Tuesday 16 February 2021

Starfish Sites near Clevedon (1940 - 1944)

During what history may record as the Great Pandemic of 2020 to 2021, restrictions on travel have meant that my battlefield walking has been confined to the local area. Whilst this has been frustrating to say the least, it has given me the opportunity to make new discoveries close to home. The nearby village of Kingston Seymour is tucked away on flatlands near the mouth of the River Yeo and, like virtually every other town and village in the country, there is military history to be discovered - always in the local church, and often elsewhere. 

The War Memorial, Kingston Seymour

I started my walk at the very fine Kingston Seymour war memorial. A 14th or 15th Century stone cross has been repurposed as a memorial to those who died in the Great War of 1914-19. After admiring the four carved figures representing Victory, Peace, St George and St Michael and visiting the local church I headed off to see if I could catch a glimpse of the Bristol Channel from the fields beyond the village. Sadly, access to the foreshore is impossible but as I was strolling back I noticed what looked like a military bunker half way up Yeo Bank Lane. 

Private Air Raid Shelter - Kingston Seymour

Later, in the evening, I discovered a pamphlet entitled 'Battle's Over, Long Historical Trail' produced by the Kingston Seymour History Group. The bunker I'd chanced upon was in fact built by a local farmer, Don Griffin, in 1941. He wanted to protect his family given that the village had been designated a combined QL and QF decoy site - the latter sometimes referenced as SF or Starfish

I was aware of the so-called Starfish sites around Bristol. Indeed the first one to be built in the United Kingdom is situated on nearby Black Down. Of the 18 QL and QF sites built to protect Bristol and Avonmouth, four are in the vicinity of Clevedon - Kingston Seymour, Priddy, Downside and Kenn Moor. 

Given the lockdown restrictions in place, two are within my reach - Kingston Seymour and Kenn Moor. A second walk along the lanes at Kingston Seymour took me up to the boundary of Wharf Farm where the Starfish site was centred. Sadly, the landowner does not allow access so my investigation had reached a bit of a dead end.

What were QL and QF sites? As the Luftwaffe bombing threat became more potent, particularly after the devastating night raids on Coventry on 14-15 November 1940, two new types of decoy were devised. The 'L' stood for lighting, the 'F' for fire and the 'Q' (or sometimes 'S') was the code designation. In the case of the QL sites, they were designed to mimic the reaction of an industrial area to a bombing raid. Lights would be dimmed or extinguished as they were in the case of factories and military installations. In simulating this, the idea was to draw bombs away from the real targets and onto areas where little harm could be done. The larger scale QF sites came into play slightly later
on the timeline. They would be lit after bombs had hit the real target in the hope that at least some of the aerial attack could be diverted.

Decoy Sites

The map above shows the concentration of decoy sites around the city of Bristol. The city was 'target rich' for the Luftwaffe - aside from the conurbation itself the Bristol Aircraft Company's factory at Filton, the National Smelting Plant at Avonmouth, the Electric Power Station at Portishead and the Parnell Aircraft facility at Yate were significant contributors to the war economy. The black circle denote QF sites and the triangles mark the QL installations. 

Not to be defeated by my failure at Kingston Seymour, I set off for to see if anything survives at the Kenn Moor Starfish site nearby, a short distance down Claverham Drove. Quite often when I'm walking such sites, I have to rely on my research and my imagination but on Kenn Moor I didn't need to resort to either of these tried and tested methods. The evidence is there, plain to see ... and explore.

Starfish Control Bunker

Starfish Control Bunker - Side Elevation

Although the turf covering has gone, the blast shelter and generator house at Kenn Moor is still intact. The blast wall in front of the main entrance has been removed but the one facing onto the QF field is in relatively good condition. The structure has two rooms - the first for personnel and the second (on the left in the picture above) for a generator. As an aside, there is a vast badger sett directly adjacent to the building - which presumably extends underneath the concrete floor.

The lights and fires used at such sites were ingeniously configured to replicate the real thing. Furnace and locomotive glows were simulated using red and amber lights shining onto sand, bundles of wood would be burnt, machine oil would be lit and carbon arcs were used to simulate flashes. At the Kenn Moor site there are two concrete holders in a nearby field - each consisting of two small parallel walls and a longer base. The 'War in Kenn' History Project has surmised that they were probably built to support baskets of wood shavings - amongst other purposes.

Material Holder - Kenn Moor

The number of Starfish sites built across the country increased throughout 1941 - rising from 108 in March to 164 by the end of the year. The first were constructed around Bristol, indeed the very first QF firings occurred during a raid on the city on December 2nd when 66 high incendiary bombs fell on the decoys. In the excellent book 'Somerset and the defence of the Bristol Channel in the Second World War' Messrs Dawson, Hunt and Webster say that after the war the Air Historical Branch estimated that 5% of the bombs dropped on Britain were diverted by decoys. According to documents released in 1979 an estimated 3160 injuries and 2596 deaths would have occurred had the decoys not done their work. Bristol's decoys were amongst the most effective and it is true to say therefore, that the Starfish sites around the city saved lives in the vicinity.

Aerial Photo of Starfish Site - Location Unknown

The photo above shows a typical Starfish site. The site would have a control point and a series of metal, concrete and asbestos structures each designed to contain inflammable material or devices for illumination. Each site had a telephone link to a local command centre and there were strict controls around when to light up particular sites. Timing was crucial as the raiders need to see a decoy site in operation as they approached the area of the real target. 

Interior of Kenn Moor QF Control Centre

By the end of 1943 the sites had achieved their purpose. The number of larger scale bombing raids diminished and other defensive measures had been deployed. Both Kenn Moor and Kingston Seymour were decommissioned around the end of that year. As far as the latter is concerned the (up to) twenty four RAF personnel manning the site who were billeted in the village left to take on other duties. The evidence of this epic endeavour remains however - if you know where to look and if the land is accessible. Let's hope that some of these unique structures are preserved for posterity. 

After the Bristol Post published my article about the local Starfish sites, a 90 year old retired electrical engineer contacted me. I subsequently spent a few hours with Frank Newberry, who was able to give me some insight into how the sites worked. The sites would typically be manned by a a couple of RAF personnel who would 'fire' the installations upon receiving orders from their local HQ. The main sites were fired by means of an old fashioned Post Office uni-selector feeding a control box in the middle of the site. The sites were set up in two parts, so they could be used on two nights, which helped with the rebuild. A typical site consisted of four sets of twelve containers each filled with inflammable debris such as wood or textiles. There would be an accelerant such as oil or petrol. Each 'basket' consisted of an oblong open topped container made of what looked like roofing material. A detonator would be 'plugged' into the bottom of the container and a wire run back to the control box. Frank helped with the installations and was part of a team that would reset the sites once they had been 'fired'. 

Chew Magna Control Bunker
Generator Room, Chew Magna

Since writing this piece, I have visited the Control Bunker at the Chew Magna QL site. Frank Newberry told me that on one occasion when he came to reset the circuits there, he was confronted with multiple bomb craters - definitive proof that the decoy had worked. See pictures above.