“FIRE OVER MUMBLES!”
“A hair’s breadth from tragedy”
recalled by Grafton Maggs
You can probably count them on one hand now, - those people left in Mumbles who have a clear recollection of life, as it was, during the turbulent days of World War 2. This is not surprising, after all, it was a long time ago. People die, move away and memories fade. And, with the obfuscation of time, it’s to be expected that present generations treat, with incredulity, much of the history related about this period.
But, Mumbles did have its moments! How could it be otherwise?
Swansea with its industry and vast docklands was a prime target for Nazi bombing and a mere bay’s width away from Mumbles. Mumbles was on the fringe of that target area and it was an odds-on situation that somewhere along the line, something was going to drop on Mumbles. And it did!
Sceptics may choose to doubt.
They can doubt all they like,
Enemy bombs did fall on Mumbles!
But before getting carried away, - some facts.
First of all, in severity, the Mumbles bombing incidents bear no comparison, whatsoever, with the savage and sustained onslaught endured across the Bay. The air raids on Swansea, so deliberately and meticulously planned, were ongoing from the fall of France in 1940, to the liberation of Europe in 1945. In order to survive, Swansea people, night after night, were forced to sleep in air raid shelters, denied the comfort of a decent bed- with all that that meant- sleepless, anxious nights with a full day’s work to follow. Those of you who did not experience the trials of these harrowing times, should spare a thought for your forebears who did, and marvel at their courage and fortitude.
It was so different in Mumbles. When the air raid sirens first sounded in 1940, Mumbles residents did choose to behave in similar manner to their Swansea counterparts and scurried for shelter, but, by the Christmas of 1940, with nothing having dropped upon them, the great majority became complacent. For the rest of the war, they chose to stay in bed, regardless of the air raid siren’s undulating wail.
However, there were two incidents which did, transiently, rock that Mumbles boat of serenity. One came in the shape of a high explosive bomb and the other as a pod of incendiaries, neither delivered with intent. Both were missives delivered to the wrong address- bombs that had been jettisoned, but, none the less deadly in content.
One can only marvel that incidents, such as these, were so few.
Mumbles seems to have been blessed with a divine protection.
Early in 1942, on one clear, bitter cold winter’s night, the worthy citizens of Mumbles zizzed, snuffled away (and worse), in the swamp like depths of their feather beds. However, this was to be a night with a difference. In the early hours of the morning, a solitary German bomber, bound goodness knows where, suddenly and alarmingly roared its way across the rooftops. Flying so frighteningly low, suggested that it was probably in distress, an assumption strengthened by its further action.
On the approach to Mumbles, the bomb aimer, for reasons best known to himself and his crew, chose to press his button and release a bomb, with no thought (or care) for its destination. This deadly trajectile whistled its arching descent across the village, over the Mumbles Woods and landed explosively in the Langland area.
Semi-comatose, I heard all this but turned over and went back to sleep (in retrospect, I find this to be incredible behaviour. but that’s the way things were!),
Many others in Mumbles heard it too, but most (including my parents) didn’t. Mumbles people sleep heavily.
. Next morning, the main topic, on the 8 o’clock train to school, was of nothing else but ‘the bomb that had fallen over Langland way’. The Langland boys gabbled away about the incident and it was established vaguely that a solitary bomb, no doubt of German origin, had been dropped somewhere near the Rotherslade Esplanade.
Precision came in the shape of George Stell and Frank “Twink” Roberts, (when they managed to make themselves heard). These two resourceful young men, at an unbelievably early hour, had carried out an on-site investigation. The bomb had exploded fifty yards, or so, along the cliff path from the Esplanade. Here were two credible witnesses and here was positive visual confirmation!
Indeed, Mumbles had been bombed!
Slowly, the school day passed and after release, we raced down to Rutland Street, piled on to the Mumbles Train and, en route, planned an immediate investigation of ‘The Mumbles Bomb’.
