“I spent three years as a prisoner-of-war, and would rather go behind barbed wire again than face a further few weeks on that damned rock.”
On 16 January 1947, Edward Ward and Stanley Coombs of the BBC were rescued from Bishop Rock Lighthouse after bad weather stranded them at the lighthouse for 29 days.
In December 1946 the BBC’s radio features department revived the pre-war round-the-world link-up of Christmas Day greetings which preceded the annual message from the Monarch. So Edward Ward and Stanley Coombs set off for Bishop Rock Lighthouse, the most westerly part of England, some 40 miles off Cornwall and seven from the Isles of Scilly, to record the Yuletide contribution from the isolated keepers.
The two men had planned to stay on the lighthouse for only a few days, but the same gale-force winds and heavy seas that featured in their Christmas round-up were also preventing their scheduled relief.
For almost a month the weather did not let up, and with five men on station the supply of fresh food dwindled; the lighthouse keepers radioed Trinity House for permission to break into the emergency stores of bully beef and biscuits.
“It was always the same old walls,” Ward recalled,“living completely in one room about 15ft. in diameter, and the only change of view was a trip up to the light above, and walk around the balcony or a trip down into the rock’s ‘vitals’ to look at bits of machinery… I made my own bed each day and helped with the kitchen and house work… Then there was always the polishing of the light and wireless talks with other lighthouses and the coastguard station ashore. But it was all pretty boring once the novelty wore off… we had nothing stronger than tea to drink, and towards the end the cigarettes ran out.”
On the 29th day, a lifeboat boat made it to the lighthouse and the men were lowered by rope towards the boat through the surf.
“It took just ten minutes to leave the lighthouse in the breeches-buoy and reach the lifeboat,” he told the gathered newspaper reporters, “but it was the longest ten minutes of my life… There I was, dangling on what seemed a dreadfully thin rope between the sky and the boiling sea. It was not funny at all.”
Now remembered as one of the very best of the BBC’s war correspondents, Ward (1905-1993) was held as a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany from 1941-45; four or five days on a lighthouse must have seemed a relatively trouble-free assignment in comparison.
He signed off his stretch as a lighthouse keeper with a palpable sense of relief:
“I wore the same shirt for 29 days, and I am fed up of the sight of it. Now I am going home for a bath, a drink, and a change of clothes, and I hope I don’t get another job like that in a hurry.”