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Taking a look back


During World War II the Great Western Railway Magazine deliberately published nothing that would be of use to the enemy. As a result real news was often omitted or otherwise reported in such a way as to boost moral. A report detailing the loss of the Channel Islands and the resultant death of three G.W.R staff during the military withdrawal was treated in quite an up-beat way, for example, by focusing on the heroism of the staff.


By September 1945, when the war in Europe was won, and Japan had just surrendered, it was possible to report matters without fear of the censor's blue pencil once again. This issue carried comment on VJ day as follows "The ... joy was, in fact, tempered by the intrusion of certain graver considerations which recent events had inspired. There was speculation and more than a little misgiving, prompted by the awe-inspiring colourings which heralded the dawn of the atomic age. Newly initiated into the knowledge that so fateful a power had come into the hands of man, the wide world has talked and written both much wisdom and not a little folly, in its desire to pierce the future and safeguard itself from total destruction."


Slightly flowery language, perhaps, but even G.W.R was considering the threat which still hangs heavily over us today. Elsewhere in the magazine under the heading "The Battle of the Western Ports" was a lengthy report on the South Wales docks and their great importance during hostilities.


The merchant fleets of the Great Western ports played a mighty part in our salvation. No single account of the achievements of the Docks Department can give more than a glimpse of the whole astonishing history.


The part which the Company's principal ports were to play lay in their location on the country's western seaboard, relatively remote from the enemy's home bases and from most of the additional continental coastline of which he had gained command.


While the first war cloud was still a wisp in the sky the Company was planning how best to step up its port efficiency to deal with the possible crisis. As each new facility was provided it seemed to come in the nick of time to meet some new requirement.


Miles of additional sidings were laid in the vicinity of the docks. Over fifty new quayside cranes, built at Swindon works were installed and seven new fifty ton floating cranes were constructed to the company's design, in local dry docks for the Ministry of War Transport. New transit sheds were built. Additional tugboats put into service and countless other facilities added to balance the efficiency of each vital part.


In peacetime the greatest bulk tonnage handled by the ports was coal being shipped out, though all other types of general merchandise were handled. By 1944, 3,500,000 tons of merchandise inwards and outwards was handled by the ports, nearly six times that of pre war years.


The South Wales ports were an early target for enemy bombers. The first raid was on 20th June 1940 at Cardiff. A week later both Swansea and Cardiff were attacked and on 9th July, Cardiff had its first daytime raid, when a bomb fell into the hold of a discharging vessel killing several men and injuring others. Dock Porter J. N. Anderson led the descent into the burning hold to attend to the injured men. He was awarded the British Empire Medal, as were other staff involved in the many raids at Swansea, Newport, Barry and Port Talbot during 1940 and 1941. The year 1942 brought a long respite from raids, but Swansea suffered again in February 1943 and Cardiff in May.


Provision of adequate labour became an increasingly acute problem as the war progressed so it was eventually necessary to augment the dock staff with bodies of troops. It was quite a regular thing to see hundreds of British and American soldiers engaged each day on import and export traffic.


In 1944 the South Wales Docks provided vital facilities in connection with the liberation of Europe. Early in the year there had been a steady increase in the flow of materials from America in preparation for D-day. Then came the vast pre-invasion loading programme, with an armada of 158 vessels taking on board 90,000 tons of stores of every kind and 42,000 troops. The ports then settled down to long and sustained supply of the battle front. By VE day a further 753 ships carrying 1,400,000 tons had been dispatched all in a period of eleven months.


Plymouth also has its chapter to add to the history. In the city itself, the Company's dock installations suffered severely from air raids, especially in two successive nights in March 1941 and a three night ordeal the following month. Practically all the premises in the Company's Millbay Docks area were destroyed, but even so the port managed to handle 185,000 tons of imports and exports that year. This figure rose towards the end of the war. After D-day Plymouth took a share in the provision of supplies for the liberating armies and in May 1945 sent its own armada, this time to liberate the Channel Islands.


The earlier Great Western Magazine's up-beat report on the fall of the Channel Islands had concluded that one day the Union Jack would again fly over the islands. This optimism turned out to be justified, as the German garrison surrendered to the commander of the Plymouth expedition – thus "our dear Channel Islands were liberated peaceably instead of by force of arms."



Mick Yarker. October 2008

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