The Great (Orme) Escape!

12 Aug

100 years ago this week, Llandudno was in total lockdown, but why?

The Great (Orme) Escape!
It was cold and damp on the evening of August 16 1915 when Walter Wood, accountant to the Llandudno Urban Council, left the town’s County Club. Outside, he was buttoning his coat up against the weather when a soldier approached him, offered him a polite greeting and started walking with him down Lloyd Street. Fearing that he was about to be the victim of a robbery, the accountant turned and ran back to the building in which he had spent the evening. He burst into the lobby followed by half a dozen soldiers, excitedly, shouting “We’ve got him; we’ve got him”.
For two days hundreds of soldiers had been searching for three German prisoners of war who had escaped from a camp in Llansannan. Dyffryn Aled had been requisitioned in 1914 to accommodate captured German officers and while interned there, Lieutenant-Commander Hermann Tholens and Captain Heinrich von Hennig hatched a plan to escape and rendezvous with a German submarine off the Great Orme.
Korvettenkapitan Hermann Tholens was one of the first German naval officers to be interned at Dyffryn Aled after being picked up by a British destroyer during the Battle of Heligoland. He had been second in command on the bridge of the German cruiser Mainz when she was destroyed by the Royal Navy and spent an hour in the cold waters of the North Sea. He spent his first week of captivity at Chatham’s naval hospital before being transferred to North Wales. He was later joined by Kapitanleutnant Heinrich von Hennig, himself rescued from the sea by the Royal Navy off the Pentland Skerries, after his vessel was sunk by HMS Garry.
The thoughts of the captives soon turned to escape and a number of plans were hatched by the German prisoners of war with varying success. During a prisoner exchange program in December 1914 the opportunity arose to get a message from the captives in Dyffryn Aled to the Commander-in-Chief of German submarines requesting for a submarine to rendezvous with Tholens and von Hennig off the Great Orme. The affirmative to their proposal was sent in code to the pair at the camp in a series of letters and the date set.
On the night of August 13 1915, Tholens and von Hennig, along with their cell mate, Captain Wolff-Dietrich Baron von Helldorf, forced their way through the barred windows of the 18th century mansion and walked the twenty miles to Llandudno. Security had been stepped up in the wake of another escape attempt five months earlier but the three Germans still managed to evade the sentries and searchlights and walk through the front gate. Dressed in civilian clothes they casually strolled into the seaside town of Llandudno shortly after dawn. Tholens later recounted how they “Crossed a large training field in the middle of the town and admired, at our leisure, the exercises and drilling of a whole army of soldiers”. Confident that they would not be missed until the camp’s morning roll call, the three enjoyed a meal in a café before hiding for the day.
Meanwhile, out at sea, submarine U-38, captained by Max Valentiner, had been making her way to the North Wales coast since leaving the North Sea naval base of Wilhelmshaven on August 4. She had made her way down the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland and after torpedoing a number of merchant vessels headed north through the Irish Sea arriving 50 miles off the Great Orme on the evening of the 13th.
Back in Llandudno the three Germans left their hideout at dusk and tried to scramble down the cliffs below the Great Orme’s lighthouse. In the dark waters below U-38 moved towards them waiting for a signal which never came as the officers failed to find their way down to the beach. All was not lost for the three, however, as the plan was for the U-boat to rendezvous at the same position for three consecutive nights.
They returned to their hideout, under a thicket of brambles, and tried to sleep for the day. At dusk the three successfully made it to the foot of the Orme. In the moonless night they signalled to their naval comrades waving a torch in a circular motion over and over again, but got no reply. In desperation they built a fire of driftwood, scavenged from the rocky foreshore, and waved a large log of flaming wood into the dark night. By now, Tholens and his non English speaking compatriots assumed, wrongly, that the submarine was not coming. It actually turned out to be only a few hundred yards away, but so close in shore, that their view of each other was blocked by a limestone buttress.
Dejected, cold and hungry the Germans decided to walk into Llandudno, split up, and try and get a train to London. After buying a packet of cigarettes, Tholens went into a café in Mostyn Street where waitress, Nellie Hughes, served him a cup of coffee and piece of cake. He left the coffee bar and outside the Tudno Hotel was approached by Police Constable Morris Williams who asked his identity, the German replied:
“I am a Lieutenant-Commander in the German Navy, I am one of the officers who escaped from the camp at Denbigh. I want to be arrested”.
Williams escorted him to the police station.
Unable to locate the other two fugitives the authorities staked out the railway station but no men matching the descriptions entered the concourse. To be sure the London-bound train was stopped at Colwyn Bay and every compartment searched but to no avail as von Hennig and von Heldorf had just entered the offices of the Silver Motor Company in Llandudno. They asked for a car but when staff tried engaging them in conversation the Germans departed abruptly.
That evening, around the same time the innocent council accountant was being harangued, cab driver, Alfred Davies was on his way to pick up a fare from the Pier Pavilion. He noticed two men standing under an ornamental lamp in North Parade in the pouring rain. He pulled over and asked if they needed a cab and understanding that they did, he opened the door for them and they climbed in. In broken English they asked to be taken “to the colonel” so he took them to the headquarters of the London Welsh battalion who were billeted in Gloddaeth Street.
So what became of the three Kaiserliche Marine officers?
The following day all three were taken back to the camp in Llansannan in an ambulance belonging to the London Welsh and were subsequently put before a military court held at Chester Castle. They were sentenced to 84 days imprisonment in Chelmsford Gaol, without hard labour.
In September 1917, Tholens was sent to Switzerland and interned there until May 1918 as part of a prisoner exchange. In 1931 he joined the Nazi party and during Hitler’s reign served with the rank of Obergeneralarbeitsfuhrer (Upper General) in the regime’s state labour service – an agency which helped militarise the German workforce and indoctrinate it with Nazi ideology. Tholens survived the Second World War and died in 1967 aged 85.
Heinrich von Hennig remained in Llansannan until early 1918 when he was moved to neutral Holland for internment. After the First World War he continued his naval career until retirement in 1931. In April 1940 he re-joined the German Navy.

