Fascinating Tales of Military Presence in Cornwall During The Great War 1914-1918
Part of our series of stories to commemorate the end of World War 1 in 1918, here are some interesting stories about just a few of the many parts of this beautiful county which were given over to house, train and rehabilitate our soldiers, sailors and airmen at the time.
Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose opened in 1947 and since then has been the centre for airborne anti-submarine warfare training and operations in the Fleet Air Arm operating now with Merlin MK 2 helicopters.
Too late to see action during World War 2, RNAS Culdrose was not the first Royal Naval Air Station in the area to specialise in this specific task. Thirty one years previously, during World War 1 RNAS Mullion was commissioned five miles away from the present Culdrose site in 1916.
German U boats at the time were having great success sinking Merchant vessels and Royal Navy Warships in the English Channel. So the decision was taken to use Airships for anti U-boat patrols and RNAS Mullion was established on the Lizard.
Originally called ‘Lizard Airship Station’ 320 acres of the Bonython Estate soon became a large wartime industrial complex, with accommodation blocks, gas storage tanks, processing plants, workshops and two vast airship hangars that towered over the Cornish countryside.
Its strategic position ensured it was well located in the battle against the German threat. RNAS Mullion became central to anti-submarine operations off the Cornish coast and the South Western approaches throughout the war. Airships proved a formidable deterrent against U-boats while performing reconnaissance, patrolling, mine-hunting and convoy escort duties.
At this time the Royal Naval Air Service operated all Airships across Britain and the first to operate at Mullion were the Coastal Class non-rigid type. They were constructed with a Gondola for the crew and a ‘Tri-lobe balloon’, of 170,000 cubic feet of Hydrogen. Coastal’s provided the nucleus of airships from the Lizard and had a crew of five with an armament of four machine guns and a small number of bombs or depth charges. Their open, unheated cockpits were uncomfortable; crew members resorted to walking around the outside on the grab-rails to stretch their legs. In winter, crews risked frostbite and hypothermia. Often ground handlers would have to lift crews from their cockpits after patrols; some lasting over 15 hours at a time.
Other airship types were developed throughout the War but the most successful were the Coastal’s. Often described as ‘The darling of the Airship Service’ C-9 operated from Mullion and chalked up one confirmed and three probable U-boat kills during her long career. She entered service in June 1916 and was struck off in September 1918; completing 3,720 flying hours and covered over 68,200 miles. It was claimed that in her 805 days of service she had never missed an assigned patrol.
While most patrols made no enemy sightings, another Airship C-22 also from Mullion reported an attack in February 1917 after being alerted that a steamer had been torpedoed earlier. Carrying out a sweep of the area Flight Sub Lieutenant Charles Sydney Coltson spotted a submarine surfacing.
“When the conning tower was above the surface and the hull visible, she must have spotted us and began to submerge again. I altered course towards her and opened out to full speed. I got to the spot and dropped one bomb which fell ahead of her and failed to explode.
“I put my helm hard over and released my second bomb scoring a direct hit on the conning tower of the submarine.” C-22’s crew reported a large quantity of oil on the surface and numerous bubbles. Nothing further was seen of that U-boat. Coltson stayed in the area for a further two hours with no sign of the submarine it was credited to his Airship. Flt Sub Lt Coltson received the Distinguished Service Cross, DSC for his service at Mullion. In all four DSC’s, three Distinguished Service Medal’s (DSM’s) and nine mentioned in dispatches were awarded to the Sailors of Mullion.
RNAS Mullion closed in the summer of 1919 after hostilities ended, the airships were decommissioned and the land returned to its owners. Today evidence of Royal Naval Air Station Mullion can still be detected. Six vast wind turbines act as a convenient landmark for the site.
Most of the airship station is now largely overgrown, but the hangar floors along with huge heavy concrete blocks that once supported windbreaks and hangar doors remain and are the only evidence to what was the ‘Front-Line’ of the First World War in Cornwall.
This series of photographs by local photographer A W Jordan documents the presence of nurses and wounded soldiers at the Royal Cornwall Infirmary in Truro during the First World War. More recently known as Truro City Hospital, the Infirmary has now been converted into homes. However, the history of the building goes back much further. The construction was completed in May 1799 by William Wood, who was also the architect and overseer of the nearby Lemon Street development. The matron, porter and other members of staff were “elected” in the June of that year, with the first patients being received on the 12th of August. This means that the Royal Cornwall Infirmary was the first hospital in Cornwall, followed by the East Cornwall Hospital at Bodmin in the 1850s, the Miner’s Hospital at Redruth in 1871 and the West Cornwall Hospital at Penzance in 1874.
