In October 1939 the docks at Port Talbot were declared to be a “protected place” and permission to enter became subject to permit-holders only. Following this declaration, security control officers were posted to the port and all vulnerable points were guarded by both police officers and military personnel. Measures were also taken to protect the docks against attack from the air, with anti-aircraft guns being located at strategic points and barrage balloons being placed around the docks area.
At this early stage of the war, large cargoes of scrap iron were arriving from the United States and, as this material was urgently needed for the war effort, arrangements were made for the unloading of these ships to be continued throughout the night-time – no mean feat considering the reduced level of lighting permitted under the national wartime black-out restrictions. Imports of iron & steel (which included scrap iron) rose to 67,000 tons in 1939, a 75% increase over the previous year.
In the immediate pre-war years, coal exports to the Continent had been increasing considerably, reaching 1.5 million tons in 1938, but capitulation of France in June,1940 resulted in a significant reduction in these shipments and, in 1941, total coal exports fell to 450,000 tons. However, in June 1942, the authorities decided to concentrate all coal shipments to Eire through Port Talbot Docks, and this increased the port’s coal exports to 815,000 tons in 1943, but this a was short-lived measure and, in 1945, the final year of the war, coal exports had dropped to just 273,000 tons.
In May 1940 the military set up their own organisation for the shipment of military traffic, taking over office accommodation at the dockside for their respective personnel – i.e. movement control, sea transport officers, etc. – and on 15th May 1940 the first ship to load a cargo of ammunition arrived at the port. Others quickly followed to load not only ammunition, but government stores and military vehicles of all description. To improve operational efficiency, the War Department undertook the refurbishment of Crown Wharf on the south side of the dock, providing a modern new berth equipped with four 3-ton electric cranes to deal specifically with the shipment of military stores and equipment.
In addition to the redevelopment of Crown Wharf, the Mines Department erected a new oil berth at the docks from which oil pipelines would run direct to the Llandarcy Refinery at Skewen. This facility was provided because the existing oil berths at Queens Dock, Swansea were at serious risk of being put out of commission by air-raids. If this had happened, oil tankers would instead have been discharged at Port Talbot Docks. In addition to the actual oil berth, two other berths were allocated so that, if required, three vessels could be dealt with at any one time. Although this contingency did not arise, the oil berths proved invaluable throughout the war period for the loading and bunkering of vessels. For the bunkering of coal-burning ships, an area was set aside at the lock-head for the storage of thousands of tons of high and low volatile bunker coal.
During those early days of the war a large number of cargo ships were converted for the Royal Navy by the Port Talbot Dry Dock Company. This work consisted of stripping out the vessels and converting them to suit whatever tasks the Navy required, such as mine sweeping, boom defence or escort work. In addition to this, the Company fitted anti-magnetic mine devices to many ships, together armaments and other defensive measures which were necessary during the course of the war. General maintenance and repair to merchant vessels continued at this time, and was augmented by ships entering the dry dock for urgent war damage repairs.
In conjunction with Naval and Military authorities, plans were prepared for the complete immobilisation of Port Talbot Docks in the event of an enemy invasion, and regular exercises in immobilising essential dock facilities (lock-gates, quayside cranes, etc.) were carried out to ensure that such measures would operate efficiently if ever the need were to arise.
1941 saw the introduction of mail shipments from Port Talbot to the Port of Lisbon, from where letters and parcels were distributed by the Red Cross to British prisoners of war in Germany. Also during that year all dock roads were newly resurfaced in tarmacadam, while an entirely new road was laid down along the whole of the Talbot Wharf extension berth, with entrances at both the eastern and western ends. Other general cargo wharves were also resurfaced at this time, and the Taibach Tinplate Works (R D David) were closed down so that the War Office could use the building for the storage of motor vehicle spare parts.
In July 1943, the War Department staged an extensive invasion exercise aimed at testing the capability of various UK ports to maintain an allied force overseas (i.e. in northern Europe) for an extended period of time. At Port Talbot Docks, in conjunction with Swansea, plans were carefully prepared for the loading of a number of coastal vessels with a wide variety of stores, equipment, and motor transport vehicles. A separate organisation was set up at the docks to deal with incoming trains and to record wagons details, and also to marshal and despatch trains from the reception sidings to their appropriate quayside destinations. The hours of duty of staff such as railwaymen, transport workers, cranemen, etc., were extended so that the utmost efficiency could be achieved. The number of vessels loaded during this exercise was as follows:- “Phase A” tactical loading, 16 vessels, 3,432 tons; “Phase B” composite loading, 35 vessels, 6,296 tons; “Phase C” composite loading, eight vessels, 1,956 tons, making 59 vessels overall, with cargoes totalling 11,684 tons.
It is probably well known by now that these cargoes were to be discharged to beaches on the Pembrokeshire coast under similar conditions to those which would have been anticipated in an invasion of northern Europe. Unfortunately, very bad weather was experienced during the latter part of the exercise, but extremely valuable knowledge was gained, and this was to be of critical importance in the eventual execution of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. At all times, Port Talbot Dry Dock personnel were on hand to carry out maintenance and repairs to these vessels upon their return from such manoeuvres. A special committee met each day for the purpose of resolving any difficulties arising from the loading operations, and the interests of all participating parties were represented. The improvements in operational efficiency achieved by the committee more than justified its formation, and throughout the duration of this exercise, which continued over a one-month period, all concerned worked with immense commitment.
