The footpath along the north shore of the Helford River makes for a delightful and enjoyable walk. The views of the estuary, the wooded banks and the quaint little beaches provide a spectacular vista in a quiet and largely unspoilt part of Cornwall. One can either park at Mawnan Church or at Helford Passage (neither car park is free! Use the National Trust one at Durgan if you are a member) and choose your direction of travel.
However this rural idyll was far from quiet in the summer of 1940 when all manner of construction was being undertaken to safeguard the north shore from a German invasion. Falmouth was a Category A port – to be defended at all costs. However, the defence plans for Falmouth were very concerned about landings being made on the Helford and the port being attacked from the landward side. Two things were done. First was a landward line of defences on the outskirts of the town (today many of them fall within the town as it has spread) which became known as the Worcestershire Line after the regiment which constructed many of its defences and manned it for a while in the summer of 1940. See my YouTube video for more details of this: https://youtu.be/k89lWw6DbjE
The second was to provide a series of defences along the north shore of the Helford. I have numbered them on this Google Earth image and shall seek to describe them in order travelling east to west from Mawnan Church to Helford Passage.
1) The Estuary Boom. This was a rubber tubing and net arrangement that was fixed on the rocks on both sides of the estuary mouth and ran out to the Nazarene, a St Ives fishing boat that was commandeered into the Royal Navy for the task. This would move to provide an opening to allow vessels in or out. The net was to stop submarines and the tubing was to float on the surface and snag any fast light craft like E-boats that may try to ride the boom. Working in conjunction with the boom was an electronically detonated minefield. This was controlled by naval personnel who were stationed in a Nissen hut on Toll Point throughout the war. The only traces of this left are the cable I photographed in 2011 and the anchor ring on the south shore. The cliffs on the north shore near the boom have become unstable over the past two years and the footpath is now directed away from it.
2) Coastal Artillery Search Lights. The searchlights in their own fenced enclosure at Toll Point served a dual purpose. They illuminated the boom or unknown approaching vessels when necessary, and they were the searchlights for the gun battery in No 3. All that remains of the searchlights today are two concrete squares at the cliff edge. The generator building was destroyed after the war.
3) Coastal Artillery Gun Battery. This was built and manned by the regular army and was under the command of a Colonel in the Gun Control Room at Pendennis. There were two French 75mm guns in separate emplacements, while another was mounted on wheels and towed by a half ton truck. There was also a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun. The Battery Observation Post was built into the hillside. There were 5 huts placed in the field leading down to Parson’s field near the church. These were the men’s accommodation and a training hut. Later in the war the Home Guard were trained to man the guns and one team amazed the regulars by equalling their score. What the gunners didn’t realise was the Home Guard had two Great War artillery veterans in their number! Today a few lumps of concrete in the copse in the meadow are all that remain.
4) Pillbox at Porthallack. There was what looks like a Type 24 pillbox at Porthallack (sometimes referred to by the locals as cow’s beach). It stood until about 1970 when it collapsed as a result of coastal erosion. All that remains now lying just below the high water mark are its roof and some sections of its walls.
5) Pillbox at Porth Saxon. This is a Type 24 pillbox that remains in excellent condition and is accessible from the coast path. Its embrasures would have provided both frontal and enfilading fire across the beach.
6) Barbed Wire Defences. Just to the west of Porth Saxon there is the remains of an old trackway that leads down to the shore (first shown on the 1880 OS map). This was defended with coils of barbed wire. I found a coiled barbed wire stake buried in the trackway. This shows that every exit from the shoreline was blocked. The beaches were classed as a restricted zone and the locals were barred from using them.
7) Flame Fougasse at Glebe Beach. This was the largest of the small beaches on the north shore of the Helford and the Department for Petroleum Warfare came up with a rather nasty defence for the beach – a flame fougasse. This would have consisted of three tanks of fuel that were sited just inside the woodland the other side of the lane down to Durgan that fed pipes that ran down to the beach. Nozzles would have been the only thing visible above the shingle but when ignited would have created a wall of flame across the length of the beach. To see what this would have looked like take a look at the video on the landing page of this website where you’ll see the one at Porthcurno in Cornwall being tested. The only things that remain today are the depressions 8ft by 8ft and 3ft deep where the tanks were sited under the trees near the path down from the National Trust car park. This wasn’t the only flame fougasse on the Helford. There was one built into the bank of the road called Gweek Drive up the hill out of the village of Gweek.
8) Pillbox at Durgan. A small rectangular pillbox was built just below the lane and overlooking Durgan Beach. It was 13ft by 8ft with two embrasures. One overlooking the beach and the other covering the road up from the beach. It is still in good condition but a grill over the entrance prevents you going inside. It is believed that dragon’s teeth were used to protect the exit from the beach at Durgan but no evidence of this survives.
9) Dragon’s teeth at Polgwidden Cove. This beach is better known today as Trebah and in the summer of 1940 was blocked by a series of concrete anti-tank obstacles placed across the exit from the beach. For a while these formed stepping stones on the coast path where it was channelled between Trebah Gardens and the private beach. Today the path has been concreted over to make a smoother surface and they have been lost from view.
10) Pillbox overlooking Polgwidden Cove. When this was built in 1940 this was a typical Type 24 pillbox covering the beach. It still remains today just above the road to the embarkation hard but has been modified to be used as an observation post connected with the D-Day Embarkation Hard. Some have suggested its modification was for an anti-aircraft post but given the evidence for a much bigger AA post the other side of the Hard I doubt that interpretation.
11) Pillbox at Helford Passage. A Type 24 pillbox was built on the cliff on the east side of the beach at Helford Passage, sited to give deadly enfilading fire across the beach. This pillbox retains its inner anti-ricochet walls between the embrasures (but is not the only one in Cornwall to do so). What is worthy of note is the inscription inside in the concrete of the initials LJ and the date 1940.
12) Dragon’s teeth at Helford Passage. The beach was defended with barbed wire defences and dragon’s teeth across the exit from the beach to prevent access onto the road that runs across the top of the beach.
There are other wartime features along the Helford such as the rifle range at Calamansack or the houses used by SOE and SIS for running their boats across the Channel to France to insert agents and bring back those needing to flee from the Nazis ranging from resistance fighters to downed airmen and those bringing out vital intelligence. That’s perhaps a story for another time.
The estuary was also used as a D-Day embarkation point for the US 29th Infantry Division and housed two sections of the Mulberry Harbour before they were towed across to Normandy, but again that’s a tale for another occasion.
There were also anti-invasion measures on the south shore ranging from anti-tank walls to pillboxes as well as the Bombing Decoy for Falmouth sited on Nare Point.
But for now enjoy the stroll along the northern shore remembering that the soldiers manning those defences were given orders during the invasion scare of September 1940 that there was no retreat from their positions. Because Falmouth had to be defended “at all costs” they would fight and die at their posts. Such is the price for defending freedom and democracy, as those in Ukraine are showing us once more on the continent of Europe. Freedom is not free. Let us not take it for granted. Till next month, happy walking.