Welsh clouds have hard centres.

“Welsh clouds have hard centres” is a quote by an unknown flying instructor to an unknown trainee fighter pilot during World War 2. When you look at the number of aircraft crash sites from WW2 and since, it’s clearly good advice.

I’ve written before about the sites I’ve visited around the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountain. All of them are situated in bleak, lonely places usually on high ground and inevitably on slopes steep or slight.  Some of these crews were new, completing their operational training on the type of aircraft they would fly into battle. Others were re-training, having survived a tour of operations over enemy territory. A few were returning from operations and got lost in bad weather, or succumbed to battle damage.

Yesterday, I decided to visit a new site for me. Vickers Wellington MF509 was on a training flight from RAF Stratford  on 20 November 1944. The crew of 6 Canadians were carrying out a night navigation exercise when a fault developed with one of the engines. The plane began to descend over the Black Mountain and hit the ground on the western slope of Carreg Goch, a couple of miles west of Craig y Nos. Sadly, the crew were all killed on impact. The engines were salvaged but the rest of the wreckage was left in situ.

I had read about this site several years ago and had always planned on visiting. But the site was in the middle of a difficult limestone landscape and not on any route that I regularly took during training for treks. So I never got round to making the trip.

The initial climb from the main road was short and steep but I quickly gained height and left the trees and farmland behind. I passed a limestone quarry and finally reached the first over many limestone pavements overlooking Glyntawe and Craig y Nos. Now the fun started as I tried to find the best route to the crash site. The main path from here would take me north of where I wanted to go so I decided on some cross country walking, taking a more direct but much less obvious route. I took advantage of sheep trails and open rock to climb quickly onto Castell y Geifr.

This area is full of sink holes and is frequently used by pot-holers exploring the vast cave system of which Dan yr Ogof is a part. I passed several deep holes lined with scaffolding poles and blocked for safety reasons. The going underfoot was tough, with broken limestone hidden just beneath the surface of heather and grass threatening to turn and ankle. I took advantage of exposed flat limestone slabs to make better progress but this meant my route twisted and turned and I had to stop frequently to check the map for progress and to keep heading n the right direction.

As I headed west, off to my right was a large area of peat bog known as Waun Fignen Felen. In prehistoric times, this was a shallow lake surrounded by trees which slowly silted up, providing a habitat for wildlife. 8000 years ago, the climate was warmer and upland areas of Wales were more habitable than now. Traces of human habitation from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze ages have been found on the margins of the bog, in the form of flint tools and flakes and a small drilled stone bead. Ancient people hunted here, and stayed in the area while the hunting was good.

I continued on, following a particularly sinuous sheep track through thick purple heather and onto the top of Carreg Goch. Slightly sloping slabs of limestone made the final few yards much easier and from the description of the crash site, I expected to find the wreckage on the reverse side. But it wasn’t there. I checked the map and decided that I was a little too north of the co-ordinates and turned south. There was no path, just lots of broken and weathered rocks ready to trip me up. I scrambled and wobbled from rock to rock until I reached a little stream bed, now dried up. I followed that for a while and climbed up onto a rock slab to see where I was. There, on the western slope, was a great pile of silver-grey metal and beside it flew a Canadian flag.

The Vickers Wellington bomber was designed by Barnes Wallace, the genius behind the Dambusters bouncing bomb. In the early years of the war, aluminium to make aeroplanes was scarce and Wallace produced a two engined bomber with a metal frame covered in fabric to minimise the use of aluminium. The airframe had a distinctive geodesic form, a series of struts and bars forming triangles. It was very strong and proved capable of taking a lot of damage without losing its structural strength.

At the crash site, a large amount of the wreckage had been gathered into one place. The largest piece was instantly recognisable as a part of the inner wing. A lot of the metal had been burnt in the fire that followed the crash and had melted out of shape but the wing retained it’s distinctive form. I could see the undercarriage legs and a couple of pieces of armour plating, which had rusted to a deep orange. Down the slope, what appeared to be a long section of part of the fuselage lay in the rocks and around about, other parts of the plane were scattered.

There were a few others at the site when I got there. I got talking to one who said he’d first come to the site 35 years ago and he remembered a large wheel, complete with tyre, lying just down the hill. We went a little way down to see if we could find it. All we saw were more scattered fragments and a short section of metal tubing which could have been from the landing gear. I knew the engines had been removed by the RAF shortly after the crash.

