Tag Archives: First World War

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.

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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.

The Kinmel Park Mutiny

20 Jun

The beautiful ‘marble’ church of St Margaret’s in Bodelwyddan is one of the most prominent landmarks on the A55 trunk road that crosses North Wales.  Every day thousands of motorists speed past unaware of the 117 Commonwealth War Graves that are situated in the immaculately kept churchyard.  Arranged in neat rows are the white Portland stone headstones of the 83 Canadian soldiers who died at the nearby Kinmel Park Camp.

Kinmel Park Camp was built in 1914 as a training camp for newly enlisted soldiers in preparation for active service in the First World War.  At that time it was the largest camp in Wales and even had its own branch railway line connecting it to the main line at Foryd Station in Rhyl.  Practice trenches were dug in order to try and prepare troops for the battles that lay ahead.  Some of these are still visible in the grounds of nearby Bodelwyddan Castle.

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At the end of the First World War Kinmel Park was used as a transit camp for Canadian servicemen and women as they waited to be repatriated back to their homeland after their service to the British Empire.  Tragically the global Spanish flu pandemic of 1918/19 swept through the camp and dozens of men succumbed to the illness and were buried at nearby St Margaret’s Church.

However four of the graves belong to soldiers who are believed to have died during mutinous riots at the camp in March 1919 when servicemen, dissatisfied by delays in demobilisation and other grievances, expressed their feelings through protest.  Originally senior officers had intended to send the Canadians home directly from France but many of these men had relatives in the United Kingdom that they wanted to visit and so transit camps were established across Britain in order to facilitate this desire.

The riots are understood to have occurred when the Canadian soldiers became angry when they discovered ships earmarked to return them home were instead transferring US soldiers, many of whom had apparently not seen action in the war, back to their homeland instead.  This caused understandable resentment and coupled with the very basic conditions in camp where food was in short supply and they were sleeping 42 to a hut in accommodation designed for no more than 30 it was understandable that tension built.

In the early hours of March 5th 1919 their discontent finally spilled over into direct action.  Fires were started and the officers’ and sergeants’ messes were looted.  The rioters had a few rifles but, in the main, they had to improvise weapons, strapping razors to broom handles or sticks.  When 20 of the rioters were seized the rest simply charged the guardroom and set them free.  Rifle shots were exchanged and, when casualty figures were later added up, it transpired that three mutineers and two guards had been killed in the affair.  Many others had been wounded or injured.  Four of them were buried at St Margaret’s while the fifths body was repatriated to Canada.  One soldier’s gravestone bears the inscription “Someday, sometime, we’ll understand.”

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Following the riots priority was given to repatriating the Canadian troops.  The affair was, as far as possible hushed up and by the end of March 1919 thousands of Canadians had been transported home.