On the 15th June 1940, following France’s fall to German occupation, General Charles de Gaulle, secretly left his homeland. His boat is said to have landed at an undisclosed location somewhere on the Helford River in Cornwall before the military leader-in-exile was driven to London. A few days later, on the 18th June, De Gaulle gave a speech broadcasted on BBC Radio. He hoped that his appeal would be heard by those he had left behind across the channel, that his words would give the French nation hope and galvanise them for what lay ahead.
“Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance not must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.”Extract from the boardcast given by Charles De Gaulle
De Gaulle’s broadcast is said to have marked the beginning of the French resistance movement. But it also triggered a new wave of refugees that headed across the channel to the safety of the Cornish coast, some choosing to fight for their country’s freedom from here.
Cornwall’s Untold War
As well as the immeasurable sacrifice of the Cornish men who went off to fight in the World War II there was also a untold war being waged from their homeland. Churchill called these efforts “a secret war, whose battles were lost or won unknown to the public”. From the north coast airfields where allied planes touched down after crossing the Atlantic to the underground and submarine telegraph cables at Porthcurno, cut into the solid granite by local miners, Cornwall was certainly playing its part.
It is fairly well known that thousands of troops left from various points along Cornwall’s coast near to Falmouth to take part in the D-Day landings of June 1944. In fact, my grandmother often told me about returning home in the early hours after an overnight shift as a fire warden to find the streets of Falmouth lined with sleeping soldiers. She recalled hearing a tremendous roar as what seemed like hundreds of diesel engines all simultaneously sprang into life and then they were gone. Granny told me she knew then that something dramatic was happening but no one knew exactly what. And it is due to this crucially important air of secrecy that much of Cornwall’s involvement in the more clandestine aspects of the war have only begun to emerge in recent years.
(There is some amazing recently discovered footage of America troops in Cornwall here – Footage emerges of soldiers leaving for D-Day from Cornwall – BBC News.)
The secret operations launched from the coast of Cornwall would play a vital part in securing victory and importantly, any successes were the result of the cooperation, trust and single-minded resolve shared by those who had been forced into exile, the Cornish people and the British Armed Forces.
Refugees Arriving in Cornish Ports
“[Falmouth] was full of confused refugees, everywhere you looked these poor people having left their countries not knowing what was going to happen to them or how they were going to live, having left everything behind, it was all very tragic. This was the first time that I had seen Falmouth Harbour so crowded with ships of all shapes and sizes that you couldn’t put a pin between them.”Norah Butler, recalling her memories of 1940 in 1995.
Even before De Gaulle gave his appeal over the radio European refugees had been arriving by the boat load into Cornish harbours for months. Many of the coastal towns such as Falmouth, Newlyn, Mousehole and Penzance were already very familiar to French, Dutch and Belgian fishermen who had, in the pre-war years, used the ports on a regular basis.
It was natural then that when they found themselves fleeing their home countries Cornwall was where they would head. Fortunately it seems that the Cornish fishing communities welcomed them with open arms, recognising them as members of the same sea-going tribe.
“This week a large number of Belgian people have sought refuge in Newlyn . . . Our reporter describes the plight of these poor people victims of German cruelty . . . Those arriving at Newlyn are members of the fishing community and among them are undoubtedly members of the crews of Belgian trawlers which for some years past have been making Newlyn their port of call. There is a strong feeling of kinship between the fishing communities. The dangers of the calling are common to them all and when disaster overtakes one section the other responds. It is this feeling that has animated the community of Newlyn and Mousehole.”Cornishman, 30th May 1940
According to the paper the Belgians had arrived with their fishing boats crowded with men, women and children, as many as could fit onboard standing up. It was reported offers of food and accommodation were immediately forthcoming from the Cornish communities and a newspaper appeal for clothing was also started.
But it was not just Belgians, hundreds of French unwilling to except the German occupation escaped to Cornwall also. A fine example of this exodus is the story of the tiny island of Sein just off the Brittany coast. Here the lighthouse keeper picked up the message from Charles de Gaulle on his radio, there had been attempts to block the signal but it was able to reach listeners along the French coast. After hearing the broadcast the keeper called a meeting of the islanders and it was decided that practically all the men should leave, sail to Newlyn and join the Free French resistance or the British armed forces. The first wave set off from Ile de Sein on 24th June 1940 on the lighthouse keeper’s boat, ‘Velleda‘ and a crabber called ‘Rouanez ar Mor‘ (Queen of the sea in Breton). The second wave of men left two days later on three more crabbers.
