A Memoir of the Llanelli Area during the War Years
It is now over 70 years since the outbreak of World War II and many people of my acquaintance are unaware of some of the events which took place locally during that period. In an attempt to remedy this, the following are some personal recollections of those years, supplemented with various published information.
When war was officially declared in September 1939, some preparations had already taken place. Gas masks had been distributed throughout the area and public meetings were held around the town to give instructions regarding their use. The importance of black-out blinds during the hours of darkness was also impressed upon householders. Identity cards, clothing coupons and ration books to ensure the fair distribution of food were also to become part of everyday life.
In June 1940, over a thousand London schoolchildren arrived at Llanelli Station with their supervisors, clutching their gas masks and ration books. The reality of war had arrived in Llanelli. The evacuees were billeted with foster parents throughout the area and attended various schools or suitable available buildings so that they could continue their education. Amongst them were about 300 girls from the Mary Datchelor School in Camberwell and the crypt of St. Albans Church became their headquarters.
When daylight raids took place, schoolchildren were dispersed from their schools and allocated to surrounding homes for safety, the most popular place to hide during raids being underneath the table or beneath the stairs! On a number of occasions when an air raid siren sounded, our family and some neighbours sought safety in my grandparents' Anderson shelter, where the conditions were very cramped and invariably cold! These domestic steel shelters housed around twelve people and were about six feet below ground level covered with a few feet of earth. Apparently, they were issued free to those with incomes below £250 a year.
The Ritz Ballroom, which had opened in 1934 and was located opposite People's Park in Waunlanyrafon, was requisitioned for army purposes from June 1940 until March 1943. The loss of this amenity was keenly felt by the young people of the town since the regular dances were an opportunity to meet and form friendships. Many marriages owed their existence to those happy times in the Ritz! Before this period, the venue had become one of the finest ballrooms in the country, with an excellent resident band. After 1943, its success continued and most of the top British bands appeared there. In recent times, the building was converted into a snooker hall owned by ex-world snooker champion Terry Griffiths.
In those days, we were fortunate to have six cinemas in the town, and three weekly newspapers: the Llanelli Star, the Guardian and the Mercury. How times have changed!
During August 1940, a public meeting was held in the Town Hall to approve the setting up of an appeal to the public to raise £5,000 for the purchase of a Spitfire aircraft. One month later, the target had been exceeded with money donated by business organisations, private individuals and even schoolchildren. In 1941, following the success of the Spitfire fund, Llanelli & District raised £300,000 to adopt a destroyer in Warship Week and later that year, £746,000 was raised for War Weapons Week. The town and its environs, in proportion to its size, had one of the best records in the country for war savings – a tribute to the patriotism and generosity of its inhabitants.
A number of local industrial organisations also contributed to the war effort. One of these was the Welsh Tinplate and Metal Stamping Company, previously called the Cambrian Works. During the war, the enamel holloware manufacturer switched part of its production to the manufacture of shell cases for the Government and at one period, the Company also produced around ten thousand enamel mugs a day for the armed forces. Today, the site has been transformed into a private housing development called The Mariners.
Another was the Glanmor Foundry, situated nearby. During the war years, reportedly with Government aid, the Company manufactured items including castings such as ships' anchors for the Admiralty, cast-steel bombs for the Air Ministry and various components for the Army. Today, the site is occupied by the residential housing development Llys Glan–y-Mor.
A third contributor was Neville's Foundry, initially situated in the Wern before re-locating to Machynys in 1956. The firm produced bomb casings and also steel fabrications for the Mulberry Harbour, a temporary harbour to offload cargo onto the beaches during the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Throughout the war, the Royal Ordnance Factory in Pembrey was vital to the war effort. The factory was situated on the isolated sand dunes of Pembrey Burrows and provided the ideal location for the manufacture of explosives(as it had done during the First World War). It was the country's largest producer of TNT at that time and in 1942 employed around 3000 personnel. It even had its own railway station – "Lando Halt". German aircraft dropped bombs near the main entrance during 1940 – reportedly one of the first Luftwaffe raids in Wales. There were some casualties on this occasion but, fortunately, no further attacks occurred. The factory continued making explosives after the war with a greatly reduced workforce and finally closed in 1965. The 500 acre site is now the location of the Pembrey Country Park.