Straight from the train, a beeline was made for Rotherslade Bay. Up Queens Road we tore, then Khandallah Terrace to Langland Corner and down the hill to the Bay. We raced across the top of the Esplanade, up the steps to the cliff path and rounding its curve we were confronted by a scene of Bertram Mills Circus-like activity.
Half the British Army seemed to be present, milling about midst a shambles of trucks, utilities and NAAFI tea vans.
We looked about and-- there it was!
Situated in the midst of all this chaos, our goal- the purpose of our coming. - the bomb crater!
A large area had been cordoned off within which helmeted sappers, wearing leather jerkins over denims, bustled about. Important moustachioed men with peaked hats were drawing on map boards and others took measurements with long tapes. Conspicuous was the presence of the prestigious gold and red bomb flash, sported on the left sleeves of the Bomb Disposal Squad elite (and what a worthy elite they were!).
From where we were, the crater looked enormous in area, thirty feet, or so, in diameter with lazy curls of smoke and vapour still rising from the depths. Earth and rubble was strewn far and wide beyond the perimeter of the hole.
We decided to get nearer for closer investigation and ducked under the wire. Immediately, red-faced, irate sappers descended upon us to confront us angrily. In so many words, we were told to go away. Possibly, due to their limited vocabulary, they were forced to use the same words with constant repetition (a few years later, I found that this was standard army behaviour). As they were so rude and possessive about their hole in the ground, we flounced off.
It frustrated any chance of picking up shrapnel souvenirs which, at that time, was a leading pursuit enjoyed by every red blooded British lad.
But, we came back.
By the weekend, the Bomb Disposal boys had lost interest and taken down the barriers. The Mumbles youth returned to take over management and descended into the crater to investigate for themselves. Disappointingly, the tendrils of smoke no longer rose but a satisfying sinister sulphurous smell persisted. Hordes of youngsters scratched, dug and scraped. Some were lucky, and shrapnel souvenirs were found, many with wicked razor edge.
Interest soon dissipated, after all a hole in the ground has only so much to offer and every day in wartime presented something new to investigate.
The Mumbles crater was abandoned and left to the mercy of the elements.
Mumbles had had its first bomb. A little bit of history had been made.
(Incidentally, even after all these years, examination of the cliff path in this area, will reveal the crater shape “punched out” at the side. A search with modern metal detectors might produce some very interesting finds).
Later in the year, mid-autumn, there was a more spectacular incident.
. A routine evening parade of the Mumbles Home Guard, in the Regent Cinema HQ, was dramatically interrupted. A crash-helmeted Dispatch Rider, banged his way through the swing doors into the hall, looked around and made his bulky, booted way up to CSM Fred Mitchell (who was not pleased). There was an agitated exchange of words, with much gesticulation from the D/R. This culminated with the CSM approaching Company Commander, Major Bert Palmer. Always unflappable, the CSM calmly put the OC in the picture and then turned to beckon the D/R. He scurried up, salutes were exchanged and again there was animated conversation.
. The well upholstered Major went to the middle of the hall and called the Company about him. He enlightened his men. The D/R was from the 3.7 AA Battery, sited on the Mumbles Hill. The gunners were in trouble. An extensive gorse fire had broken out on the Bracelet Bay slopes of the Hill and was spreading up to the Battery. Volunteers were wanted urgently, to swell the ranks of those already there, to fight the blaze. Not surprisingly, there was an enthusiastic response, over sixty men coming forward.
The Royal Artillery lads ‘up the Hill’ occupied a warm place in Mumbles hearts, not only were they appreciated for the role they played in our defence but also for their excellent conduct when socialising in the village and their readiness to support any charitable event. (comedian, L/Bombardier “Tiny” Harcourt became a legend).
The briefest of instruction was given and, within minutes, volunteers were on their way to the Mumbles Head. With an alert situation in operation, the Mumbles Train was not running and way had to be made on foot.
This was no problem, people were able to walk in those days.
