A Very British Civil War in Little England Beyond Wales 1938

‘A Very British Civil War 1938’ is an alternative history idea originally developed by Solway Crafts & Miniatures: http://solwaycraftsandminiatures.webs.com/vbcwpage.htm

To précis, Edward VIII has refused to abdicate, plunging the country into a constitutional crisis, followed by civil war.  Oswald Mosely, allied to the King, is now Prime Minister and the country has shattered into a myriad of factions and petty squabbles.  Into this rather far-fetched background, we then throw in a large dollop of 1930s British stereotype, local history, myth, Ealing comedy and general silliness.

Half the fun for me is coming up with a ‘history’ of the events in my home county, as well as inventing characters, military units and scenarios to pin it all together.  Those familiar with Pembrokeshire will know that ’tis a silly place and I don’t have to look very far beyond local history for inspiration…

Little England Beyond Wales

The sleepy County of Pembrokeshire, in far-flung south-west Wales, has long slumbered in splendid isolation, with history and the whims of fashion often passing it by.  However, history and geography have occasionally conspired to drag Pembrokeshire into the limelight.  The deep Milford Haven waterway in particular has provided the Irish, Vikings, French and Henry Tudor with an invasion route into Wales, the Royal Navy with a fortified dockyard, the Royal Air Force with a flying-boat base and the local people with a massive economic resource.

The seeds of civil war in Pembrokeshire were sown nearly 900 years earlier, during the Norman Conquest.  The Normans managed to subdue the southern half of the county, settling it largely with Flemish mercenaries.  The southern and western fringes of the county therefore quickly adopted Norman French, Flemish and later English language and customs, while the northern half of the county remained Welsh in language and custom.  The border-country between the two was fortified by a string of castles and became known to the Flemish Marcher-Lords as the ‘Landsker’.  This old Flemish term, along with the division in language and custom, continues to this day.

Thus, as Great Britain descended into chaos during 1938, centuries-old tensions bubbled over and erupted into low-level insurrection and banditry, as the Welsh-speaking population north of the Landsker began settling old scores with the mainly English-speaking land-owning gentry.  This pattern was repeated across the Welsh-speaking heartland of Wales and refugees soon flocked from the hostile countryside to South Pembrokeshire and other Loyalist enclaves, where Government troops still maintained a semblance of law and order – mainly the large market and garrison towns such as Cardigan, Carmarthen, Llandeilo, Llandovery, Brecon and Crickhowell.

Lloyd George Was My Father

South Pembrokeshire soon found itself once more in Splendid Isolation as it became cut off from the main rump of the Royalist South Wales Administration area by Carmarthenshire Welsh Nationalists and the ‘Reds’ of Llanelli and the Gwendraeth Valley coal-fields.  It was clear to the King and to Mosley that Lord Glamorgan’s South Wales Administration was losing control of the situation and that someone was needed to get a grip on South Pembrokeshire.  Major Gwilym Lloyd George, the son of the former Prime Minister Lloyd George and former MP for Pembrokeshire, seemed just the man for the job.  He was well-respected across the county and being on the right of the Liberal Party, was an ardent loyalist who had been implacably opposed to any suggestion of the King’s abdication.  While no fascist, Gwilym Lloyd George was nevertheless an admirer of Germany’s Chancellor, having with his father visited Herr Hitler in 1935.

Swiftly invested as Viscount Tenby and breveted to the military rank of Major General, Gwilym Lloyd George swiftly took control of the situation by first taking steps to repair the fragile economy.  The small anthracite-mining industry in the county could no longer export by rail due to all railways out of the county being blocked by Welsh Nationalist forces, so the tiny former coal-exporting port of Saundersfoot, which had closed in 1935, was re-opened to small coastal craft.  Inbound coal-barges then brought with them much-needed military supplies.  The paramilitary Pembrokeshire Auxiliary Constabulary meanwhile, reporting directly to Lord Tenby instead of their conciliatory Chief Constable, was actively employed in suppressing Red attempts to disrupt mining, fishing, railway, shipping and other economic activity in the ports of Neyland and Milford Haven.

Big Trouble in Little England

The regular and Territorial Army units in the county, namely the 2nd Battalion King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, the 4th (Volunteer) Battalion The Welch Regiment and the 102nd (Pembrokeshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment Royal Artillery, took steps to secure the Landsker against Welsh Nationalist incursions.  The A40 trunk road and the Whitland to Haverfordwest railway line, running roughly along the Landsker, were particularly vulnerable and armed patrol-trains were soon in service along the route, with small garrisons placed at stations, signal-boxes and bridges.

