Nare Point WWII Decoy Unit

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Paul Phillips (Kaffler Rannyeth) relays the little-known story of a wartime deception which fooled the Germans and probably saved Falmouth Docks. (An extract taken from a more inclusive Paper on the History of Nare Point)


“The war robbed me of my youth”.                                                                                        

“They were the best days of my life”.                                                                                                 

“People were so much more friendly then, we all pulled together”.

These diverse comments indicate some of the problems in trying to give an accurate picture of the war years here in Cornwall.  For some it was purgatory, for others it was bliss; for many it was a time of famine, while others enjoyed plenty and a few even made their fortunes.  One thing that was apparent, however, but equally important, was that the authorities saw and recognised the importance and strategic location of Falmouth Docks and took the necessary steps to protect it.  This being so, they set about making an ingenious decoy unit to draw German bombers away from there.

This decoy unit is the main topic of this paper but other aspects are included to show some of the positive aspects of wartime planning in the area.


The Role of Cornish Beaches

“For months we watched a change coming over the face of the Helford.  Where there was once a green field, a wide concrete road appeared leading to Trebah and Polgwidden… Stretching out into the river was a pier of timber and iron construction.  No longer was there a clear view of the peaceful river; our quiet estuary was being mobilised for war – the Second Front.”  So wrote a member of the Mawnan Smith Women’s Institute in later years.

The opening up of the “Second Front” had been long discussed and long delayed.  The Americans, on entering the war, had agreed to give priority to Europe and North Africa rather than the Pacific, the more obvious area from their point of view.  But the full frontal attack on German-occupied Europe, which they wanted, was felt to be inopportune at that early stage.  However, by 1943 the situation was changing rapidly.  Already, with the battle of El Alemein and the Allied landings in Algeria in late 1942, control of North Africa seemed assured.  On the eastern front the German army failed to win Stalingrad and then surrendered in February 1943, after one of the most terrible battles in history.  This was a turning point in the war.

Another indication that the tide was turning in the allies’ favour came with an episode in which Cornwall played her part.  The inventor, Barnes Wallis carried out experiments using a football on Predannack Pool. It later resulted in his bouncing bomb that was to damage or destroy three dams holding back huge quantities of water in Germany’s Industrial Heartland.  This dam busting raid on 16th May 1943 was led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the grandson of a Porthleven sea captain. It was where he spent much of his childhood and where he found a wife.  (His portrait hangs in the Mayor’s Parlour in Helston’s Guildhall.)

Less than two years after this raid the first allied landings in Europe were made, on Sicily, later followed up by Italy.  The time was ripe to complete the preparations for the main attack through France.  Months, if not years of preparation would now come to fruition.  A huge army would soon be on the move and embarkation points had to be ready.  Three sites for loading heavy vehicles had already been selected in west Cornwall, one on the north side of the Helford River at Polgwidden (Trebah beach) and two on the River Fal at Tolverne and Turnaware Point.  These beaches had to be prepared, piers constructed and roads built.

Frank Curnow an experienced “blaster” from the nearby Porthoustock quarries on the Lizard was appointed supervisor.  At the start of each week a lorry from Porthoustock quarries came over on the King Harry Ferry, bringing dynamite, and it collected the team on Friday evenings to take them back home for the weekend.

The surfacing of the beach was carried out by a London firm, Harbour and General, using flexible matting made from sections of concrete pads reinforced with steel wire rods, their shape resembled bars of chocolate.  This provided the hard surface for heavy vehicles.  Nowadays, these mats can be seen paving local farmyards or forming garden walls as at Tolverne.

Piers also needed to be built and John Badger, a local resident, remembers the tug John Hamilton with its “woodbine funnel” towing a pile-driver into the Helford.  Iron piles were driven in to form dolphins (1) or jetties linked by gangways.  The finishing touches were completed by the Penryn firm of Curtis & Co.


The Decoy Concept

It was soon realised that many of Britain’s civil and military installations would need protection and one of the methods used was deception, and so decoy sites were constructed to draw enemy bombing away from strategic locations.  This is the role that Nare Point played during the 1940s, i.e. to draw enemy fire and bombing away from Falmouth and its docks.  Nare Point was set out with various features including a railway station, all with deliberately poor “black-out” arrangements.  When the enemy bombed these decoy sites a variety of fires were ignited from a remote post to give the impression of a “hit”.  It has been stated that a temporary harbour was also built at Nare Point but I can find no evidence of this.