Volunteers left, independently, in small groups. I left with two close friends, Pte. Peter Hooper of Gower Place (aged 17, trainee Chartered Accountant) and Pte. Frank Martin, also of Gower Place (aged 16, only son of the Village Police Sergeant).
We doubled off down Newton Road into the Dunns, past Forte’s Ice Cream Parlour, across Station Square and on to the Mumbles Railway Line. At the best of times, walking on any road in wartime blackout was fraught with hazard, we choose the train track and ran on the comfortably spaced rail sleepers. Back of the Tivoli Cinema, we loped, and on behind the Bowling Green. Level with the Antelope Inn, we moved seawards on to the long promenade (“the Concrete”), a flat easy run to Southend. Level with the Conservative Club, Peter stopped and pointed skywards over the Mumbles Hill.
“Look, lads! Over there! Up there!”
He was gesticulating towards the sky in the direction of the Mumbles Head. A red tinge could be discerned, strong enough to silhouette the mass of the Mumbles Hill.
Definitely, a big fire burning somewhere!
Pulses quickened. Something big was happening there alright!
Back on the train track, under the pedestrian bridge by the Bristol Channel Yacht Club, we ran, now with one eye on the sky. As we approached, so the redness in the sky increased in intensity, becoming an angry backcloth across the whole span of the Hill. For the first time, smoke was visible, the light wind rolling it away across the crest.
We approached the old Life Boat House and Slipway.
But what was this?
In spite of the darkness, I was able to make out something lying on the stone ballast between the sleepers of the track. I threw out my arms to check Frank and Peter. I approached and knelt down.
The shock of my life!
Here against the railway line, lying at an angle with its head in the ballast, was a cylindrical shape, a couple of inches, or so, in diameter and just over a foot long.
The end, lying against the rail, was finned.
My heart jumped!
From past experience, I was able to identify it, instantly, as a German incendiary bomb, apparently intact and undamaged! But, here on Mumbles soil!
GERMAN INCENDIARY BOMB
With a whoop of delight, I picked it up. A priceless souvenir! From its birthplace in the heart of the Fatherland it had been transported and dropped on the Mumbles Train Railway Line. And I had found it! Who ever would have thought, a few years ago, that such a device, as potentially lethal as this, would be dropped on this inoffensive little village of Mumbles!
Yet that was not the end of it! There was more to come!
Treading carefully along the track, just before reaching the boathouse, we found four more bombs along the track.
Thinking about it afterwards, I wondered, had those bombs made a direct landing there, or, had they first hit the soft grassy bank at the side and rolled down? If the latter was the case, it’s quite a reasonable supposition to make that a few bombs may have embedded themselves in that steep miry bank between the rail and the road.
If so, they could well be there to this very day!
Whatever! Souvenirs were shared, placed in spacious pockets of greatcoats and we hurried on. Up the ancient steep steps at the side of the old Lifeboat House we clambered, into the Cutting. We were getting near to the action! Near enough now to smell the burning bracken and hear the activity:
Shouts. Clanking noises. The rumbling and revving of vehicles.
We reached the top of the Cutting, The familiar Big Apple kiosk, which had greeted us, green and ruddily, for so many years, did so now, in a different way, its glossy surface reflecting a redness.. We rounded the bend and the full impact of the scene hit us.
Here was a sight to behold which took our breath away!
To our right, the slope of the Mumbles Hill was ablaze from top to bottom, a conflagration that stretched from the Cutting to Limeslade Bay. A light wind played tricks across the area, blowing up columns of fire, dense smoke with showers of sparks dancing in the thermals. We could feel the heat on our unprotected faces.
Already, men from all three Services- anyone who could be mustered- were beating the flames with wet sacks and, by the minute, trucks were arriving to spill out reinforcements and materials. Method had rapidly been established, vehicles had pulled off the road for unloading and to keep a clearway. The AFS boys were already there, running out hoses. Water had been run on to tarpaulins making makeshift reservoirs into which sacks were laid and soaked.