Llandudno Solicitor wins Wimbledon

28 Jun

James Cecil Parke is still widely regarded as Ireland’s greatest sportsman but was also a decorated soldier, gold medallist of the Irish Law Society and prominent leader in the local Scout movement.

He was born in Clones, County Monaghan in 1881 and was an all-round sportsman excelling at golf, cricket, rugby and tennis.  While studying Law at Trinity College, Dublin he was first capped for Ireland in rugby going on to captain his country.  As a tennis player he won many major tournaments including an Olympic silver medal in 1908; the Australian men’s singles and doubles titles and the Wimbledon mixed doubles title in 1914.  He also represented Britain in the Davis Cup, helping to win the trophy in 1912 by beating Australasia.

At the outbreak of World War One he volunteered to join the Leinster Regiment and was wounded at Gallipoli in 1915.  Later he was transferred to the Essex Regiment and attained the rank of Major.  He returned to France where he was wounded for a second time and was mentioned in despatches for his war work.

In 1920 he came to Llandudno and joined the practice of Messrs Chamberlain and Johnson. His love of sport continued and he was instrumental in the setting up of the tennis courts in Craig y Don.  He was chairman of the North Wales Golf Club at West Shore  and an avid supporter of the Scout movement being both the Local Commissioner and Secretary of the Llandudno Association. He died suddenly after collapsing on Mostyn Street.

Traces of war in the Ogwen Valley

3 Feb

Yesterday’s snow in Snowdonia meant that the already beautiful Ogwen Valley was even more stunning (if a little cold!).

In the spring and summer of 1940, ‘stop lines’ were built all over the United Kingdom to repel, or at least slow down, a German invasion. The North Wales defences were especially important as the British were worried that the German invasion force would use ‘neutral’ Southern Ireland as a ‘stepping stone’ when trying to invade.

In the Nant Ffrancon and Ogwen Valley areas of North Wales evidence of anti-tank fortifications are still visible today. The ‘dragon’s teeth’ were built of local stone at the head of the Nant Ffrancon while various spigot mortar emplacements can be found around Ogwen Cottage. A number of pill-boxes are also evident in the Ogwen Valley and also around Capel Curig. The weather today was a reminder how cold it would have been to man these defences 75 years ago.

Sea mines on North Wales beaches

30 Jan

Having failed to close the port of Liverpool by bombing the Germans changed their tactics in January 1943. In the first week of the month they resorted to laying sea mines by submarine in the approach channel between Point Lynas, Anglesey and the mouth of the River Mersey.

On the evening of the 2nd a sea mine exploded on the foreshore at Penmaenhead near Colwyn Bay, damaging the windows of two properties but causing no casualties. The following morning saw a number of mines washed up on the Denbighshire coast.  Just before six in the morning people living close to Pensarn railway station got an early wake-up call when a German sea mine exploded, damaging 87 houses while a second device did not detonate and 15 people were evacuated from their homes while it was rendered safe.  Elsewhere that morning further mines were washed up opposite Sunnyvale Camp, Towyn and another on the beach at Sandbank Road, Towyn. In this instance over 250 people were evacuated to rest centres while the Royal Navy defused the bomb. Later that day a mine was found in Foryd Harbour, Rhyl and 40 people were evacuated from Kinmel Bay while that was defused.

On the 4th of January further sea mines were washed ashore.  In Colwyn Bay, 400 people were evacuated from their homes and 1600 civil servants working at the Ministry of Food were moved from their offices when a sea mine washed ashore by the Rothesay Hotel. The police closed the promenade and surrounding roads while the, now overworked, Royal Navy bomb disposal team got to work.  A further two mines were spotted in the sea off Colwyn Bay pier and to minimise the risk to life from these devices the Chief Constable of Denbighshire made an order under the Public Entertainments (Restrictions) Order to close the Victoria Pier in Colwyn Bay during the hours of darkness.

