The flying boats of Pembroke Dock

Wednesday 3 August 2011, 14:50

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

In the 1930s and 40s one west Wales town played host to the largest flying boat base the country had ever seen - maybe even the world. That town was Pembroke Dock and for nearly 30 years residents of the community woke each morning and went to bed at night with the deep throated roar of Pegasus engines rolling in over the town and reverberating off the waters of Milford Haven.

Mk I Sunderland

Mk I Sunderland of 210 Squadron on Atlantic patrol c.1941 (Images provided by Pembroke Dock Sunderland Trust)

The town of Pembroke Dock burst into existence in 1814, its main purpose being to build warships for the Royal Navy. The dockyard of the town was in existence for just 112 years but in that time it created dozens of giant battleships - including the Duke of Wellington, the largest woodenwall ever built - and no fewer than four royal yachts for Queen Victoria. At one stage the yards employed over 4,000 men with dozens more, throughout the county, depending on the place for their livelihood.

When the dockyard closed in 1926 it left the town it had spawned without hope or reason for existence. Then, in 1931 the RAF announced that they were establishing a flying boat base in the eastern end of the old yard - the sheltered expanse of deep water, the very thing that had brought the ship builders to the region in the first place, was, it seemed, ideal for the seaplanes of the time.

The coming of the flying boats could never hope to replace the economic security provided by the Admiralty dockyard but it did offer some slim consolation to the people of the town. It meant work for many; it meant businesses could thrive and prosper; it meant the town was alive again.

The RAF had meant to stay for just a few short months, but remained in west Wales for 29 years. The first aircraft based in the town were the Supermarine Southamptons of No. 210 Squadron. New barrack blocks and wide slipways were built inside the old dockyard walls and two huge hangers were erected, enormous structures that can still be seen today.

Many famous airmen served at PD, as the flying boat base soon became known. Wing Commander Bob Leckie was the first station commander but perhaps the most renowned of these was Arthur "Bomber" Harris, the air marshall who later went on to mastermind the Allied bombing offensive against Germany in World War Two.

As might be expected, the base at PD saw its greatest hours during the war. Throughout those turbulent and dangerous times, giant Sunderland flying boats - and the odd Catalina - patrolled the Western Approaches, searching out the deadly U Boats that were threatening Britain's very existence. For the crews of these huge machines, patrols were long, cold and arduous and contact with the enemy was rare.

When the Sunderlands did encounter opposition, however, the battles were life and death affairs. In one well known incident in 1942 a single PD Sunderland was attacked by no fewer than eight JU88s while over the Bay of Biscay. The Sunderland, bristling with guns, was no easy target and in the fight three German planes were shot down, a fourth being badly damaged. And although damaged the Sunderland managed to get back to PD.

Mark V Sunderland on take off, in 1945.

Mark V Sunderland on take off, in 1945.

When peace came again in 1945 the base at PD began, inevitably, to lose its importance. Aircraft design had moved on and seaplanes, always at the vagaries of weather and tide, clearly had a limited operational lifespan. Nevertheless, Sunderlands from PD undertook the vital role of supplying members of the British North Greenland Expedition in 1952. The expedition and the job of the PD aircraft were well recorded in local and national press.

Mark V Sunderland over Royal Yacht Britannia, mid 1950s.

Mark V Sunderland over Royal Yacht Britannia, mid 1950s.

The sight of the beautiful white flying boats moored on the haven off the town - or, occasionally, powering down the estuary as they lumbered gracefully into the air - are images that that impinged themselves into the minds of all Pembroke Dock children. The giant aeroplanes seemed to symbolize security and strength and were as much a part of growing up in the old dockyard town as games of football or cricket on the Barrack Hill, overlooking the yards.

The air station at Pembroke Dock finally closed in March 1959, the land where the workshops and hangers stood being given back to the Admiralty. Yet Pembroke Dock was not quite finished with flying boats.

In 1963 Sunderland M2824, originally having served with No 201 Squadron in Pembroke Dock, was presented to the town by the French Navy. A trust was established, local air cadets (including the author) began work cleaning and polishing and the plane was opened to the public as a living memorial and museum. Each year thousands of tourists and locals visited the aircraft but, finally, as time and age began to make themselves felt, in 1971 she was dismantled and taken to a new home at Hendon Museum.

These days the old dockyard and the flying boat base operate as the terminal for ferry boats across the Irish Sea. Many of the buildings put up by the RAF are still there, however, and the Sunderland Trust operates a small visitor in the western end of the yards. At the moment it might be little enough to mark the passing of such a huge operation but, like the PD base itself, it will surely grow and grow in the years ahead.

You can find out more about the flying boats of Pembroke Dock and the Flying Boat Visitor Centre on the Pembroke Dock Sunderland Trust website.

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  • Comment number 1.

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    Comment number 2.

    This brings back some memories Phil! Where I lived in the ‘40s and ‘50s was right beneath the track the Sunderlands would take when coming in to land on the main stretch of the Haven between the Weare and Newton Noyes. I can hear the roar of those Pegasus engines to this day. Sometimes the Sunderlands seemed so low that you could reach up and touch them.

    Out on the Haven in a boat, where I spent a lot of time, two launches would come down from the Dockyard and clear the take off area – I was cleared from the ‘No 7 Buoy’ fishing mark many times when a Sunderland was taking off. A friend of mine used to tell a tale of when he was out doing a spot of ‘night fishing’ and the launches didn’t spot him. The Sunderland roared straight towards him and took off when still a fair distance away but as it went right over his head, water was still pouring off its hull and nearly swamped him.

    Sadly, I think it was in 1954, I was witness to a Sunderland crashing on take-off one morning just before I left for school. I can still picture her, off Pwllcrochan flats, with just the tailplane sticking skywards out of the water. Terrible sight.

    Sometime later in the ‘50s I remember an American seaplane carrier paying a courtesy visit. I think the seaplanes she had on board were called Marlins and they had extreme difficulty taking off in the calm waters of the Haven when there was no wind. The Sunderlands would run rings round them in these conditions.

    It’s so good that the Sunderland Trust is keeping the memory of these marvellous aircraft alive.

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    Comment number 3.

    My uncle didn't have good memories of being stationed there. He was driving an officer behind a transporter truck with one of them on board. The monster came off the back of the transporter and into the car he was driving. If he hadn't taken quick evesive action both of them would have been killed.

 

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