Llandudno and the Belgian Soldiers

4 Jun

Besides the thousands of British soldiers who were billeted in Llandudno during the First World War there were also a small number of Belgian infantrymen in the town – staying here for a very different reason.

In the days before the outbreak of the war the German government demanded that her armies be allowed free passage through Belgium to reach France.  These requests were refused, Belgian neutrality was ignored and when Germany did invade it brought Britain into the war as she was bound by an 1839 agreement to protect Belgium.  The Belgian army put up stubborn resistance and held up the German offensive for nearly a month even though her army was only around a tenth of the size of the German army. However it came at a great cost to the Belgian people – thousands of civilians and soldiers were killed or wounded and more than 250 000 fled seeking refuge in Britain.

In October 1914 a train carrying 80 wounded Belgian soldiers steamed slowly into Llandudno railway station, greeted by a large crowd of cheering well-wishers.  The injured soldiers waved back, their tin helmets aloft in appreciation, as they made their way from the carriages to the charabancs which waited to convey them to Lady Forester’s convalescent home (now Blind Veterans).  Lady Forester’s opened in 1902 and at the outset of the First World War was put at the disposal of the military authorities.

One Belgian soldier recuperating at Lady Forester’s was actually no more than a child.  A couple of months earlier Nestor Swille was a carefree schoolboy in Brussels, but by the time he arrived in Llandudno he was a battle scarred warrior.  At thirteen years of age he was probably one of the youngest to fight the Germans, for Nestor ran away from his parent’s home with the intention of ‘doing his bit’ for his country. 

Hector Swille joined the 11th Infantry Regiment and was given a rifle, a bicycle, a helmet and the job of messenger.  Through the summer of 1914 the teenager rode his machine without incident but at Haacht his luck changed and he was wounded by an enemy shell close to the frontline.  Knocked unconscious from the force of the blast, blinded when the bottle of disinfectant in his dispatch case exploded and, blood-soaked from the shrapnel wounds, he lay there until a fellow Belgian soldier came to his aid.   Badly injured, young Nestor still ensured that the message was delivered to its recipient by another dispatch rider before being taken to a hospital in Antwerp and then onto Llandudno.

The fate of Nestor Swille is unknown, but it is unlikely that he would have been allowed to return to the front-line because of his age.

Lady Forester’s was one of half a dozen buildings in Llandudno requisitioned by either the military or the Red Cross for use as hospitals during the First World War.  Plas Tudno on Church Walks was used as a Red Cross hospital for injured British servicemen.  In 1915 there was a demonstration outside the hospital when it was discovered that a porter employed there was a German national.  The soldiers insisted that Robert Hempel should be dismissed immediately and the following night the police arrested him and he was taken to an internee camp near Queensferry.

Airship stopped play!

15 Apr

In Llandudno Cricket Club’s 122 year history there can never have been an incident as strange as the day an airship interrupted play on the last day of June 1918. 

Since the autumn of 1915 there had been a Royal Naval Airship Station on Anglesey and it was their duty to escort and protect the merchant ships of the Atlantic convoys from the menace of German submarines in the Irish Sea.

On that sunny afternoon, while a match progressed at the Gloddaeth Street recreation ground, an airship was experiencing engine trouble overhead. The pilot scribbled a note and dropped it onto the wicket below and while he circled he watched as they first studied the piece of paper and then formed an arrow pointing into the wind. As the airship descended he threw out his trail rope and, like a trained landing party, the cricketers and spectators rushed forward and hauled down the balloon. The engineer diagnosed the problem to be a dirty spark plug, which was soon replaced, and the engine restarted.  The pilot thanked his helpers and to great cheers, the airship took to the air and the match resumed.

This was not the first time that mechanical trouble had forced a Royal Naval airship to land at Llandudno. Anyone sat on the promenade on the afternoon of April 26 1918 would have seen the curious sight of a trawler towing a semi inflated ‘blimp’ out in the bay.  That morning, just before dawn, airship Z35 – with a crew of three – took off from Llangefni, tasked with searching for a German submarine that had been seen near to the Formby Lightship. After several hours the engine seized and the on-board engineer was unable to re-start it. As the craft drifted towards the North Wales coast, its May day message was picked up by an armed trawler which came to its aid. The initial plan was to tow the craft to Red Wharf Bay but with the wind strengthening, a heavy swell and patchy fog it was decided to try for Llandudno as the Great Orme was visible through the gloom. From their billets in the town a platoon of soldiers was summoned to the end of the pier and took over the tow rope from the trawler, walking the stricken airship, high in the air, to the promenade and soon after five, tethered it close to The Hydro Hotel. 

A large crowd milled around, excited at seeing the huge silver balloon moored at such close quarters. The police roped off the area and people were warned about the dangers of smoking in the vicinity of the hydrogen filled airship! Meanwhile the pilot, Lieutenant Williams, was invited to take a bath and a meal at The Hydro Hotel but when dressing after his wash found he had no tie to wear for dinner.  He was lent one by the hotel manager but later recalled that it “was very gaudy for a Naval Officer, and caused considerable amusement.”

In the meantime mechanics had arrived from Llangefni to fix the engine of the airship and inflate the balloon’s envelope and by eight that evening the craft took off from “between two lamp standards” for the 40 minute flight back to Anglesey.

