The Battle of Britain comes to Wales

Thursday 8 July 2010, 12:00

James Roberts James Roberts

Seventy years ago the first rumblings of what is today known as the Battle of Britain commenced. By May 1940 German forces had overrun Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France. Hitler's goal was now fixed on destroying Britain's Royal Air Force and the invasion of Great Britain.

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Many remember the Battle of Britain as a series of dogfights and duels thousands of metres above the White Cliffs of Dover, with Spitfires and Hurricanes duking it out with Messerschmitts and Heinkels in the skies over Kent, Sussex and the English Channel. The reality is that between June and September 1940, the whole of the United Kingdom suffered at the hands of the Luftwaffe. Wales was no exception.

Between 28 August and 1 September 1940 Wrexham suffered a sustained period of bombing, a by-product of German raids on Liverpool. In fact, German planes had been sporadically bombing the border area of what is now Flintshire, Cheshire and Shropshire from the end of June 1940, and it was not until August 1940 that a defensive group of aircraft was dedicated to defending north Wales.

Derrick Pratt, author and historian who specialises in the histories of the Wrexham area provides an insight into the ease with which German fighters could attack north Wales in the summer of 1940.

"The first bombers followed the Bristol Channel, up the Severn River, that would appear like a silver thread at night - they could follow it," says Derrick. "Then they made the little hop from Shrewsbury where the Severn starts to flow back into Montgomeryshire and they picked up the River Dee. Then they followed the Dee to Shocklach and either took the River Mersey to Liverpool or headed right towards Crewe."

During the early phase of the battle the German aircraft could find their target by following the rivers and railways that criss-cross the Welsh border, relatively uncontested, to unload their deadly cargo.

"People speaking from Oswestry and Overton can remember half a dozen Heinkels flying very sedately in the dusk towards Liverpool and not a thing being done," stated Derrick. "They just flew up very steadily, following the River Dee towards Liverpool with nothing to shoot them down."

And it was these twin-engined Heinkel He 111 bombers, one of the Luftwaffe's workhorses during the Battle of Britain, that passed over Flintshire and Denbighshire to bomb Liverpool and her docks for three nights from 28 August 1940.

Mike Grant, who co-authored Wings Across The Border - A History Of Aviation In North Wales And The Northern Marchers with Derrick, sheds some light on how Wrexham and the surrounding area was caught up in the first German raids on Merseyside.

"Liverpool took quite a hammering, but the Wrexham area took a massive hit as well," said Mike. "That part of the world was absolutely peppered during those three days. For the inhabitants of those areas, the Battle of Britain was a wake up call."

The Liverpool attacks have been described as the first major night attack on the United Kingdom, and also marked a switch in strategy by the Luftwaffe as they began night time raids. German records state that some 446 tons of high explosive and 37,044 incendiary bombs were dropped on the Merseyside area in four nights. Many of these bombs fell on the Ruabon Mountains and the areas surrounding Wrexham.

"Llay Main Colliery was nearly hit by a lone bomber," says Derrick. "It was 3.30pm on a Monday in early September. Kids had just started back at school and mums were collecting their kids form Llay Infants School when a Heinkel 111 passed low overhead. It was so close that everybody started waving, and the pilot nonchalantly waved back. As the aircraft passed the crowd, they suddenly saw the cross on the tail, and the Luftwaffe livery and the awful reality dawned."

The lone bomber - a frequent and dangerous reality during the early phase of the battles in the sky - headed along the Pen-y-Ffordd road on that autumn morning and dropped two bombs near the gates of Llay Main Colliery.

"If the bombs had gone 70 yards further south," continued Derrick, "it would have hit the winding gear and trapped 900 men underground, and you would have had a disaster worse than Gresford."

Derrick's own childhood memories overlap with these tumultuous times. Born in Acrefair, near Wrexham he witnessed the bombs and burning borderland, shaping his career and lifelong interest in teaching, language and local history.

"I remember crying my eyes out!" revealed Derrick. "Lewis' department store in Liverpool was bombed. There was a Lone Ranger toy and a rocking horse. It was all burned! The toys, the pets corner. All these charred parrots and pets... oh, I cried my eyes out."

There will be more insights into how the bombs and destruction affected Wales 70 years ago on BBC Wales History. Feel free to comment on any personal or family-related memories by logging in sign in to your BBC iD account. If you don't have a BBC iD account, you can register here - it'll allow you to contribute to a range of BBC sites and services using a single login.

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    Comment number 1.


    Very interesting news on the airfields in Northeast Wales at the beginning of the second World War. There was no mention of the air base outside of Wrexham at Borras. I was born in 1939 in a farm house opposite where the main gate and the base was later built. My parents told me the Air Ministry came one day and told them we are going to use one of your rooms as a construction office. They built a control tower, and a small building in a field behind our house, with access to it at all times.
    I remember there were Spitfires, Lancaster bombers and of course air crews, maintenance people, guards, and other support personel to operate the base.
    I can remember there was a Lancaster upon landing overshot the runway, plowed through a hedge and fence, crossed the road, and stopped in a field where cows had been grazing.
    It was my understanding the base had been built to protect Liverpool and Manchester.
    The base later became a sand and gravel operation for "McAlpines".

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    Comment number 2.

    Hello James and Phil - message for you both. I have been researching the life of a Welsh Battle of Britain pilot. You may be able to help me with this research. I would be grateful if you could get in touch and I can give you more details and some 'leads'. Thanks.

 

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