After the others had gone, I spent a few minutes taking in the atmosphere. It was a lovely summers day but I know what these hills can be like on cold, wet and misty winters morning. This crash happened at night it terrible conditions for flying. The crew probably never knew what happened.

I love being in the hills. I love the sense of open space, the remoteness and the spectacular beauty all around. But little parts of our countryside hold sad secrets that clash with this beauty.

The crew:

  • Sgt C. Hamel
  • Sgt J.R.R. Villeneuve
  • F/O W.J. Allison
  • Sgt J.P.E. Burke
  • Sgt J.A.E. Groulx
  • Sgt J.L.U. Du Sablon

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

Forward to the past

Apologies for the rather forced title. Indulge me.

Yesterday Rufus and I went wandering over Tor Clawdd, a hill near the Upper Lliw reservoir and Bryn Llefrith plantation. Both have featured heavily in this blog before and they are a favourite destination in reasonably good weather. During our walk we came across an odd concrete structure on a dike that followed the top of Tor Clawdd. The bank and ditch is listed as a defensive work in the archives and is likely to have been some form of control over those proceeding south to the coast. Whatever it was, it was subsequently used as a convenient starting point for a number of adits, or small horizontal pits, used to mine coal. In this case, the Graigola seam. An aerial photos shows the extent of the pits, which line the northern edges of the hill. On the ground they are weathered and worn but clear and make for annoying walking as the sides are steep.

Today we went back because I wanted to investigate in more detail the adits and two concrete structures; one I’d come across yesterday and the other I’d seen on an aerial photograph. We set off to walk along the dike, climbing steeply for a few metres from the road. When the dike was built, this road didn’t exist and the route would have been further to the west. The old track is still visible in photos and faintly in person. We quickly reached the first little brick shelter. It had a concrete roof which had shown up on the photos and was a single room, about 3m by 3m with a smaller outbuilding which looked like it was for storage. There were no markings inside but I noticed the interior had been plastered, and there was a single abandoned bird nest, delicately attached to the ceiling.

Not far beyond was the concrete base I’d seen yesterday. It looked like a mounting point for an engine, possibly used to raise and lower wagons ontop the road below. There were mounting bolts still in place and it was aligned to a track that led down to the modern road. I haven’t been able to find any information about that part of the mining operation. We walked around the northern edge of the hill and then south, following the edge of the hill before it dropped down to Bryn Llefrith and the reservoir. It was a lovely morning and although a cold wind blew from the north, we were soon sheltered from it and the sun was allowed to warm us up.

We walked down as far as the firing butts and I spent a few minutes picking up more bullets and broken glass until Rufus let it be known that he was bored and wanted to walk on. In addition to some fine examples of .30 calibre bullets, which would have been fired from American rifles and machine guns, I found three .45 calibre bullets which are pistol rounds, sometimes used in sub machine guns of the day.

I followed Rufus as he headed back to the hill and the dike. By now the sky was blue and the sun was warm and it was just pleasant walking. We strolled and bounded and dodged hidden mud pools until we reached the undulating line of spoil from the coal mines. Looking down to the reservoir, the water was blue and it felt like summer.

The next thing I wanted to visit was a ring cairn, which I read about when researching the dike and which was supposed to be along side the old track running parallel to the earthwork. The cairn has not been dated and it is not clear if it is contemporary with the dike. It has been suggested that it is the remains of a shelter for those guarding the dike, or perhaps a temporary cattle pound. RCHM records suggest holes for stones, which would make it more of a ring cairn or even a henge.

We spent about 20 minutes wandering about. Rufus enjoyed the chance to explore new ground and I was eventually rewarded when I found the faint outline of the ditch, inside which was the low earth bank. This was no Stonehenge but it was clearly a ring and must have had some significance for those who built it. An undertaking like this was no light matter when most of the time was spent tending to livestock and crops. On this exposed high ground next to a thoroughfare it would have been highly visible and a landmark to those who lived nearby.

To Rufus’ relief, I quickly took the photos I wanted and we set off back towards the car. As we reached the layby, I watched as three model aeroplanes soared from the eastern slopes of Tor Clawdd. But it was time for us to head home for coffee and snacks.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bog and bullet

World War 2 wasn’t just about the famous battles. Troops were away from their loved ones for months and years, often in hostile places but always thinking of home. I’ve written before of the aircraft crash sites I’ve visited, all remote and lonely places. These crashes took place during training exercises and it’s important to remember that during war, its not just in the fighting that servicemen risk their lives.

