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The Welsh ports in the frontline of the War in 1941







1940-41 - the winter of crisis







"...the consequences of Britain’s isolation emerged item by sinister item..."








"The number of ships laid up and awaiting repair posed a bigger threat than the U-boat menace"



















"By November 1940, senior Luftwaffe staff believed that air attacks on Britain’s capability to feed itself were most likely to succeed"

In addition to being severely challenged with regard to unloading and sorting, the Bristol Channel ports also faced problems with distributing goods. London and Liverpool had developed superb rail networks (and increasingly in the 1930s, road networks) to distribute goods to markets or storage as needed. The South Wales ports relied heavily on the Great Western Railway to distribute goods inland and into England. The growth of the South Wales railways was intimately connected with the demands of the coal export trade and marshalling yards, junctions and working routines, whilst superbly geared to the coal trade proved extremely difficult to adapt to the requirements of wartime. It fell to the railway companies to clear the ports of all incoming goods and to keep the ports clear so that ships could be unloaded quickly and returned to outgoing convoys.

In the winter of 1940, the speed at which a ship could be discharged and cleared from the port became crucial, particularly as German U-boat operations were improving in skill and results. It was quickly acknowledged that Cardiff, Barry and Swansea needed immediate improvements to their railway systems to enable them to rail supplies away from the ports. Between July 1940 and January 1941, 117,000 was spent on additional sidings at the Welsh ports and another 257,090 was committed to line improvements between Newport and Severn Tunnel Junction. It soon became apparent that the Severn Tunnel was the key element in clearing the Welsh ports, for coal had to be shipped to England in massive quantities and general cargoes also needed moving south and east. Of course, the other side of the equation was that laden wagons would ultimately have to return empty, thus compounding the traffic problems The only solution was to use the tunnel to maximum capacity all day and every day including Sunday, traditionally a day for track and tunnel maintenance. This was eventually done in early 1941 and did go some way towards alleviating the situation.

In addition to the sheer numbers of wagons needed to be moved there was also the problem of the nature of the goods being received. The massive increase in frozen meat coming into Cardiff and Swansea soon resulted in an acute shortage of refrigerated and insulated wagons, which in turn prevented unloading of the ships and so increasing congestion at the ports. Whilst all these problems were central to Britain’s war effort, none of them proved insurmountable and, given time, solutions were found to most of the difficulties.

However, the challenge to the Welsh ports did not end there. The fall of France in May 1940, changed the strategic map of the war almost completely. France was an ally, not only in the military sense but also in the way of raw materials. The implication of the German victory was much deeper than the government had imagined. Whilst the Battle of Britain raged overhead, the consequences of Britain’s isolation emerged item by sinister item: Britain’s traditional sources of iron ore were from France, Spain and French North Africa. With the German occupation of the French Atlantic coast, Britain had lost access to over 6 million tons of iron ore a year. The Dowlais works in Cardiff had been rebuilt in the 1930s specifically to take advantage of high quality Spanish and Norwegian iron ore supplies and its effective contribution to the war effort would be severely jeopardised by a shortage of the appropriate quality iron ore.

Alternative supplies were eventually received from Sierra Leone and South Africa. Other supply sources had also been lost: Flax, Nickel, Bauxite, Zinc, Hemp and Chrome Ore had all been lost in significant quantities. New sources of supply had to be sought in Africa, the Far East and the Americas. The implications for the British merchant fleet were ominous. Many vessels had to travel farther afield carrying cargoes which, if not unfamiliar, were unsuitable or even dangerous as many ships had never been designed to carry bulk cargoes in the variety and quantity now required. Ships returning to Britain heavily laden with these much needed goods and raw materials had to run the gauntlet of the U-boats. If this was not daunting enough, the North Atlantic in winter took its own toll of heavily laden ships crossing some of the roughest seas in the world.

The result of all of the above is that many ships arrived at the Welsh ports in a dilapidated state, often badly damaged by shifting loads in their holds. Whilst the quays of the Welsh ports filled with goods, the repair yards filled with many of the ships that had carried them. By January 1941, 13% of Britain’s merchant fleet was tied up awaiting repair. The number of ships laid up and awaiting repair posed a bigger threat than the U-boat menace. Ships queued up at Swansea, Cardiff, Barry and Swansea for attention. Ship repair facilities always featured amongst Luftwaffe target lists. The dry docks were also used extensively for fitting ships with degaussing apparatus as a protection against magnetic mines. This was particularly important in the Bristol Channel because the physical characteristics of the approach channels to Swansea and Cardiff were particularly suited to the magnetic mines laid by the Germans. The Bristol Channel featured prominently in the mine war. With an eye to the strategic implications, the German Naval High Command attempted to use U-boats to disrupt the Welsh timber import trade which had close links with the northern ports of the Soviet Union. Equally, the iron ore traffic from Narvik to South Wales was also considered worthy of disruption. Although, U-boat command always remained sceptical of the value of this trade, preferring to concentrate on the high value convoy trade of the North Atlantic. The conflict of opinion highlights the different views evident in the German Navy command on the various ways in which an effective trade war could be waged against Britain. A lack of clear focus by the Germans was to have disastrous consequences for their effective prosecution of the North Atlantic trade war.

With so much resting on the role of the South Wales ports, it is hardly surprising that the Luftwaffe turned their attention to them. The pre-war government assertion that the Welsh ports (and Bristol and Liverpool) would be virtually immune from air attack was hopelessly optimistic. The increasing range of German combat aircraft, the inadequacies of the RAF interception arrangements and the occupation of Western France by the German army quickly combined to dispel the notion that Britain would have any ‘safe’ airspace at all. Confirmation of that fact was soon to follow when the Luftwaffe reconnaissance effort was plotted covering almost all of the country. By November 1940, senior Luftwaffe staff believed that air attacks on Britain’s capability to feed itself were most likely to succeed and, accordingly, the ports of the West began to endure a series of air raids with this objective in mind. Cardiff, with its grain and flour mills and frozen food and cold stores, was considered especially suitable for attack, although all the South Wales ports received some Luftwaffe attention.

Back to the U-boat campaigns in the Bristol Channel



The View for Sunday 4 December 2000

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