These QL (2) sites, (such as Nare Point) were built to replicate urban areas and under the army and naval programmes covered a range of military and civilian targets and so became the most ingenious decoys of the entire war.  Their size and layout varied tremendously according to need; some being no more than three or four acres while others were more complex and spread over many acres, no two were the same.  However, in 1941-2 the majority represented factories and heavy industry, such as railway marshalling yards and docklands.  The decoy lighting effects simulated common townscape features like street lighting, window lights, and doors inadvertently left ajar.  (Some of these contraptions are illustrated further on in this paper.)  Often, all the contraptions were jumbled together, such was the importance placed on the decoy as a defensive means of warfare.  Most decoy sites could simulate any type of situation and were able to respond as though it had received a direct hit.

So, light could therefore be used to lure enemy planes to areas where their bombs would do the least damage. This use of decoy sites or “Q” sites as they were known, along with names like “Starfish”, to protect ports and other installations is not well known, but there were a number in the Helford and Fal areas.  Nare Point is one such “film set” built by the special effects department at Ealing Film Studios.  The whole purpose was to deceive.  From the air, at night, it would become a railway system with lights to represent signals and the partly shielded lights of a railway station.  Falmouth’s rail link with the docks was crucial, so if bombers could be encouraged to drop their bombs at Nare Point, the real station as well as the docks would be protected.  When bombers were detected approaching an area the lights would be switched according to the flight path of the enemy aircraft.  The aircrew approaching would spot the lights which were actually green and red bulbs on long poles; then they would observe poorly screened roof lights of buildings which were in fact only boxes containing more light bulbs.  When they began dropping their bombs they would see lights from doors quickly opening and shutting.  This effect was created by pairs of tall, rigid frames covered in black felt, painted white on the inside.  All effects were controlled by a nearby control centre, which in the case of Nare was an underground reinforced concrete bunker.

But this was not the end of the deception; if highly explosive bombs were dropped then one or more of the “bomb sets” would be activated.  These were 50 gallon barrels of tar which had been almost completely submerged in the ground with flash bags or detonators in the bottom and sand bags with cordite on top, covered by camouflaged felt.  These flash bags were wired up to the control centre.

If incendiary bombs were dropped then fire troughs would be switched on, there were three of these made of pressed steel, about fifteen feet long by twenty inches wide and a depth of about ten inches.  These were supported by five trays with metal legs that had been cemented into the ground and connected by pipes to three tanks, one containing paraffin, one diesel oil and the other water.  They were filled with combustible material – wood pulp soaked in paraffin, then kindling wood, followed by lengths of dried timber, much of which was good quality Oak or Oregon Pine, which came from the repair yards at Falmouth Docks. The whole lot was covered with coal and coke.  Under this cocktail were more flash bags regularly spaced which could also be operated from the control centre.  The effect would be very realistic; the paraffin ensured a good blaze, while the diesel oil created smoke and the water gave off clouds of steam as if a locomotive had been destroyed.

At Nare Point the control centre was, and still is, situated at or rather “in” Lestowder Cliff, (but you’ll need to be rather agile and have a machete with you to cut your way through years of undergrowth. However it is quite near to the Coastal Footpath.) It comprised two rooms with walls and roof of thick concrete.  It also had an entrance lobby, a protected door and an escape hatch.  This control centre was staffed by a Chief Petty Officer and three Petty Officers from the Royal Navy; they worked shifts of 48 hours on and 24 hours off.  They were billeted at Tregildrey Guest House and Penare Farm, both of which are nearby.  Although these officers operated the switch gear to set off the various fires they in turn received their instructions from Falmouth via an underwater cable that had been laid across the bay.

The entry to the “Q” site control room at Nare Point

We have seen how the various fires were constructed, but it must be borne in mind that if they were set alight, they had to be rebuilt and re-stocked in double quick time; this was done by the Penryn Firm of Curtis & Co.  In the first instance a tractor and trailer was used, these were loaded onto a naval lorry with all the necessary drums of oil, felt canvas and whatever else was required to rebuild the site.  They often had to use crow bars and heavy hammers to straighten the troughs that had been severely buckled due to the intensity of the heat.  Nare Point took nine bombs in total so most certainly saving Falmouth Docks from destruction.

The Naval party, working alongside the civilian workers, would bring packets of Spam, sandwiches, tins of condensed milk, and bags of sugar for their “elevenses”.  To make tea they caught water from a nearby stream, which they boiled over an open fire.  Two holes were made in the tins of milk with a screwdriver; the milk was then shaken into the bucket of water.  The tea leaves and sugar were then added and the whole concoction was then thoroughly stirred with the same screwdriver!

