Those In Peril

War is very often described as a “young man’s game”. For most soldiers on the frontlines, even today, this is very much the case, but during the two World Wars men of all ages found themselves swept into the maelstrom of conflict. Many perished in the course of duties which, in ordinary times, would contain no extra risks, but in times of war were perilous.

The two oldest casualties from Llanishen lie at peace in St Isan’s churchyard. Both of them were merchant mariners, the innocents caught up in the vicious Battle of the Atlantic of 1940-43, when Nazi Germany attempted to starve Britain into submission by attacking her merchant lifeline.

The unusually named Windsor Spinks was the Chief Officer of the SS Stokesley when war broke out and served aboard his ship bringing supplies of chemicals over from the continent. The Stokesley was an old steamer built in Holland in 1922 and by April 1940 was under the ownership of a Cardiff-based firm. On the 24th April 1940 the Stokesley was entering the Thames estuary under the direction of a pilot when she struck a sea mine – whether it was a “friendly” or “enemy” mine is not recorded. She sank rapidly, taking down fourteen of the eighteen-man crew with her. Among that number was Chief Officer Spinks, a man killed in the course of a normal day’s work.

47 SS Stokesley

The SS Stokesley

A little over a year later, James Henry Blathwayt Eynon, a resident of Fidlas Road in Llanishen, was preparing to put his ship and crew to sea once more. He was the Master of the MV Benn Hann, a tanker built in 1940 and which had recently put in at Fort William. On the 10th November 1941 the ship departed Fort William and was never seen or heard from again. Seven days after she sailed a life raft with bodies – including that of Master Eynon, washed ashore near Port Ellen. The cause of her loss remains a mystery to this day, though there is speculation that it was either due to another mine or a U-Boat attack.

And the ages of these two casualties of the war at sea? Chief Officer Spinks was forty-seven, Master Eynon was forty-five. The Second World War was far from the preserve of the young.

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Two Men – One Battle

It was not uncommon during the First World War for men from the same area to serve together, for what better example do we have of this than the tragic story of the “Pals” battalions, made up of men from the same area or workplace who were slaughtered on the battlefields of the Somme? 

However, Llanishen is interesting in that we have several cases of men who served in the same area, sometimes in the same battle, despite coming from different units and backgrounds. We’ll explore some of these later on, but for now we’ll begin with two young men who lost their lives 96 years ago.

In March 1918 the future of the Great War hung in the balance. The British and French armies were exhausted from four years of enervating trench warfare. In the East, Germany had conducted a peace with the new Bolshevik government in Russia, freeing millions of troops from the Eastern Front. However, the  Americans, having declared war in 1917, were now beginning to arrive in France in large numbers. It was possible that the Allies could win the war once the Americans armies had concentrated in strength, and so the Germans needed to break through on the Western Front as soon as possible. General Erich Ludendorff, one the central players in the German High Command, planned a large-scale offensive with the armies freed from Russia, designed to strike all along the Western Front at several key points and break through, swinging under the flank of the British Armies and gradually entrapping them on the Northern Coast of France. 

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A map of Operation Michael, the initial German offensive in the Somme sector.

This great plan, thereafter known as the Kaiserschlacht (Emperor’s Battle) or the Ludendorff Offensive, was unleashed on 21st March 1918 along the old Somme battlefields, scarred after two years of heavy fighting and littered with bodies. The Germans tried a new and very successful tactic of sudden, overwhelming bombardments of the British trenches, quickly followed up by the new Stosstruppe (Storm Troops). These men were lightly equipped and carried bunches of grenades. They would leap up after the bombardment had stopped and hurl them into the British trenches, then rush over and finish off the survivors. These tactics worked to great effect and the British were swiftly pushed back from their line to the west of Cambrai. They began to rally around the crossroads town of Bapaume and hold their ground in the fresh unspoiled fields. It was here that two men from Llanishen were involved in the fighting.