The French Resistance in Cornwall
It is a little known fact that French resistance operations were undertaken from bases on the Helford River and also from Mylor Creek. A large house near to the Ferry Boat Inn called ‘Ridifarne’ was requisitioned as the local headquarters for the Special Operations Executive formed, according to Winston Churchill, to “set Europe alight”. It was all very clandestine, the SOE organised boats, many of them French fishing boats bought across by refugees, and disguised the crews as Breton fishermen. They would leave the quiet waters of the Helford and cross the channel at night to take French and British intelligence agents, secret documents and equipment to secluded coves on the coast of Brittany. These boats, known as the ‘Inshore Patrol Flotilla’, could blend in with the Breton fishing boats to exchange information and surreptitiously survey the U-boat facilities and defences on the French coast, vital work for the beach assaults that were to come. And more daringly they would also pick up Allied Airmen who had been shot down over Europe and bring them back to Cornwall.
The secret flotilla was crewed by French refugees, British navy and a few local men, including Howard Rendle of Port Navas. Of course, while most of these extraordinary activities were carried out right under the noses of local people, secrecy was of the upmost importance. However, the community may well have noticed that the Ferry Boat Inn, a pub and lodging house situated at an ancient crossing point on the Helford River, had become a popular hang out for musicians and film stars escaping the bombing in London. And the regulars may have observed an unusually high number of Admirals, Air Marshals and Generals too, such as General Montgomery, in the area. I imagine it would also be hard to miss the crews in their Breton disguises or the French fishing boats moored in the river! Undoubtedly tensions were high in this quiet backwater.
“The contrast between the comparative peace and quiet on the river and the tension of the operations to Brittany – the danger from the elements; the fear of discovery and capture; the possible failure to make contact knowing that this might be a matter of life and death to the agents, their helpers and families – must have been very great. Leisure time and social life, however limited, were no doubt a vital antidote to stress.”Viv Acton & Derek Carter, Cornish War, 1995
The journalist Ashley Courtney described the Helford in 1940 as “fives miles from Falmouth, and five million away from the War”. As the conflict wore on it seems that the Ferry Boat Inn became a haven of normality for the famous visitors and more importantly for the crews of these incredibly dangerous missions.
A visiting composer even wrote a song about his stay there, which became a hit in the post-war era, and somehow brings to life the scenes from seventy years ago.
Given all the covert operations in the area it is seems safe to assume that the secret location on the Helford where Charles de Gaulle landed on his escape from France may well have been the Ferry Boat Inn. A place where boats and their crews have been finding safe harbour for a millennia.
Fond Foreign Relations
“Refugees From France
A number of refugees from Belgium and France were landed last Wednesday night. The refugees consisted of mostly women and children, ranging from eighty years to a month old. Temporary accomodation was quickly arranged. There were many pitiable cases.”Cornishman, 20th June 1940
Of course, with the best will in the world, not all the men arriving in Cornwall were suitably for undercover operations with the French resistance or were able to join the military and this in itself led to a degree of uncertainty and unhappiness. A letter was sent to a number of local newspapers in July 1940 from Denis Laird Wilson of Madron on behalf of the French refugees. These ‘unfortunate men’ he wrote were unhappy in their ‘forced idleness’ and felt useless and out of touch with little to keep them hopeful for the future. Wilson suggested that Cornish people take advantage of the situation and engage the men in free lessons in conversational French! I wonder how many took up the offer.
Reading the newspaper articles published during this difficult period it appears that the Cornish population felt nothing but sympathy for the European refugees in their midst as well as, as the war progressed, the evacuees arriving from further up country. Things were not perfect of course, the extra mouths to feed put added pressure on an already strained situation. There was also discussion of restricting the foreigners movements around Cornwall, worries over finding them employment and concerns over water resources, especially within Penzance, but overall the tone was one of fellowship and compassion.
In May 1940 it was reported that Mousehole and Newlyn’s refugees were short of furnishings for the homes that had been found for them. According to the Cornishman newspaper:
“without the least hesitation . . . householders went to their respective rooms and handed out bedsteads, blankets, quilts, chairs, crockery and other articles . . . even perambulators which will come in handy for those refugees with recently born babies. Lorries were no sooner on the spot than they were loaded . . . an errand of mercy never excelled in the history of the two ports.”
In August 1940 Penzance even received a letter of thanks from Charles de Gaulle himself. He had apparently heard of the hard work of the local communities in Cornwall to make his countrymen welcome and wrote to express his appreciation. That gratitude was also demonstrated after the war in 1947 when two local people, Miss. Dorothy Harvey of Penzance and Mr. J. Matthews of Newlyn, were awarded the ‘Chevalier of the Order of Merit‘ by the French Government for their work supporting of the refugees.
