Before the war (World War 2 that is), my father was a regular soldier in the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry (DCLI). Quite how this came about, when he was a native of Redditch, Worcestershire, I simply don't know. My mother came from Aston, Birmingham, and the family home was in Handsworth, Birmingham. This meant that my father was away much of the time. He was very close to leaving the army when the second world war broke out, putting an end to that plan for a while.
My mother decided to accept the opportunity to be evacuated. I'm not sure where we went, but it was a hop growing area, although it seems unlikely that this would have been Kent. The conditions and the way we were treated made her return home after just two days, during which time I managed to get myself stung on the back of the neck by a wasp!
At this time, my father, who was now a sergeant in the MP's (Redcaps), was stationed in Bodmin Barracks and my mother decided to follow him to Cornwall and find lodgings locally. We spent some two years in Bodmin, of which I have little recollection. He was then moved to guard duty at a radar station close to St Ives and we followed him there.
Without a great deal to do - my mother had an evening office cleaning job - it was normal to spend days at the beach. Normally, this would be the main beach (Porthminster). On one occasion, we were persuaded by a local friend to try the other beach (Porthmeor) to the west of the town. At that time it was full of rocks and pools and there were warnings of quicksands. During research for this article I found references to there being great concern over the state of the beach and of American servicemen being recruited to clear it up.
Certainly, the condition discouraged people from using the beach and there were probably no more than 3 or 4 other people in evidence on the whole beach. This was clearly partly due to the fact that it was not a particularly nice day, with a leaden, yellowish, overcast. This didn't bother me as, being myopic, I have never liked strong sunlight. My mother managed to find a deckchair and parked herself under the seawall with her everpresent knitting. I went looking for somewhere to paddle.
The beach was, at that time, dominated by the town gasworks. Right in front of the gasworks, on the high water line, there are two rocks (they are still there) surrounded by shallow pools, which looked to be worth investigating.
Left: The rocks and pools in 2004. Right: The view from that site in 2004.
The Tate Gallery follows the foundations of the original gasworks.
Click on the pictures for a larger view.
So, there I was, paddling in a pool when I heard an aircraft approaching. At 6 years old, I was now wary of such things, but not really wary enough. I had already learned to recognise the Heinkel He111 - but that's another story. The 'plane came along the coast from the west, passed over the gasworks and dropped a single bomb. This hit the gasometer and produced an effect uncannily like an atomic bomb (nobody would have recognised it as such at the time) with the entire contents rising up in a red-orange mushroom cloud. The heat from this could be plainly felt from my position.
This gentleman-aviator then made one or more passes along the beach firing his guns. I can distinctly remember the sound of bullets ricocheting off rocks to this day. As I may well have been the only person actually visible on the beach at the time, it is hard not to take this personally. In retrospect, the thought of a fighter pilot attempting to shoot up one small child - and missing - seems unlikely and I think that he was probably aiming at something else. Nonetheless, my mother always insisted that, "They machine-gunned the beach".
I can remember my mother retelling the story many times for anyone who would listen. This almost tends to show that the local population didn't know a lot about the raid. My father told me, rather dismissively, that the only damage was a three foot hole in the top of the gasometer. He also told me that the aircraft had been shot down on the other side of the bay by rifle fire! I do remember a pall of black smoke rising from somewhere in the direction of Godrevy.
A couple of days later, on my way home from school, I was absolutely terrified by a pair of Hurricanes who flew over the town several times at low level. It is of great interest to me after all this time that I knew they were Hurricanes.
All I knew about the aircraft that made the attack was that it was single-engined. In later years I discovered that it must have been a Focke-Wulfe Fw190, since a Messerschmidt didn't have the range. More recently I established that there was a Focke-Wulfe derivative, the Fw190N which was used for hit-and-run raids on the South coast during 1942. I have always wondered why an aircraft which came from the South and must have been on the limits of it's range. should attack the North coast of Cornwall? To this day, I believe that the intended target was Hayle, with it's refinery and extensive rail network.
I visited St Ives a couple of times after the war on holiday with my parents, the last occasion being in 1951. I was surprised to find just how little the town had changed. My next visit was in the early sixties and the town was still very little different apart from the fact that it had expanded, with new housing estates being built around it.
Some time in the eighties, the gasworks was demolished, leaving just a hole in the cliff. The beach was, by this time, very much cleaned up and had become a surf-riding area. The house where we had stayed for a short period (with a Mrs White, whose husband was in the RAF) had become a gardening centre. My last visit was in 1989, when I stayed less than 24 hours.
In 2004 I visited the town again, my main mission being to establish the date of that air raid, so as to get some of my personal history straight. I had no idea even of the year, my estimate being 1943. I first visited the library, which was in the process of moving, and was refered to the St Ives Trust Archive Study Centre. Here I met Ted Lever, who was most helpful.