The last time the Nare Point site was activated was in May 1944, when Falmouth suffered its last and probably worst air raid of the war.  A guarded “West Briton” report reads, “This was the first time for about three months that raiders had been over our shores to bomb during the moonlight period”.  At this time the waters at Falmouth Bay were active with the vessels massing for D-Day, when deception became even more important.  Other decoy sites were built to protect embarkation points on the upper reaches of the Fal and Frenchman’s Creek on the Helford.  But in the early years of the war it was the fear of the invasion of Britain, not the hope of an invasion of German-occupied France that was on people’s minds.  It was particularly worrying as American troops with their vehicles were preparing to embark for the invasion of Normandy.  Huge numbers were amassed in and around the Falmouth area and vehicles were crowded near the water, many hidden under the overhanging trees along the rivers.  Had the German intelligence learned the details of the plan the invasion would have been stopped even before it had begun.  Were there spies in the locality and, despite all the attempts to divert attention away from the South-West, were the worst fears of the British Commanders about to be realised?

The lead aircraft dropped red and green flares to mark the bombing path and “window”; strips of metallic foil were dropped to jam or mask RADAR scanners.  Then followed the bombers, thick and fast across the Carrick Roads, the Docks and the Castle Promontory, along the seafront to Swanpool and across the Helford, dropping their loads.  The most worrying aspect of the raids was not mentioned in the newspapers at the time – censorship was too tight.  One of the huge storage tanks so carefully camouflaged in the hillside above Swanpool received a direct hit, so destroying the vital fuel supply for the invasion.  The first public acknowledgement of this did not come for over three months and not until the invasion of Normandy had been successful and the Allies were advancing through France.

Another aspect of Britain’s defence was the “Secret Army” which played, or was trained to play, its part around our coastline including the area in and around Nare Point and St Keverne.

This is what Colonel Douglas, Commander of the Auxiliary Units wrote when they were being disbanded in November 1944: “You were invited to do a job which would require more skill and coolness, more hard work and greater dangers than was demanded of any other voluntary organisation … It will not be forgotten”.  But how many today remember what these men were prepared to do?  Their very existence was a top secret during the war and it was not until just before its end in Europe that the government announced that such units had been formed.

This ‘Secret Army’ of auxiliary units was largely the creation of Major Colin Gubbins who had produced two guerrilla warfare pamphlets in 1939.  And so it was decided that preparation be made to form this specially trained body of resistance fighters.  These units were concentrated on a coastal strip about thirty miles deep around the shores of Britain with the exception of those opposite Ireland.  Each auxiliary unit (a title that was chosen to be purposely vague) consisted of a few specially handpicked men from each area with an intimate knowledge of their own locality.  They had to be specially screened which included a full Police check into their antecedence.  Once accepted, these men were subjected to rigorous training by specially selected army officers.  Their training included matters like unarmed combat, demolition and stealth movement through the countryside, undetected.  Every unit had a well stocked hideout to which it would retreat if the Germans arrived on our shores, and it would have been from there that the men would have crept out and performed their acts of sabotage.  To assist them not to be noticed they were issued with Home Guard uniforms, this would help cover their activities, especially when going about their training and dummy runs on existing home front establishments, which they did, in training very effectively it must be said.  That is all very good, but as they never officially existed they would not have the protection of the Geneva Conference afforded to military personnel.  So secret was this organisation that often not even their families knew of their involvement.  (Well if there is an auxiliary, then there must be a parent body; I mentioned that they were issued with Home Guard uniforms and were known as auxiliary units.  So to all intensions and purposes they were an auxiliary or wing of the Home Guard, particularly in and around their own locality.)  By 1941 in Cornwall there were 195 men divided into 28 patrols, the officer commanding was Captain Dingley, whose office was in east Cornwall at Stoke Climsland.  One daughter remembers her father’s involvement; he was Walter Eva and was a group leader of the four units based respectively at, Manaccan, Mullion, Porthleven and St Keverne, all on the south side of the Helford.  He was typical of the type of man that they chose, an excellent shot, and a farmer with a lifetime’s knowledge of the area around Manaccan.  His sergeant was the local undertaker, Leslie Bawden, and when he was promoted, his position was filled by the proprietor of the Zoar Garage, Mr Harry Moore.  The Manaccan Patrol was the first to be formed.  The six men that made up this patrol were two farmers, Messrs Wallace Rogers and Reg Lyne and two farm labourers, Mr Peters and Harry Tresidder.  Conveniently, their hideout was in the corner of one of Mr Walter Eva’s fields and was accessed via a tunnel through a hedge.  It was about the time of the fall of France that Captain Dingley called at Mr Eva’s house and provided him with a uniform, a pistol and ammunition and a long knife; an emergency telephone was also installed.  Occasionally there were limpet bombs, or as his daughter called them “horseshoe magnets with attachments”.  Dry storage for explosives had to be found which was not easy in Cornwall’s damp atmosphere.  For a time, the Iron Age fogou at Halligye within the Trelowarren Estate was used until, even there, the dynamite began to sweat and started to become very unstable.  Each unit was issued with iron rations and a keg of rum for emergencies. It was mighty useful having a carpenter in the unit because when the keg was later returned to the army, water had strangely replaced the rum and sealing wax had been carefully fashioned to fill the hole drilled through the cork!  Thankfully we were never invaded and so it was with much relief that none of the training ever had to be used in anger.