Around the UK there are many places that are associated with military training. But during the build up to D-Day in 1944, allied troops of many nationalities were training and preparing all over the country. Swansea played host to American soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division. My mum remembered them driving Jeeps along the roads of Swansea and making tyre screeching turns at speed. Their transport ships were anchored in Swansea Bay and vehicles were parked along roads and under the cover of trees across the area.

In the months leading up to the invasion, these soldiers were training constantly to prepare themselves for the ‘Day of Days’. On Cefn Bryn, practice trenches can be found on the ridge and there is at least one bunker, now derelict, near Broadpool. For years I’ve suspected but never known for sure that it was a military relic – it’s in the wrong place to be defensive as it can easily be outflanked. But I recently found out that it was a command centre, and probably played a role in assault training.

The wonderful beaches of south and west Gower were used to practice beach assaults. The Loughor Estuary became an artillery range; the firing points are still visible as concrete shells of buildings near Penclawdd and the target area, not far from Whiteford, is marked by an observation post built on stilts near Woebley Castle.

To the north of Morriston is Mynydd y Gwair and a place Rufus and I visit often. Opposite is Tor Clawdd and the site of the home and research facility of Harry Grindell Matthews, known as ‘Death Ray’ Matthews after his work during the early part of the war on a weapon to stop engines and explode bombs at a distance. He built this isolated retreat, complete with a small airstrip, to work on his secret projects (which also included an aerial torpedo, a means of turning light into sound and a means to synchronise sound and film). Unfortunately he died in 1941, before any of these inventions could be perfected.

In 1944, Tor Clawdd was taken over by the officers of the 2nd Infantry Division and the troops were camped on the surrounding hills. One of the training exercises they carried out was to try and simulate real battle conditions. This they did by firing live rounds at an earth bank while the soldiers crawled along a trench in front of the bank or behind the bank. The remains of this exercise is still visible opposite Tor Clawdd and this morning Rufus and I took a look.

Once you know what you’re looking for, the earth bank is very noticeable, although just glancing at it might lead you to think it’s a drainage feature. As we walked towards it, we passed a single conical mound followed closely by six more, lined up parallel with the bank. The mounds were the positions of the machine guns used to fire on the bank. Then came a deep ditch and some 30 yards from this was the bank.  Between the ditch and bank were several shallow depressions in the ground and I had read that these were the result of explosions set off as part of the training. We wandered along the bank, heading north until it came to an end. Great sections of it were weathered and worn by the passage of sheep and cattle but it still stood a metre or so high.

Then I started to notice the bullets. The first one I saw was long and grey and could have been mistaken for a stone half buried in the mud. But I knew what I was looking for and within 10 minutes I’d picked up 19 bullets and fragments just lying on the surface. I also picked up three large pieces of sharp glass, souvenirs of a later period of history.

I have no idea what it must have been like to undergo this kind of training, but I guess if it helped to save their lives later on, then it was worth it. Research I did into this site suggested that some of the soldiers were killed when a section of the bank collapsed on them during an exercise.

The troops of the 2nd Infantry Division landed at Omaha beach in Normandy on June 8, two days after D-Day, and went on to see action in France, Belguim, Holland and Germany. The division is currently stationed in South Korea.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

Tudor Walls and a Sheep Rescue

In the true tradition of all good stories, I’ll keep you guessing about the title until the end.

Time for a nice long walk today – the weather forecast was looking good and I’d had an idea to drive down to Angle in Pembrokeshire to walk part of the coastal path there. I’ve been there before, but a number of years ago, and I remember it as a beautiful part of the coast. So off we went in the car and just over 90 minutes later, we were parking in the sunny, hot car park of Angle Bay.

It’s been a while since I’ve strapped a back pack on so it felt a little odd. Then I draped the more familiar camera bag and water bottle over me and we were ready to go. Rufus was characteristically unencumbered – something we’ve discussed before and something he’s always successfully argued against. Although there was a strong wind, the sun was out and it was much warmer than I expected. As we left the beach and entered a sheltered field, the wind died down and it became more like a summer’s day. I’m always careful to watch Rufus as he heats up quickly. Today was no exception and I made sure he drank as often as possible.