I found a reference to an air raid on the gasworks, which took place on Friday 28th August 1942. This seemed to be what I was looking for, although the year was a surprise. I collected all the information that I could and learned that there was a book, 'When Bombs Fell' about air raids on Cornwall. I managed to find this on the web and ordered a copy.
At this point, it was becoming clear that a lot of things didn't add up. There was a great deal of contradiction among the eye witness reports, none of which agreed with my own recollections. A week or so later, I received a letter from Ted which contained all that he had found out about the raid. At this point, the penny dropped: this was not the raid which I had witnessed.
The available reports all described the destruction of the works and it's two gasometers, I was sure that there was ONE gasometer and the damage had been superficial. There were also descriptions of debris falling all over the town while I was well within 100 yards and remembered none of this. My mother was probably within 25 yards, the width of a road, yet didn't become one of the eye witnesses. I have no recollection of fire brigades or other services.
Leaving aside alternate realities or different time lines - I haven't ruled them out - my conclusion is that the works was repaired and was attacked again at a later date, this being the attack that I witnessed. This is clearly going to be difficult to substantiate and I am obviously going to need another trip to St Ives sometime in the future. Watch this space...
I found a forum on the web which hosted discussions on Luftwaffe missions during WW2. Having posted a message re the St Ives raid, I was told that I had used the forum incorrectly and my message was deleted. I tried again and had my post shunted into another section of the forum where I would not have expected a reply - right so far. I also made enquiries regarding my fathers service record which at least established that I was not in St Ives in August 1942. I would have arrived some time in March 1943.
Investigation of the gasworks itself has only revealed the fact that it was, indeed, rebuilt in late 1942 with a single gasometer.
I visited St Ives again in October 2005. As I now had no transport I had to resort to a hire car, which proved to be a very expensive excercise. When I visited St Ives Museum in 2004, I was told that I should talk to a gentleman who was a former mayor of the town, who did spells of duty in the museum. I never did catch up with him and he was number one on my list for this visit.
It appears that he no longer did spells in the museum although he was still on the committee. They could not give me his telephone number or address, nor could they take a message for him! I did learn his name, Mike Peters Snr. I was advised to try the Guildhall (same response) or the Archive Study Group.
At the Archive Study Group, I met a different gentleman to my last visit. When I explained my purpose, I was told that they had just produced a book on wartime St Ives (well thanks for telling me) and there was only one attack. He then proceeded to throw my own theory back at me re the real target being 'the oil refinery at Hayle' and informed me that the recorded attack actually consisted of a Messerschmitt 109 and a FW 190, both modified to carry a single bomb.
That's a very interesting statement. My limited knowledge of the Luftwaffe suggests that they did not have mixed squadrons of aircraft and that they were very proud of their squadron identity. Two different aircraft on one raid seems highly unlikely. 'Modified to carry a single bomb?' - well the 190 carried a single bomb anyway and the modification on the 190N consisted of extra tank capacity to reach the south coast. I'm not sure that a 109 was ever seen over Cornwall - though I did see a damaged aircraft in a static display (yes, in 1943).
If I was a conspiracy theorist, all this would be looking very sinister. It's clear that the archive study group have their own set, cosy, view of the situation and don't want anyone changing it. I now know why they didn't respond to me letters and emails.
I plan to write to Mr Peters, care of the museum. I clearly have to renew my effort, via the web, to access Luftwaffe records. The story is far from finished.
Now, assuming that I am right, why was the Luftwaffe so interested in St Ives gas works? To send three aircraft in two separate attacks and to acheive two direct hits on a difficult target nestled under a sheer cliff suggests that they knew what they were doing. These were obviously pilots of considerable ability who were on the limit of their range and unlikely to mistake the crowded topography of St Ives for the open spaces of Hayle.
Red Fox emblem. (Wenger family via Chris Goss)
These 'tip and run' attacks were aimed at intimidating the population and it seems likely that St Ives was targetted because it was a well-known holiday resort. Wenger had 'favourite' targets and I wonder whether he was in the habit of checking back on former targets.
Lt Leopold Wenger (left) and Ofw Gerhard Limberg at Le Bourget in June 1942
while converting from the Bf 109 to the Fw 190. (Wenger family via Chris Goss)
A lady in the museum informed me that she was an eye witness to the August '42 attack and that Porthmeor beach was 'packed'. I really should have followed that one up, but didn't feel inclined to argue. Were all these people sitting on the barbed wire, or maybe floating on the quicksands on inflatable beds? See note above regarding American servicemen being used to clean it up. I remember that all approaches to the beach were closed by barbed wire with just enough room for one person to get through. There was certainly wire on the beach itself.
Much of the area behind where the gasworks stood has now been reprofiled into a 45 degree slope with a terrace of houses half way up it. Much of the sloping churchyard has now been levelled and turned into a car park.
At the moment, this looks like the end of the story.
(1) 'Luftwaffe Fighter-Bombers over Britain - The Tip and Run Campaign, 1942-43' by Chris Goss, published by Crecy, 2003.