RAF Pembrey played a key role during the war years. The airfield was primarily an Air Gunnery School using mainly Fairey Battle aircraft for target towing purposes and Boulton Paul Defiants for gunner training.
The base received its first operational aircraft in mid-June 1940 when Spitfires of 92 Squadron arrived following successful operations over Dunkirk. The squadron remained at Pembrey for three months carrying out routine convoy patrols before moving to Biggin Hill to take part in the Battle of Britain. A squadron of Hurricanes then arrived and remained for nine months carrying out patrols over the western sector of the British Isles. The base was also used for short term resting purposes for air crews. During February 1941, Polish airmen arrived when the "City of Warsaw" Hurricane Squadron was formed and they remained for five months. Sadly, a few of the airmen were killed and they are among 27 servicemen (mainly airmen) who are buried in the churchyard of St. Illtyd's Church, Pembrey.
In June 1942, a strange and fortuitous event took place when a German Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-3 landed at Pembrey by mistake. The pilot had just been in action over Devon and was making his way back to an airfield in France when he mistook the Bristol Channel for the English Channel and thought that Pembrey was a French airfield. His plane was the latest and most advanced Luftwaffe aircraft and the RAF were extremely interested to learn about its design and special capabilities! Within a very short time, the aircraft was on its way to Farnborough to be examined by aviation experts.
Today, Pembrey Airport is privately owned and offers military support(including re-fuelling) and also charter flights which are particularly popular with Irish racegoers attending the Ffos Las Racecourse.
Llanelli received a visit from the Luftwaffe on one occasion when bombs were dropped on the sand dunes adjacent to the North Dock. The explosion broke windows of houses in the Seaside area and the resulting fire lit the sky for miles around. My vivid memory of that evening is of walking with my mother along Queen Victoria Road in the direction of the fire in order to join other members of the family in my grandparents' Anderson shelter. The realisation that my father was one of the fire-fighters tackling the blaze was a frightening thought.
The location was in fact a camouflaged petrol dump containing a large quantity of fuel stored in metal cans beneath the dunes. The site of the bombing was a narrow peninsula of sand extending for half a mile from the dock to a small wooden lighthouse at the end of the breakwater. The Ordnance Survey map shown here demonstrates how, on 24th September 1940 [a], German intelligence had superimposed details of the dock area.
Many people who remember the events of that night seem to think that the bombs were dropped by pure chance. However, in view of the Germans' detailed knowledge of the area as indicated on the map, this seems to be highly unlikely. The most likely explanation is either that the bombers were aware of the dump and scored a direct hit or they were aiming for the docks and missed their target.
For a period during 1944, soldiers of the United States Army were based in Llanelli. They were part of the US Army's 2nd Infantry Division who were stationed in camps around the Swansea area within easy reach of Swansea Docks.
In Llanelli, they were billeted at a number of locations in the town, one of which was the old Pugh Brothers' warehouse in Princess Street. Their camp centre was the Peoples' Park where they could be seen playing baseball, and they apparently practised American style football in the Furnace area. The soldiers were a magnet for the local children as they were happy to distribute chewing gum!
At Peoples' Park, the main attraction for the locals were the DUKWs (generally known as Ducks) – these were six wheel drive amphibious vehicles used for transporting goods and troops over land and water. Llanelli beach was apparently used as a practice area for assault landings.
At the appointed time, the troops embarked at Swansea Docks, bound for Normandy. They landed on Omaha Beach following D. Day as part of the invasion, code named Operation Overlord.
When the War in Europe ended on May 8th, 1945, there were thousands of people gathered around the Town hall area. There was dancing in the Bullring, a circular car park situated opposite Tabernacle Chapel. Enthusiastic community singing took place and Thanksgiving services were held in a number of churches and chapels in the town. To be part of such a joyful celebration was an unforgettable experience.
When reflecting on this period, one becomes aware of the fact that the Llanelli area played an important part in the war effort. Hopefully, this memoir will be of interest to those who were unaware of the events which took place and also bring back memories to those who lived through these troubled times.
Notes and Citations
[a] Llanelly Mercury 14th June 1945 page 3 Column 4. The date of the actual bombing was 24th September 1940.