Monthly Archives: July 2015

A very cunning Käpitan

In Penzance Cemetery lie the graves of twenty two Second World War casualties from four individual ships:

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These vessels were in a convoy which was attacked by six German E boats ten miles to the west of Lizard Point, during the night of January 5th-6th 1944. All four ships were sunk. The casualties included HMS Wallasea, an armed trawler which was acting as one of the escort ships, the S.S.Solstad, the M.V.Polperro and the M.V.Underwood. This attack was part of the German attempts to disrupt the Allies’ obvious preparations for an invasion of Western Europe that coming summer.

What is so very striking about Naval war graves, however, having seen the last resting places of literally thousands of Army and Air Force casualties, are that the latter can often be very similar in age, rank or nationality, and perhaps even as far as regiments are concerned: in other words, the same kind of details may be repeated over and over again. With Naval graves, though, you feel almost as if a whole family is involved, with people of often widely differing ages, all having performed some specific job within the ship. And like a family, that ship is the sum of these individual parts.
The S.S.Solstad was a Swedish steam powered cargo ship originally launched in 1924 by Lewis John & Sons Ltd. of Aberdeen, under the name of the “Gatwick”. It weighed just under 1,400 tons, and was travelling from Swansea to London with a cargo of coal when it was torpedoed by the German torpedo boats, S-136 and S-84. The ship sank in three minutes with the loss of five lives. Here is the Solstad in two different companies’ liveries:

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Alide Reicher was 53 years of age. She a stewardess on the Solstad. She is, I think, the only woman war casualty whose grave I personally have ever seen, and even more unique is the fact that she was Swedish, a neutral nationality in theory, and was serving on board a ship of the Swedish Merchant Navy. She really was somebody who gave their life for freedom:

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The second casualty from the Solstad was Kenneth Allen who was killed aged only eighteen. Kenneth was a Deck Hand and the son of Alfred Anthony Allen and Minnie Allen of Blyth Northumberland. He was the husband of Marjorie Gertrude Allen of Gravesend:

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The M.V. Polperro, registered in Fowey, had sailed from Manchester with a cargo of coal, joining a convoy bound for Penryn, Cornwall and then on to London. This is the only photograph that I could find:

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The Polperro went down with the loss of all hands, namely eight Merchant Navy seamen and three Royal Navy gunners:

Polperro tower hil ww2 meorial

The wreck lies in 200ft of water. The Penzance graves from this nautical family are two Able Seamen:

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The M.V.Underwood, almost three hundred feet long and weighing two thousand tons, was travelling from the River Clyde in Scotland to Portsmouth, with military stores including vehicles. The crew of fifteen seamen and three passengers was all lost. This photo shows the M.V.Tuaranga, which was the sister ship of the Underwood, but in all respects save its name, it is the same vessel:

Port Tuaranga, was the sister ship of M.V.Underwood

The wreck of the Underwood was identified in 1975 by information on the boss of the propeller. This grave is that of the Radio Officer, Alexander McRae. He was 43 years of age and came from Carluke in Lanarkshire, Scotland. Graves do not have accents however. Alexander’s parents were William McRae and Annie McRae (nee Wilkie). His wife was called Edith :

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His Majesty’s Trawler Wallasea, (T-345) was an Isle Class Armed Trawler built in 1943. This vessel was part of the Royal Naval Patrol Service and weighed just under five hundred tons.

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Seventeen members of the Wallasea’s crew are interred at Penzance.  This closely knit sea-going family includes an Able Seaman, the Cook, an Engineman, a Leading Steward, an Ordinary Signalman, a Seaman, a Second Hand, a Stoker and a Telegraphist:

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All of these Allied vessels were sunk by German E-boats. These impressive vessels were capable of speeds up to almost 50 m.p.h. and were easily the most effective torpedo boats ever built:

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The attackers on January 5th-6th 1944 were the 5th Flotilla led by Leutnant-Kommander Karl Wilhelm Walter Müller. The flotilla comprised S84, S136, S138, S141, S-52, S142 and S14. In German, the “S” strands for “schnell” or “fast”. Rather imaginatively, in English the “E” stands for “Enemy”.

Karl Müller, when he was the commander of Schnellboot S-52, was already credited with the sinking of the British destroyer Eskdale on April 14th 1943:

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He was no doubt the very proud owner of his Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, awarded on July 8th 1943. This is the only picture of Karl Wilhelm Walter Müller which I have been able to find. The lettering across the photo is in German and may refer to copyright problems, but on the other hand, the long word, when re-examined in Photoshop, does appear to have a swastika in the middle of it, so perhaps it is from some archival source:

Karl Müller received Ritterkreuz

On this particular occasion off the coast of Cornwall, Müller was again in command of Schnellboot S-52. He was tasked with attacking convoys in the English Channel. Skilfully, Müller lay in wait for these particular ships of Convoy WP457, very close to the Cornish coast. His little fleet was then able to surprise the convoy by an unexpected attack from the landward side. This is the little cove where the German E-boat fleet sheltered. Look for the orange arrow:

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This is the cove where the Germans took refuge. They were extremely close to the shore:

cove

The soldiers guarding the telegraphy installations at Porthcurno presumed that the motor boats must be British and took no action. It was later said that “Their role was to guard the telegraph and not to act as coastal lookouts.” Such pathetic, pompous stupidity was to cost a great many lives.

At three o’clock in the morning of January 6th, 1944, the British convoy was more or less ready to cross Mount’s Bay where:

“The weather was fine with good visibility. It was moonlight with a south-west wind force three and moderate sea. Leaving the cove they prepared to attack the convoy.”

