Over the past month, we have seen several gorse fires devastate large areas of moorland. One on Dartmoor was apparently started accidentally by a member of the public, while it seems the one on St Breock Downs was set deliberately, there having been a fire on the same day last year at the same location. The images shown on the TV news took my mind to the events of 1941 when a Cornish airfield was very grateful for a gorse fire or two.
RAF Portreath had opened on 7th March 1941 having been constructed on the farms of Nancekuke which were speedily requisitioned in July 1940. Cornwall only had one RAF airfield – St Eval – and Portreath was designed to take over its role as the Fighter Command Sector Station.
It didn’t take the Germans long to find it. Its first air raid was on the 12th of April when some damage was done to the runways. On the 10th of May, the first airman lost his life in an air raid. Aircraftsman 2nd Class Thomas Joseph Groom from Islington in London was the casualty.
Now in the late evening of Tuesday 20th May, ten Heinkel 111s from KampfGruppe 100 based at Vannes Airfield in Brittany were being loaded with 252 SD 50kg bombs and 2304 incendiaries. Their target for the night was RAF Portreath.
The first bombs dropped on the airfield at 0007 hours on the 21st of May. Portreath was still being built. Many of the airmen slept in Bell tents in the fields at the edge of the airfield. The hangers and other buildings were still under construction. A wooden hut used by the contractors was set alight by the incendiaries and the airfield was machine-gunned. Amazingly there were no casualties. When there was a short lull there was then a frantic effort to extinguish the flames.
The next wave came at 0100 hours. Again incendiaries rained down from the sky. However, this time they failed to find their target and were dropped on the farms, moorland, beaches and cliffs to the east of the airfield. The incendiaries started two large gorse fires. One in the valley of Chapel Porth where witnesses described several hundred IB’s raining down. The other in the area around Towan Cross.
Guided by the fires the bombers then released their 50 kg fragmentation bombs. These fell both on the gorse and on the farms nearby. Incredibly no one was killed or injured. The following information is extracted from the Cornwall Constabulary record of the night and gives a picture of what happened on the ground.
11 High Explosive bombs on the beach and cliffs at Porthtowan. No casualties or damage. (In fact, some of the bombs detonated a number of the land mines placed on the beach as an anti-invasion measure.)
12 HE’s on Trevissick Farm. Damage to farmhouse and other dwelling houses. One horse slightly injured.
4 HE’s and 3 unexploded HE bombs (UXB) in fields on Banns Farm, Mount Hawke. 1 steer killed, 1 cow injured. Damage to windows of farmhouse.
14 HE’s and 1 UXB in fields at Goonvrea Farm. 1 horse injured.
3 HE’s in fields at Penwinnick Farm. No casualties or damage.
10 HE’s and a number of incendiary bombs (IB’s) on cliffs near Wheal Coates.
12 HE’s in fields at Towan Farm. No casualties or damage. 3 UXB’s in mowhay and roadside. The unclassified road from St Agnes to Porthtowan (known locally as Mingoose Hill) was closed as precautions were taken.
10 HE’s and 6 UXB’s at Towan Cross in fields and cliff land. Damage to the Victory Inn, dwelling houses and outbuildings. People were evacuated due to the UXB’s as precautions were taken.
As the airmen extinguished the flames on the burnt-out contractor’s hut and surveyed the runways for craters they could only wonder at the fires lighting the eastern sky. The fact that the gorse fires had drawn the bombers off to the east saved the airfield from any major damage. However, the gorse was to provide another aspect to the aftermath of the raid.
The gorse in the valley at Chapel Porth and around Towan Cross is known as dwarf gorse. Due to the effects of the wind and the salt spray, the gorse grows amongst the bell heather and never grows more than a foot high. This dense carpet of vegetation, which blooms yellow and purple in season, cushioned the landing of many of the bombs to the extent that they failed to explode. The Constabulary records show a continuing legacy of UXB’s being discovered.
23rd May – 2 UXBs found at Towan Cross and 1 UXB in grass field at Towan Farm. Precautions taken.
25th May – 8 UXB’s found in gorse land at Chapel Porth valley. Precautions taken.
27th May – 5 UXB’s in gorseland at Chapel Porth.
4th June – 1 UXB found in gorseland at Chapel Porth Valley. Precautions taken.
6th June – The UXB’s on the unclassified road St Agnes to Porthtowan removed. Road now open to traffic.
9th June – 3 UXB’s found in gorse land at Chapel Porth valley. ARP informed.
And then on 6th March 1942 – Suspected UXB at Pressingol Farm, St Agnes. Believed dropped in 1941.
9th March 1942 – 1 UXB was found in gorseland at Towan Cross. Believed dropped in 1941.
One wonders what may still be lurking amongst the gorse and peaty earth of the two areas of the gorse fires. Even after 80 years, World War Two ordnance can still pack a punch as many of the students and residents of the Glenthorne Road area
in Exeter have discovered this past weekend as a 400-metre cordon has been thrown around an unexploded German bomb.
I take my hat off to the Royal Navy Bomb Disposal Unit that are dealing with that one as I type this, and also to the BD Squads from World War Two who dealt with all those discovered in Chapel Porth and Towan Cross. The disruption caused by the UXB’s led to a number of locals calling for the Downs to be burnt off to prevent a repeat.
The night that the gorse fires saved RAF Portreath is just one of the incidents detailed in my new eBook due to be published this month. It is titled “RAF Portreath War Diary: The base, the village and neighbourhood in World War Two.” Details will be on the eBook page of the website as soon as it is released. So, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing this month, stay safe.