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1900 to present

The production of china clay remains a major extractive industry in mid-Cornwall. Pits expanded and merged to become deep and extensive excavations, and waste material is now dumped by lorry onto flat-topped 'benches' which are seeded with grass.

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These huge twentieth century workings have damaged or completely destroyed most of the earlier pits, dumps and processing areas.

There are a number of conventional slate quarries in Cornwall of which Delabole is the largest and the most famous.

Large scale quarrying for roadstone and aggregate is essentially a twentieth century industry and there are a few quarries still at work. The rock was (and is) usually crushed on site and often there are no dumps of waste rock; everything but the overburden was taken away and used. Aggregate quarries generally have little to tell of their working history although the remains of their crushing mills sometimes survive.

The Great War brought further re-arming of coastal defences and the construction of a major airship station on the Lizard which operated as an anti-submarine base.

The inter-war years were dominated by the spectre of aerial bombardment. The widespread fear was that any new war would bring devastation to Britain’s cities and industrial centres.

The inter-war years were dominated by the threat of a completely new form of warfare; strategic bombing. During the Great War of 1914 to 1918 aviation was in its infancy. There were sporadic German raids on Britain by Zeppelin airships and in the summer of 1917 the country was subjected to a series of more accurate and systematic attacks by winged aircraft; one of these attacks was on London.

The German raids had wide-reaching implications. A government report on the 1917 raids concluded that air power could be used as a means of war and that ‘the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands may become the principal operations of war, to which older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate.’

The expectation was that any new war would begin with a heavy attack on military, industrial and, especially, urban targets by large formations of bombers. The objective of this attack would be to bring about a sudden collapse of communications, industry and morale – a ‘knock-out blow’. During the 1920s and 30s military planners anticipated that future warfare would be dominated by air power and aerial bombardment. The provision of effective defence against the threat from the air was given a high priority.

When war with Germany was declared Cornwall was one of the areas where children were evacuated from London and other cities to escape the expected bombardment.

During this early phase of the war, known at the time as the ‘phoney war’, the feared aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe failed to materialise, the British army was active in France, and the construction of airfields earmarked as part of the Expansion Schemes continued.

When the aerial offensive did come in the spring of 1940, it was at first directed against military and strategic targets. Falmouth was bombed many times, there were a number of attacks on Cornwall’s airfields, and Saltash and Torpoint were badly damaged during heavy raids on Plymouth. The bombing campaign continued and intensified until June 1941, when Hitler’s invasion of Russia heralded a lull. After this attacks on Cornwall by German bombers were only intermittent.

Fighter aircraft from St Eval airfield, and later from Portreath, Perranporth and Predannack, provided stiff resistance against the attacking bomber formations and these airfields themselves were frequently attacked. To try and minimise the damage to vital aircraft, the planes were provided with blast-proof pens. These were dispersed around the airfield so as to spread the target; this reduced the chances of large numbers of aircraft being destroyed in a single raid. 

The runways and airfield buildings were camouflaged to make them less visible from the air, and at some airfields attempts at concealment went further – the lines of field hedges were painted over the airfield in bitumen or tar. Decoy airfields were built in remote locations within a few miles of the actual bases. These consisted of sets of electric lights arranged to resemble the runway lights of an airfield at night. Decoys were also established around towns such as Falmouth; these replicated the dim lighting visible from the air during ‘blackout’ hours. Later these urban decoys also contained elaborate arrangements of braziers which would be lit once an attack started so that it would appear that the bombs were setting buildings ablaze. One area in which Britain was ahead of the field was in the development of radar and the network of radar stations, known as the Chain Home, made an enormous contribution to victory in the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 when Germany was denied control of the skies over southern England. A number of Chain Home stations were established in Cornwall, as well as Chain Home Low and Extra Low stations which could detect low-flying aircraft. These stations provided early warning of impending attacks.