The cunning Leutnant-Kommander Müller had the enormous advantage of complete surprise because his attack came from the landward, Cornwall, side. The escort led by the aging destroyer H.M.S. Mackay was overwhelmed by the firing of no less than 23 torpedoes and four ships were sunk:

mackay

The German force’s first attack sank the Solstad and the second, some five miles south of Penzance, sent the Underwood, the Polperro and the Wallasea to the bottom. Nowadays, with the right knowledge from the Internet, these ships can be visited by divers. Look for the orange arrow:

mounts bay
The rest of Convoy WP457 continued on their way, while the brave civilians of the Penlee lifeboat made valiant attempts to rescue any survivors. Those still alive, of course, were faced with a very low water temperature because of the time of year. In total more than sixty people were killed including, as we have already seen, one woman, Alide Reicher, who was a stewardess on the S.S.Solstad which, technically, belonged to the Swedish Merchant Navy.
Overall, Penzance Cemetery holds twenty two naval casualties from this action with the majority, seventeen, being members of the crew of HM Trawler “Wallasea”.
In April 1944, the Fifth Flotilla under Leutenant-Kommander Karl Müller, was among the E-boats who carried out another audacious attack, this time on Exercise or Operation Tiger, a large-scale rehearsal for the D-Day invasion of Normandy which was being held at Slapton in Devon:

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A total of 946 American servicemen were killed, with the almost inevitable communication problems causing many casualties from friendly fire. The majority of the casualties, however, were on the morning of April 28th, when a convoy of troops was attacked in Lyme Bay by nine German E-boats under the command of Korvettenkapitän Bernd Klug:

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Leutnant-Kommander Karl Müller survived the war and returned to serve in the West German Navy from 1956–1957. He died in Celle in 1989 at the age of seventy two. Had he been wearing a different uniform in 1944, perhaps an American one, they would have made movies about his daring attack during the 1950s.
It would have been impossible to have written this article without the basic research having been made freely available by David Betts. His excellent book about this most exciting episode in World War Two is advertised here:

There are two final points. Firstly, the war graves in Penzance Cemetery are kept immaculate, every single one. In order to make the inscriptions visible, I have had to photoshop all my photographs and that is the reason that the graves look so peculiar. And last of all, the real cost of war is in these last two photographs. How sad a fate for “our dear Bernard” and a “dear husband and daddy” :

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Filed under Cornwall, History

The Corncrake: the sound of Victorian England

Nowadays the Corncrake is limited to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland although there is also what seems to be a highly successful  reintroduction scheme being carried out in the RSPB Nene Washes Reserve in Cambridgeshire, England:

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In the first half of the nineteenth century, Corncrakes were present throughout the length and breadth of England and their distinctive call was heard in every sunlit field. Even their Latin name, crex crex, is onomatopoeic. The birds were described as producing the most distinctive summer sound to be heard on a country walk anywhere in England. This is the song of the corncrake, beautifully recorded by “therhys927”

Corncrakes will often sing all through the night, and they can in fact be pretty aggravating little so-and-so’s once the initial novelty has worn off:

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John Clare, England’s greatest poet, wrote a poem about the bird which he knew as the “Landrail”:

“How sweet and pleasant grows the way
Through summer time again
While Landrails call from day to day
Amid the grass and grain

We hear it in the weeding time
When knee deep waves the corn
We hear it in the summers prime
Through meadows night and morn

And now I hear it in the grass
That grows as sweet again
And let a minutes notice pass
And now tis in the grain”

Nowadays, the Corncrakes are all gone, gradually killed off by decade after decade of desire for profit, intensive farming practices and in particular the mechanised mowing techniques used by the nation’s farmers in place of the trusty scythe.  This sad decline is chronicled in Nottinghamshire by the county’s Victorian birdwatchers:

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In 1866, in his “Ornithology of Nottinghamshire”,  William Felkin wrote that “the corncrake is very common”. Three years later, in 1869, William Sterland provided a charming account of this delightful bird in “The Birds of Sherwood Forest”:

“That bird of singular habits and note, the corncrake, visits us in abundance every year, sometimes arriving as early as the first of May, while in 1853 I did not hear its note until the 18th. This was unusually late; the season being a remarkably cold and backward one, a fact of which our other migratory birds also seemed, in some mysterious way, to be fully cognisant. Nothing, indeed, relating to the feathered tribes is more wonderful or more deserving of our admiration than that knowledge, call it instinct or what you will, which, implanted in them by their Creator, enables them to hasten or delay their departure for their distant but temporary places of abode, according as the seasons there are suitable to their necessities or otherwise. How strikingly is this wisdom brought forward in Holy Scripture: “Yes, the Stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed time and the turtle, and the crane, and the swallow observe the time of their coming.”

William Sterland seems well aware of the piece of Corncrake behaviour which was to prove its downfall, as the mechanized mower made its inexorable way forward:

“I have never succeeded in causing the Corncrake to take wing except with a dog, and even then its flight is always brief, as it takes an early opportunity of dropping to the ground and regaining its cover. It flies rather slowly with its legs hanging down, and there is such an air of effort about his movements on the wing, that I have often wondered how its migrations are performed.
Its ventriloquial powers are well known to every observer. Now it’s harsh “Crake, crake” seems within a few yards, and the next moment it sounds as if it were halfway across the field, and this apparent variation in distance is so well simulated that in a consecutive repetition of its call for ten or twelve times, a few notes will sound as if uttered almost at your feet, and the next two or three from afar, and yet the bird is standing motionless all the time, as I have several times tested. Its singular call I have often imitated by drawing my nail across the teeth of a pocket comb, and thus inducing its near approach.”

