History is all around us, its just we are probably too busy to notice. This struck me recently driving along Garngoch Common. As Chair of the Swansea Festival I have recently made numerous visits to the Arthur Llewelyn Jenkins Furniture Superstore in Penllergaer. The owner, Martyn Jenkins is a board member and his café area has provided ample space for socially distanced chats regarding the future plans for the festival over the past few months.
Driving home I regularly noticed a strange signpost which had ‘crossed swords’ and the number 1136. Following the last meeting I stopped to take a photo. ‘Brwydr Gwyr 1136 Battle of Gower’. When I got home I started searching online and soon found that in 1136 a great battle took place on those fields between the Normans and the Welsh. The Normans who had won the Battle of Hastings in 1066 were gradually moving further west and the Welsh were, well, revolting!!
It seems the Normans underestimating the Welsh that day and ended up losing the battle with some 516 causalities, mostly it is said from the Norman side. These battles were bloody affairs with the bodies of the defeated foes being left on the fields to be eaten by wolves with streams running red. With so much blood shed that day its thought that the ‘Goch’ meaning red in ‘Garngoch Common’ might well trace its roots to that battle.
Beautiful Oystermouth Castle by moonlight
I shouldn’t really have been surprised. Wales is often described as a Land of Castles with the ruins of well over 400 still visible. Even beautiful Oystermouth Castle, sitting pretty overlooking the Mumbles was the scene of many an attack. Kind Edward I, Edward Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots, the King Mel Gibson fought in ‘Braveheart’ spent Christmas at the Castle in 1284.
While we might take these castles for granted now, when they were built they were very visible signs of oppression and I’m sure provoked uprisings every so often. It’s good that so many have survived and we are taking care of them but its also important to realise as we stand on the ramparts looking out over the walls that in years gone by we would probably have been the peasants on the outside looking in or planning some sort of attack.
History needs to be remembered but it also needs to be remembered in context.
Big Pit- Blaenafon (Click picture to book your visit)
That is another reason I am so pleased we have kept some remnants from our recent industrial past. In the Nineteenth Century the Castles of the Normans were replaced by the Pit Head Towers that lowered the miners into the belly of the earth. Like many of us I had grandparents and great grandparents who spent their working life underground and I’m sure they are delighted that their offspring didn’t have to follow them. Its good for us to see what they went through although I’m sure our sanitised view of their lives can give us a romanticised view sometimes.
South Wales Miner’s Museum , Afan Argoed (Click on picture for more details)
It’s important that we visit places like the South Wales Miner’s Museum in the Afan Valley to see artefacts from those days when Wales was the coal capital of the world, but it’s also important that we should read the reports of the use of child labour and lack of safety and sanitation. Out of these horrific conditions fortunes were built at such a great human cost.
But we should also remember that just as the Welsh had revolted against the Normans in the Twelfth Century it was down to people like the Miners banding together to create Miners Institutes and unions that won so many of the freedoms and rights that we now take so much for granted.
My dad came from Pontrhydyfen, a mining village very close to Afan Argoed. He would often tell me stories of the characters from that village, many related to stories of heroism underground. It was my dad I thought of this week when talking to a friend about another local area of great historical interest that is under threat.
I was brought up in the 1960’s with lots of films and television programmes based on the Second World War. In fact, many sociologists think that is the reason so many of my generation see so much of the world through that prism of ‘we won the war’ although none of us had even been born when the guns stopped firing.
All of the films like, Where Eagles Dare, the Dirty Dozen or the Guns of Navarone were set in places far away from Wales. It was only in passing that dad mentioned one day that he and my grandfather had preached to high ranking members of the German Army at Island Farm in Bridgend. As with so many things in life I wish now I had either asked him to write down his memories of those meetings or even recorded him telling the stories…but this is what I remember.
Island Farm POW Camp Bridgend (C) islandfarm.wales
Island Farm in Bridgend had been built for women who worked at a local munitions factory but was so unpleasant most decided to travel from their homes rather than stay there. It was used to house American Soldiers before D Day and then became a Prisoner of War Camp in 1944.
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (C) island farm.wales
It was home to some of the highest ranking German POW’s including Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt Commander of the German Armies in the campaign against France.
Field Marshall Erich von Manstein who conquered the Crimea and Sebastopol. (C) islandfarm.wales
Now, my grandfather George had been a stoker in a Merchant Navy ship in the first world war and a member of the Home Guard in the second. My dad had been a gunner on a Naval Destroyer. As local preachers they had been asked to go to the camp to hold a service one Sunday evening. Knowing my grandfather and dad they would have had their Sunday best suits on for the service, but nothing had quite prepared them for the congregation. The little chapel had some soldiers in place before the high ranking officers arrived. My dad said as they heard the sound of their boots walking up to the church doors the soldiers in the church stood quickly to attention. The Officers marched in, immaculately dressing in full dress uniform. They clicked their heels and bowed slightly to Welsh preachers before taking their seats.
I remember at the time going to the library to read about the camp and it was there I discovered that the Camp had been the setting for ‘The Great German Escape’. On the 10th March 1945, 70 prisoners escaped through a Tunnel dug under HUT 9. Just like in the story from one of my favourite Christmas Films ‘The Great Escape’, the Germans had tapped into electricity supplies, used oak benches and bed legs to support their tunnel, hidden vast amounts of soil behind false walls and made compasses and maps to give to each group of escapees.
It’s said all 70 were recaptured, although that is disputed by some people who say 3 POW’s were never accounted for. Thankfully, unlike some of the captured prisoners of ‘The British Great Escape’ none of the prisoners were summarily executed.
I should point out that none of this had anything to do with the standard of my dad’s preaching as his visits didn’t take place until after the war.
For years the camp was allowed to fall in disrepair. Maybe people just wanted to forget and move on.
In 2012 a Preservation Group was set up to maintain and secure the site. HUT 9, the centre of the Escape, is the owned by Bridgend Council and is Grade 2 listed, but the Visitors Centre the HUT9 Preservation Group have built is now under threat and the land could be used for redevelopment. The Group have been offered first refusal but now need to raise £40,000 to buy the land. They have set up a crowd-funding campaign https://gofund.me/e050c8c6
Like the Norman Castles and Mine Owners Pit Heads this site carries with it sadness but is part of our history. The POWs housed in the camp had been members of a regime responsible for the deaths of millions of people. Maybe that is why it is so important for us to preserve the camp and its history if only to remind us that evil acts and deeds can be closer to home than we think. It would be a great shame if it couldn’t be saved.
PS Not all of the POWs went back to Germany. Whilst being POW’s they were allowed to work locally on farms. That’s how Helmutt Guettler, a German Navy Corporal met local girl Zena Pickering. They fell in love, got married and built a life and family for themselves in Wales.