 

The first was Private Frederick Breakspear. His family lived in Rose Cottage in Llanishen on what is now Caerphilly Road. We haven’t been able to find his service record, but by the time of the Spring Offensive he was serving in the 12th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, part of the British 41st Division. This Division was attacked to the north of Bapaume and gradually pushed back towards the town. It was during this fighting, on 23rd March, that Frederick was killed, though exactly how remains to be found. His body was never recovered – a testament to the speed and confusion of the battle – and he is commemorated on the Arras Memorial. The Western Mail carried this casualty notice a few days later, a rather tragic one as his mother was to learn of his death shortly afterwards. He was aged 21. 

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The notice in the Western Mail by Private Breakspear’s mother.

In the following days the British were forced to abandon Bapaume and withdraw towards Amiens. Private Walter Whynn was among the men pulling back. He was serving in 9th Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment, part of the 19th Division. This Division had been and still was fighting in the same sector as Frederick Breakspear and the 41st Division. As the 19th Division prepared to launch a counter-attack on 27th March to try and stabilise the line, Private Whynn was killed by enemy fire. He is buried in Delsaux Farm Cemetery, a cemetery begun by the Germans, meaning that the enemy may well have laid him to rest. He was just 18 years old when he was killed – he had only been 17 when he had enlisted a few months earlier, 

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Private Whynn’s service record, with the rather blunt “DEAD” stamp on the top.

Both these men died in the final phase of the war. Despite their early gains, the German counter-attack gradually ran out of steam, its multiple objective confusing the advance as British resistance stiffened. It finally drew to a close on 5th April, and in August the British unleashed a counter-attack of their own which ended with the Armistice of November 11th 1918. These two small parts of a vast maelstrom now rest peacefully in France, still far from home.

Great War Centenary – Anniversary Year

It can hardly have escaped notice that this year sees the beginning of the Great War Centenary Commemorations. Beginning in August, the next four years will see the whole country remember the events that took a generation of young men overseas and many thousands to their deaths.

 

This year also sees a number of important Second World War 70th  anniversaries including the Battle of Kohima, Battle of Monte Cassino, Battle of Arnhem and of course D-Day in Normandy.

 

Llanishen Local History Society will be undertaking a commemorative in the village during the summer for both periods where you can view our research and hopefully contribute. Please keep following us on here and also visit our website for more information.

 

We Will Remember Them

Lost Over Hamburg

Sixty-seven years ago, the German port city of Hamburg was “reaping the whirlwind” as hundreds of Bomber Command aircraft launched a week-long series of bombing missions designed to neutralise the city. This operation, codenamed Gomorrah, created a horrific series of firestorms, as a freak heatwave combined with the bombings to incinerate the populace and the city. Thousands died, both civilians and aircrew, in one of the darker episodes of the bomber offensive.

The ruins of Hamburg following the July 1943 raids

One of those casualties was a Llanishen man, Donald Edward Croft, who had lived on Fidlas Road in the village. He was a Sergeant/Air Gunner in 97 Squadron, Royal Air Force, which at the time of Operation Gomorrah was based at RAF Bourn in Cambridgeshire. Sergeant Croft was the rear gunner on the Lancaster IIIs flown by his aircrew –  one of the much-maligned “tail-end charlies”. In his freezing rear turret Sergeant Croft manned four .303-inch Browning machine-guns, the heaviest defensive armament on the Lancaster.

The aircrew that flew with Sergeant Croft were a varied bunch. The pilot was a Canadian – 27-year old Pilot Officer Clifford Shnier from Winnipeg, while two of the other crewmembers were Rhodesian. They had flown on several missions together before the Hamburg raids, including a long-range attack on the city of Turin in northern Italy, which was reported as successful. In total, before they took off on the fateful night of 29th/30th July 1943, they had flown seven raids for little over month.