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Again Sterland reveals how fully conscious he is of the problems the Corncrake will face throughout the rest of the nineteenth century:

“The female sits very closely on eggs, so closely indeed, as not infrequently to lose her life by the mower’s scythe. I have known two instances of this, in one of which the poor bird was almost cut in two.”

Ten years later, in 1879, William Sterland provided additional details about the Corncrake:

“An abundant summer visitor. It is also been found in winter, and on this account has been thought by some to hibernate; but apart from the fact that no bird is known to hibernate, why should a corncrake which remains during the winter not be able to fare as well as a water rail or a common snipe. Cold does not affect them.”

In his “Scribblings of a Hedgerow Naturalist”(1904), Joseph Whitaker wrote:

“The other evening when talking to Rose the Nottingham taxidermist (who has set up a great many specimens in this collection) I remarked how very few Corncrake there were about, he said he well remembered about 35 years ago, a man bringing a large basket to his father, of these birds, which he had shot in two days, and they numbered over fifty; at that time he said the meadows round Nottingham were full of them, and their call could be heard on all sides. This year I have heard one, although I have been about a great deal.”

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No Corncrakes in 1904, no meadows in 2014! Elsewhere Joseph Whitaker wrote about his country house at Rainworth, between Nottingham, and Mansfield:

“I am sorry to say the Corn Crake is getting scarcer. I have not heard one near the house was several years, although twenty years ago they were in every mowing field. No doubt the result of mowing machines which cuts the young up often I fear.”

Three years later in 1907, Joseph Whitaker provided in “The Birds of Nottinghamshire”  the following information :

“I sorrow to say that this interesting bird is a rapidly vanishing species, not only as far as Notts is concerned, but in many other counties. Twenty years back it was the exception in the spring not to hear a corncrake in nearly every mowing field in the Trent Valley, and almost every seed and grass field left for hay in other parts. In this very high and dry parish of Blidworth, we had between ten and fifteen pairs, now for the last three years not a bird has been heard.”

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Like his fellow nature writers, Joseph Whitaker chronicles the decline:

“At Southwell, on a June night, their curious call resounded on all sides; now this year there may be two pairs. Mr Henry Smith Junior of Cropwell Butler informs me that this scarcity is very noticeable in that part, and in fact all over the south of the county.”

Alas, Whitaker was to be proved wrong when he wrote:

“Let us hope that it will be many years before they are quite a bird of the past, but if they decrease during the next twenty years as fast as their decrease during the last two decades, it pains me to think that it may be so.
I once heard a corncrake calling inside the kitchen garden at Welbeck Abbey.”

And finally, in “Jottings of a Naturalist” in 1912, Whitaker wrote:

“Twenty years ago there were Corncrakes all over the parish, in fact it was the exception not to hear them in every mowing field, but I know that there is been none for the last ten years, not a single bird heard, and the parish is six thousand acres; and it is not only so in these parts, it is the same everywhere.”

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And really, that was that. The end of the Corncrake.

As the Great War loomed, the Victorian age drew to a close. No more mowing fields, no more meadows full of flowers, no more clouds of brightly coloured butterflies. And no more Corncrakes. Just mud, blood, war and death.

To film a Corncrake nowadays, you are more or less wasting your time in England. This beautiful, atmospheric video comes from “mikhailrodionov” in faraway Russia:

 

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Filed under History, Nottingham, Science, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

If you go down to the woods today, you’d better not go alone…

One more monster to terrorise the local peasantry of bygone France was the so called “Bête de Cinglais” which was also called the “Bête d’Evreux”. Its bloodstained career lasted from 1632–1633, as it terrorised the province of Normandy, bringing violent death to one of the most beautiful areas of a beautiful country. Indeed, there is a sharp contrast here with the wild mountains frequented by so many other of the monsters we have read about. Here is a map of northern France:

basse norm map national

And here is a bit more of a close-up. The green UFO marks the precise location:

basse norm map

As always, the best approach is to take an average of the various French websites. The “Virtual Institute of Cryptozoology”, the “Institut Virtuel de Cryptozoologie”, states that:

“In 1632, about fifteen kilometres to the south of Caen, in the Forest of Cinglais, an animal carried out a reign of terror. Those who survived its attacks described it as a kind of huge mastiff of extraordinary agility and speed. Two historical documents mention the mysterious beast: the “Gazette de France” of March 19th 1632 and the edition of June 17th 1633. The edition of 1632 announces that the predator has already devoured around fifteen people in a month.

Forest rangers have shot at it with their muskets but are unable to cause any injury. The priests are trying to mobilize the inhabitants of the neighbouring parishes but the population is so traumatised that very few volunteers dare to take part in the hunts. The hunters themselves do not want to venture into the woods unless they are in a large group. The 1633 edition of the newspaper announces the killing of an animal at the end of a massive hunt lasting three days, organised by the Count de la Suze, with the participation of between 5,000-6,000 hunters and beaters. The Beast of Cinglais looks like a kind of wolf, but is longer, and more red in colour with a more pointed tail and a wider rump than an ordinary wolf. At least thirty people have now been killed.”

