The People's War


In September 1939 Britain grimly came to terms with the prospect of war and there was none of the  euphoric jingoism of 1914. Children, evacuated from London and other likely targets for enemy bombers, passed through Cardiff on their way to  the relative safety of the valleys. Not until the blitz began in 1941, was it considered necessary to evacuate the children of South  Wales.

Air raid sirens had been tested the previous July and an A.R.P. organisation was in existence when war was declared. Eventually nearly a hundred A.R.P. posts in Cardiff were manned day and night by more than 5,000 volunteer air raid wardens. The introduction of a blackout not only caused traffic accidents but also resulted in casualties at the docks. In the early years of the war, an average of ten deaths a year occurred during night work, when the only illumination came from whitewash painted on the quayside.

Among the public air raid shelters built in the streets and parks of Cardiff, was the Roman wall at the castle which fulfilled a purpose never foreseen all those years ago. Important buildings were protected with sandbags and wherever possible householders were provided with a shelter. More than 20,000 Anderson garden shelters were distributed throughout Cardiff. Reinforced with two feet or more of earth, the garden shelter was sometimes damp and uninviting, but the interior could be made tolerably comfortable and many people owed their lives to this cheap and effective protection. For those without a garden, the Morrison shelter, a steel cage which could withstand considerable weight and shock, became an extra item of furniture in the living room.

Barrage balloons soon appeared above the castle grounds, Ely Racecourse, and other open spaces around the city. Their number was supposed to be a secret but the Nazi propagandist, "Lord Haw-Haw', informed the people of Cardiff that there were 7 of these strange objects protecting them. The barrage balloons were intended to thwart low-flying enemy aircraft but, in the opening months of the war, a source of excitement was the occasional runaway, rogue balloon, one of which drifted along a Cardiff street, ripping up street lamps and knocking over chimney pots. The Western Leisure Centre in Ely now stands on the site of the depot where the balloons were serviced during the war.

On the outbreak of war, an attempt was made to arrest a German spy in Cardiff. Hans Kuenemann had been planted by German Intelligence as the managing director of the Flottmann Drill Company in Allensbank Road, a British subsidiary of the German firm. Closely pursued by Special Branch officers, Kuenemann escaped to Germany in the early days of September 1939. It is likely that the information he had gathered in Cardiff was later used to plan the air attacks on the city.

Until the spring of 1940 the war had an air of unreality. Then Hitler struck in the west and the conflict assumed a fresh significance. For the second time in a quarter of a century, Campbell's steamers went to war, this time to rescue British soldiers trapped at Dunkirk. The Brighton Belle and the Brighton Queen were sunk but the Glen Gower made the crossing three times to bring home over 1,200 men. Once, during the evacuation, the ship went aground but was pulled free by the Waverley. Regrettably, the Glen Gower was never preserved as she should have been but was broken up for scrap in 1960. A part of Heath park was turned into a military camp for the survivors of Dunkirk. The troops were given a warm welcome by local people, sharing the spirit of deliverance which now swept the nation.

A practical demonstration of unity was made in response to an appeal for scrap metal, especially aluminium pots and pans which, it was said, could be used to build Spitfires. In truth, scrap metal was of no value in the manufacture of aircraft, but it could be used for other purposes and the appeal did much to raise morale. The scrap metal was smelted at East Moors and the stubs of metal, where railings were removed from private houses and public buildings, are still a familiar sight in Cardiff.

 Volunteers rushed to join the Home Guard or one of the other essential services. In Ely, where the Home Guard was responsible for manning an anti-tank obstacle should invasion come, a pill box was built into the cemetery wall. Presumably, the men were issued both with weapons and ammunition which were in very short supply at the time. The "Dad's Army' humour emerges in the stories told by veterans of the Home Guard. Children, playing at "Cowboys and Indians' in the Plymouth Woods, were sent packing by the Home Guard whose manoeuvres appeared to be a similar game. Mock battles, fought in the streets of Cardiff on a Sunday morning, provided a source of entertainment to youngsters. Yet, despite its humourous side, it is worth remembering that the men of the Home Guard spent long hours on duty, sacrificed family life, and carried out tasks which would otherwise have fallen on the regular army.

In 1941, for the first time, female conscription was introduced when single women under the age of thirty, later raised to forty, were ordered to register for the armed services, civil defence or industry. Women trained as radio operators at St. Athan, drove ambulances in the blitz, or served in the police force at the docks. Some ladies preferred the outdoor life offered by the Cardiff Mobile Women's Land Army: hauling logs, picking potatoes, or driving tractors on farms in the Vale of Glamorgan.

The Auxiliary Fire Service, which performed heroic service during the blitz, was formed in 1937 to attract part-time volunteers. By July 1939 its numbers had risen to 2,800 in Cardiff, and many of these volunteers joined the fire service in a full-time capacity when the war began. The traditional link with the police came to an end as fire brigades were organised on a regional basis. In August 1940 the Cardiff brigade dispatched a hundred men to give assistance in dealing with a huge oil fire at Pembroke Dock. Five of them lost their lives as they were bombed and machine-gunned while fighting the flames.