Red faced roaring NCOs and pallid bleating officers, were marshalling the troops into queues, and handing out wet sacks. Once equipped, they were directed across the road to the foot of the blazing Hill and, here, more NCOs lined them up as beaters and hurried them into action.
In no time at all, we had our wet sacks and were across the road. Whilst being lined up, we were put in the picture by a Bombardier (whose extreme Scottish brogue made him almost totally unintelligible). He was an eye witness to the fall of a stick of incendiaries which had impacted in a line from the Knab Rock side of the Cutting, across the slope of the Mumbles Hill to Limeslade Bay.
One solitary German aircraft, blindly jettisoning its load, was the perpetrator of this conflagration. The bracken was as dry as tinder and this, coupled with the wide spread of the incendiary stick, had created a spontaneous sea of flame.
A complicating factor was the light wind. Not only did this help the fire to spread but as the burning gorse was beaten out, and the beaters moved on, so it fanned up any hidden smouldering ash behind them. Hence the need for the beaters to come in waves.
Our Bombardier went to great pains to point out that it was not just the threat of damage by fire that was causing the panic On the top of the Mumbles Hill was the AA battery of 3.7 guns- a vital part in defending the approach to South Wales and the Midlands. On the opposite side of the road lie the Coastal Defence guns around the Lighthouse and the Twt. This fire was a beacon, a magnificent navigational aid for enemy aircraft, seen for miles and pinpointing this sensitive area.
So, get weaving!
We were lined up with the second rank of beaters and soon, were backed by a third. Below on the main road, more of the AFS boys were connected up and the shout came that water was being delivered to soak the areas left behind us.
Remorselessly, the beaters worked on, slowly making progress up the slope of the Hill to the clearer area at the top, where the Battery was situated. From the sound below and behind us, it appeared that every Fire Service tender in Wales was locating down on the road! Hoses were now deluging the blackened area.
The system was working.
We must have been at it for several hours. Excitement and the enthusiasm of youth fuelled, apparently tireless limbs. Time flew.
Throughout the operation there was no sense of danger. Probably because there wasn’t any! My mind was fully taken up with the job in hand and rubbing out the odd eyeful of stinging bracken smoke. More unpleasant was the occasional lungful of smoke, followed by fits of coughing.
Not until later did I realise that I was learning a very worthy lesson, this was one of my earliest experiences of working in a team and any discomfort and back breaking effort was more than counterbalanced by the warm feeling of being an integral part of that team. This was an early introduction into that indescribable world of male comradeship.
The AFS lads performed well, which was to be expected, after all, most of them had been blooded in the Swansea blitzes and in comparison to their past experiences, this was a doddle. They knew what they were doing and re-ignition of the smouldering bracken was well and truly prevented.
Meanwhile, the beaters gradually closed in on each other as the summit was approached. At last, it was time to catch our breath, and ease aching arms and backs. Sweat was wiped from sooty foreheads, greetings and ribald remarks were exchanged with total strangers who spoke in strange dialects. In the dim moonlight, we grinned at each other’s blackened faces.
Somewhere above us a loud hailer clicked on and a distorted, public school drawl carried down the slope to echo back from the Twt.
“Attention! Attention! The fire is now under control and the area will be left with the AFS laddies. This was a job jolly well done by all ranks! Jolly good show! Well done and thank you all! Return now to your billets!”
The conflagration was beaten. The beacon was out. No longer was the AA Battery on the Hill and (more important to us) the village of Mumbles threatened by Hitler’s knavish airmen
. C Company of the Mumbles Home Guard (with a little help from a few hundred others) had saved the community from almost certain annihilation (well, sort of).
The people of Mumbles could now sleep safely in their beds.
And, believe it or not, through it all we had clung to our deadly souvenir bombs!
We descended the Hill. It was now 0100hrs. We suddenly felt weary and
to slide between the sheets of a warm bed was the desire uppermost in our minds. Let’s get home!