This, conceivably, may be a depiction of the creature:

perhaps cinglais

Interestingly enough, there was a further series of attacks only some fifteen years later in the Forest of Fontainebleau. This is a very similar area to the Forest of Cinglais and is not particularly far away at all:

sous-bois-dans-la-foret-de-fontainebleau

The Fontainebleau story is carried by the same website:

“In 1679, woodcutters were killed and eaten in the Forest of Fontainebleau. Records in the parish of Bois-le-Roi mention several cases of attacks.”

A website which specialises in the ghostly aspects of the beautiful Forest of Fontainebleau also carries a few tales of ancient beasts thought to live there:

“There used to exist around the beginning of the sixteenth century a fabulous animal that spread terror in the Forest of Fontainebleau and its surroundings. All indications are that it was a wolf, but some cried “Werewolf”, or tried to blame a magician who was said to be an expert in the art of shape shifting.”

“And then, around 1660, long before the famous Beast of Gévaudan, there was already talk around this area of the Bête du Gâtinais, the  Beast of Gâtinais, a frightful creature which looked like a monstrous wolf. His greatly exaggerated exploits, murdering children and young girls, used to feed people’s fears. Such stories caused many sleepless nights. It was even said that the Beast used to cross the River Seine to come and steal little children and animals on the far side.”

Even in fairly modern times:

“Towards the end of the nineteenth century, an old woman recounted the story of a great evil beast which lived in the forest and which came out from time to time to attack farm labourers, shepherds and flocks of sheep. The monster had to its credit a whole multitude of atrocities, dead sheep, dogs killed and children who just disappeared. The little girl who set off to gather hazelnuts in the woods, and was never seen again. The young nine year old boy devoured near the village of Nanteuil les Meaux”

The website’s author states that:

“It is quite possible that these three stories all refer to the same species of animal, described at different times in history….With evidence of this type, spread over long periods of time….it is not easy to make sense of things, to separate the mythical and imaginary monster from a mere animal.”

That “mere animal”, of course, is the wolf, considered in the France of bygone years to be guilty of far more serious attacks on humans than, say, the wolves of present day North America or Europe. This is the location of Fontainebleau. Compare this map with the maps for the Beast of Caen/Evreaux/Cinglais”:forest of fontaineblasu

As far as Fontainebleau during the first half of the sixteenth century is concerned, there were certainly many people who thought that nobody should ever go down to the woods. If they did, they would certainly be sure of a really big surprise, one with lots of a fangs and an aggressive attitude that needed quite a lot of adjustment. And yes, there were lots of marvellous things to eat, (in a way) but it was better not to go alone. It’s really lovely down in the woods, but perhaps it is safer to stay at home:

The same fascinating website continues:

“In the reign of King François the First, during the first half of the sixteenth century, a certain Sebastian Rabutin was to rid the country of a terrible lynx which was just as murderous as any of our previous beasts. It too was devastating the same region, devouring in turn both young girls and children. This monster, which appears in a fresco in the ballroom of the Château de Fontainebleau where it is depicted as some kind of hybrid between a wolf and a feline, was so formidable that no one dared confront it . For the record, the “loup-cervier”, in Latin “lupus cervarius”, which means deer wolf, is the common name of the Lynx, a big cat which hunts hares or rabbits, but never deer or men.”

I have not been able to trace the fresco in the ballroom of the château, but there is quite a lot to go at:

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There is absolutely no way though that any of these French monsters was a lynx, as I have already discussed in a previous blogpost about the Beast of Benais.

Fairly close to both Caen and  Fontainebleau is the beautiful cathedral city of Chartres:

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The “Institut Virtuel de Cryptozoologie” reports how:

“At Chartres, in 1581, a young boy was buried at Ver-les-Chartres, killed by a “wild beast”, “une beste sauvage” whose identity we are not at all sure of.”

If this were not a wolf, and a wolf would surely have been recognised, then it may well have been one of the mysterious beasts we have been examining.

But let’s just forget this supporting cast for the moment. Let’s return to “La Bête de Cinglais”. Another interesting blogpost about this fearsome creature comes from Evelyne Achon:

“The Forest of Cinglais is about 15 kilometres to the south of Caen. The “Beast of Cinglais” is also called “The Beast of Evreux” or “The Beast of Caen”. It refers to a man eating animal behind a series of attacks on humans.

The first attack was mentioned in 1632. These attacks are known through articles in contemporary newspaper. The Gazette de France therefore reported on March 19, 1632:

“News from Caen in Normandy. The 10th of March in the year 1632. Since last month in the forest of Cinglais, and then between there and Falaise, people have seen a wild beast that has already devoured fifteen people. Those who have avoided his fangs report that this savage beast is similar to a large mastiff of such a speed that it would be impossible to run and catch him on foot. He is of such extraordinary agility that people have seen him jump right over the river in certain places. Some people call him Thérende. Local residents and forest gamekeepers have shot at him from range with their arquebuses on several occasions, but without wounding him. They do not dare approach him, or even to reveal themselves, until they are organised in a large group, exactly as they will be today when they hear the sound of the alarm bell, to which all the parishioners from all the parishes around have been invited by their village priests, as three thousand people are assembled to carry out the hunt. “

A gigantic beat was organized in June 1633, with the participation of between 5,000 and 6,000 men. An animal was killed, and the attacks ceased.