On the 29th July Operation Gomorrah was coming to a close. 97 Squadron had been in the heart of the action and was to be called upon again. Sergeant Croft and his crew had rested up the previous night before rejoining the squadron. At around 10pm, they boarded Lancaster EE172, which was loaded with six target indicator flares (97 Squadron formed part of Bomber Command’s elite Pathfinder force) one 4,000lb bomb and three 1,000lb bombs. It took off at 10:45pm, and was never seen again. At some point during the mission, either before or after they had attacked the city, Lancaster EE172 was attacked by a German night-fighter and crashed near Wohnste, about 10 kilometres south-west of Hamburg. All the crew perished in the crash, including Sergeant Croft. He was 21. They now rest at Becklingen War Cemetery in Germany, which overlooks Luneburg Heath where the Western Allies finally signed the peace with Germany.

A Lancaster silhouetted above Hamburg, 1943

In Memoriam –

Crew of Lancaster EE172, KIA nr. Hamburg, 30/7/1943

PILOT:

Clifford Shnier, Pilot Officer, Royal Canadian Air Force

Winnipeg, Canada

Age 27

FLIGHT ENGINEER

Alfred Norman Gibbons, Sergeant, Royal Air Force

Bilston, Staffordshire

Age 23

NAVIGATOR:

Geoffrey John Homersham, Flying Officer/Navigator, Royal Air Force

Age and Home unknown – Rhodesian

BOMB AIMER

Paul de Villiers, Flying Officer, Royal Air Force

Age and Home unknown – Rhodesian

WIRELESS OPERATOR

Peter Charles Evans, Sergeant, Royal Air Force

Coventry

Age 22

MID-UPPER GUNNER

Benjamin Gabriel Knoesen, Pilot Officer/Air Gunner, Royal Air Force

Age and Home unknown – possibly Rhodesian.

REAR GUNNER

Donald Edward Croft, Sergeant, Royal Air Force

Llanishen, Cardiff

Age 21

-JK

Captain Harris and Mametz Wood

A little over 94 years ago, men of the 38th (Welsh) Division were locked in a desperate struggle amidst the ruined trees of Mametz Wood. Six days after the battle of the Somme had launched thousands of British troops into the meatgrinder, the Welsh Division had been brought out of reserve to push into Mametz Wood and clear the Germans still holding the area. Their first assault, on 7 July 1916, had failed with heavy casualties.

This was the division’s first test in battle. Most of its constituent formations had arrived in France earlier in 1916 and had spent the long spring training for the next “big push.” One of the units that made up the 38th Division was the 16th (Cardiff City) Battalion of the Welsh Regiment. It had been raised in late 1914 following Lloyd George’s call to form a “Welsh Army Corps”. A young Captain from Llanishen, Frank Gaskell, recently of 2nd Battalion the Welsh Regiment, was placed in command, and the year 1915 was spent training and recruiting men for this new battalion. In late November the 16th Welsh paraded through Cardiff on their way to the troop ships to France. It was the last time many of the men would see the city.

The battalion had, with most of the 38th Division, spent the early part of 1916 training, mainly around the village of Merville in France. It was during this time that the now-Lieutenant Colonel Gaskell was killed by a sniper while patrolling the battalion’s lines. Among the men who attended his funeral at the church in Merville on the 18th May was the adjutant, Captain Lyn Arthur Philip Harris, another Llanishen man, who lived on the same road in the village as Gaskell.

Merville Churchyard today, now a CWGC cemetery.

Captain Harris was with the battalion during the attacks on Mametz Wood on 7th July. On the 10th, the 38th Division was ordered to try again. At 4:00pm, following a covering barrage, the division advanced well into the wood before being held up by well-positioned German trenches. The attack halted for the night, during which time the division’s 115th Brigade, which included the 16th Welsh, was brought forward from reserve to relieve the battered front-line battalions.