Bastille Day in Penzance & Newlyn
“Proudly from the Market House in Penzance the Tricolour waved, proudly too the men, women and children displayed on their breasts the emblem of the Free Fighting French, the cross of Lorraine, the symbol of the martyred Maid of Orleans put once again to serve a noble cause.”Cornishman, 16th July 1942
The 14th July, Bastille Day, is a French national holiday which in many ways symbolises the nation’s freedom and independence. It is appropriate then that on that day in 1942, and again in 1943, Bastille Day celebrations were held in Penzance and Newlyn for the “Free French Colony” in Cornwall.
In Newlyn in 1942 the day was marked with a wreath laying at the War Memorial by French sailors, then a mass was held in French in the parish church and the exiled fishermen had their boats blessed. That day French films were shown in the cinema and there was an afternoon of sports for the refugee children. Songs were sung and poems were read. All this was followed by “an excellent tea” (clotted cream anyone?) and the mayor of Penzance gave a speech in which he told the refugees not to lose heart but to find fresh courage, he said:
“I recognise that you are strangers in a strange land but everywhere today Frenchmen are together, they are celebrating the anniversary of the taking of the Bastille. In the eyes of the French people it marked the end of a long period of oppression. We hope and believe that the hour of deliverance is near . . . you have our best wishes that at no distant date you will be able to return to your own country to rejoin with your people, to work together to build up a new nation.”
‘Le Quatorse Julliet’ in 1943 saw a gathering of at least 150 French men, women and children in Penzance and the Cornishman movingly reported that “from early morning until late evening they had something to make them feel that they were really celebrating their national day, something to take away the sorrow of banishment.”
The comedy/drama film ‘Johnny Frenchman’ was shot in Mevagissey during the summer of 1944. Although I have been unable to watch it in its entirety I understand that the film depicts the historic but mostly benign revelries between Cornish and Breton fisherfolk.
Set in 1939 and 1940 one part of the story sees a Cornish girl married to a Breton fisherman while serving in Free French forces. In another scene the French and Cornish battle it out in a Cornish wrestling match, all light-hearted stuff. However, when the threat of war looms both sides suddenly realise that their strength lies in their unity against the mutual enemy, and that this is more important than past petty squabbles.
Interestingly both French and Belgian refugees took part in the actual making of the film, acting in many of the crowd scenes.
“Many Belgian boys and girls from Newlyn are proud of the fact that they have at least had the experience to ‘act’ in a British film.”Cornishman, 7th September 1944
While showcasing the scenic beauty of Cornwall’s coast many critics saw ‘Johnny Frenchman’ as a symbolic representation of the new Anglo-French alliance.
I purposely avoid writing anything vaguely political on this website and I admit a tendency to look at life through rose-coloured glasses, but during my research for this article I could hardly fail to notice the relevance to recent developments in our relationship with Europe.
Although I am very aware of the tensions that have rippled through the fishing industry in the past few decades, I found that I was deeply moved by the mutual support and togetherness demonstrated by the Cornish people and the refugees that found themselves forced onto Cornwall’s shores. I was again reminded of the simple fact that there is more that brings us together than divides us, especially in the face of a common threat. A sentiment perhaps we should all try to remember going forward.
Ultimately, this is another episode of our Cornish history that I wanted to share with you, one that surprises and that we should all be proud to remember.
Since publishing this article I have had numerous comments from people, especially those in the Newlyn community, who remember family members talking about the refugees, remember having Belgian neighbours or knew refugees that had married local people and staying in Cornwall after the war. (Link to Facebook post.)
Mary Nicholls Chown wrote to tell me about her late father John Douglas Nicholls (1914-1994) who had been a Corporal in the Intelligence Corps based at Newlyn Harbour in World War II. He was responsible for supervising those entering what was then a restricted zone.
Above are photographs Mary sent me of a wartime harbour pass for Newlyn. Her father was a Penzance man, working in the family business with his father and two brothers, Wilton and Nicholls Ltd, an ironmongers on Market Jew Street. He knew many of the fishermen that sailed from Ile de Sein in 1940 to join the Free French, including Pierre and Prosper Couillandre and Yves Pennec, and remained in contact with them for years after the war.
For a truly definitive book about the history of the Helford River look no further than the excellent: Five Million Tides, a biography of the Helford River by Christian Boulton
For more information on Cornwall during the Second World War try Cornwall War and Peace – Viv Acton & Derek Carter.
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