The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was also making its presence felt in Pembrokeshire at this time.  An Irish-American fascist demagogue and resident of Tenby by the name of William Joyce, was having some success in calling recruits to the BUF banner.  He had previously been part of the BUF leadership, but had fallen out with Mosley and had left the party.  However, as the Blackshirt-on-the-spot, he was now back in good odour with the party, being appointed to the rank of BUF Brigade-Commander and the post of BUF Liaison Officer to Viscount Tenby.  Playing on fears of rapine Welsh Nationalist barbarians from the North, Joyce soon whipped up enough recruits to raise the BUF’s ‘Sir Thomas Picton’ Independent Cohort within the county, as well as a number of independent BUF Local Defence units. The ‘Sir Thomas Picton’ Cohort was soon engaged with Welsh Nationalists along the Landsker and led by the notorious Sir Owen Picton, 2nd Baron Kylsant, quickly attracted a dark reputation for savagery, rivalled only by Sir Banister Templeton’s Loyal Landsker Legion; a green-jacketed cavalry unit of Welsh-speaking renegades from north of the Landsker.

With growing anarchy in the county and the seeming inability for the Royal authorities to do anything about it, private militias and local defence organisations began appearing; most notably among the (left-leaning) fishing and shipping communities on the north bank of the Milford Haven waterway and among the relatively remote communities in the north-west and south-west of the county (who were being funded by Viscount St David’s of Roch Castle and encouraged by the increasingly anti-government rhetoric of the Bishop of St David’s).  Cracks were now starting to form and widen in ‘government-controlled’ Pembrokeshire.

As in many civil wars throughout history, the reasons for war were many and various, but one single event served as the catalyst that caused simmering tensions to boil over into open civil war.  That event was the ‘Castle Hill Massacre’.

The Vicar of Pembroke, the Reverend Mansel Lewis, was well-known as a firebrand preacher and supporter of the exiled ‘Winchester Parliament’ and would every Sunday denounce the King and Mosley’s government from the pulpit with ever-increasing vehemence.  Lord Tenby and the Chief Constable of Pembrokeshire appealed directly to Reverend Lewis, as well as to the Bishop of St David’s to calm the rhetoric, but to no avail.  Appeals became threats, as Joyce’s BUF Blackshirts started making their presence felt on Pembroke Main Street.  Nevertheless, Reverend Lewis’ congregations swelled in numbers and finally exceeded the capacity of any church in Pembroke.  Finally, a public meeting was called at Castle Hill in Pembroke, to debate the King’s failure to abdicate and the Bill of Attainder and to protest against Mosley’s undemocratic seizure of power.

As the crowds began to gather on that fateful Sunday, a platoon of armed BUF militia dismounted from trucks and began to take up position on Main Street.  A platoon of ‘D’ Company, 4th Welch Regiment was already present; these Territorial Army men had been called out in case of civil disorder and to defend their own drill hall at Castle Hill and the armoury within.  Despite the threatening atmosphere, the Reverend Lewis strode up onto the steps of the War Memorial, in front of the castle’s barbican.  The exact sequence of events is unclear, being shrouded by subsequent propaganda and counter-propaganda.  However, what is clear is that at some point during the meeting, things turned ugly and the BUF Blackshirts opened fire on the crowd, cutting down the Reverend Lewis, the Mayor of Pembroke and several others.  The TA platoon commander, Lieutenant James Ackland, attempted to order the Blackshirts to hold their fire, but he too was shot down.  Incensed local TA soldiers returned fire on the BUF.  Civilians were soon being armed from the Drill Hall armoury and the tables were turned on the BUF who were soon chased out of Pembroke.

Events then moved with astonishing swiftness. The remainder of ‘D’ Company 4th Welch in the neighbouring town of Pembroke Dock was soon contacted and within minutes they had seized the Pembroke Dock Garrison Headquarters at the Defensible Barracks, being soon joined by disgruntled elements of the Pembrokeshire Yeomanry, Royal Marines, Royal Engineers and Coastal Artillery.  The Station Commander of RAF Pembroke Dock, Group Captain Arthur Harris also went over to the rebels, along with most of his officers and men, but there was a running fight through the Dockyard as loyalist RAF personnel resisted.  The rebels also moved quickly to seize Llanion Barracks, which served as the depot for the firmly loyalist 2nd KSLI.  The guardroom was subdued during a brief fire-fight and the regular soldiers present (mainly rear-echelon staff, as 2nd KSLI was away to the north, fighting Welsh Nationalists) were rounded up, along with large stocks of arms, ammunition and motor transport.