Here is an old engraving of the Beast. Spaghetti for lunch:

Bete_de_Cinglais_1632

The Gazette de France reported on June 17th the death of the creature as follows:

“This raging mad beast which I wrote about last year as having eaten in two months more than thirty people in this forest was believed by everybody to be a creature of magical properties. But the Count de la Suze, having assembled by the order of our Lieutenant General on the 21st of this month between 5000 to 6000 people, has pursued the creature so keenly that after three days it was killed by a shot from a flintlock musket. It turned out to be some kind of wolf but longer, redder in colour with a pointed tail and a rump wider than normal. “

Here is the Forest of Cinglais:

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Wikipedia supplies a little information, but seems, perhaps, rather coy:

“This beast was identified as a wolf, but a mystery still remains. It was described as a kind of red wolf with an elongated body and a more pointed tail than a common wolf. It seemed very quick and agile.”

Another old friend, Vampiredarknews knows the details equally well:

“In 1632, this Beast killed fifteen victims in only one month. It struck in Normandy, where those who escaped described it as a great extremely fast and agile mastiff. It then settled in the Forest of Cinglais, about fifteen kilometres south of Caen. It then killed a dozen or so victims before they organized a hunt that lasted three days and brought together more than 5000 people. It was killed on June 23, 1633 by the Count de la Suze.”

One final website makes a very good point:

“It will eventually be described as a wolf, but a great mystery still hangs around this story ; the behaviour and the agility of the creature are in no way anything like that of a wolf.”

In the fullness of time, I will finish this almost interminable list of “Monsters of France” and draw them all together as the same unknown species. This particular creature is a good example. The Forest of Cinglais, the Forest of Fontainebleau and the charming countryside around Orléans are all pretty much the same kind of environment. The looks and behaviour of these beasts are not unique. Other localities have had strange reddish animals, animals with noticeable tails, animals with extreme agility or with great speed or an ability to leap long distances. There must be a link between them all.

I am very struck by the words of Abbé Pierre Pourcher about the Beast of Gévaudan:

“Everybody who saw it said it was not a wolf. Everybody who did not see it said it was.”

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Filed under Cryptozoology, France, History, Science, Wildlife and Nature

Last day on the Scillies

Saturday, October 29, 1988

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(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

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My last day on the Scillies. Time off for good behaviour. I’m not really sorry to be going home. I had four lifers. I don’t feel I’ve missed out on anything that was there and was viewable, except perhaps the Short toed Lark, about which I have exactly the same dilemma today as I had yesterday. Do I go to St Agnes or not? I chicken out, I am ashamed to say. I’m too scared of missing the last ferry back to Penzance Harbour to risk missing an inter-island boat through a twisted ankle, or a fat man’s heart attack. This will be the last Scillonian ferry back to the mainland before the end of the year, and the helicopters are all booked up until next Wednesday so I just cannot risk anything going wrong. I simply do not have enough money:

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I go back to my old friend at Telegraph, the Rose-coloured Starling, who I see very briefly, flying around with his common friends. He’s a very pale, buffy coloured individual, which I am sure is the bird in question, a fact made all the more certain by a group of birdwatchers coming from the area where the flock appeared to land and who say that they have just seen the little chap:

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I can’t relocate the bird, but I meet someone who says he’s just seen a Wryneck feeding alongside the road. It was actually on the grassy tops of the great wide dry stone walls, although it has disappeared by the time I arrive:

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I look for about fifteen minutes, but I can’t find it, and I am just about to pack it in as a bad job, when another young chap comes over and says he’s found the bird about seventy yards away in another lane. When I get there, I find that it’s a lot more active than the previous birds that I’ve seen in Norfolk, as it moves along the base of the hedge, feeding energetically. I am always impressed by Wrynecks, which never seem reptilian to me or particularly primitive as they are supposed to, but rather I wonder at the subtlety of their camouflage, and the way they seem able to disappear into their background at the drop of a dead leaf. It’s a good padder of a bird and I’m really pleased to have seen it. Not that I’m surprised, because it’s my friend Paul’s bogey bird and I told him before I left for the Scillies that I would see one for him:

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I take a leisurely stroll back to town, walking along the seashore where I am amazed to see a kingfisher flying out over the breaking waves, seemingly completely at home among the rocky coves and the surf,  before it finally disappears into a line of pine trees at the top of the scrub covered cliff:

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I pass a field full of absolutely thousands of finches, including at least one superb full adult summer plumage Brambling, which is so bright that I think it is some weird American bird when I first see it. There’s really no need for it to be a transatlantic vagrant, since the bird is such a beautiful sight in its own right, without needing to be particularly rare:

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A hundred yards further on, I surprise a Pipit in another field at the side of the road. I try hard to imagine that it is some unprecedented rarity, but I’m finally forced to concede that it is merely a Tree Pipit.
Finally, I reach the Porthcressa Restaurant, where the magic noticeboard announces the presence of a Scarlet Rosefinch, another possible lifer, which has turned up near the airport. This is going to be a close run thing for a fat man. The boat leaves this afternoon and I need to be on the quay by half past three. It’s half past one now, so I start off at a reasonable pace, taking care to time myself for the walk, so that I can set off back to the harbour in good time. It only takes me thirty minutes, so I am left with about an hour to find the bird:

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It’s apparently been showing well in a little field full of cabbages, but has unfortunately moved on by the time I arrive. I go and search the neighbouring fields where there are huge flocks of finches and lots of good big hedges for them to perch in. It is at this point that I get the closest that I’ve ever been to a rare bird without actually seeing it. Two young men poke their heads round the hedge and tell me that the Rosefinch is there. They are actually looking at it right now:

