Swansea and Port Talbot Docks History

The following item is taken from 'The Flight of the Solway Bies', written by Janet Bocciardi, Greg Greenhalgh and Elma Shedden. The book is a historical account of one seafaring family from South West Scotland and its descendants. It spans three hundred years and some ten generations. The book had a limited publication and is not available to the public, although copies are deposited in relevant museums and local history archives. Thanks to Greg Greenhalgh for allowing its inclusion.

Captain Bie of Swansea

Walter Bie, always known as “Billy”, followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and went to sea when he was 15. Billy wrote an illuminating account of his early life at sea and described in detail the conditions of seamen during the early part of the twentieth century. In this essay - Ancient & Modern Seafarers - he gives graphic accounts of the casual hiring of crews and the conditions on board ship. Billy described in great detail the shipping of coal from South Wales to ports all over the world and the import of grain on the return voyage. Although the essay doesn’t have any specific dates, he clearly describes conditions during the economic depressions during the first half of the twentieth century.

He describes the dole queues in South Wales and it is clear from part of his text that Billy himself was out of work during this period. “The queues outside the dole office often extended a long way and everyone would hope that something would turn up. One time when I was in the line, the manager of the employment exchange came outside and called out that he wanted six men for the Graigola Fuel Wharf to dig pitch, but not one man stirred for the very thought of digging pitch on a summers day with hot sun overhead would be a very painful job, even though precautions are taken by covering the workers with boraxic powder.” Billy goes on to write “With my pal we took up door to door salesman trying to sell toilet brushes, sweeping brushes, right down to tooth brushes. It was a hopeless task for we could get the door so often slammed in our faces. Having tramped many miles around the houses and up back streets so that none of our people would see what we had to do. We would return to the office and even if we had sold a couple of small brushes they would not pay us anything having not completed the selling quota.”

Billy tells us in his essay that he was eventually to secure a Chief Officer post on a ship chartered to the Revolutionary Russian Government, shipping timber from the Kara Sea to English Ports. He describes how they left in a convoy with several other ships from Cardiff and Newport, sailing north to the Arctic Circle where the Icebreaker Lenin would guide them through the ice barrier. Billy made quite a point of the fact that the Russian Officers mixed freely with their crews and that the ships complement included women sailors. The ships navigated 500 miles up the Yenisey River where their timber cargo was loaded by squads of political prisoners, exiled by the Communist rulers to Siberia.

Billy gained his master’s certificate (of a foreign-going steamship) on 28th December 1937.

Billy Bie had a notable career in the Merchant Navy throughout World War II. His ship’s log on board the ss Bloomfield in 1941 provides a vivid account of the action he saw on a voyage from Workington in Cumberland to the Faeroe Islands. It’s not clear what cargo he was transporting to the Faeroe Islands nor what the “secret papers” were that he was carrying. On 9th April 1940, German troops had occupied Denmark and in May 1940 the British, with 25,000 troops, occupied both Iceland and the Faeroe Islands (both the sovereignty of Denmark) to make sure the Germans could not establish footholds there. Billy’s ship the ss Bloomfield sailed to the Faeroes on September 1941 and the following is a transcript of the ship’s log:

13th September 1941 07.30 Sighting Faeroe Islands 08.00 Two planes sighted approaching on port beam. Alarm bells sounded. Crew closed up on guns, and bomb aimer. Opened fire on approaching planes. Oerlikon twin machine guns, bomb thrower at ready. Emergency W/T put into transmission. Fire opened on approaching planes which crossed vessel from port to starb. Two bombs fired from bomb thrower failed to explode. Enemy planes opened fire by machine guns. Two planes prove to be Heinkel 23s. P.A.C. rockets set off putting planes into evasive action. Planes circled out to starb. for low level attack. Fire held until planes approach. Planes swinging for stern attack. Approaching from stern when close vessel opened fire with Lewis Twin Machine guns. Oerlikon fired, Bomb thrower in action, bombs exploded above planes. Planes attacking at 700 foot approx, & planes let go salve of bombs in close wake of vessel. Bombs exploded lifting vessel’s stern high, causing severe damage to ship’s engines, and auxiliaries out of action. Planes swerved away, one flying north with smoke trailing from fuselage. Single plane again approaching on port beam to attack. Vessels guns at ready waiting the approaching of plane. Fire opened on approaching plane which launched bombs, one of which exploding No 2 hatch fore end. All portable beams thrown out of hatch, smashing hatch coamings starb. side deck plating, bulwarks, shell plating holed. Plane circled vessel opening machine gun fire which was returned by vessel’s guns. Plane then flew North after receiving direct machine gun fire from vessel. Officers making inspection of damage to vessel from aircraft. Chief Engineer reports vessel leaking heavily in engine room. All pumps out of action, engine still kept going on available amount of steam left. Finally engines stopped due to lack of steam. Crew plugged holes in shell plating on starboard side, trying to fit cement boxes where possible. Upon inspection of No 2 hold found bomb unexploded in among the cargo. “May Day” signals set in motion on automatic signal generator.

