THE outbreak of the First World War on August 4, 1914, threw Pembrokeshire into the front line of the sea war against Germany.
The day after war was declared, the Telegraph reported: “Government vessels are stationed near the entrance to Milford Haven harbour for the purpose of challenging and searching all incoming craft, and searchlights are played upon them from the forts. Torpedo boats are hovering around the entrance to Milford Docks and everything is being challenged. Men of the Royal Naval Reserve (Trawler Section) have been mobilised and orders given for certain steam trawlers to be handed to the Admiralty for minesweeping service.”
Few could have envisaged, however, the devastating effect that German U-boats would have on the war.
When Otto Hersing’s U-21 made a pilot raid into the Irish Sea in January 1915, it marked the beginning of a terror campaign against merchant shipping unprecedented in the history of naval warfare.
Pembrokeshire, so strategically placed to command the main shipping routes, played a major part in the fight against the U-boats. The county also became a refuge for the hundreds of survivors from ships which fell victim to enemy submarines.
Royal Navy patrol boats were constantly prowling the sea in their hunt for Uboats.
By the end of March 1915 the 16 U-boats then on operational patrol in British waters had sunk 28,000 tons of shipping. The horror of the war at sea hit home for the people of Pembrokeshire on successive days that month when two liners were torpedoed and sunk in the Irish Sea by Baron von Forstner’s U-28.
Over 100 passengers and crew members perished when the Elder Dempster ship Falaba went down and eight lives were lost in the Yeoward Brothers’ steamship Aguila.
At this stage of the war, the Haven Waterway’s importance as a base for auxiliary naval forces was signalled when Admiral Charles Holcolmbe Dare set up his headquarters, designated HMS Idaho, at Murray Crescent House, on The Rath, Milford Haven.
Under his command was a fleet of patrol vessels, including the yachts Bacchante II and Hecate, armed trawlers and minesweepers.
Among the measures taken to combat the U-boats was the convoy system. The Milford Haven Waterway was a key assembly point for convoys of merchant ships, which sailed every four days for Gibraltar. A total of 113 convoys was allocated to the Haven during the war.
Since 1916 the Royal Navy had been flying non-rigid airships on anti-submarine operations from a base at Sageston. It was commissioned as the Royal Naval Air Station, Pembroke, and also operated Sopwith 1½ Strutter and de Havilland 6 aircraft on patrols over the South-Western Approaches.
The Navy also flew Sopwith Baby, Fairey Hamble Baby and Short 184 seaplanes from the Royal Naval Air Station at Fishguard.
Q-ships were also commissioned to boost the desperate fight against the U-boats. These armed merchant vessels, based at Milford Docks, were artfully disguised to look nothing like warships and were dubbed ‘mystery ships’ by the public.
It was while in command of the Q-ship Prize that New Zealander Lieutenant-Commander William Edward Sanders DSO, RNR won the Victoria Cross for a brilliant action against U-93 on April 30, 1917. It was believed the submarine had been sunk, but she limped back to Germany. The schooner Prize became a marked ship and she was torpedoed and sunk by U-48 on August 17. Lieutenant-Commander Sanders and all of his crew died.
Sanders is remembered on the Milford Haven and County War Memorials and was commemorated in New Zealand by the country’s premier sailing trophy, the Sanders Cup. He was one of over 250 personnel from the Milford naval base who won honours for action against U-boats.
It is estimated that well over 80 ships were lost off the Pembrokeshire coast during the First World War – many of these being torpedoed or shelled by U-boats. The final victim of the war in local waters was the little sailing vessel Emily Millington, captured and sunk by gunfire on October 20th, 1918, fortunately without loss of live.
With the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, Admiral Dare paid tribute at a victory supper to all who had served at the Milford Haven base. The Admiral also witnessed the arrival at the port in the December of one of the vanquished foe, U-112, which went on show to the public at Milford and Pembroke Dock at sixpence a time.
Page extracted from G/Grandfathers family Bible. (ES4802 Albert Charles Williams HMS Idaho)