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Celebrity guests at Pembroke Dock

Phil Carradice

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The west Wales town of Pembroke Dock might be small and relatively modern - it did not exist until a Royal Naval Dockyard was founded there in 1814 - but it has seen a wealth of celebrity guests and visitors.

Hobbs Point at Pembroke Dock

Contrary to popular belief Lord Nelson did not visit the town. He came to Milford in the early 19th century and almost certainly praised the Haven as an anchorage and possible ship building location but he died in 1805, nine years before Pembroke Dock came bursting into life.

Other famous names who visited the area in the days before the dock include Oliver Cromwell, who directed the latter stages of the siege of Pembroke in 1648, and King Henry VII who was actually born in Pembroke Castle in 1456.

As far as Pembroke Dock is concerned celebrity guests come from a much more modern time. One of the earliest was the famous Gordon of Khartoum, the classic Victorian hero who met his end at the hands of the 'Mad Mahdi', fighting against overwhelming odds to defend the city of Khartoum.

As a serving officer in the Royal Engineers, by the middle years of the 19th century Gordon was based in the town, drawing up plans to renovate the massive Pater Battery, one of the defensive forts around the dockyard. He became a familiar figure in the town, walking the streets, invariably with his head buried in a book.

When, in 1855, he received orders to embark on the troopship Imperadore, to serve in the Crimean War, Gordon is said to have commented: "I have received my death warrant." He survived the Crimean War despite his prediction, only to die in combat several years later, and never returned to Pembroke Dock.

King Edward VII visited both the Dockyard and the town on 29 August 1902. It was a brief visit: the new king - who had succeeded his mother barely 18 months before - sailed up the Haven on the Pembroke Dock-built royal yacht Victoria and Albert before disembarking to tour the yards and visit nearby Monkton Priory.

The town had to wait until 1953 for its next royal visit when Queen Elizabeth II stepped ashore from the Britannia, one royal yacht that was not built in the town.

Heavy lift ship at Pembroke Dock

Another well known visitor to the town, this time in May 1904, was the American showman Buffalo Bill Cody. He came with his famous Wild West Show, camping and performing on the show ground alongside London Road.

In the days before television and cinema it is hard to know the exact effect of the Wild West Show on the people of the town - indeed, on of all of Wales as Cody toured his circus right across the country. But the spectacle of magnificently dressed native Americans, Cossack horsemen and members of the US 7th Cavalry must have delighted the people of Pembroke Dock in a display of horsemanship and trick shooting that was almost beyond their understanding.

In the 1930s, with the dockyard closed, Pembroke Dock became home to a huge flying boat base, known throughout the air force as PD. By the time of World War Two the PD flying boats, Sunderlands in particular, were an essential element in the defeat of the German U-boat threat. Wing Commander Bob Leckie was the first station commander but the most famous of all PD officers was Arthur Harris.

Harris was later immortalized as "Bomber" Harris, the man who masterminded and ran the British bombing offensive against Germany. Right or wrong, effective or of little strategic use, Harris probably conceived his campaign during the time he spent behind his desk, in command of the station at Pembroke Dock.

The pubs of Pembroke Dock have played host to several well known people over the years. On one memorable night at the end of the 19th century, the officers of HMS Monarch held open house in the Bush Hotel. Included in the party was Robert Falcon Scott, later to die in an attempt to reach the South Pole, and Lieutenant Dickens, grandson of Britain's greatest novelist. Arthur Orten, the famous Tichborne Claimant, once stayed at the Commercial Inn, while Prince Louis of Battenberg and future prime minister Lord Rosebery spent time at the Bush Hotel.

Famous residents of the town included, at one time or another, people as diverse as the poets Roland Mathias and Raymond Garlick and Welsh rugby player Ernie Finch. In 1925 Finch scored a spectacular try for Llanelli against the visiting All Blacks and went on to gain several caps for Wales.

World War Two brought many new visitors to the town. Amongst these was the legendary Welsh boxer Jimmy Wilde, long retired by then, who came to referee at a boxing tournament in 1944 - he had previously topped the bill in an Inter-Services boxing tournament held in the town during World War One.

Gun Tower Museum at Pembroke Dock

In the early years of the war, the actor Arthur Lowe, later to achieve immortality as Captain Mainwaring in the TV series Dad's Army, served at the town's Llanion Barracks with the Duke of Lancaster's Own Yeomanry. They were part of a cavalry unit in the process of being converted to artillery and were really quite a Dad's Army outfit. The only armament they possessed were half a dozen rifles and an ancient Lewis gun.

Arthur Lowe was, apparently, later to comment that his wartime career was uneventful. The closest he ever came to danger was when German bombers attacked Pembroke Dock, one bomb landing virtually next door to his billet.

Llanion Barracks was the scene of General Dwight Eisenhower's only visit to the town on 1 April 1944. The Supreme Allied Commander came to visit the American 110th Infantry Regiment, then stationed in the barracks prior to the D-Day Landings. He travelled as far as Tenby by train but was then taken in a fast convoy, complete with motorcycle outriders, to Pembroke Dock.

It was a damp, chilly day but the American GIs were assembled, ready and waiting, on the parade ground. Eisenhower climbed into the back of a jeep to address them, promising everyone a drink on the day that they crossed the Rhine - a promise he was unable to keep as the 110th suffered very heavy casualties during the Normandy landings and in the Battle of the Bulge.

After his brief visit to Pembroke Dock, Eisenhower visited several outlying units and then drove away. Most of the people in Pembroke Dock never even knew he had been there.

Pembroke Dock is no different from many other small Welsh communities but it remains proud of its history. And of the many famous men who once visited the town.

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