After the fall of France, Cardiff was in easy flying range of the Luftwaffe. The first of 585 "red alerts', signalling that the raiders were overhead, was sounded on 25 June 1940, the last on 28 March 1944. Anti-aircraft guns were ringed around the city, and rocket guns on Ely Racecourse were meant to be a deterrent to low-flying aircraft. Mobile guns mounted on lorries were also deployed but none of these defences offered much protection against raids at night.

Decoys proved to be the most satisfactory method of defending military targets. Flares at Michaelston-le-Pit and Llanedeyrn were used to attract bombs intended for the steel works and the ordnance factory. The ruse was a success as the East Moors Works was hit only once, but tragically 9 people were killed and 33 injured when an anti-aircraft shell exploded at R.O.F. in March 1944. The railways and the docks were other obvious targets but little destruction was caused to either. In all, 3 ships were damaged during the war with a loss of 11 lives, and the war effort was more seriously hampered when mines were dropped at the entrance to the docks, restricting operations until they were cleared.

Inaccurate night bombing was as likely to hit civilian targets as military, and few districts in Cardiff escaped destruction to life and property. On 2 January 1941 the city was confronted with the realities of modern warfare. It was a freezing night with a full moon. At 6.37 p.m. the sirens wailed and the bombardment began. Only about a hundred aircraft were involved but they inflicted considerable havoc in the city. After incendiaries and flares had lit up the target with an eerie green light, high explosive bombs and parachute mines followed in their wake. The Civic Centre, its white Portland stone almost floodlit against the night sky, seemed to be presenting itself as a sacrifice, but miraculously it survived as firewatchers and firemen smothered or kicked the incendiary bombs into the canal.

Other parts of Cardiff were not to be so fortunate. Llandaff Cathedral was shattered by a landmine, falling near the South Porch just before 8 o'clock. Incredibly the porch suffered hardly any damage but the summit of the spire and the roof of the nave collapsed. The organ and the furnishings, including the Bishop's throne, were completely destroyed. Only Coventry, among British cathedrals, suffered greater devastation. Services at the cathedral were not resumed until April 1942, when the Lady Chapel and the Sanctuary were once more in a safe condition.

The greatest horrors that night were reserved for Canton, Grangetown and Riverside. The gas works in Grangetown was set ablaze and it was a week before supplies were restored. At Hollyman's Bakery, in Corporation Road, a direct hit killed 30 people sheltering in the cellar. Blackstone Street, near the City Lodge, was so badly damaged that it was never rebuilt after the war, and in one of its houses a funeral gathering, unable to leave when the raid began, all lost their lives. Canton High School was partially destroyed but, in keeping with the wartime spirit, the children's education continued as classes were held at Llanover hall, Canton Library and the local Methodist church. Fortunately, a number of unexploded bombs and incendiaries fell on Bute Park, Sophia Gardens and Leckwith Woods, a clear indication that more severe devastation might have been meted out to Cardiff but for its open spaces.

When the "all clear' sounded at 4.50 a.m., more than 150 people had died a violent death. Six days later, on 8 January, many of them were buried in a mass grave. The South Wales Echoreported the funeral thus: "High and low, young and old, mingled around the communal graves ... it was a scene that those who witnessed it will forever have indelibly printed on their minds'. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited the area soon afterwards, and the King paid this tribute to the citizens of Cardiff: ""'Tis not the walls that make the city but the people who live within them''.

More air raids were to follow but none reached the intensity of that January night. The last major assault from the skies came on 18 May 1943. The raid lasted only 83 minutes but 45 people died, nearly two-thirds of them when a land mine fell on dwelling houses at St. Agnes Road in the Heath. Though the raids were never on the scale of those inflicted on Coventry, or even Swansea, 355 people met their deaths during the blitz on Cardiff and another 502 were seriously injured. When the Allies over-ran Normandy in the summer of 1944, they discovered launching sites for the V1 and V2 terror weapons pointing towards the West of England and South Wales. The invasion had taken place just in time to save Cardiff and other cities from a greater ordeal.


It is surprising that Cardiff was not subjected to a more severe assault from the air, especially as the docks were to play a vital role in the war effort. The east coast ports were in a vulnerable position after the collapse of France, and merchant shipping was increasingly directed towards the safer havens in the west of Britain. During the war, a third of the nation's imports and exports were channelled through the South Wales' ports. The efficiency achieved by the close co-operation of the docks' authorities, trade unions, and the armed services, as well as the Ministries of Food, Supply and Transport, impressed the Americans. In January 1941 an American vessel docked at Cardiff on a Sunday afternoon. Immediately, a gang of dockers unloaded the goods on the deck with such speed that the captain asked whether his cargo was receiving special priority. He was assured that the dockers were following a normal schedule and, as a fresh gang began to empty the hold, the captain commented in admiration, "All this on a blessed Sabbath afternoon. Hell! I never saw anything like it'.

In March 1942, a commando raid on St. Nazaire was intended to destroy its huge dry docks and so deny the port as a possible base for the Tirpitz, pride of the German navy. Cardiff Docks provided the training facilities for the men who carried out one of the most daring commando operations of the war. Four V.C.'s were won during the assault which ensured that the Tirpitz would never be able to attack our Atlantic convoys.