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In the very short time that it takes me to walk the ten yards or so, the bird flies away, never to be seen again, at least not by me. I give it a few more minutes, but time, as always, ticks inexorably away.  There is one final bit of excitement when a message comes on the CB that a Pechora Pipit has been spotted on the far side of the airport near Salakee Farm:

pechora xxxxxx

The fittest ferry passengers, and the more leisurely helicopter users, all set off, but without me, I’m afraid. I’m far too unfit to rush all the way to Salakee, find a pipit famous for its ability to skulk and hide in the undergrowth, and then get back down to the Scillonian by 3.30. At least, not without a major heart attack. I do have the pleasure though, of a nice stroll back through the town, along the main street down to the ferry:

St%20Marys%20Quay xxxxxxxx

The scene that greets me is straight out of a 1930s black-and-white documentary film about the evacuation of St.Kilda. The ferry seems to know that it is the last boat of the year and mournfully blasts its foghorn as a farewell to the tiny town.

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The street, with its grey stone buildings, is full of hurrying figures, all burdened with bags and suitcases, tripods and scopes, all plodding in the same direction to get down to the quay. When I reach the ferry, I have twenty minutes to drink in the scene, so I stand and lean over the side of the boat. It’s beautiful, the still, calm sea, the line of old buildings along the curve of the bay and the continuing mournful bellowing of the ship’s foghorn. Even better though, is a stream of birdwatchers, all returning at breakneck speed from not seeing the Pechora Pipit, tripods and spare wellies flying around their necks. They all seem to make it, except, presumably, the ones that don’t.
We set off across the surface of a glassy sea, as the people on the land wave their last farewells to the ship:

scillonian-day-trips-1-1180x520 xxxxxxx

It will be a long time before the Scillonian returns to the island, as the next arrival is scheduled for April. The crossing is bird free, mainly because the weather becomes so foul. In actual fact, the crossing isn’t particularly rough by Scilly standards. All I can say, though, is that, if this isn’t rough, then very rough most be unbelievable. I stay on deck, of course, in my capacity as the toughest man on the boat, and when I finally go downstairs, the bar is full of people with green faces. It reminds me very strongly of a pub in Nottingham that sells Shipstone’s beer.
One young lad that I speak to is really delighted to have been on the Scillies. He is about fifteen and he has had a lot of lifers and he is as pleased as Punch. Birdwatching here certainly does make it a lot easier to see some of the birds that on the mainland can take a lot of effort, above all if you live in the south. Dotterel, Corncrake, Red Kite, or especially, Lapland Bunting:

LaplandBuntingSteveArlow cccccc

He’s had them all in the past two weeks here. I’m still riddled with jealousy, all bitter and twisted at those people who can spend two or three weeks here at the best time of the birdwatching year, namely early October, when I have to be at work. It must have added a good thirty or forty species at the very least to their life lists, with no real difficulty and very little real effort. Perhaps an inflation rate of up to 25% or 30% of your life total. All there for you to tick off, knowing that they are birds unlikely to occur anywhere else in Britain.
I have not seen too many good birds on the Scillies, but I have met a good number of what you might call “characters”. It is, after all, “Teachers’ Week”, although I do find one teacher who has clocked up an exceptionally impressive 420 species without ever using the rather artificial aid of coming to these islands in the first two or three weeks of October. At the same time he has not lost his ability to be excited by a Red Kite or a Red-necked Grebe:

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There are some quite desperate twitchers who just hear the words “Paddyfield Warbler” and will then slit Granny’s throat for the bus fare. Some of them are very rude, unpleasant and downright boorish, including one young oaf who insists on shouting his requests for directions at you at the top of his fifteen year old voice, irrespective of how far away he is. His only interest is the extraction of any information you might have about the bird he is trying to see. I meet him once and say “Good Morning” and he says loudly, “Where? Is it showing well?”

One unemployed birdwatcher has worked out his cash supply down to literally the last fifty pence. For the last two days of his holiday (a holiday from being unemployed?),  he cannot afford accommodation, but has to walk around looking for nice warm bus shelters. The most notable of the whole lot, though, is an old gentleman who has bird watched all his life and who has seen some splendid ornithological sights in his time, particularly when birds of prey were more numerous than they are today. Honey Buzzards thronged his skies:

HoneyBuzzard xxxxxx

From his house on the north west coast of Wales, he would see a dozen migrating Merlin in a day. Now it is just one a month:

merli_juv_ ccc

He has little or no interest in twitching rare birds, many of which he has never heard of anyway. He has an outlook based solely on what he can find for himself. Not for him the new fangled Gore-Tex or plastic cagoules, but a pair of battered old boots, some comfortable corduroy trousers and a sports coat with leather elbow patches. His bird watching techniques are different to those of the present day as well. Not for him the patient wait for the bird to appear. He is deep in the bushes, energetically bashing around with his walking stick, determined to find everything that is in there, vainly trying to hide.
The real stars of the show though, are the people of the Isles of Scilly themselves. They are genuinely calm, kind and wonderful people and remind me a lot of the inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland. They will not be hurried and their entire lives are very different indeed to those of us city folk.

Certainly this week though, the birds are disappointing. I wish I’d stayed on the mainland and gone for whatever presented itself. There was every chance that I’d have seen the Indigo Bunting at Wells and a Lesser Yellowlegs at the Ouse Washes.

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On the other hand, I wouldn’t have had the total experience that I have had.

