The bombing of the Pembroke Dock oil tanks

Wednesday 18 August 2010, 17:41

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

Seventy years ago this week, on 19 August 1940, three German Junkers bombers, escorted by two ME109 fighters, flew in over the Pembrokeshire coast and dropped their bombs onto the oil tanks high above the west Wales town of Pembroke Dock.

The tanks contained thousands of gallons of vitally important fuel oil and when one of the bombs hit its target it started a fire, the like of which had never been seen in Wales before.

A sheet of flame leapt into the air and the noise of the explosion echoed around the town.

Then a huge column of smoke began to billow out of the stricken tank and climb like the sword of Damocles into the sky. The smoke hung there, above the town and the desperate Civil Defence workers who fought to quell the blaze for the next 18 days.

The Pembroke Dock oil tank fire was the largest fire that Britain had seen since the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the resources to fight it were pitifully few.

Initially just one tank had been hit but despite the heroic efforts of Pembroke Dock fire chief Arthur Morris and his team of part-time firemen the flames soon began to spread from one tank to the next.

Hurried appeals were sent out to fire brigades all across the country, asking for men and fire fighting appliances.

Help came from all quarters, from Milford Haven and Narberth and from places as far afield as Swansea and Cardiff. But, at this early stage, nobody quite realised what was facing them. As one Cardiff fireman later said: "We'd got as far as St Clears when we noticed the cloud. We didn't realise what was going on until we got a bit further and by then, of course, we were right in the middle of it."

In the end 22 brigades were involved, over 500 men, from places as far away as Birmingham and Cardiff.

The blaze raged for 18 days and, eventually, 11 of the 18 tanks were destroyed, their valuable contents just burning, vanishing into the ether or running in a great black river down the road towards the town.

For a while there was a very real possibility that the fire would spread even further than the tank farm and citizens of Pembroke Dock lived in constant fear that the burning oil would set all of their houses alight.

Dozens of firemen were injured and overcome with exhaustion.

Tragically, five Cardiff firemen were killed when the wall of one burning tank just splintered or ruptured and a sea of burning oil engulfed them.

Their names are still remembered in Pembroke Dock - Frederick George Davies, Clifford Miles, Ivor John Kilby, Trevor Charles Morgan and John Frederick Thomas - and on a memorial at the site of the inferno.

Molten oil ran out of the tanks, coating the firemen who, in those days, had no specialised equipment or clothing. Sometimes it seemed as if it was raining oil. The men who fought the fire never forgot it:

"Oh, the flames, they were 30 or 40 feet up in the air and you wouldn't believe the width of them. And then the smoke. And oil dropping down. You couldn't go too close because it was so hot.

"What we were doing was cooling the unaffected tanks and the ones on fire. But as one tank seemed to empty another would catch fire."

When the fire was eventually extinguished controversy erupted. Arthur Morris, hero of the hour, a man who did not leave the scene of the blaze and had slept only in snatches - at the side of his Merryweather Fire Engine - for 18 days, was passed over in the awards so liberally given out to others - several of whom spent virtually no time at all at the scene of the disaster.

Arthur Morris was never a "yes man," always being regarded as a fireman's fireman. But if he had been critical of the operation then no one ever knew. He remained tight-lipped and took the secret - if secret there was - with him to his grave.

The Pembroke Dock fire was soon to be eclipsed by other fires in London, Coventry and Birmingham as the German bombing offensive gathered momentum.

However, that should never minimise the significance of the disaster and seventy years ago this week it was a real and terrifying ordeal, not just for the firemen involved but for the whole of the small community of Pembroke Dock.

At 11am on Thursday 19 August a service for veterans who fought the 1940 fire will be held at the South Pembrokeshire Golf Club with wreaths being laid at the memorial stone near the clubhouse.

The service is open to all and is being organised on behalf of the town's Sunderland Trust and Museum Trust, in conjunction with the Golf Club.

Read more on the Pembroke Dock Community Web Project.

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    Comment number 1.

