D Day and Cornwall

Trebah Beach, Helford, Cornwall

June 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of D Day, when thousands of allied troops crossed the channel and landed on the Normandy beaches in a bloody push to gain control back from the German forces. Many of those making the crossing had embarked from secret locations along the Cornish coast, they themselves having ‘invaded’ Cornwall in the months before, mostly from the US.

From Bude to Penzance, American soldiers had been turning up, ‘over here, over paid and over sexed’ with their chewing gum and their candy bars on what would be known as ‘Bolero’, the operation to find accommodation for all these men and their equipment.  Tented camps sprung up over night, large houses were taken over for officers’ quarters and along Cornish lanes tanks and lorries were parked up under camouflage nets so not to be seen.

Prideaux Place, Padstow

At Padstow, Prideaux Place was commandeered by Company B of the U.S. Army’s 121st Engineer Combat Battalion. Although the house can now be visited, a whole wing used by the troops is off limits, and in a state of disrepair. At another big house in the area, Lanhydrock, near Bodmin, tons and tons of ammunition was hidden in the surrounding woodland.

But it was along the south coast that the largest number of troops were based. In many towns and villages there was the shock of seeing whole units of black soldiers, more often than not separated from their fellow white soldiers. In Looe blacks could only drink in particular bars, ones that whites were not allowed into.

From 1943 and into the spring of 44, the Americans took over Cornwall. The kids loved it, being presented with chewing gum and chocolate at a time when rationing was at its height. And the young women loved it too.

But it all came to a sudden end in June 1944 when Cornwall woke up to find the invasion over. From embarkation points at Mount Edgcumbe, along the Fal River and Trebah on the Helford, the troops and their equipment disappeared off to France and the uncertainty of reaching the Normandy beaches alive.

Troops embarking from Mt Edgcumbe in 1944

At Mount Edgcumbe, across the water from Plymouth, a special harbour was built at Barn Pool. The ‘hard’ as it was known was created from concreate blocks and allowed easy access to the water for amphibious craft and everything else that had to be put on the water. If you look closely you can still see evidence of this amongst the rhododendrons and ducks that now inhabit this picturesque corner of south-east Cornwall.

It’s the same at Trebah down on the Helford. It’s hard to imagine now as you walk down through the hydrangeas that this was the last peaceful place that many young Americans would ever see. From the beach at the bottom they went out across the channel to Omaha and Utah, where they would lose their lives, probably without ever firing a shot in anger. 

At Turnaware Point, between Truro and Falmouth, a monument stands to the men of the US 29th Infantry. It’s a nice a walk down to the National Trust beach along the concrete access road from Commerrans Farm, built at the time.

Truro Cathedral from down river.

Up river in Truro, the memories of 1944 are feint. Few people still remember the US troops based in tents around the city. At Boscawen Park, down river from the Cathedral, there is no sign of the base that built concreate barges used to ferry ammunition across the channel. Barges that would be stored under trees all the way down the rivers edge towards Falmouth. If they had been hit, most of Truro would have gone up with them.

Thankfully Cornwall escaped generally unscathed from World War II. There are still, as we have suggested above, places where you can see evidence of the build up to D Day. You will occasionally come across pill boxes and gun emplacements, the area around Mount Edgcumbe being especially rich in military history due to the close proximity of Plymouth.  There are also the remains of several WWII airfields, including Newquay which is still in use today with flights to London and further afield.

So, why not hop on a plane and come down to Cornwall for a visit this year, and commemorate those brave men who had left a lasting impression on those they met before heading off to beaches that nobody would want to spend a holiday on.