No more excited chatter, quietly we made our way back through the sleeping village.
We passed the BCYC and reached the Pilot Inn, dark, brooding and asleep in its curtained black-out deadness.
We drew level with the front door. Swish!! Suddenly the blackout curtain was swept aside! So unexpected, it nearly stopped my heart! A head ducked out and a loud Mumbles voice bawled,
“Just come from the Hill, boys? Fire out? What started it? Come on in!”
It was Park Street’s Reggie Hunt (brother of the late L/Seaman Alex Hunt of ill fated HMS Hardy). Reggie had some sort of relationship with the management of this fine old alehouse.
We followed him in through the layers of curtains.
The bar was full! At 0100hrs in the morning! Locals and servicemen had sat out the alert period and “time had just gone by”. It was wartime and the police turned a blind eye, now and then, when things were happening.
Such tolerance was good for morale.
A shout went up as we entered. We were greeted warmly and we basked in our black faced, pseudo heroism. We told our tale boldly and with much exaggeration.
Our listeners may have been sceptical, until we produced the incendiary bombs! This made everyone sit up. The mockers (and Mumbles has always been rich with those) sat up, and took notice. Here was concrete evidence! Only a few hundred yards down the line, these bombs (and others, somewhere) had landed.
Uncomfortably close to this congested part of the village. Now, we had credence!
It only needed a little persuasion for me to part with one of the incendiaries and I gave one to Reggie, a dyed-in-the-wool Mumbles boy if there ever was one.
We set off again. Time was passing.
At the top of Dunns Lane, there came a parting of the ways. Frank and Peter went to their respective homes in Gower Place and I carried on up Gloucester Place to mine.
We felt tired but we felt good!.
There was the usual row from my father (I had school the next day). He was not impressed by my explanations of ..”work of national importance… highly secret…vital for the security of Mumbles…”
Wash…Bed… Sleep…Vague thoughts of school in the morning….
Home from school the next day, I set about cleaning and polishing my trophy - the incendiary bomb. It was in perfect condition, barely marked and with the Luftwaffe green paint on the fins, unscratched.
On a little label, I wrote the history of its discovery, appending it, nobly, with my name. This I stuck on the matt silver casing of the bomb. Here was a magnificent piece of wartime Mumbles history and with great pride I placed it on top of the mirrored fitting over the mantelpiece. Situated there, anyone entering the room could not fail to see it straight away. It would be a conversation opener.
Then, it being a normal evening, I sat down to make inroads into the enormous amount of homework which the education system of the time generated.
Barely started and I was interrupted.
My father, downstairs was shouting from the smoke room.
I made haste to join him..
There standing with my father was, fellow flame-beater emeritus, Frank. Towering at his side was his helmeted father, Sgt. Ted Martin of the local constabulary. Normally, Sgt. Martin was the most easygoing, laid back police officer that one could ever wish to be nicked by. He was a tall, rangy man with a long, lined face; when stressed and angry, this face seemed to go even longer and pokey looking as his cheeks sank in.
Looking at him this evening, I saw a face that looked longer and pokey with cheeks sunk in.
Me, “Hi, Frank! Hallo, Sergeant. Martin, nice to see you! Chickens laying well?”
Sgt. Martin: “Never mind my !**!# chickens! Have you got a live incendiary bomb upstairs?”
Me: “ No! ..Yes! …Well sort of,,, Yes… I have, Sergeant Martin!”
Sgt. Martin: “Get up them stairs, NOW! And bring it down here straightaway!”
Me: “Certainly, Sergeant Martin” (special creep attitude).
I shot up the stairs. I took my treasured bomb down from its lofty niche and returned.
I handed the precious trophy over,- sadly, with aching heart. Already, even in such a short time, we had established a special close relationship.
Whilst all this was going on, my father was in attendance and not quite sure what was going on. At the best of times, he doubted whether any of my activities were of benefit to the community.
