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The Blitz Before The Blitz!

July 2024

Falmouth & the Carrick Roads from the air showing the huge natural harbour

While many people who know something about World War Two could tell you that ‘The Blitz’ started on Saturday 7th September 1940 in London, few could tell you that Falmouth had already suffered two months of continuous attacks by that time. I accept Cornwall, a rural and coastal county, did not see loss of life and destruction on the scale of the East End, but from early July onwards both civilian and military lives were being lost in a way that was to make a large impact in small tight-knit communities.

Falmouth Docks seen in 2014

Falmouth, the third largest natural harbour in the world, had been declared a Category A port – to be defended at all costs. In June it had seen hundreds of ships arrive as part of Operation Aerial – the evacuation of the remainder of the BEF that was left in France after Dunkirk and an operation on a similar kind of scale returning a further 250,000 troops to the UK, as well as French, Poles, Dutch and Belgians keen to continue the fight or flee the Germans, the Polish National Treasures, vast quantities of diamonds and the world’s supply of heavy water which had escaped from Norway to France and now on again to Cornwall.

With the enemy just 70 miles across the water a flurry of building activity began: a line of pillboxes to defend the port from the landward side and a series of Heavy Anti-Aircraft batteries that weren’t expected to be completed until late August. On Friday 5th July 1940 the local paper, the Falmouth Packet, had reported that a council meeting had discussed air raid shelters – or the lack of them!

At lunchtime on that summer Friday on an airfield in France five Junkers 88s were detailed to take off for a raid on Cornwall. Two were sent to attack a large convoy in area 50 11 sailing in a westerly direction and three were sent to attack Falmouth. Lucy Mayne was in the WRNS serving in the Writer’s Branch. She recalled, “On a hot summer’s afternoon two enemy planes came over Falmouth Dockyard and bombed the ships. There was no warning.”

Tom George, who lived at New Quay House in Flushing, was working as a shop assistant in Falmouth. He left work, boarded the ferry run by Kelly Kessell, to go home for lunch. He recalled, “We went off a bit late. Looking up towards Penryn we saw a plane. A Dutch naval vessel in the harbour starting firing and the plane dropped bombs which missed the docks. It then swerved away.” The time was 2.18pm. Two High Explosive bombs were dropped east of the Eastern Breakwater but no damage was reported. Eyewitnesses reported that two Spitfires were seen about a mile behind two of the German planes giving chase. They had been scrambled from Cornwall’s only fighter airfield at the time, RAF St Eval, and were from 234 Squadron.

The Germans reported in KR Telegram to Group L.M.S. Kurfurst, Sealion Ic, and Lfl.5 over Ob.d.L. Special Information no 9 of 5.7.1940: “1 Junkers 88 attacked Falmouth harbour with 2 SC500. Direct hits on warehouses, good effect. 1 Junkers 88 attack on 5000 ton transporter with 2 SC500. Damage observed at the stern.” Another Junkers 88 was later dispatched for a reconnaissance flight to report on the success of the raid. It reported “Good hits on warehouses. 1 hit on transporter of 3000-4000 tons.”

Thirteen year old Ingrid Jacoby, who had escaped Nazi occupied Vienna on the Kindertransport and was now living in Falmouth, simply recorded in her diary: “Today Falmouth had its first air raid of the war. I was in school.”

She didn’t have to wait long for the second. It came at 7.15am the next morning, Saturday 6th July, when the target was again the docks. The Cornwall Constabulary War Diary records: “At 0715 hrs a bomb dropped from enemy aircraft in basin at Falmouth Docks. Fragments & shrapnel penetrated side of ship. Damage very slight. No casualties.” The local press reported that the anti-aircraft batteries had opened up on the raiders. However, the HAA weren’t finished, and Pendennis Castle only had two Lewis guns the army had liberated from troops returning from France in June. The most likely source of anti-aircraft fire was the ships of the Royal Netherlands Navy that were in the harbour. The Dutch were to stay throughout the war making the nearby Enys House their Officer Cadet Training School.

Fireman P Winnan’s memory of the raid was: “Saturday morning the German planes arrived and machine gunned the town until our Spitfires drove them off.” The Harbour Master’s Journal recorded: “There were 3 air raids during the day but no damage in the harbour was reported.” But that wasn’t strictly true. One bomb had landed 30 feet from SS Middlesex. Her side had been pierced by shrapnel. The damage was slight and there were no casualties. But perhaps the most worrying thing for the people of Falmouth was that the air raid siren went off five minutes after the bombs had been dropped!

The next three raids came the following day – Sunday 7th July 1940 – and by the third the siren was sounded in advance of the raid – just! The first raid came at 8.30am and in the words of the Falmouth Packet “nothing happened!” It was probably a reconnaissance flight for later raids. The second raid came at 4.15pm when according to the Police War Diary 10 magnetic mines were dropped in the harbour.

A 1946 photo of Lister Street showing where the terrace including No 30 once stood. No 31 was opposite by the hill.

