Tag Archives: Second World War

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.

“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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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.

Gibson Girl Box Kite

2 Feb

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Been busy adding new exhibits to the museum this week, one item is this Gibson Girl kite.  During the Second World War, British bombers of the Royal Air Force were equipped with survival equipment to aid the recovery of the crew if they ended up in the sea.  One of the items was a hand cranked radio and in order to optimise the signal this kite was issued to get the aerial into the air.  It folded down into a pouch, was lightweight and bright yellow in colour.

Amongst the air crew of Bomber Command it became known as the ‘Gibson Girl’ because of its shape.  American aircrew had been issued with these box kites earlier in the war and it was probably they who coined the phrase ‘Gibson Girl’.  Charles Gibson was an American illustrator in the early twentieth century and drew what he saw as the “ideal of an American beauty” –a lady with an hour glass figure.