The U Boat Campaign Off Pembrokeshire

By Simon Hancock U-112 tied up at Milford Haven in December 1918

The U-Boat Campaign off Pembrokeshire during the First World War

The Pembrokeshire coastline, with its glorious sandy beaches and rugged cliffs, are justly world famous and a huge attraction for tourists. And yet a century ago, despite their beauty the coast was a place of greater than usual danger on account of the First World War which was still raging. Pembrokeshire was hundreds of miles away from the mud of the Western Front and yet it did border a war zone. St. George’s Channel and the Irish Sea, the vital crossing between Wales and Ireland, together with the south-western approaches was a war zone where U-boats preyed on merchant shipping and hundreds of sailors lost their lives. 2018 is the centenary when the ‘War to end all Wars’ finally came to an end and for Wales it is also the Year of the Sea. It is therefore timely to remember the U-boat campaign off Pembrokeshire which affected all coastal communities.

Royal Navy patrol boats tied up at Neyland

Royal Navy patrol boats tied up at Neyland. These vessels were on constant look out for the dreaded U-boats.

The threat from enemy action was real enough although some of the threat posed was psychological. The residents of the village of Llanycaer turned out with pitchforks, sticks and iron bars in August 1914 thinking how loud explosions were sounds of a German invasion near Fishguard. Thankfully they were nothing more than a local farmer blasting boulders from his field. Nevertheless attacks on the east coast of England like the shelling of East Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby on 16 December 1914 caused real concern in Pembrokeshire, especially at places like Tenby which was described at the time as an ‘unprotected and unfortified town.’

Following Britain’s naval blockade of German ports in 1914, preventing the importation of food and raw materials the Germans responded by unleashing their U-boats against British, Allied and during two periods, neutral shipping. The waters around Britain were declared a war zone. At first the impact was very limited since there were only 27 operational U-boats over a vast geographical area. Six months after the war began there were sightings of these craft off the Pembrokeshire coast. In March 1915, a U-boat was seen off Strumble Head and later that month the Red Cross vessel St. Andrew, which was formerly a steamer on the Fishguard to Rosslare route, was apparently pursed by a U-boat but the ship managed to outpace her attacker.

Milford Haven I'm 1915

The harbour of Milford Haven with ships of the Royal Navy at anchor. The port saw the reception of many merchant ships bringing vital food and raw materials to Britain during the war and was an obvious target for the U-boat campaign from 1915.

The first real shock came with the torpedoing of the RMS Falaba on 28 March 1915 by U-28 some 60 miles south west of St. Anne’s Head. There were 104 fatalities including one American citizen and there was a diplomatic incident as a result. The survivors were landed at Milford Haven. The following day the SS Aguila shared the same fate 50 miles off the Smalls. A number of the survivors were landed at Fishguard. The sight of survivors landing at Pembrokeshire ports, the wreckage of ships and parts of their cargoes washed up on local beaches gave local civilians direct contact with the awful events of the war. Mines sown off the Pembrokeshire coast were also deadly for shipping. It is estimated how over 160 mines were laid by German submarines off the south and west coast of Wales which claimed a number of victims. This was a fearful time for shipping, especially the sinking of the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland on 7 May 1915 with a fearful loss of life and which almost brought the United States into the war.  Described at the time as the ‘Greatest Sea Crime in History,’ some of the survivors were landed locally whilst a stick of deckchairs from the ill-fated vessel were washed up on the west Wales coast.

A number of British and neutral vessels fell victim to U-boats in 1915 before effective counter measures were employed. The victims of torpedoes and shells from the lurking menace included ships like La Libertie, Indrani, Trudvang, Victoria, Bellglade, Voltaire and the Olivia. As their names suggest many were from neutral countries. More ships were lost in 1916, but 1917 was the worst year for the loss of British shipping.  A system of ‘coast watching’ was set up whereby retired mariners would keep a good look out to sea for signs of periscopes and other suspicious activity. Each was given an official armband to prove they were on official business.

Milford Haven Defensible Barracks

The Royal Navy barracks at Milford Haven where HMS Idahoan important naval base to fight the U-boats was established in 1915.

A Royal Navy base which was designated HMS Idaho was established at Milford Haven commanded by Admiral Dare and which consisted of patrol boats, armed trawlers, minesweepers and armed yachts. Their fight against the U-boats was extremely dangerous with 91 men from the base being killed on active service either due to enemy action or storms. Another weapon used to combat the U-boats was the use of British airships. In 1916 the Government purchased 228 acres at Milton near Carew and established a Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) base where airships would fly along the coast and across the Irish Sea in an attempt to identify the location of enemy submarines. A RNAS seaplane base was also established at Fishguard Harbour in 1917 from where contact, routine and emergency patrols were mounted. In one week in March 1918 aircraft mounted thirteen patrols covering 1,418 miles.

During the war Pembrokeshire coastal villages were concerned about the enemy who was sometimes just offshore. Even the Abbot of Caldey Island repeated the rumours of a U-boat which was supposedly anchoring off the island to take on water. It was a groundless rumour but one which was nonetheless believed. Perhaps the worst local connection with the war at sea was the sinking of the Japanese liner the SS Hirano Maru which was torpedoed off the Irish coast on 4 October 1918. The death toll amounted to 292 passengers and crew and during the following month no fewer than 24 of the victims were washed up on the beaches of Pembrokeshire including Dale, Angle and Freshwater East.  This was a terrible harvest of the seas.

Japanese liner Hirano Maru

The Japanese liner Hirano Maru which was torpedoed on 4 October 1918 with great loss of life. The bodies off two dozen victims were subsequently washed up n Pembrokeshire beaches over the following month.

With the end of the war on 11 November 1918 the danger to coastal communities largely disappeared as the German U-boat fleet was surrendered to the Allies. In December 1918 U-112 entered Milford Docks and put on public display. For the price of sixpence visitors could look around the vessel and see the kind of weapon which had almost brought Britain to her knees in 1917. Memories of the First World War at sea lingered on in Pembrokeshire for many years afterwards. In 1925 one visitor to the village of Marloes reported how almost every cottage and house had some kind of memento of the war, picked up on beaches. At this, the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War we should remember how the U-boats brought the war very close to home and of how they were defeated by the bravery of British sailors and airmen.

U-112 tied up at Milford Haven in December 1918

U-112 tied up at Milford Haven in December 1918 and a sign of the victory over the German submarine menace.

Categories:History, Pembrokeshire, Beaches


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