The third raid came at 5.38pm and lasted about an hour. At the Docks a fitting shop and a store were damaged but there were no casualties and no fires. An unexploded bomb that fell in No 4 Dock, the dry dock next to the fitting shop, was dealt with by the Bomb Disposal Squad. Five bombs fell on the area around Lister Street in the town. Two fell in the disused Windsor Quarry where two craters were made and some worksheds were smashed. One bomb hit a small terrace of houses landing in the middle on No 30 Lister Street. Here five were killed and 36 people were injured. All the dead were in No 30 and from the same family who had taken refuge under the stairs. They were Mr George Henry Howard, aged 70, a retired boiler maker and his wife Mary Elizabeth Howard, also aged 70. Their bodies were recovered at 1am the next morning. Also killed was their daughter Mrs Olive May Pascoe, aged 41, and her son Master George Howard Pascoe, aged 11, while the husband and father Mr George Henry Pascoe, aged 43, a blacksmith and well known ambulance driver, was brought out alive but he died a couple of hours later at the hospital.

Following ARP advice they had sheltered under the staircase downstairs. The bomb which hit their house demolished three others and caused considerable damage to a number of others. Practically every pane of glass in the whole street was shattered. Rubble, pieces of furniture, bedding & clothing were afterwards found at a considerable distance from the scene. Some clothing was found hanging on telegraph wires. The first entry in the Police War Diary made at 6.50pm stated that it was believed there were three more people still buried under the rubble. At later entry at 9.30pm recorded, “3 people found alive amongst debris in one house and two people alive among debris in another house. Public morale good. Dutch seamen doing splendid work in assisting demolition squads.” By 4pm the next day the police were satisfied all the debris had been searched and the death toll stood at five.

Another bomb had hit No 31 which was on the opposite side of the street. Its occupants survived. They were Mr W Maynard who had a cut above his left eye; Mrs Maynard his wife; Miss Margaret Maynard, age 11, their daughter; their son Master Geoffrey Maynard, age 14, was slightly injured and spent 36 hours in Falmouth Hospital; Mr John Slaughter, age 73, Mrs Slaughter and a child Slaughter, aged 13 months - they were relatives evacuated from London and emerged with a few scratches on their faces.

Geoffrey Maynard aged 90 in 2016

Geoffrey later told the BBC People’s War website: “The air raid siren had sounded & the whole family took refuge underneath the stairs. There were 7 of us. Within a few minutes the bombs fell and the house came down around us, all buried and choking with dust. The bombs also broke the main gas pipe – the gas being poisonous – and the main water pipe. The water was rising quickly and we could have drowned and we realised there was a large crater that was filling up. After some time - it seemed like hours - we heard the rescuers shouting, ‘Is anyone alive in there?’ Eventually we were rescued and taken to the First Aid Post where we were treated for cuts and lacerations to our heads and bodies and for loss of hearing and concussion. I spent 36 hours in Falmouth Hospital and then the whole family were evacuated to Mawnan Smith. Although our house was completely demolished, on one wall (minus the plaster) stood a crucifix which was not damaged and which I still have as a treasured possession.”

At No 32 Louisa Pardon, age 55, was given oxygen for severe shock. She had minor injuries but “came out smiling” according to rescuers. Frederick K Pardon, age 25, her son was taken to hospital. Both were buried for over 2 hours but emerged with just cuts. They had also sheltered under a staircase but in the basement so had the house collapse on them. From another of the damaged houses Nellie Elizabeth Moore emerged with a blackened face and was taken to hospital for cuts. Margaret Moore, her daughter, also had a blackened face. Staying with them were a father & mother from Norwich with their 2 month old baby. The baby was “quite uninjured.”

At No 34 lived Mr & Mrs W Coulls with their two children - Miss Phyllis Coulls, age 18, and Master Coulls. Phyllis later told the BBC People’s War website: “On July 7th 1940 which was a Sunday I went for a walk with several of my friends. We were all members of Emmanuel Baptist Church which was on Western Terrace & were known as the Young Worshippers League. It was a lovely day so we strolled around the sea front, past Castle Beach & Gyllyngvase Beach before we returned home for tea. My Mum & Dad had it all ready so we sat down to begin our meal. As we did so the air raid siren sounded & there was the noise of an approaching very low aircraft. We suddenly realised that we might be bombed, so very quickly got into the cupboard under the stairs. Then suddenly there was a terrific explosion and half the house fell down around us. We sat there afraid to move in case of further attacks. Eventually the ‘all clear’ sounded and we managed to struggle into our back garden. To our horror we realised the middle house in the block of five had been destroyed by the bomb & we later learned that the six occupants had been killed. The house next to us had come down as well as the third house in the block of five, burying the occupants in both houses. However, they all did get out alive. The house opposite and the hill had also been damaged. There was a huge crater in the hill and the house had been sliced in half, but luckily no one else was killed. Of course, after all this we had to find somewhere else to live. First of all we moved in with my Aunt & Uncle in Langton Road for a while, and then eventually we were allocated a council house in Pendarves Road.”