Weather:- o’cast poor visibility setting in rain squalls. Fresh NNW wind. Rough sea. Vessel settling low in water starb. boat filled with water due to being riddle with machine gun fire when under attack. Crew plugged port lifeboat with plugs to fill bullet holes. Secret books placed in canvas bag with iron bars and dumped over side. Fishing vessel sighted and distress signals made, also paraffin & waste set on fire causing black smoke 14.00 Fishing vessel appear to have sighted our distress signals and approaching. Vessel now low in the water and orders given to “abandon ship”. Fishing vessel arrived in close vicinity. Crew ferried across to fishing vessel in lifeboat. One wounded casualty J.O’Brien D.E.M.S. gunner. Flesh wounds left leg & right cheek of bottom. First aid given and wounds cleaned & bandaged. Crew taken on board Faroese fishing vessel and proceeding to land at Faeroes Isles. Whilst steaming North large explosion took place on the sinking ss Bloomfield which appears to have been delayed action bomb in No 2 hold. ss Bloomfield finally sunk.

Fishing vessel now making for Hakkswick with all survivors on board. Port lifeboat cast adrift & now filled with water due to bullet holes and became water logged. Fishing boat arrived in harbour and survivors disembarked and taken by the Scots Army Lovat Scouts. All crew members expressed their sincere thanks to skipper & crew of the Faeroese fishing vessel for their timely aid and assistance. Survivors now taken by army transport to the Army Camp for temporary accommodation. All crew well received by Army personnel who went out of their way to make everyone comfortable. Wounded D.E.M.S. gunner J.O’Brien attended to by Army Medical Doctor and given fresh treatment for wounds. Report made to British Vice Consul and N.C.S. Arrangements made for transfer of crew members from Army billets to local hotel at Hakkswick to await transport back to England. Crew cautioned not to talk to staff of the Swedish Hotel due to the fact that there were known to be German spies in the area which was under Swedish Control. Billy and his crew were evacuated from the Faeroe Islands on board the m/v Western Isles to Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands on 28th September 1941.

Billy and his crew were evacuated from the Faeroe Islands on board the m/v Western Isles to Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands on 28th September 1941.Billy was put in command of the Western Isles and he insisted on using his own Chief Officer from the ss Bloomfield because the Western Isles Chief Officer “…was very young and inexperienced.The Western Isles sailed south from the Faeroe Islands under escort of a naval vessel and one aircraft. On the passage south, Billy’s ship was once again attacked by a German plane. Both the Western Isles and naval escort ship opened fire on the attacking plane which returned machine gun fire and dropped her bombs. The Western Isles took a direct hit from one of these bombs which pierced the ship’s deck and landed, unexploded, through the Chief Engineer’s cabin and into the companion way of the passenger’s quarters!

On arrival back at Thorshavin in the Faeroe Islands the ship was kept outside the harbour where all passengers were disembarked leaving only Billy and the Chief Engineer on board. A Naval bomb disposal team came on board and de-fused the bomb. After emergency repairs, the Western Isles sailed again under Billy’s command on 29th September, arriving safely in the Orkney Islands on 30th September. For his actions as Master of the ss Bloomfield, Captain Billy Bie was awarded the King’s Order for Bravery (Oak Leaf Emblem gallantry medal). An account of his bravery was published in the London Gazette on 3rd February 1942.

We know of another episode during World War II from an account in the South Wales Evening Post on 27 April 1945. This article tells us that in 1942 Billy was in command of a collier, the ss Bolbec (2,000 tons) owned by Harris Bros of Swansea. The account describes “…. a big Dutch vessel colliding with the ss Bolbec in the Thames Estuary” and the account describes how “…. the ss Bolbec immediately heeled over on her port side”. With only three minutes before the ship sank, Billy gave the order to “abandon ship”. 20 of the 23 crew onboard escaped in the starboard lifeboat. Three men were tragically lost. The ss Bolbec was seven and a half months on the sea bed before being salvaged by the Port of London Authority and towed 20 miles under water and on her side, to Southend, where she was beached and put upright. Temporary repairs were made and the ship floated and towed to Gravesend where she was repaired and put back into service. For his services in World War II, Billy Bie was awarded the 1939-45 Star; the Atlantic Star; the France and Germany Star and the War Medal 1939-45.

After the war Billy continued to work for Harries Bros & Co Ltd “Steamship Owners, Brokers & Coal Exporters” who were located at Pembroke Buildings, Swansea (and at 27 Station Road, Port Talbot). A Reference, dated 19 June 1965, confirmed that Billy had been in the service of Harries Bros from 1921 to 1964, stating that “Captain Bie has been in our employ since leaving school”. In September 1964 he left their company “on loan” to Messrs Wm Dickinson & Co Ltd Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Reference states; … “as at that time we sold the ss Glanowen which was then under the command of Captain Bie to Messrs Wm Dickinson”. The reference goes on to state “… It is with regret that we have to state that, when Messrs Dickinson themselves sold the “Glanowen” a few months ago and Captain Bie was released to our services, we had not secured new tonnage and, consequently, could not place him in command.”