    It says something for the accuracy of the Geman bombers that the town of Pembroke Dock, an important target, should have taken the awful hammering it did, while nearby towns went almost unscathed. My parents lived in Haverfordwest at that time (just ten miles from PD as the crow flies) and always talked of seeing those lurid red fires over the Dock in the night skies. But Haverfordwest was bombed only once, and then by accident, in the same year, when a German plane, getting away but losing height, decided to dump her cargo of bombs. Two landed in the town's City Road but amazingly, no-one was badly hurt. A Miss Price had that evening been entertaining friends and, as was the custom of the time, decided to "send" them - to walk part of the way home with them (it was 6 in the evening). Then came the first bomb, and Miss Price's house was a crater - she unharmed! The one casualty was a 14-year-old boy taken to hospital with an injured leg.

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    Comment number 2.

    As you know Phil, Llanreath, where my family was living at the start of the war was little more than a stone’s throw from where the oil tanks were. Your account reminded me of my mother’s recollections, not of this raid but the first raid which took place on July 10th 1940. “I was out the garden pegging out the washing when I heard this plane.” She told me. “I knew it was a Jerry plane – they made a different noise from ours – vroom…vroom…vroom…vroom. I rushed inside, picked up the baby and got my mother and we went to part of the house I thought safest. There was a tremendous crash as a bomb landed in the field at the back.”
    After this and before the raid when they hit the tanks, mother, with the baby – my elder brother, plus my eldest brother who was in primary school, and my grandmother, had ‘moved out the country.’ Grandfather stayed and was ARP in Llanreath for much of the war. In a subsequent raid, of a stick of 5 incendiary bombs, 3 landed in our garden and burned out and 2 went through the roof of the house but, fortunately, failed to ignite although they did bring down 2 of the upstairs ceilings. Grandfather proceeded to do a bit of DIY bomb disposal, went upstairs and carried the 2 unexploded incendiaries out into the garden, “in case they went off and set the place afire.”

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    Always remember my late Grandfather telling me that he was a part time fireman living in Ammanford at the time when the Germans bombed Pembroke Dock and he and his fellow part time firemen were sent down to Pembroke to fight the fires.
    He also spoke of how little sleep the firemen had at the time and how far afield they came from.
    He also spoke of how his clothes caught alight and had to be thrown into the water to save him from burning.

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    Comment number 4.

    I remember this horendous event as though it was yesterday as it made a great impression on a boy of seven years of age. The smoke from the fire blocked out the sun and the beaches throught the haven were coated in thick oil.
    Along with Arthur Morris (who I new myself as he was a great friend of my dads) my father Allan Ferguson Murray (player coach at Milford United) was with Arther Morris in the first fire tender to arrive at the scene of the bombing. The bomber itself (and I understood there was only one) was still in the area and machine gunned the tender as it arrived. The fire crew (all stationed at Pembroke dock Station) dived under the tender for cover and remained safe from the bullets. The pumping station used was based aboard the first ironclad ship The Warrior which was but a hulk at the time and beached just below the site of the oil tanks.
    I also remember three screeching bombs falling falling quite close to the underground oil tank near Milford Docks.
    As previously mentioned Arthur Morris and his fire crew received little or no praise for their bravery on that first day before support crews arrived but I do recall the Pembrokeshire fire chief getting a medal!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    Hi Allan. Opinion is divided re the number of German bombers. Some reports/records say there were three, others say just one. At this distance and with most of the men who were there already dead, I'm not sure there ever will be a definitive answer. The key for me is that the brave men who fought the blaze should be remembered - all of them. Incidentally, Arthur Morris was my uncle - and do you know something, he never complained about the lack of recognition or a medal. An amazing man.

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    Comment number 6.

    I don't think the tanks that were bombed and set afire were connected to the hulk of the Warrior. She served the tanks at Llanion which were never hit. The tanks that were bombed were connected to the Dockyard via a pipeline in a tunnel which ran under the Barrack Hill into the western end of the former Royal Dockyard - where there was a smaller tank farm, now the site of the sewage works - and RN ships used Carr Jetty as an oiling berth.

    When the tunnel under the Barrack Hill was dug it drained the spring which supplied the 'Redwell' which, before the coming of mains water, was the the main well for the people of Llanreath and was reputed never to fail even in the driest summers. Certainly a lot of water flowed through the tunnel - we used to consider it a great adventure to sneak into the tunnel when we were kids.

 

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