk at Falmouth.”
The Cornwall Constabulary War Diary entry states, “Superintendant Norish reports about 2120 hours on 20/08/40 7 HE bombs dropped in Falmouth area. Five in the water, two direct hits on HM Minesweeper Resparkle, vessel sunk by the stern near the western arm of the docks. One rating missing, four suffering from shock and now in hospital. Three tugs, St Mellons, Alacrity and Zwarte Zee, damaged by splinters. No damage to shore property.”
St Mellons was later salved and went on to shoot down a Messerschmidt in the North Sea in October 1940. The Zwarte Zee, then the world’s largest and strongest tug, had been requisitioned by the Dutch Navy on the 10th May 1940 and tasked with towing the under construction Vlissingen destroyer ‘Isaac Sweers’ to England so both could escape the Germans. Armed with two machine guns in England she took on the role of rescue tug. Zwarte Zee had arrived in Falmouth on 20th June 1940 where the near by Enys House became the home to the Royal Netherlands Officers Naval College. Zwarte Zee was damaged by splinters from the direct hit on the Resparko next to her. Her quick thinking captain grounded her to prevent her from sinking.
Captain James ‘Jimmy’ Fountain was the skipper of HMS Resparko FY822 when she was hit and sank at her berth.
When at the end of the month the local press finally reported the loss of the ship they claimed it was without loss of life. This was not true. Stoker 2nd Class Walter Henry Tutty was drowned when the ship sunk. His body was recovered from the vessel on August 21st. He was aged 23 and the son of John & Elizabeth Tutty of South Kelsey in Lincolnshire. He was buried in Falmouth Cemetery. He is remembered on the World War Two memorial at St Mary’s Church in South Kelsey.
The local press reported the third raid of the day by saying, “An hour later the same raider or another enemy machine visited the town but had such a hot reception from the anti-aircraft guns that it soon made off. No bombs were dropped.”
The Cornwall Constabulary War Diary tells a slightly different story! “Superintendant Norish: About 2240 hours 3 HE bombs dropped in Carrick Roads, Falmouth, in water. No damage. Also 2 Incendiary Bombs dropped in field at Boscawen farm 1 mile south of Falmouth police station. No damage.”
The day’s raids were indirectly to claim another victim before the month was out. When the Dutch tug Zwarte Zee was being towed off the beach by two local tugs on Saturday 31st August, a hawser slipped from a bollard on the Dutch craft, wound round the legs of one of the crew, threw him in the air and then dashed him onto the deck. He died a few hours later from multiple injuries.
The West Briton reported on the inquest at Falmouth Town Hall when the County Coroner Mr L.J. Carlyon returned a verdict of accidental death. “The first mate on the craft said the deceased was aged 27. The ship was lying on the beach at an angle and her decks were greasy. As the local tugs took the strain on the hawsers, which were six inch hemp ropes, the vessel canted more on her side. One of the ropes slipped off a bollard, wound round the deceased throwing him into the air then crashing on the deck. Witness sent a motor boat ashore immediately for a doctor and an ambulance. A surgeon-lieutenant said the man had a fractured skull, fractured lower jaw and injuries to his chest and neck. He died at the Sailor’s Hospital without recovering consciousness.”
The casualty was Johan van der Zee. He was buried in Falmouth Cemetery with the funeral taken by the Rev J Miels, the chaplain of the Royal Netherlands Navy on 3rd September 1940.
The Zwarte Zee was lifted into a dock for repairs and continued her war service.
The story serves to illustrate that while local newspapers can be a great source of information to the historian and researcher, one should always be aware that through wartime censorship they may only give certain details of any particular incident. Their stories should always be checked against a range of other sources to build up a reliable account of what happened.
What is not in doubt is the bravery and courage of all those who served, whether from the United Kingdom or from our Allies, such as the Netherlands in this instance, and we should never forget those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom and the peace we enjoy today.