Also in 1943, “trots” were put down in the docks for the reception of invasion barges, e.g., L.C.M.s, L.C.P.s, etc., and in June of that year the Canadian Army authorities took over a large area of land for the storage of 1,400 cased vehicles, which were at that time pouring into the country in readiness for the invasion. That same year saw the construction of a two-berth “hard” – a special berth for the reception of tank landing ships, or L.S.T.s, as they were officially known – at Llewellyn’s Quay. Altogether, twenty-one L.S.T. ships were dealt with, arriving from North Africa and Italy to discharge a total of 1,034 vehicles comprising tanks, bulldozers, armoured cars and jeeps, etc. In addition, 1,417 military personnel were disembarked, including 1,241 members of the Free French Forces – men that, under General Le Clerc, had marched 1,000 miles from Chad to Tripoli in Libya, taking several Italian garrisons along the way.
Early in 1944 discussions took place with the U.S. Army regarding the role that Port Talbot Docks would be expected to perform in preparation for the actual D-Day landings. On 25th February the U.S. Army staged an exercise in which their own personnel were to load two coasters with military stores of all descriptions. In connection with this operation, a smoke-screen was deployed over the whole of the docks area, with smoke machines having been placed at several advantageous points around the town beforehand. Further smoke-screen tests were subsequently carried out by British military authorities to ascertain whether it was possible for the docks to be made invisible from the air and, in conjunction with the Air Ministry, aerial observations were undertaken whilst these smoke-screens were in operation.
In April 1944, an area of the dock was allocated to the U.S. Army when various engineering companies of the U.S. Armed Forces arrived to construct pontoons and barges. Eighteen barges were completed, fitted out with port engineering equipment, and dispatched to a secret destination in northern Europe. The U.S. military engineers were also permitted to construct jetties and dolphins, etc., within the dock as part of their training prior to their services being required overseas. The dock waters were also regularly used by military divers for training purposes at that time.
Military officials had decided that, in preparation for the forthcoming D-Day landings, Port Talbot Docks would be used as a base for the shipment of petrol in jerricans, and on 9th May 1944, these shipments began. 22 coastal vessels were to be loaded with this highly volatile fuel and all were completed successfully, taking on board cargoes totalling 11,500 tons. In addition, seven of these coasters embarked a total of 715 military personnel. The military authorities also decided to maintain stocks of petrol within the dock estate as a reserve against possible non-arrival of rail traffic as a result of enemy air attack and, in this regard, 13,000 tons of petroleum spirit were stored on the ground adjacent to Messrs. Calders’ premises, and at the rear of Crown Wharf – the whole of this work being undertaken by U.S. Army personnel. It will be appreciated that exceptional precautions had to be taken against the possibility of fire, and all necessary safety measures were put in place by both the Docks Fire Brigade and the National Fire Service. Altogether, shipments of petrol in jerricans through Port Talbot Docks for Allied Forces overseas amounted to 158,000 tons.
The docks at Port Talbot were exceedingly fortunate in that they experienced very few attacks from the air, and consequently suffered relatively little air-raid damage. The first of the air raids occurred in the early hours of 29th June and 1st July 1940, when a number of bombs were dropped on the docks, some falling close to Messrs. Guest Keen & Baldwins’ Margam works, but fortunately there was no significant damage. One lone raider appeared over the docks at 9.52 a.m. on 20th August 1940 and dropped a number of bombs on the south side of the docks, causing damage to dock railway lines, electricity cables and wagons of coal, etc. The necessary repairs were put in hand with immediate effect, however, and everything was fully operational again by the afternoon.
Four days later, incendiary bombs and high explosive time bombs were dropped on No. 2 Grid. All traffic working on the south side of the dock was held up for two days until the unexploded bombs were recovered. One of the unexploded bombs fell into the scullery of a house in Dock Street, and as a consequence all the residents of the Dock Street cottages had to be evacuated, many of whom were housed in the Y.M.C.A. buildings until the bomb was cleared on 27th August. Fortunately there were no injuries to personnel. When efforts were made to recover one of the time bombs, the military found that, after excavating to 12 feet, the more they dug the more the bomb penetrated the ground. Eventually it was decided that the only way to deal with the problem was to detonate it with one of the recovered bombs. (Note - we do not know the outcome of this!) Throughout the duration of the war some 512 air-raid alerts were sounded, but no serious damage was ever occasioned to any of the dock property.
From time to time, however, enemy planes dropped mines into the port’s entrance channel, resulting in Port Talbot being closed to shipping for varying periods of time, amounting to 1,639 hours in total. On 31st July 1940, following a brief closure of the port as a result of enemy mine-laying, the docks were again opened to shipping and the s.s. Stalheim, laden with coal, left the port at 4.25 p.m. following five other vessels which had sailed on that tide. Unfortunately, the Stalheim struck an enemy mine at a point approximately half a mile from the end of the south breakwater, and sank within two minutes. Of a total crew of 21, five lost their lives, while the pilot, Mr. H. A. Gunn, sustained serious injuries, as did several of the surviving crew members. They were landed at Port Talbot Pier-head where first aid squads were waiting to render assistance to the injured men before they were taken away by ambulance to the local hospital. Thankfully, all recovered from their injuries. A similar misfortune befell the s.s. Madjoe, which struck a mine about one and a quarter miles from the end of the breakwater while leaving port on 4th November 1941. In this instance it is tragic to record that all hands were lost, including the pilot, Mr. George Fairweather, who was a representative of the pilots on the Port Talbot Pilotage Authority.
On a final note, a constant reminder of the “blitz” on many of Britain’s towns and cities was given to the Port Talbot dockers by way of the large quantities of “blitz scrap”, destined for the steelworks, which had to be discharged from vessels arriving from areas of the UK that had suffered heavily from enemy air raids.