The 115th Brigade took fire while advancing to it’s starting positions, and then had to wait until 3:00 for the fresh attack. 15 minutes prior to the start of the attack, British artillery provided a preliminary barrage. Unfortunately, several shells fell short on the assault troops, and the Germans quickly responded with heavy counter-battery fire on the Brigade’s position in the wood. It was during this exchange of artillery fire that Captain Harris was mortally wounded. Carried back from the front-line to an aid station, he handed his wedding ring to the 16th Welsh’s commanding officer to give to his wife. They had been married for just six months – he had probably spent very little time with her. Captain Harris died of his wounds later that day. He was just 23. He is buried in Dantzig Alley Cemetery on the Somme, along with many men who fell in that brutal battle.

-JK

A Real Hero

For the next couple of weeks we will be indundated with news from the World Cup in South Africa. Men who’s only quality seems to be the ability to kick a rubber ball into a string net will be hailed as heroes, their deeds heralded around the world. This is something that irks a non-football fan like me. Footballers are not heroes, they’re just good atheletes, if that’s your sort of thing.

For this month’s post on the War Memorial Project I want to highlight a real hero. He is on a war memorial in a British church, and he isn’t even British. Edouard Nihoul was born in 1895 in Waremme in eastern Belgian, a short hop away from the area which, a little under fifty years later, would be the scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the Battle of the Bulge. He arrived in Cardiff with his parents following the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914 and moved to the quiet village of Llanishen. However, young Edouard evidently did not intend to remain a passive refugee. That November, having gone to London, he enlisted in the Belgian Army and began training to go to war.

Two years later, in June 1916, Edouard was an Adjutant in the 7th Regiment of the Line, 2nd Belgian Division. This Division was operating near Oostvleteren in Flanders, and was the scene of heavy fighting. On the 30th June, the 7th Regiment’s position came under heavy German bombardment. Edouard spotted a comarde lying grievously wounded, and rushed to his aid. As he struggled to help him, both men were caught in the bombardment and killed.

Initially, Edouard was buried in Oostvleteren, but once the war was over and Belgium was liberated, his body was reinterred in his hometown. Unlike the footballers who will recieve all the attention over the next few weeks, young Edouard was a true hero. Paid a pittance for a job he did not want, he went to fight despite the fact that he could have remained safely in Britain, and died trying to help a comrade and liberate his country. Never forget him, nor those like him.

A Belgian soldier waiting to go to the front.

 -JK

*Photo from Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War

Introduction

At the beginning of the year  Llanishen Local History Society started work on a project designed to uncover the service histories of the men from the village who fought and fell in the Two World Wars, as well as the brief “American invasion” of the village prior to D-Day. This had come about because a member had found a war grave in St Isan’s church in the village of which they were unaware. Although this was a Second World War casualty, we’ve begun by focusing on the Great War casualties that are commemorated on the two memorial plaques within the church – the bronze one inside the church itself is shown in the photo below:

This plaque records the names of 20 men, the majority of them officers. Over the coming months, we will be posting details of these men on or around the time they were killed in action, as well as any further discoveries we make. Interestingly, the plaque in the church hall has another two names not recorded on this memorial. We also believe there are men who were killed in WW1 who were not recorded at all!

Within the church there are also memorials to individuals and groups of men who fell in both World Wars, and in the churchyard outside there are several war graves, some of them beingCWGC headstones. The casualty shown in the photograph below, Pilot Officer Thomas Spencer Lewis of 79 Squadron Royal Air Force, was one of the village’s first casualties.  P/Off Lewis was killed in action while on patrol in his Hawker Hurricane over the South Coast of England on 2nd January 1940. When his coffin arrived at the village station, it was escorted down to the church for the funeral by RAF personnel and an RAF band.

We hope we can honour these men, and those who returned from the wars, by recording their stories for future generations of Llanishen residents.

On this blog we will be posting our discoveries and information about the men themselves. If anyone is interested in learning more about the project or has anything that would be of interest, please leave us a comment.

-JK

A Fresh Start

Readers to this blog may find that there are currently two “Llanishen’s Fallen” blogs on the internet. Both are created by Llanishen Local History Society, but unfortunately due a long lull in our online work we lost access to our old website. We’ve ported over most of our posts from the old blog and will continue to update you from here.