The building began life as a single rectangular structure with an extension to the back, initially allowing for 20 beds – 10 for men and 10 for women, on separate floors. In the Infirmary’s first year, a total of 47 patients were admitted. Generous public donations meant that proposals for a new extension were carried out by 1869 for a price of £123 18s 0d. When the Royal Cornwall Gazette visited in the July of that year, they described the accident ward as “being illuminated by gas brackets” and the “walls enlivened by paintings”. This was the first of many extensions and alterations that were carried out during the 19th and 20th Centuries. The surgical side of things was also improved throughout this time. The number of operations performed and casualties dealt with were increased by four and six times respectively, thanks to improved surgical techniques. At the beginning of the 1900s there was a rise in specialisations: the operating theatre was modernised and the field of abdominal surgery was opened up by the use of anaesthesia. In 1889 the Infirmary concentrated on opthamology, in 1894 a dental surgeon was appointed and in 1912 the eye department acquired its own operating theatre. Mr G Petherick of St Austell had presented the Infirmary with a new X-Ray plant in 1907. However, there was no electricity to run it, and so he had that installed too.
During the First World War, the Infirmary provided accommodation for a large number of wounded soldiers. In 1914 they offered 50 beds to the War Office for serious surgical cases from the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry war casualties. The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry was established during the 1881 Army reforms by merging the 32nd (Cornwall Light Infantry) Regiment of Foot with the 46th (South Devonshire) Regiment of Foot. The new regiment was named after Queen Victoria’s eldest son: the future King Edward VII. On the outbreak of the First World War, the 1st Battalion was deployed straight from Britain to the Western Front in August 1914. They spent all but six months of the conflict there, with the interval in Italy from November 1917. The 2nd Battalion arrived on the Western Front in December 1914, staying there for 11 months before shifting to Macedonia.
The first contingent of wounded arrived in Truro in June 1915. They were carried from the railway station in convoys of ambulances. One of A W Jordan’s photographs shows the first batch of patients on June 16th, displaying wounded soldiers in an open car outside of the station. Other photographs from this time exhibit nurses rolling bandages and operations in progress. Some of the most interesting images show nurses and patients, a few of them in military uniform, posing outside of the Infirmary. Other pictures display a lighter side of the convalescence process, with wheelchair races, games of croquet, and nurses and patients playing cards on the ward at Christmas.
The Royal Cornwall Infirmary was not the only hospital in Cornwall to offer beds during the First World War. In fact, the number of hospitals in Cornwall increased during this time. In 1916, the Royal Naval Auxiliary Hospital was created in the Truro Union workhouse at the top of Tregolls Road. The usual inmates were moved out and the establishment opened with 150 beds, run by volunteers and the Red Cross. Other hospitals included: the Camborne Auxiliary Hospital in Tregenna, Redruth Officers’ Auxiliary Hospital in Scorrier, Penzance V.A. Hospital on Morrab Road, the Auxiliary Hospital in Launceston, the Auxiliary Hospital for Officers in Fowey, Trefusis in Falmouth, and the Convalescent Hospital for Discharged Sailors and Soldiers in Newquay. In addition to this, local people opened canteens for the walking wounded, and schools and public halls were requisitioned for temporary nursing care.
The end of the First World War was not the end of the Royal Cornwall Infirmary’s association with conflict. When the Second World War broke out, the protection of the hospital was one of the first issues acted upon. “Ramparts” made out of 25,000 sandbags, which were filled with earth excavated during recent extensions to the building, were constructed and “sitting-up patients” were sent home. However, on the 6th of August 1942, two enemy fighter bombers each dropped a 500 kg bomb on Truro. One exploded mid-air above Agar Road after having hit the ground north of the Cathedral at the bottom of Campfield Hill. The other fell near the main entrance of the Infirmary, destroying the dispensary, the ends of the medical ward, and the male and female surgical wards – virtually demolishing the south wing of the hospital. Nine to twelve people were killed, including a ward sister, a nurse and three visiting relatives. Despite this disaster, the Infirmary continued on, becoming a part of the National Health Service in 1947 and remaining until the 15th of January 1999
The photographs are on display at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro
Isles of Scilly
In 1914, Scilly found itself on the front line against a totally new form of warfare where the island’s location made them of strategic importance in this war against the U-boats. It wasn’t long before the Admiralty established a base for its anti-submarine patrols, with a flotilla of tugs and armed trawlers. An airship station was also proposed but this idea was soon abandoned and it was to be in another form of aerial warfare that Scilly would come to prominence.
With the onset of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917, the number of anti-submarine air-bases had to be increased. The location of Scilly meant that any aircraft operating from the islands would automatically increase the air-cover above the Western Approaches by nearly 50km. This led to the establishment of a sea-plane base at Porthmellon, just east of Hugh Town. But the warnings of the locals that this location was too exposed proved right and before the base was operational, it was moved to a new location at New Grimsby on Tresco.
The new base consisted of hangars, offices, stores and officers’ and ratings’ quarters, and a slipway (pictured) which is still visible today. The base was initially equipped with Curtis ‘Large America’ flying boats and Short 184 seaplanes, and later, ‘Felixstowe’ flying boats. The base was operational in February 1917 and on 18th May 1917, a Scilly-based flying boat flew the first escort over a convoy. Less than a fortnight later, a ‘Large America’ spotted a surfaced U-boat near Bryher. In the subsequent attack, the flying boat was hit in the engine (a crew-member patched the damage with his handkerchief), but dropped 2 bombs and the U-boat was believed sunk. In August 1918, the unit became 234 Squadron RAF, and in all made 13 U-boat sightings and nine attacks.