“A Gallant Gentleman” – Ernest Williams

20 Mar

March 20th 2014 is the 71st anniversary of the death of Llandudno man and RAF navigator Sergeant William Ernest Williams.  He enlisted in the RAF in 1941 after leaving his job as manager of Llandudno based furnishers, Dicken & Son of Vaughan Street; a company he had worked for since joining as an apprentice aged just 17.  He was a founding member of Deganwy’s TocH Club and on enlisting was sent to the United States for six months training.  After a great deal of operational flying with Coastal Command over the Bay of Biscay, France, he joined 101 Squadron of Bomber Command.

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On Valentine’s night, 14th February 1943, a Lancaster bomber with a crew including navigator Sergeant William Williams took off from Holme-on-Spalding in Yorkshire and took part in an operational sortie to attack the northern Italian city of Milan.  After successfully bombing the target from 11,000 feet, they were attacked by an enemy fighter – a CR 42 biplane – at 200 yards range.  The Fiat fighter got in a burst of machine gun fire and ignited 4 x 30lb incendiary devices still in the bomb bay of the Lancaster.  As the Italian aircraft turned away it was hit by return fire from the rear gunner, Sergeant Airey and the mid-upper gunner, Flight Sergeant George Dove.  The Fiat went down in flames and was destroyed.  In all the gunners fired over 300 rounds between them.

 

The Lancaster was severely damaged as the machine gun bullets had not only exploded the incendiaries, leaving a large hole in the fuselage floor but numerous bullets had penetrated the starboard engine petrol tank and damaged the intercom.  The rear gunner had been hit in the legs during the attack and also received facial burns.  Hearing over the inter-com that his comrade had been wounded, Flight Sergeant Dove got down from his position and fought through the flames and made his way to the rear turret.  Despite his own injuries and the inferno behind him he succeeded in extricating the rear-gunner from his turret and treated his injuries.  For his actions Dove received the Distinguished Flying Medal.

 

In the meantime, Pilot Officer Moffatt, the bomb aimer, had misheard the pilot’s instructions and baled out by parachute rather than the actual orders which were to prepare to evacuate the plane.  Seconds later the port engine caught fire and the pilot put the aircraft into a steep dive to extinguish the flames, levelling out at 800 feet above the Italian countryside.  With the rear gunner being wounded, abandoning the Lancaster was now out of the question so the pilot decided to try and make a forced landing somewhere.   Fortunately Sergeant Williams, with the help of the others, succeeded in putting out the fuselage fire, and as the pilot had blown out the other engine fire, he decided to try and get the aircraft and themselves home rather than making an emergency landing.

 

The pilot, Sergeant Ivan Hazard, managed to haul the crippled bomber up to 15,500 feet to cross the Alps, but then further problems arose with the starboard outer engine and he was forced to lose altitude and steer through the peaks rather than fly over them.  Navigator Williams did not receive any wireless aid until he reached the English Channel and for a period of over five hours he navigated solely by astro readings.  So as not to violate Swiss territory, he deliberately navigated around the neutral country and for his incredible skill he was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.  Only 112 airmen were awarded this decoration in World War 2.

 

Sergeant Hazard managed to safely land the stricken bomber at Tangmere Airfield, Sussex, in spite of having no hydraulics.  A report on their Lancaster by the A. V. Roe Company stated, “It was the severest fire damage ever seen to one of our aircraft, and the ‘Skipper’ had to be praised on his skill in getting it back”.

 

On returning to the RAF after special leave, Sergeant Hazard was assigned a new bomber and on 20th March 1943, he took it up on a test flight.  He made a low pass over Hornsea beach, but on pulling up at the end of his run, the tail wheel struck a concrete pill-box on the beach.  The impact caused the Lancaster to break up.  The forward section crashed into the cliffs and blew up while the tail section fell on the beach below.  There were ten men aboard including Sergeant William Ernest Williams and all were killed instantly.  He was buried on the Great Orme in Llandudno with full military honours.  His Commanding Officer described him “as a gallant gentleman”.

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Ogwen Valley War Memorial, Bethesda.

27 Feb

Ogwen Valley War Memorial, Bethesda.

Y Rhyfel Mawr 1914-1918. Cofarwydd o edmygedd trigolion Dyffryn Ogwen o aberth y gwŷr dewr hyn o’r ardal a gwympodd dros eu gwlad.

The Great War 1914-1918. A token remembering the admiration of Dyffryn Ogwen’s residents for the sacrifices of these brave men from the area who fell in the service of their country.

Avro Anson Memorial

15 Feb

This morning a memorial service was held in Llandudno Junction for five airmen who died when their RAF Avro Anson crashed near Marl Farm exactly 70 years earlier. 
The airmen, three from Britain and one each from Poland and New Zealand, were en route to a base near Richmond in North Yorkshire from Mona Airfield, Anglesey – when the plane got in to difficulty over Llandudno. 
In the grounds of Llandudno Junction Community Centre a memorial garden has been created; a plaque commissioned and a silver birch tree planted for each of the airmen. Credit to Gwyn Hughes of the Deganwy History Group for researching the circumstances of the crash and instigating the memorial.

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French Badge?

8 Feb

French Badge?

Picked up this badge in New Zealand a few years ago for a few dollars. Would love to be able to find out a bit more about it. Wondering if it might be French as it has the Cross of Lorraine in the centre which was the symbol used by the Free French forces during the Second World War. The ‘FL’ could stand for Francais Libres and then there is the date!

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Snowdonia Pillbox

5 Feb

Snowdonia Pillbox

Close to the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel in Snowdonia are four pillboxes built during the Second World War as part of Western Command Stop Line No. 23 that ran from Porthmadog to Bangor via Beddgelert and Capel Curig.