The bombing of the Pembroke Dock oil tanks

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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