Wreck and Torpedoes to Coastwatch – the extraordinary history of Nare Point.
5th December 2009
Nare Point, at the south-east corner of the Helford estuary, appears to be unremarkable, just another of the many Cornish headlands although with a look-out post on top. But if an author had decided to weave a story about it, such as was about to be told by our two speakers from the National Coastwatch Institution, Paul Phillips and Len Jepp, he would be accused of having a fevered imagination. Paul began with a brief reference to early times. A few place names, referring to barrows and a fort, provided hints of Prehistoric settlement and, more tangibly, Prehistoric potters had used an unusual gabbroic clay from St Keverne. A mention in an Anglo-Saxon charter of 987 AD shows that by Medieval times the district was occupied by farming communities, working the land in family-owned strips, a pattern well seen on an 1847 map of land holdings.
Moving to the years of the Second World War, Paul expanded on the important role played by the Helford in general and Nare Point in particular as men and machines were mobilised for the opening of the Second Front. The shot-blaster from Porthoustock Quarry was placed in charge of building the roads, piers and jetties needed for embarkation. Meanwhile Barnes Wallis was conducting experiments with a football at Predannack Pool, leading to his development of the bouncing bomb. The Dam Busters Raid, famously led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the grandson of a Cornishman, was the successful outcome of his work. The massive build-up of men and equipment, fears that this would be discovered by the enemy and the all-important need to protect Falmouth Docks, led to Nare Point being developed as a Falmouth Decoy site. One might imagine that mock buildings, railway sidings and docks would be erected, but the truth was stranger. The constructions were fake street lights and a variety of fire-making devices, designed to delude a night bomber pilot that there was a town below with incomplete blackout and that his bombs had hit targets. Fire trays, fifteen feet long and ten inches deep, were filled with mixtures of diesel, paraffin, water, wood pulp, wood, coal and coke, with flash bags beneath. The mixtures could be varied for effect, to simulate, say, a direct incendiary hit on a ship or train. Other devices included tanks with tar and sand bags with cordite. The decoy site, which operated from 1940 to 1944, was wired to a control bunker manned by Royal Navy personnel on the cliff above Men-Aver beach. In May 1944, Falmouth’s last and most destructive air raid, Nare Point decoy took 9 heavy bombs.
A little-known aspect of the war years was the existence of the Secret Army, auxiliary units which formed a specially trained body of resistance fighters tasked with defending a 30 mile-wide strip around the UK shores, except those facing Ireland. They were undercover agents, selected for their intimate knowledge of the district, carefully screened and trained in special combat, demolition and sabotage. Separate from the Home Guard, although issued with the same uniform to avoid suspicion, this region had about 190 men in 28 patrols. The Manaccan patrol consisted of 2 farmers, 2 farm labourers, a fisherman and a blacksmith, operating from a tunnelled hideout in a field. The leader, Mr Eva, was supplied with pistols, limpet mines, a special telephone, iron rations and an emergency keg of rum. When the time came to return the equipment, the rum had mysteriously changed to a keg of water, but a clue to this strange phenomenon may have been the neat hole in the bung, plugged with sealing wax.
The observation post at Nare Point, now occupied by Coastwatch, was built after the war by the Ministry of Defence and functioned between 1952 and 1993 as part of a torpedo testing range run by an RAF unit, the Aircraft Torpedo Development Unit (ATDU), and subsequently by the Admiralty. The concept of airborne torpedoes originated before the First World War and there had been an earlier testing range in the Scillies, but Falmouth Bay had proximity to Culdrose. Nare Point was the secondary (slave) station to the main control centre at Porthkerris. Cameras at both posts tracked the trajectories, entry angles and paths of dummy torpedoes and mines dropped from south to north by a variety of aeroplanes and helicopters. A pinnace with Docklands staff helped with recovery of the ordnance.
Paul concluded his piece with a harrowing account of a legendary shipwreck, the loss of the Bay of Panama in the Great Storm of 1891. Built by Harland and Wolff at Belfast in 1883, the Bay of Panama was a 2,282 ton, four-masted, square-rigged steel ship, one of the finest sailing vessels ever built. In November 1890 she left Calcutta with 13,000 bales of jute, destined for mills at Dundee, and by early March 1891 she was near Cornwall. The weather was deteriorating fast and on March 9th there were signs of an approaching blizzard, with a strong north-easterly gale and driving snow. The captain thought that he was near the Lizard and throughout the day had been proceeding under two topsails, but now all sail was furled. The weather worsened and became a ferocious blizzard, the worst in the West Country for 200 years. Animals died in the fields in hundreds. Four ships were wrecked on the Manacles. At about 1.30am on March 10th a huge wave swept along the deck, smashing all the boats. In driving snow, with visibility almost nil, further waves hurled the ship headlong into the cliff just south of Nare Point. She slewed round, pointing east and listing to starboard. One mast came down, two topmasts broke and fell. Waves swept along the deck, swamping the cabin and carrying off the captain, his wife, second mate, steward, cook and four apprentices. The mate ordered the rest of the crew into the rigging and there they clung through the night, their wet clothing freezing in the icy wind. Some lost their grip and fell. At daybreak, a farmer searching for his sheep on the cliff spotted the wreck and went for help and by 9am coastguards from St Keverne had rigged a breeches buoy. Some in the rigging had frozen to death. The survivors, 17 from a crew of 40, were lifted ashore, taken to St Keverne, warmed, fed and put to bed. Next day they were taken in a horse-drawn bus to Gweek on the way to Falmouth, but snowdrifts blocked the road and they struggled the remainder of the way on foot, some without shoes. As the Falmouth Packet reported, they ‘endured as much privation in that walk as they did in the actual shipwreck’.
Len Jepp, Acting Station Manager at Nare Point, picked up the story of the observation post. In 1992 the Coastguard station at Bass Point was abandoned as part of a nationwide programme of closures. Shortly afterwards a fishing boat was seen to be in difficulties off the coast, but persons attempting to report it and get help were unable to do so because the station had been boarded up. Two fishermen drowned. Appalled at this incident, locals at Cadgwith in 1994 decided to set up their own watch station, with help from Lloyds of London, and thus began what is now the National Coastwatch Institution, a volunteer organisation which currently has 42 stations around the country with 1700 observers watching our coastal waters in 4-hour shifts. In 1993, after the MOD closed its torpedo testing facility, the building at Nare Point had little use, other than as a potato store. It was derelict when taken over by the NCI in 2005, leased from the National Trust at a peppercorn rent. With the help of several organisations and local residents the station was renovated and new windows were added to give it a 290 degree field of view, enabling powerful telescopes to sweep from Trebah and Gillan in the west, to Falmouth in the north, along the coast to Dodman Point and around south to Porthkerris and the Manacles. The station has radar, radio and Automatic Identification System equipment, but the main activity is ‘looking out of the window’. Radar can show the position of a vessel, but only a watcher can see if it is in trouble. The observers log the movement and anchoring of all vessels, large and small. Twelve were on duty on the day of the Tall Ships race when there were 2000 boats in Falmouth Bay. Weather conditions are logged, of use to the coastguard and yachtsmen; and the observers can give visual guidance to lifeboats. Apart from the routine observations, the telescopes provide a wonderful opportunity for looking at birds, dolphins, whales and other wildlife. Presently the station has 52 observers and operates every day. It is aiming for 65 to enable 3 watches per day, with 2 people (for 2 windows) at any time. Len said that volunteers would be most welcome.
The HMC Group would like to thank Paul Phillips and Len Jepp very much for their extremely interesting talks, delivered with humour and packed with information about what we once thought was just an ordinary Cornish headland.