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Open Features: The Nights Swansea Was Bombed

George Lewis, who worked on the railways during the "steam'' age, recalls nervous night shifts when German bombers were attacking Swansea.

Swansea was bombed that week

I think it was when I worked on the Sunday. The rule was that when you did work on Sunday you could pick any vacant job for the whole of the coming week. No one senior had the right to displace you. I picked my job and turned up on Monday to work the milk train from Whitland to Cardiff. Nice sunny evening, obedient engine of sound condition and Dai. David Griffiths, Engine Man of great experience whose mother and father knew when he was christened that he would be called Dai from the second day of his life until the end.

Dai was well known in South Wales railway circles. He had promised to hit a driver with the shovel when working the Mail from Fishguard to London, a long journey. It was when drivers were paid a bonus for saving coal, thus reducing costs for the Company. Firemen were not included in the bonus scheme. The driver had stepped across from his side of the footplate to Dai’s side of the footplate and kicked down the dampers. Dampers, when opened, allowed air to move through the fire box and prevented clinker from forming. Should clinker form in the firebox the fireman’s job became more difficult as the journey progressed. By closing the dampers the driver hoped to make a bigger bonus, less coal being used at the expense of the fireman’s graft. So Dai threatened him. Drivers were powerful men in those days. This one stopped the train, ordered Dai off, and called for a replacement from Carmarthen shed.

Dai got the sack, or in the parlance of the day he “got his Mutual”, being that his pension contributions were returned to him. The driver stayed untouched. Even when it was found that Dai had protested, and replaced the dampers on more than two occasions and that the driver had repeated his act more than once, he, the driver, was not questioned by the management. Dai’s mates raised many questions and threatened to strike if Dai was not reinstated. That came about and Dai became very important to his fellowmen.

Shortly after that he was made a driver and sent to Pontypool . There he stayed for a year or so before coming back to his home town of Carmarthen. His conversation included so many references to Ponty that he became known as Dai Ponty. Christened David Griffiths he was now Dai Ponty to everyone, including the most junior of engine cleaners, mere boys.

Monday got off to a bad start. Whilst I prepared the engine for the road by filling the firebox with a half ton of coal, trimming the coal tender so that nothing fell off during the journey and tidying the footplate to lay dust, Dai climbed up from his oiling -the -motions task. The first thing he did was to turn down the blower, which I had set to get up steam, which was my job. I put the blower back on and Dai did exactly what his offending driver had done those years before, turning the blower down again.

Off the footplate I jumped, and into the foreman’s cabin. I informed him that I did not intend to work with that man for a whole week because the result might be fatal. Wally had two months before put into my eye, and by mistake, a shot of smelling salts. He thought it was castor oil, a soothing liquid. He was a St John’s Ambulance man with a good record in that skill and was distressed at the damage he had done to my eye. Now he had to get the right answer to the problem between Dai and me.

Dai saved the day. He came into the cabin and invited me back saying that we would have a “lovely week together, bacheni” (small boy). Wally was relieved and so was I, really fancied the job, even if it was to be at least a 12-hour night. Dai became very understanding, and helpful, and encouraging, and even a bit exaggerated in his concern for my welfare. So off we set for Whitland, tender first, there being no turn table in Whitland. The trip was to take us back to Carmarthen and on to Cardiff and London.

Every engine had its own maximum pulling capacity depending on the gradients en route. Where the train weight exceeded the maximum tonnage the driver is asked if assistance is needed to climb the hilly parts of the track and, if so, a support engine is ordered to stand by at the point of difficulty. The train has to stop at that point and the “banker” has to come to the rear of the train and assist it up the bank. Each night the guard would come to the engine and tell Dai that “we are 50 tons over, driver, do you want a banker?” Every night Dai would refer to me. “What do you think bacheni” and every night I would reflect his mind. “No Dai we can do without a banker”. “No banker tonight guard” and away we would go.

On Monday night we sailed through, Tuesday night followed the same pattern and the week was getting enjoyable. It was a fine evening, which made the job easier, and progress was good until Dai shouted to look up line towards Swansea. Clouds of dust or something were rising and gunfire could be heard in the distance.

It became dusky and the day was shortening as we steamed on in the direction of Swansea.

It was not scheduled for us to go into Swansea but to encircle it to the north , to Felinfran , Neath Abbey, Bridgend and thence eastwards to Cardiff where we would hand over to another crew for the journey to London. In front of us was the bombing, and the fires, and all other nasty things. As we turned away from the danger we could see what was going on, even though the view had changed and we were peering over Dai’s side of the engine. At Neath Abbey the signal man waved a red lamp to stop us and we duly obeyed, coming to a halt exactly opposite a anti aircraft battery which fired the moment the wheels stopped. This firing continued for a time, and kept on, even when we were cleared to move again. Progress was slow and as we got to Bridgend those happenings we had seen, first from the front, then from the side, now were to be seen to the rear of the train.

Speed picked up and at the time it did not cross our minds that steam from a locomotive might attract an attack from the air. That thought came about two weeks later. The biggest worry was if we were to be held up on Pyle Bank . Being 50 tons over weight that would be serious, to be stuck in the open and unable to move was never a pleasant thought even in broad daylight and in peace time.

That is what did happen. The signal man decided, or was told to decide, that we should be warned of an air raid in Swansea, and felt that moment of satisfaction known only to lowly men entrusted with a hint of authority. Out of his window came an arm and on to the arm there was attached a lamp, and the lamp was red. It meant we had to stop whilst the signal man did his duty. How were we going to manage? Dai shouted his thanks to the man in the signal box, caught hold of the lever, heaved it to its highest point, and we were moving. Overloaded by 50 tons slowly the train moved, aided by Dai on the lever and me on the shovel. What a feeling of relief as speed came noisily up to a decent rate and Pyle Bank fell behind us with Cardiff, and safety, a whistle‘s sound to the east.

For one night that was enough. Our satisfaction at getting safely through was kept in perspective by the thought of all the people of Swansea, and other cities and towns, whose homes lay in ruins. We lived, and we were going to a safe home to sleep and to return again that evening. Close to us were many old and young whose lives that evening had been completely changed .

For a further two nights the attacks were repeated and our nightly work followed the same pattern. Dai and I had forged a little bond which could not be repeated. Occasionally we were partners on other jobs, but nothing could be as bonding as the nights Swansea was bombed.


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