Heavy anti-aircraft batteries were also established to protect vulnerable areas such as the navy docks at Plymouth and the deep water harbour at Falmouth. By 1942 all of Cornwall’s front line airfields were also provided with heavy anti-aircraft guns. Heavy batteries normally contained four 3.7 inch guns capable of shooting down aircraft flying at more than 3,000 feet. As the war progressed advances in radar enabled the gunners to achieve a high degree of accuracy. The heavy guns were supplemented by light batteries of Bofors guns; these defended specific locations and were designed to shoot down low-flying aircraft. 

Cornwall’s strategic locations such as Falmouth docks were also defended by rings of barrage balloons. These were large balloons tethered to the ground by a web of cables which formed a hazard for aircraft. The main purpose of these balloons was to force attacking aircraft to fly at higher altitudes, thereby reducing their accuracy, or to deflect them away from the target.

The German advance and defeat of France took only a few weeks in May 1940. The seaboard of Northern Europe from the Bay of Biscay to Norway was now in German hands and there was a real threat to Britain of an imminent invasion.

One immediate threat was an airborne landing aimed at securing one or more airfields to be used as landing grounds for invasion forces. Ground defences at airfields were strengthened and areas of open countryside around airfields were dug up with lines of trenches and pits to prevent troop-carrying aircraft from landing.

Many beaches around Cornwall’s coast were suitable for amphibious landings by troops, tanks and other vehicles. These were protected by mine fields, barbed wire, gun emplacements, pill boxes and steel scaffolding. Exits from the beaches were blocked by anti-tank walls and blocks of concrete. These defences extended five miles inland from vulnerable beaches to provide deeply defended zones.
Ports and harbours, such as Falmouth and Fowey were defended from the sea by emergency coastal batteries and from the air by light anti-aircraft batteries. Landward defences were also put in place; these took the form of defensive lines based on pill boxes and fortified road blocks. 

The concept of static defensive lines was applied to the entire home defence strategy of Britain in 1940. A web of fortified lines, known as Stop Lines, was established. Often these lines incorporated natural features such as rivers into their layout. In the face of an overwhelming German advance, the idea was to sacrifice the land in front of the first Stop Line and concentrate the defensive force behind it; this process would be repeated until the advance was halted. 
These defences were hurriedly put in place during the summer and autumn of 1940. By the following year the strategy of static lines of defence was viewed as obsolete but by then the threat of an imminent invasion had passed.

The many airfields built during the 1930s expansion programmes were provided with defences from aerial bombardment. Their dispersed layouts, air raid shelters, blast-proof aircraft pens and anti-aircraft guns were designed to prevent the immobilisation of the airfields and neutralisation of the air force. The preoccupation with the threat from the air meant that little thought was given to defending airfields from ground attack.

Between June 1940, when the Battle of Britain began, and June 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia, Britain was very much on the defensive. After the invasion of Russia, British forces gradually moved onto the offensive, and from December 1941 were aided by the entry into the war of the United States with its limitless supply of munitions and equipment.
There were bombing raids over occupied France and over Germany itself, the war was carried to North Africa and the Mediterranean, and in 1944 the successful Normandy landings led to the liberation of occupied Europe and the defeat of Hitler. In the Pacific Japanese forces were gradually pushed back before their final surrender after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Many of Cornwall’s Second World War sites were heavily involved in this move to an offensive footing. The runways of the front line airfields were extended to take large bomber aircraft carrying out raids on the occupied Channel ports and against U-boat pens and facilities. Fighters based in Cornwall flew as escorts for heavy bombers from elsewhere on raids over France. Airfields such as Portreath and St Mawgan acted as jump-off points for aircraft, troops and supplies heading for Africa and the Mediterranean. 

Embarkation points for the D Day Normandy landings were sited at Falmouth and Mount Edgcumbe. During June 1944 thousands of American troops, armour, equipment and supplies were ferried from these locations to the battlefields of northern France.
Aircrews for the fighter and torpedo bombers based on Britain’s aircraft carrier fleet, which took part in the battles in the Pacific, were trained at St Merryn Naval Air Station near Padstow and its associated bombing range on the cliffs at Treligga on Cornwall’s north coast.

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