Returning to the decoy unit at Nare Point. It eventually ceased to perform its WWII coastal protection duties but lives on and today plays a valuable role via the National Coastwatch Institution as a “Life Saving at Sea Unit” on the Cornish coast.


End notes:

  • A dolphin is a marine structure with no connection to the shore, constructed to guide, berth or moor the floating vessels approaching into ports, docks or jetties. Dolphins are constructed either using a group of steel tubular piles or in a steel sheet piled enclosure filled in with plain and reinforced concrete.
  • QL Sites- simulating the lights of towns and cities were first introduced in August 1941. They were mainly to deflect bombing away from civilian targets. The sites were placed in clusters to simulate the extent of an area that needed protection and varied from 5 to 30 acres in size. Some were specifically to protect ordnance factories which produced vital munitions for the war effort. SF and QL sites were frequently found together. One type would be built first and then the second type added soon afterwards. English Heritage considers any substantial surviving remains to be of national importance. Such remains may include a night shelter or control building.


Paul Phillips was born on 26th November 1937, at 2 Elm Cottages, Leedstown, near Hayle and lived there for the first nine years of his life.  He attended Leedstown County Primary School, Helston Grammar School and, at the age of 16, he decided to join the police force. He applied to become a Metropolitan Police Cadet. His application was successful, and he spent 17 years in the Met. On his return to Cornwall, the day that the Torrey Canyon hit the rocks off Land’s End, he took over a small hotel in Porthleven. To supplement his income, and putting his police driving training to good use, he set up a driving school where he taught approximately 1,000 pupils.  During all this time Paul maintained a fond interest in Cornwall and all things Cornish and today he is the Federation of Old Cornwall Society


3 thoughts on “Nare Point WWII Decoy Unit

  1. Thanks – a very enjoyably interesting article by Paul, and brings back memories of boyhood – clambering across the still largely intact concrete matting on Trebah Beach, and at other times looking across the river to Nare Point trying to figure out what the box-like building on the end with a strange-looking aerial on the roof was for. My mystery was solved, for then at least, a few years later when I was told it was used for assisting in recovery of air-dropped torpedoes. In later years again, remembering the aerial, my guess would be it was possible a type of air-navigation beacon. I notice it’s now a NCW station.
    – But a small query for Paul (or perhaps the graphics editor), if I may:
    The OS-map copy at the top of the article shows Nare Head to the east of Falmouth, whilst the layout sketch half-way down looks like it’s Nare Point on the south side of the mouth of the Helford. So which was the one actually used for the decoy station? What gives the sketch location away is (a) the compass rose has the Nare pointing north which is opposite to the direction of Nare Head, (b) the arrow on right of diagram is to Porthallow, which is just round the corner, and (c) Nare Point IS on the Helford..
    – However, if it was indeed Nare Point, I’m wondering why a bombing-decoy station would have been positioned so close to three small villages – Gillan, Helford & Porthallow – whereas the area around Nare Head is more sparsely populated?
    There is one other thing, that Paul would not have known about, but may be worth putting in the mix: Luftwaffe bombers heading for Falmouth docks used to fly in from their bases in France/Brittany and hit the coast just NORTH of the Helford, and then each time used the same precise geographic turning-point to begin their bombing run roughly northeast towards Falmouth docks.
    So, if while on a raid they suddenly saw apparent bomb-strikes to the LEFT of their predetermined route, before they’d even hit their turning-point, wouldn’t that have immediately alerted them something was fishy? Especially given that the Luftwaffe also used a reasonably accurate electronic directional beam system called “Knickerbein” to pinpoint their targets (the reason for their Blitkrieg successes without airborne radar early in WW2 ).
    Therefore I’m thinking that a decoy site at Nare Head to the RIGHT of their route, i.e. on their ‘Falmouth side’, would have perhaps more easily fooled them than one to the LEFT at Nare Point?
    Just some random thoughts I had, to maybe add to the debate?

    1. Hi Nicko. Many thanks for your comment which has picked our MY silly error. MY error, not Paul’s! I tried to help by adding a location map and mixed up my Nare Point and Nare Head. Interestingly, there is also a bunker entrance at Nare Head. Anyway, that doesn’t excuse my mistake which I am grateful that you spotted. Best, Tony

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