Rufus is a fussy drinker; when he feels like it, he will drink and drink. But if the slightest scent, aroma, movement or other distraction occurs, it immediately assumes the priority. Today he drank sensibly.

At the top of the field, we were on the cliffs and plenty of signs warned of the crumbling, eroded nature of the rocks. This area was a significant part of the military defences of Milford Haven, a natural deep water harbour and we soon saw the first sign this. Below us on the slope was the remains of a searchlight emplacement. There were gun batteries, observation posts and searchlight houses all along this part of the coast, and on the opposite coast around a mile away. Milford Haven was heavily defended.

The next ruin took us back to Tudor times. In 1539, Henry VIII had a number of block houses built around the coast to protect the strategic ports against attack by the French or Spanish (or both). Here, the remains of a watch tower belonging to his Eastern Block House stands on the edge of the cliff. It won’t last much longer as coastal erosion undercuts it. It was reused during WW1 and WW2 as an observation point, as the brick repaired wall shows. Opposite this post lies Mill Bay, where Henry Tudor landed with a force of French mercenaries in 1485. A couple of weeks later, he had gathered about him an army of men loyal to his cause from Pembrokeshire and beyond, and had met and defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. He became King Henry VII.

We wandered on, passing the WW1&2 gun emplacements for now and walking along the beautiful Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Swallows swooped and dived above us and gulls hung stationary in updrafts. The sea was a Mediterranean turquoise, breaking against the cliffs with bright white waves. The gorse was in bloom – a carpet of yellow flowers that we walked alongside (neither of us like their needles). We stopped for a drink and a snack at a smaller gun emplacement standing alone, and then dropped down into a gully carved by a small stream and no doubt helped by the endless battering of the sea.

Up on the other side we surprised some sheep, who were content to stare while chewing on their grass as we went by. A little further round the corner, Rufus caught a scent and led me off the path to the cliff edge. As we were so close and the cliffs were dodgy, I had him on the lead. I’m glad I did, because he was staring at the two ears of a small rabbit hiding in a hollow right on the edge of the cliff. Had he been able, Rufus would have run over and I don’t know what state that part of the cliff was in. I raised my camera and zoomed in to the rabbit – which wasn’t a rabbit at all, but a fox cub. I took a few photos and dragged Rufus away so that we didn’t disturb it more than we already had.

A stile stopped us and we turned back. We passed the fox hole but there was no sign of it. Neither were the sheep we’d encountered earlier, but at the top of the gully we saw the last of them trying to get through a wire fence. Unfortunately, it’s curved horn had got caught in the wire and it was struggling to escape. I could see it wouldn’t succeed, and it was beginning to panic with us being there. So I tied Rufus up to a fence post out of sight and went to try and help. The sheep was trying to get away from me and in doing so, tightening the wire. Luckily it wasn’t barbed otherwise there would have been a nasty injury. But I couldn’t leave it there as the horn was curved right around and the wire was well inside the curve.

In order to get enough slack on the wire, the sheep had to move back towards me but it wouldn’t. I accidentally poked it and it rolled towards me. So I poked it again, rather like tickling someone in the ribs, and it squirmed enough that the wire went slack enough and I managed to pull it over the horn. One happy sheep trotted off to it’s sisters and within second had forgotten all about it’s ordeal. I trotted back to Rufus who was working hard to pull the fence post I’d tied him to over.

At the lone gun emplacement, we stopped and had lunch. Rufus was surprised when I produced a bowl of his favourite crunchy food but he didn’t let that stop him devouring the lot. It was nice in the sun and while I sat and enjoyed the view, Rufus walked around the concrete wall of the circular gun pit. He was very happy to have a path all to himself. We took a couple of selfies and headed on to the main coastal gun battery. This was built in the early 20th Century and in it’s history had big guns (9.2″) and small guns (6pdr) and everything in between. By WW1 it was falling out of favour and the big guns were moved elsewhere. Smaller guns were brought in but the site was mainly used for training. Similarly in WW2 the guns were transported to a site near Penarth and the battery was used for training. It was finally decommissioned in 1945, when all the weapons were removed. Strangely, the ammunition wasn’t removed for another three years.

The last leg of the walk was back across two open fields and down to the beach car park. We were buzzed by swallows again and on the opposite side of the beach, a group of students were studying the geology of the bay. Had the tide not been so far out, I would have taken Rufus for a paddle. Instead, he had a long drink and we set off for home.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.