Falmouth was designated a category A defended location which meant she was to be defended at all costs. The troops guarding the neighbouring beaches had orders that said there was to be “no withdrawal under any circumstances.” A landward line of defences was prepared by the Worcestershire Regiment earning it the name of the Worcester Line. In the summer of 1940, when invasion was thought imminent, Falmouth suffered a mini-blitz two months before London received hers.
The first of a week of attacks was on Friday 5th July 1940 with the first civilian deaths on Sunday 7th. The docks and its shipping were badly hit on the 10th. They returned on the 12th before coming for 8 consecutive days from the 19th. While there were also some night-time raids the most devastating ones occurred in broad daylight.
Falmouth was inadequately prepared. Its heavy anti-aircraft guns were still being built. Its only AA defences, other than any guns on shipping that just happened to be in the harbour, were two Bren guns that had been taken off the troops returning from France and set up in Pendennis Castle. And while things soon improved, the first couple of months of air raids showed just how vulnerable the world’s third-largest natural harbour was to attack from the air.
The intermittent raids on Falmouth continued for the rest of 1940 and when in the spring of 1941 Cornwall was for three months the most bombed county in England, it was decided that Falmouth needed further measures to help protect her from the air. Two Starfish decoy sites were to be built in the hope of attracting the enemy bombers away from Falmouth. The sites chosen both looked from the air like the dog-leg shape of the Pendennis peninsula. One was at Nare Point on the southern entrance to the Helford. The other was seven miles eastwards along the coast at Nare Head.
A team from Col Turner’s Department based at Sound City Studios, Shepperton, Surrey, were brought in to build the Starfish and QL Decoy Sites. This meant it showed at night urban lighting and, if bombed, fires to foil the enemy into thinking the granite headland was Falmouth. Its special effects included signals to show the approach to a railway station and wooden boxes lit by electric light to give the impression of light escaping from buildings. If High Explosive bombs were dropped bomb sets were activated. These were 50-gallon tar barrels with flashbangs. If Incendiary Bombs were dropped fire troughs were activated. There were three of these made from pressed steel. One contained diesel to create smoke and one contained water to create clouds of steam as if a locomotive had been hit. It was all operated from a concrete control bunker (both still survive today) which had two rooms – one for the generators and one for the crew.
The first, on Nare Head, was completed on 23rd September 1941. Nare Head was called Harry and its sister decoy on Nare Point at the mouth of the Helford was called Peter. H for head, P for point. Only one site was activated at a time. Two were built so there was always one available for use. The decoys were controlled by the RAF until after D-Day. The Duty Barrage Controller from 959 Squadron, RAF, in charge of Falmouth’s balloon barrage, was based in the Squadron Headquarters in the Gwendra Hotel in Falmouth where the plot of enemy aircraft was kept. Rules of operation had been agreed with the Flag Officer In Charge, Falmouth, from the Royal Navy (as he was the senior officer responsible for the defence of Falmouth) but the Controller known as Q and the men manning the decoys were all from the RAF. Civilian contractors like Curtis & Co of Penryn were tasked with helping with the maintenance.
Peter was first bombed on 25th October 1941 at 1950 hours when, ironically, the site was not operating but possibly the result of reconnaissance picking up on activity on the headland. The sites were vulnerable to lightning and at 0610 hours on 29th October 1942, the equipment on both decoy sites was struck causing considerable damage by fire. The day produced gale-force winds and torrential rain which did not help the rush to repair and replace the equipment so at least one of the sites was ready for duty before nightfall.
On Friday 4th December 1942 Decoy Harry on Nare Head was brought into operation for the first time at 1915 hours until 2150 hours when orders to close down were given by the Barrage Controller.
On Sunday 6th Peter was brought into operation from 2010 hours until 2307 hours, and again on the 10th from 1835 hours until 2153 hours. Harry operated again on the 12th and Peter was back in action on the 14th. The Squadron Operations Record Book details the dates and times of operation throughout 1943 including Harry being struck by lightning on 17th July 1943 at 2125 hours causing fires on the site. By 0213 hours the next morning, they reported they had the fires under control and at 0800 hours that they were finally extinguished.
The use of the decoy sites in the build-up to D-Day was discussed on 10th February 1944 by the Commanding Officer of 959 Squadron, Squadron Leader Vincent, and the Chief of Staff Falmouth Naval Base, Colonel Hall of the Devonshire Regiment and Colonel Murley of the Coast Defence, Royal Artillery.
On 27th March 1944, both sites were activated on the same evening, although only one at a time. The switch was ordered because of the direction of travel of the enemy planes as reported by radar. In the end, the planes headed for Plymouth.
The 30th April 1944 saw Harry operate and the deployment of a smoke-screen over Falmouth used for the first time as three radar plots showed over 30 aircraft heading for the port. Bombs were dropped in the sea off Pendennis but no damage reported.
On the 3rd of May, the CO 959 Squadron conferred with Colonel Turner and a naval admiral regarding the use of the smoke-screen and the deployment of some MQLs – marine decoys or decoys made to look like shipping. On the 16th of May, both sites operated their lights at different times but no attacks developed so the fires were not used.
Falmouth’s last bombing raid of the war occurred on 30th May when several seafront hotels, the fuel storage tanks at Swanvale and buildings in the dock area were hit with a total of 10 fatalities. The decoy site at Nare Point, Peter, was activated and was hit by at least nine bombs. Daylight revealed two large craters measuring 16ft by 60 ft adjacent to the site. Later that day 959 Squadron were given instructions for their personnel to operate the extra MQLs. One of these was on the eastern banks of the Carrick Roads between St Just Pool and St Mawes, one was in the upper reaches of the Helford River near Frenchman’s Creek, and the third was on the upper reaches of the River Fal near Ruan Lanihorne. The last two consisted of lights being floated on barges to look like shipping at anchor.
On 2nd June the MQL sites at Ruan Lanihorne & the Helford became operative. On the 8th the MQL at Ruan Lanihorne, known as Herbert, was damaged by drifting barges.
On 29th June 1944, the control of both the original decoy sites and the three MQL decoy sites was transferred to the FOIC Falmouth with Lt Comm Hutchinson acting as the Q Controller. This became effective on the 1st of July 1944. The sites were then manned by the navy (as described by Viv Acton & Derek Carter in their book Operation Cornwall, pub 1994) until the war had progressed far enough into northern Europe so as to render an air attack on Falmouth unlikely. The sites were then dismantled.
All that remains today are the two control bunkers. For years the one at Nare Head was buried under a mound of earth by the National Trust but with the opening up of the adjacent Cold War Royal Observer Corps post, thanks to the efforts of Laurence Holmes the Trust cleared the control bunker and give access a couple of times a year (or did pre-Covid). The one on Nare Point is buried under the undergrowth on Lestowder Cliff but is accessible to the brave-hearted.
I’ll return to the subjects of decoys on another occasion as they were also deployed at Hayle and Fowey and for Cornwall’s airfields as touched upon in A Place And A Name (pages 148-151) but hopefully, the look at Falmouth’s decoys has cleared up some of the myths circulating both on the internet and in print.