Sgt. Martin (in dramatic mood): “I shall now unscrew the base”.
He did so and a coiled spring mechanism was released with a striker pin. He pointed to the interior of the bomb, and there about two inches in, facing us, was a bright copper cap with a cross indentation on it.
Sgt. Martin (to me) “You know what all that is, don’t’ you?”
Me: “Detonation stuff!”
Sgt. M., “Yes! Exactly! Detonation stuff!
THIS IS A LIVE B*!!$# BOMB!!”
Things were not looking good for me and Frank, unwittingly, made things worse. An opportunity had just presented itself for him to make a contribution.
Frank, “Dad! You see that shiny copper cap- the one with the cross on! If you put a screwdriver on that-it turns around!”
Sgt. Martin’s mouth fell open. He turned to my father and with a note of pleading in his voice,
“Glyn! What can you do with idiots like these?!”
My father had not moved from the moment that Sgt. Martin had proclaimed the bomb to be alive. He was paralysed. But, he was beginning to recover. I saw the twitches running down his arms and the puce of a rage beginning to flood into his face. I was no stranger to these signs.
Sgt. Martin continued to make things blacker for me,
“And you had this hanging up in your living room over a coal fire!!”
Sgt. M. “You are a stupid b*!#*# idiot aren’t you! AREN’T YOU?!! WHAT ARE YOU!!”
Me, “A stupid b*!#*# idiot, Sgt. Martin!”
“And your best friend, my only son, HE’S A BIGGER IDIOT THAN YOU ARE!”
In spite of this condemnation, my worries were transferring themselves from the worthy sergeant to my father.
I prepared myself.
Sgt. Martin took his leave. Parthian shot with face now not so long and pokey, . . “Don’t you ever, ever bring a live bomb home again- do you understand? I shudder to think what might have happened to you all in this house! This time, no harm has been done. No need for official reports or anything. I’ll defuse this, remove the thermite powder and you can have it back as a souvenir. Incidentally, from what Major Palmer tells me, you and the HG boys did a good job down the Head last night. So, nuff said! I’ll be in later for a pint Glyn, when I come off. It’ll be on you!”
Frank slipped me a sly wink and mouthed,
“See you later, Graf”.
The towering, helmeted constabulary, and son, departed.
Meanwhile my father had surfaced. He was still trembling but apparently struck dumb. He simply lifted a shaking arm and pointed upstairs.
He never ever laid a hand on me but, that night he surpassed himself, verbally. Words were uttered that I had never heard before. Amongst things said was the disappointment in discovering that he had a son whose intelligence level was so low that he had placed a live bomb above an open fireplace.
To be fair, one must make allowances, he probably did have a point.
A week later, my bomb was returned completely emasculated but still looking the part. Sadly, we had a short life together. A few months later, I yielded to the Irish cajolery of Merchant Navy Captain, Joe Hunt. He took it with him to USA on an Atlantic Crossing. It was donated to the American Red Cross who raffled it for their funds. Joe brought me the good news that indirectly Hitler had subscribed to our war effort.
Even so! How I wish that I had retained that bomb! What a precious relic it would be today, as a tangible part of Mumbles war time history!
So, in World War2, bombs did fall on Mumbles though, as said before, .in comparison to the near annihilation of Swansea, were trivial incidents.
But, what could have happened?
Both bomb aimers had pressed their buttons haphazardly and a look at the map of Mumbles Head and the possible flight tracks of these aircraft, must give us pause. Just a navigational degree of difference, or a fraction of a second’s hesitancy in pressing that button and what a story of tragedy would be told today.
Mumbles was very, very fortunate.
Map of Mumbles Head and flight paths
The Map of Mumbles Head, shows the possible flight paths of the German aircraft involved in the two bombing incidents:
AA-the High Explosive Bomb incident.
BB-the Incendiary Bombs Incident.
(Written in Mumbles and completed 3rd September 2013).