From 1942 onwards, Cardiff and Penarth became ports of entry for troops and equipment from the United States. By 1943 an American port commander was appointed to supervise the huge flow of men and materials from across the Atlantic. The cargoes included U.S. locomotives, some of which were used to assist the over-stretched British railway network, while others were hidden in sidings for deployment on the continent after D-Day. The "Prairie' at the docks was a fascinating spectacle in June 1944: "Vessels and craft of infinite variety in an almost unending stream; guns, tanks, vehicles, bombs, shells ... and then, at last, the men themselves'. Through the ports of South Wales, before and during the D-Day operations, passed 75% of the American supplies and, on the day, every ship sailed to the minute.

The American soldiers at Cardiff and Penarth forged close ties with the local communities and many of them were billeted with families until their camps were built. Generally they proved to be popular, generous guests, particularly among the children, who were entertained at their camps and supplied with packets of chewing gum. For their girl friends, the Americans provided nylon stockings, cosmetics and other luxuries, as well as the occasional unwanted pregnancy. After the war some of these girl friends emigrated to the United States as G.I. brides. The U.S. military police unit at Llandaff occasionally had to handle the darker side of the American "occupation', when clashes erupted between black and white G.I.'s in local pubs. Most people in Cardiff, however, have pleasant memories of their Transatlantic Allies, who left more than one physical reminder of their presence in the city. The clump of trees on Whitchurch Common, once a U.S. army camp, was planted by American soldiers to commemorate their friendship with local people. The demolition of Temperance Town was completed when the Americans built a camp on the site of the future Empire Pool. Rhydlafar Hospital is another legacy of the wartime alliance, as it was built to treat U.S. casualties after the landings in Normandy.

Another group of foreign visitors, not so readily welcomed, were the Italian and German prisoners-of-war, who were sometimes allowed to work on farms in the Vale, or were employed in other tasks such as the clearing of snow in the blizzard of 1945. Less hostility was felt towards the Italians than the Germans, especially when Italy switched its allegiance to the Allied cause. In fact, some of these former enemies married local girls after the war. When 67 prisoners-of-war escaped in March 1945 from the Island Farm Camp near Bridgend, the whole of South Wales was on full alert for a few days. All the prisoners were recaptured, most of them before they reached Cardiff and, with most of Germany already in Allied hands, they were presumably making a last defiant gesture.

Unlike the First World War, rationing was introduced at the outset of hostilities and the knowledge that basic foods were always available did much to maintain morale. When the U-boats once more threatened to starve Britain into submission, people were urged to "dig for victory'. The castle grounds and Llandaff Fields once again came under cultivation, and bombed sites too served a useful purpose as allotments. Periodically, "Dig for Victory' exhibitions at the City Hall offered advice in the skills of vegetable growing, bee keeping and pig breeding.

Most men and women were in full employment, quite often on high wages. At the same time, there were few consumer goods in the shops and people were encouraged to save, rather than spend, their money. Regularly, exhortations appeared in the press to invest in National Savings and avoid the temptations of the odious "Squanderbug', decorated in his Nazi swastikas. Bazaars, concerts and flag days were designed to persuade people to save their money. Special events such as "Wings for Victory', or "Salute the Soldier' week, were accompanied by parades, exhibitions and maximum publicity to guarantee their success.


On V.E. Day an emotional crowd of 50,000 gathered outside the City Hall to hear Winston Churchill proclaim, "The German war is therefore at an end ... long live the cause of freedom'. The bells of St. John's, for so long a portent of invasion, rang out in joy. Poignantly, in the shell of Llandaff Cathedral, an open air service of thanksgiving was held. Almost every street had a party, complete with an effigy of Hitler to burn on the bonfire. A Cardiff housewife recalled, ""That evening 94 children paraded around the streets carrying lighted candles in jam jars we'd collected and they sang "Coming Round the Mountain'. It was a brave sight, never to be forgotten''.

For some, the war was not yet over. There were no pals battalions as in the First World War, but the 77th Heavy Artillery Regiment had trained in Cardiff. The Regiment contained many local sportsmen, among them Wilfred Wooller and Les Spence of the Cardiff Rugby Club, and Billy James and Bob Tobin who had played for Cardiff City. In 1941 the Regiment was first directed to the Middle East, but then diverted to Java when Japan entered the war. The "77th' fought courageously to halt the Japanese advance but, as the Dutch East Indies were over-run, it was forced to surrender. The Welshmen were dispersed, either to work on the Burma Railway, or to the notorious Changi Gaol in Singapore, or even to Japan itself. They suffered appalling treatment and cruelty until the atomic bomb brought their suffering to an end. Les Spence witnessed the effect of the bomb on Nagasaki from fifty miles away. Years later, as Secretary of the Welsh Rugby Union, he became friendly with the Manager of the Japanese touring team who commented that both of them owed their lives to the atomic bomb, as he was training to be a kamikaze pilot at the time. Two hundred survivors of the Regiment, less than one in five, returned to a tumultuous welcome at Cardiff in October 1945.