Llanfairfechan aviator – Captain Val Baker.

4 Jan

Captain Valentine Baker was the youngest son of Mr and Mrs J M Baker of Grove Cottage, Llanfairfechan. His father was for many years agent on the Gorddinog Estate, a large estate near Abergwyngregyn owned by the Platt family. Val was educated at Llanfairfechan National School before being sent to a private school in Bangor. On leaving school he worked as a clerk for Lloyds Bank at both the Bangor and Caernarfon branches. His elder brother, Horace, also worked for Lloyds and was for many years manager of the Llanfairfechan branch.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Baker enlisted in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, Armoured Car Section and was a despatch rider, serving in Gallipoli.  During this campaign he was shot in the neck, invalided out of the Royal Navy and sent back to Llanfairfechan.  The bullet was never removed and remained lodged near his spinal cord for the rest of his life.  After three weeks recuperating he decided to join the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and after a period of training was posted abroad.  On the morning of departure, Baker learnt that he had been accepted into the Royal Flying Corps. Flying was his forte, he felt safe in the air, once telling a friend “the higher the safer”. While serving in the Royal Flying Corps he was awarded the Airforce Flying Cross to go with the Military Cross he had been awarded earlier in the war.  In 1916, Baker married Llanfairfechan girl, Dilys Eames, with whom they had one son, Denys Val Baker, the famous Cornish author.

After the First World War he was given a job with the Air Ministry in Whitehall in the Secret Codes Department. He left this post in 1921 to continue his flying career taking a job with Vickers Limited which took him to Java in the Dutch East Indies and also Chile. He returned to the UK and founded the famous flying school at Heston Aerodrome where he taught luminaries such as Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), his brother Prince George, Duke of Kent and Amy Johnson – the pioneering female aviator – to fly.

When teaching he was a tough task master who demanded implicit obedience from his pupils, “I don’t care two hoots,” he once said, “whether they are titled folk or just Tom, Dick or Harry”.

In 1934, Baker left Heston to join his friend, James Martin, and founded the Martin-Baker Aircraft Company, where Baker was the company’s test pilot. During a test flight of the Martin-Baker MB 3 prototype, the engine seized and he was forced into an emergency landing, during which the aircraft struck a tree stump and caught fire. He died on September 14, 1942 aged 54 and is buried at Denham close to the Martin-Baker factory.

Llandudno’s WW1 Pierrot – Sydney Sutcliffe

2 Oct

Killed in action today 1917, Second Lieutenant Sydney Sutcliffe of Roumania Crescent, Llandudno serving with the Royal Flying Corps.  Syd was born in Bradford but moved to Llandudno when his father, Arthur, the well-known entertainer came to the resort to open a summer show at Llandudno’s Pier Head Pavilion. Before enlisting in the army, the young Sydney was a ‘Pierrot’ in his father’s shows.

Initially with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Sutcliffe went to France with his battalion and saw a “tremendous amount of fighting” at Ypres and the Somme.  He was awarded the Military Medal in April 1916 for his actions during a German gas attack.  He later volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps and late in the afternoon of the 2nd October 1917 along with pilot, Justin McKenna, took off from an airfield near Arras in a Bristol F2b bi-plane. Sydney Sutcliffe was the observer and gunner in the aircraft but after an hour it was surrounded by seven German planes near Cambrai.  During the ensuing dogfight, McKenna and Sutcliffe saw off four of the enemy before they were brought down themselves with the loss of both men. The young Llandudno man was granted a funeral with full military honours. The full account of the burial is available here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-one/10340753/WW1-deaths-showed-the-humanity-amid-the-horror.html

Later the bodies of McKenna (the uncle of actress and wildlife campaigner Virginia McKenna) and Sutcliffe were re-interred at Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery.

Back in Llandudno Arthur Sutcliffe held an annual ‘Syd Sutcliffe Wounded Soldiers Benefit Fund’ at the Pier Head Pavilion in memory of his late son.

Great Orme Gun Site

24 Sep

the home front museum

Today 1940 the School of Coast Artillery on the lower slopes of the Great Orme, Llandudno officially became operational.  It re-located from Shoeburyness and was moved as it needed to expand (due to the war) and that was proving to be difficult in Essex; this coupled with increasingly heavy air-raids and the threat of invasion led to the decision to move.

Many sites on the west coast of Britain were looked at before the decision was taken to opt for the area of land at the end of Llys Helig Drive on the West Shore of the Great Orme.  The land was duly requisitioned by the War Department from Mostyn Estates and was chosen as it required little alteration.  It was vital that there was suitable anchorage for the target vessels and good conditions for radio direction finding and searchlight training.  Royal Engineers designed and planned the layout of the…

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