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Four poor Germans, a very long way from home

On a number of previous occasions, I have written about the Allied servicemen who are interred in Penzance Cemetery. There are also four German combatants from the Second World War, all of them buried, quite fittingly, alongside their erstwhile adversaries:

P1500367 XXXXXX

Ernst Erich Elsperger and Conrad H.W. Schweizer were both members of the German Navy, the Kreigsmarine.

Ernst Erich Elsperger was born on October 27th 1924. He reached the rank of Obergefreiter (Senior Lance Corporal) and died on March 22nd 1945 aged only twenty one:

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Ernst Elsperger is recorded as being a crew member of the U-1169, which was sunk by depth charges from HMS Duckworth, just south of the Lizard. It was commanded by Oberleutnant Heinz Goldbeck who was himself only thirty one years old when he was killed. Here is HMS Duckworth:ff_hms_duckworth_k351

This particular U-Boat, the U-1169, had not sunk or damaged a single enemy vessel in the almost two years since it was launched at Danzig on April 9th 1943. No photographs of the vessel seem to have survived, and neither do any of its captain. Here is the only surviving Type VIIC U-Boat in the world, the U-995, currently on display at the Laboe Naval Memorial near Kiel. It is exactly the same type of vessel as the U-1169. Do not fail to click on the link to the German website, and make sure that you try the Panorama views. They are guaranteed to scare you (top of the tower) or make you very seasick indeed. Look for the yellow circles on the photograph of the tower:

u boat xxxxxxx
There seems to be some kind of mix-up in the dates of Ernst Elsperger’s death as the U-1169 was sunk on March 29th, and the inscription on the grave says March 22nd. It is possible, of course, that he was a member of the crew of one of the other U-boats sunk in the area in early 1945, namely the U-399, the U-1199, the U-1208, the U-605, or the U-1018.

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Conrad H.W. Schweizer was born on January 1st 1915 and died on December 18th 1944 aged twenty nine. He is buried alongside an unknown German naval casualty:

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Both Conrad Schweizer, and the unknown seaman buried in the cemetery, were members of the crew of the U-Boat U-1209 which was scuttled after hitting Wolf Rock near the Isles of Scilly on December 18th 1944:

wolf_rock

Forty four crew members survived and were picked up by the Canadian destroyer, HMCS Montreal. There were nine fatalities, including the Captain, Oberleutnant zur See Ewald Hüsenbeck, who had a heart attack during the journey into Plymouth. This is the Montreal:

HMCSMontreal

This second photograph was snapped by Charles James Sadler, RCNVR, a First Class Stoker who was serving in the Canadian destroyer HMCS Columbia:

pg_hmcs_montreal

Earlier in the war, the Montreal had rescued 33 survivors from the Norwegian merchant ship Fjordheim, which had been torpedoed and sunk north of Ireland by the German submarine U-482. The Montreal survived the war and was sold in 1947.  It was finally broken up for scrap in Sydney, Australia, shortly afterwards.

The unfortunate U-1209 was built to exactly the same design as the U-1169 and the U-995, (pictured above). It had been launched at Danzig on February 9th 1944, but, exactly like the U-1169, during its entire career, it had not sunk or damaged a single enemy vessel:

u278rdditionle9mai1945

The final grave is that of Richard Hille. Richard was a member of the Luftwaffe. He was in the crew of a Heinkel He 111 bomber of Kampfgeschwader 28, serial numbers 1T+LH, which was shot down on the night of January 31st / February 1st 1941.

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This aging aircraft crashed into the sea off Treen just to the south east of Land’s End after being engaged by a naval patrol vessel, whose name I have been unable to ascertain.

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Richard Hille was the only crew member to be recovered. On his gravestone, the date given for his death is February 12th 1941. This is because it was the usual convention at the time to use the date of the discovery of bodies found either at sea or on the foreshore, as the date of death. Richard Hille’s body was in fact initially recovered from the sea by a Newlyn trawler. The “Western Morning News” newspaper reported therefore, on the Friday, February 14th, that his body had been hauled up in a trawl off Land’s End on the previous Wednesday, February 12th. A report in the “Cornishman” newspaper of February 20th 1941 detailed his burial at Penzance Cemetery with full military honours:

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Finally, two things. Firstly, it would have been totally impossible to write this blogpost without using this source, a forum for exchanging information about the myriad events of World War Two. And secondly, I cannot understand why these four men have never been taken back the hundreds of miles to their own homeland and their own towns or cities. The two U-boats involved caused no damage whatsoever to anybody and the Luftwaffe were never known as war criminals. The four men in Penzance were not members of the Waffen SS or the Wehrmacht. Let them go home at last!

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I shall return!

Just a note to say that I will not be anywhere near a computer for the next ten days or so. I have scheduled for articles to be published during this period, but I will be unable to reply to your comments as I normally would do. Likewise, I will not be able to offer any of my usual pearls of wisdom to the many authors of the blogs that I follow.

Hopefully, in the fullness of time, I will eventually be able to catch up with any backlog.

Best wishes,

John

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You have three minutes to learn to swim

In a previous blogpost I spoke about the Great Storm of 1703. Just under a hundred years previously, in 1607, there had been a huge, spectacular, surging flood in the West Country, centred on the Bristol Channel and the Severn Estuary. Much damage was done, in particular to the area near the orange arrow:
sw of england

The floodwaters which struck on January 30th were in no way the result of a long period of continuous rain, such as has been the case in the recent years of our own century. Indeed contemporary writers stated that:

“The winter was extremely warm and very much drying….even smaller brooks remained ice free. Already in February the sowing was performed, in the same time violets are to have flowered.”