West Briton bombing report July 1940

At No 28 Mr Thomas Henry Foster, his wife Mrs Iris Maud Foster and his mother Mrs Foster senior were rescued from under the stairs practically uninjured. At No 35 were Mr Painter, his wife Mrs J Painter and their two boys aged 7 ½ and 5 ½. Mrs Painter told a newspaper reporter “We were about to sit down to tea when there was a tremendous crash. I tried to get the children out as the house came falling down about us. One of the boys had been in bed all day suffering from the shock of the previous raid warning, but he came down stairs for tea, or I do not know what would have happened to him. The back of the house collapsed and the ceilings upstairs and down partially fell in.”

At No 34 were Mr William Thomas, his wife Dorothy and their son. The Falmouth Packet reported: “Mr William Thomas & his wife Dorothy & their son were underneath the stairs in their home which was partially demolished. Mr Thomas was found supporting a wall & when the wife and son had been taken out and the man moved the wall collapsed. The man had kept the wall from falling for quite a considerable time.” At 3 Lister Place Mrs Catherine Smale was described as having slight injuries.

At No 36 lived Mr & Mrs Maunder with their 9 year old daughter Pamela and young son. Pamela later told the BBC People’s War website: “The air raid warning had gone, a comparatively new sound to our ears. We were sitting around the table having tea - my mother, father, brother & myself, when there was a loud droning of an aircraft approaching very low. We sat staring at one another, then I think the terrible realisation dawned on us that we were about to be bombed. We dashed to the cupboard under the stairs which had been declared the best place to shelter and there we sat huddled together waiting. There was a terrific explosion, then blackness, more explosions and the sound of breaking glass. I don’t know how long we sat there in the dark, not daring to move for fear of further attack. Then there were voices calling ‘Hello, are you alright?’ Neighbours were shouting and trying to open the front door. We picked our way along the passage and out into the front street where we could see the devastation left by the bomber. There had been a direct hit to the houses opposite. What had been a neat little terrace, was now a heap of rubble and rescue workers were frantically digging, looking for survivors. Six people were brought out dead – the whole Pascoe family. I looked for my best friend Margaret Maynard who lived with her parents & brother Geoffrey two doors up, next to the hill. There was a huge crater in the hill and Margaret’s house was literally sliced in half. All that could be seen were pieces of furniture & a crucifix still hanging on the remaining wall. The Maynards were all safe having also taken refuge under their stairs which were in the part of the building still standing. I saw Mrs Nellie Moore being brought out clutching her young daughter Margaret in her arms, although they were hard to recognise with their blackened faces. Nellie was badly cut and was removed to hospital. We all moved that night to outlying villages where it was considered to be safer. Margaret took up residence at Durgan and we moved in with my grandmother at Lanner.”

The Air Raid Records state that two ambulances, 1 First Aid Party, 2 Fire Engines and 4 Rescue Squads were sent to Lister Street. The Falmouth Packet reported, “Doors were torn off their hinges and over a large area there was a tremendous quantity of broken glass. One bomb fell and made a crater 20 feet in width and of considerable depth. After the bombing the street presented a shambles. Debris was strewn all over the place from the demolished houses. But a rabbit in a hutch near where the bomb dropped was uninjured.” Already the self-imposed censorship of ending on a morale boosting note was happening in the local press. It’s also interesting to note the resident’s memory of six being killed while official records only show five.

The German news broadcasts claimed that the raid had hit the railway station, coastal batteries and barracks in Falmouth.

French sloop Suippe seen before the war

On Monday 8th July there was one air raid warning at 5.56pm. The All Clear sounded 51 minutes later. Two High Explosive bombs had been dropped in the water near the western breakwater, one practically on the edge of the eastern breakwater and one on the docks where it made a large crater and knocked over two railway trucks without causing any casualties. The bombs in the water had landed near the SS Middlesex which was believed to be carrying planes brought back from France. There were no casualties. The French sloop Suippe was damaged by the bombing. The boat had been seized a few days before on the 4th from the French by the Royal Navy as part of Operation Catapult to prevent French vessels falling into the hands of the Germans after the defeat in France. No crew were aboard when the bombs dropped. The vessel was beached at St Just Pool and later towed further up the Fal where a few scraps of metal are all that remains of her today.

FLt Pat Hughes of 234 Squadron

Spitfires from RAF St Eval responded to the raid and shot down a Junkers over the Channel at 6.45pm. F/Lt Pat Hughes, an Australian pilot with 234 Squadron, who had married Kathleen at St Eval in June, was credited with sharing the kill of the Junkers 88 25 miles south-east of Lands End. Sadly Pat died on 7th September when it is believed he rammed a Dornier 17 over Kent when his plane had run out of ammunition.

On Tuesday 9th the air raid siren sounded at 6.55am. The all clear sounded at 8.32am. It is believed this may have been a reconnaissance flight. Otherwise the day was quiet.

On Wednesday 10th July 1940 hundreds of townfolk had gathered at the cemetery for the burial of the Pascoe family that had been killed in the bombing of Lister Street on Sunday. It was a beautiful summer’s day when the sound of two planes swooping overhead could be heard as the air raid siren went. The funeral ceremony continued although the ambulance men who were to act as the coffin bearers as George Pascoe was one of their own, as they formed up that sunny afternoon, were called away to deal with the deadliest raid thus far.

The story continues next month…

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