Across the water, Socialist militia in Neyland and Milford Haven, alerted by the sounds of gunfire from Pembroke Dock, were also mobilising.  As in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock, government forces and institutions were captured or driven out, with stocks of arms and ammunition captured.  Most notable was the capture of the large RAF reserve fuel depot at Milford Haven and the old Victorian fort at Scoveston, which guards the northern approach to Neyland.  In a rush of enthusiasm, the Neyland revolutionaries opened fire with machine guns on the RAF flying boats moored in the waterway.  Within minutes, many of the machines were burning or sinking, only a few being saved by brave aircrew and seamen taxiing or towing them to the shelter of the Pembroke River inlet.  Sporadic fire would be exchanged between rebel forces in Pembroke Dock and Neyland over the next few days, causing much unnecessary bloodshed and damage before an uneasy truce was called between the two sides.  Eventually, a Memorandum of Understanding would be exchanged between the two sides; each agreeing to let the other side manage its own affairs without interference, provided they didn’t side with the government.

News travelled like lightning across Pembrokeshire and as the loyalists reeled in confusion, the Bishop of St David’s, having long prepared for this moment, now made his move, publicly declaring his allegiance to the Anglican League from the steps of the cathedral and inviting all outraged citizens to join him in restoring the legitimate rule of democracy to Pembrokeshire and Great Britain.  The local defence volunteer units in the north-west of the county, aided by the bulk of the Pembrokeshire Constabulary and led by the old war-horse Major General Ivor Picton, quickly mobilised and disarmed or overwhelmed the few loyalist military units, Blackshirts and Police Auxiliaries stationed in the area.  Outraged by events in Pembroke and whipped up to a fervour by Anglican League propagandists, a column of the Bishop’s forces advanced on the county town of Haverfordwest.  The column was halted by BUF forces at Crundale, only a few miles north of the town, but not before the Bishop’s forces had inflicted serious losses on the BUF and captured a military train, packed with vital war materiel.

In the north and east, the Welsh Nationalists were emboldened and took advantage of the chaos to make further advances into Royalist (and Anglican League) territory.  However, the Welsh Nationalists were themselves riven by factionalism and in-fighting and failed to capitalise fully on the Royalist’s partial-collapse in Pembrokeshire.

In Pembroke, the rebels had declared initially for the exiled Winchester Parliament, though a firm promise of military aid soon brought them into the sphere of influence of Albert, Lord Protector.  Sir Charles William McKay Price, former Conservative MP for Pembrokeshire and veteran of the Great War, declared the ‘Protectorate of Pembrokeshire’.  Within days, strong Albertine naval forces had landed a full brigade group in Pembroke Dock, thereby doubling the rebel military strength.  An Albertine battalion group was also sent by sea to aid the Bishop of St David’s in support of their common aims.  At the mouth of the Milford Haven waterway meanwhile, rebel coastal gunners blew up the magazines of the West Blockhouse Battery in a colossal explosion that was apparently heard as far away as Cork, Ilfracombe and Swansea.  The West Blockhouse gunners withdrew across the Haven to reinforce the Albertine garrisons of the East Blockhouse Battery and Chapel Bay Fort.

The Socialists soon declared the ‘People’s Socialist Republic of Milford Haven and Neyland’ and thanks to the Memorandum of Understanding with the Albertine rebels south of the Haven, were able to continue fishing and shipping, while bringing in war materiel.  It suited the Albertines for the time being to have, if not an ally, a fellow enemy of the King covering their northern flank.  The Socialists for their part, managed to suppress their more radical urges and did nothing to provoke the Albertines; they knew full-well that the 9-inch and 6-inch coastal guns at the East Blockhouse Battery could immediately stop all their shipping and flatten Milford Haven.

At a stroke, the Royalist Administration of Pembrokeshire had been stripped of the logistical core of its military capability.  It had lost its main ports, its main armouries, the bulk of its fuel reserves and a considerable portion of its military forces.  What it did have was continued control of the central belt of Pembrokeshire, together with most of the railway network and coal-fields.  Lord Glamorgan’s Welsh Administration promised to send what help it could and as Saundersfoot coal-barges returned to the county, they brought with them men and war materiel.  Within a few weeks, the Royalist forces in Pembrokeshire had been expanded to three full infantry brigades, plus the brigade-sized Landsker Frontier Force.  However, this seemingly sizeable force had its hands full fighting a war on four fronts and could only hope to survive for as long as their enemies remained disunited.

The board was set.  The pieces were now moving…

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3 Responses to A Very British Civil War in Little England Beyond Wales 1938

  1. Look yew I must say that Saundersfoot Council have done a superb job of cleaning up the mess from all this fighting. So when I stayed at the St Brides Hotel on my honeymoon in 1983 there really wasn’t a trace of damage left so yewd really think that none of this would really have happened if yew didn’t read true historical articles like this . Its sobering to realise what our forefathers went through. When I was there, Mostyn Ifans the Saundersfoot Harbourmasters Assistant Understudy told me that he still had a secret supply of hand grenades left over from the fighting that he still used on fishing trips. Do yew think he might still be alive after all these years? Yew could could get yewer mate Huw Puw to do an interview with him

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