It is always possible, of course, that this long ago catastrophe was the result of a sudden surge, caused by high tides and very strong winds, as has happened several times in Norfolk and Suffolk in the last two hundred years. Some meteorologists, though, have looked beyond this.

Contemporary scientists such as Professor Simon Hazlitt, and Australian geologist Ted Bryant therefore,postulated in their research paper in 2002 that the flooding was caused by a tsunami. Their evidence, other than presumably the immense volumes of water involved in the incident, are that various deposits of sand, pebbles and shells, scattered around the Severn Estuary, are compatible with having been brought from the open ocean.

Their explanation for this melodramatic event was an undersea landslide, or perhaps ocean slide, on the sea floor between Cornwall and Ireland.  Alternatively, there may have been some kind of earthquake, caused by fault lines in the sea somewhere to the southwest of the area.

Whatever the reason, the results were catastrophic. Water swept five miles inland around Bristol and all along the coast of South Wales from Pembrokeshire to Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. In the Somerset Levels, still the victims of flooding nowadays, some four hundred years later, the waters came as far as forty miles inland. Did they recreate the ancient Glastonbury when the waters turned the Tor into the legendary Avalon?

glast

Certainly though, at Frampton on Severn in Gloucestershire, the flood covered the entire village so that only the spire of the church of St Mary the Virgin emerged from the water. There are some lovely details in this contemporary illustration:

1607-flood

At Burnham on Sea in Somerset, the sea wall was washed away and so were thirty villages in the immediate vicinity. In Huntspill, almost thirty people drowned, with a similar number perishing at Brean which was “swallowed up”. Here, seven out of the nine houses were destroyed: these were typical totals repeated in villages and small towns over the entire area, resulting ultimately in a death toll of at least two thousand people, and that in a fairly sparsely populated agricultural region. Other villages which were devastated included Berrow, Mark, Lympsham, and both South and East Brent were badly affected. Houses and villages were swept away, and overall, an estimated 200 square miles (51,800 ha) of farmland was inundated. Livestock was destroyed. For ten days the Church of All Saints at Kingston Seymour, near Weston-super-Mare, (look for the orange arrow) was filled with water to a depth of five feet (1.5 m):

seymouis

A chiselled mark remains showing that the maximum height of the water was more than 25 feet (7.74 metres) above sea level. The church has a commemorative plaque:

“An inundation of the sea water by overflowing and breaking down the Sea banks; happened in this Parish of Kingstone-Seamore, and many others adjoining; by reason whereof many Persons were drown’d and much Cattle and Goods, were lost: the water in the Church was five feet high and the greatest part lay on the ground about ten days. WILLIAM BOWER”

This plaque in the local St Mary’s church records the disaster at Goldcliff near Newport on the Welsh side of the Severn Estuary:

church plaque

Initially, on the day, all was going well:

“for about nine of the morning, the same being most fayrely and brightly spred, many of the inhabitants of these countreys prepared themselves to their affayres”

Then the sea retreated away from the shore; in contemporary terms, it was “driven back”. This is apparently a classic sign of trouble ahead, tsunami  imminent, and sure enough:

“mighty hilles of water tombling over one another in such sort as if the greatest mountains in the world had overwhelmed the lowe villages or marshy grounds. Sometimes it dazzled many of the spectators that they imagined it had bin some fogge or mist coming with great swiftness towards them and with such a smoke as if mountains were all on fire, and to the view of some it seemed as if myriads of thousands of arrows had been shot forth all at one time.”

And there was no escape just by running away:

“(the water)is ‘affirmed to have runne …. with a swiftness so incredible, as that no gray-hounde could have escaped by running before them’.

For me, though, insofar as these events in 1607 are relatively soon after the appearance of the new King James Bible, I personally agree with the sentiments expressed in a contemporary pamphlet which was called:

“God’s warning to the people of England by the great overflowing of the waters”

godswarningsmallThe familiar contemporary illustration quoted above also came from a pamphlet of the time:

moncover

Throughout the area, there were certainly some narrow escapes. Here are four contemporary accounts:

“a maide child, not passing the age of foure years: it is reported that the mother thereof, perceiving the waters to breake so fast into her house, and not being able to escape with it, and having no clothes on, set it upon a beame in the house, to save it from being drowned. And the waters rushing in a pace, a little chicken flew up, it being found in the bosome of it, when helpe came and by the heate thereof preserved the childe’s life”.

“Another little childe is affirmed to have been cast uppon land in a cradle, in which was nothing but a catte the which was discerned as it came floating to the shoare, to leape still from one side of the cradle unto the other, even as if she had been appointed steresman to preserve the small barke from the waves furie”

“A certain man and woman having taken a tree for their succour, espying nothing but death before their eyes, at last among other things which were carried along, they perceived a certain tubbe of great bignesse to come nearer and nearer unto them, until it rested upon that tree wherein they were, committed themselves, and were carried safe until they were cast upon the drie shore”.

“more than did, had perished for want of food, and extreme cold, had not the Rt. Honble. Lord Herbert …. sent out boats to relieve the distresse …. himself going to such houses as he could minister to their provision of meate and other necessaries”.

Nowadays, of course, this just could not happen. We keep a tight control of the weather:

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Perhaps, though, the builders of medieval churches knew a little bit more than us:

church safe

Having said that, have no fear. Should a flood, or indeed, a tsunami, ever arrive, we will be helped by an army of graduates from the University of the Bleedin’ Obvious:

A flood sign

 

 

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