A Welsh Admiral in Catherine the Great’s Navy

For reasons totally unconnected to naval history, I was recently delving into Rebecca Wills’ very fine book, The Jacobites and Russia 1715-50, and there came across a remarkably prominent Welsh naval officer whose existence I was completely unaware of when I wrote Britannia’s Dragon. This was William Thomas Lewis, who was Admiral of the Russian fleet, no less, in 1762, when Catherine the Great ascended the throne. He was first captain of the second flagship when the Russians decisively defeated the French off Danzig in 1734; the fleet as a whole was commanded by the Scot Admiral Thomas Gordon, as this was a period when the Russian navy drew heavily on British exiles, many of them Jacobites.

Wills has the following to say about Lewis:

Lewis was a Welshman, politics unknown, who was recruited…in London in 1714 as a sub-lieutenant, by 1733 was a first captain, and in 1742 commanded a squadron. He had a long and successful career, became Admiral of the Fleet in 1762 and died in 1769…

In 1733 Lewis was sent to western Europe to recruit skilled men for the Russian navy, a mission which included a clandestine visit to London, where he managed to obtain the services of only two ship’s masters. Wills notes that Lewis’s two sons, William and John, later enjoyed preferential promotion in the Tsarist fleet. Among the other British naval officers that she lists, a couple of names stand out as being potential Welshmen: a Captain William Griffith  (whose son, another William, also served) and a Captain Arthur Trevor, recruited in 1734-5, who was however discharged in 1738 for ‘incompetence, drunkenness, and ignorance of the Russian language’.

These new leads clearly provide plenty of scope for additional research, and I hope to follow these up in the future. In the meantime, I’d be delighted to hear from anyone with further information about any of these officers.

Welsh Naval History on Film, Part 2

Some more discoveries from the archive of Pathe newsreels on Youtube. First, schoolchildren from the Midlands and elsewhere visit the fleet at Aberystwyth in 1919, an incident that I mention in Britannia’s Dragon.

Next, German Panzers arrive at Pembroke Dock in 1961 prior to training on the Castlemartin range.

Another one relating to Pembroke Dock – a Sunderland flying boat based there tracks RMS Queen Mary in 1949.

And now some from sources other than Pathe. Here’s HMS Tenby being broken up at Briton Ferry in 1977.

An air display at the then HMS Goldcrest, Royal Naval Air Station Brawdy, in the late 1960s.

The former RN mine depot at Newton Noyes, Milford Haven.

And finally for this post, the school ship HMS Conway, built as HMS Nile in 1839, aground in the Menai Straits in 1953.

Many thanks to all the cameramen and uploaders!

Welsh Naval History on Film, Part 1

The recent release onto Youtube of all 85,000 or so Pathe newsreels is proving to be an absolute goldmine. I’m slowly working my through the huge amount of naval material, and am coming across quite a few items filmed in Wales, or which have a Welsh naval connection. Here’s a preliminary selection; I’ll post more on this site in due course.

First of all, HM Submarine Universal limps into Pembroke Dock after encountering a storm in Cardigan Bay in 1946:

Another submarine in trouble in the same seas. Can anyone identify it?

Next, some rare film footage from inside Pembroke dockyard before many of the buildings were cleared: the breaking of the cruiser HMS Birmingham in the dry dock in 1931 –

Another scrapping, this time of one of the most famous ships built at Pembroke Dock, the royal yacht Victoria and Albert:

The Reserve Fleet landing craft at Llanelli being mobilised for the Suez operation in 1956:

Next, a 1967 film of ‘HMS Glamorgan, Computer Ship of the Future’ (!!)

…and the final one for this post – Glamorgan again, firing her Sea Slug missiles (location not given, but quite possibly the Aberporth range in Cardigan Bay):


‘Welsh’ Warship Names in the Inter-War Years

In Britannia’s Dragon, I commented on the curious fact that during both the years immediately preceding the First World War, and then from 1945 onwards, ‘Welsh’ names were well represented on the Navy List – indeed, sometimes arguably over-represented when compared with Scottish names in particular – but during the Inter-War period, hardly any Welsh names were allocated to warships. However, I recently had a look at some files in the National Archives in Kew which suggest that this was definitely a case of accident rather than design: several Welsh names came close to being chosen, but never quite made the final cut.

In 1928, for example, the County class cruisers were under construction, and both Carnarvon and Monmouth were suggested as names for ships of the class; Monmouth was mooted again in 1935. (The name Monmouth‘s record of ‘so near but yet so far’ continued after the war: it was tentatively proposed for a Type 42 destroyer in the 1970s, along with Carnarvon – by then hardly a ‘politically correct’ spelling – and, curiously, Harlech, which had not been borne by a warship before, other than by a base ship during World War I.) Barry, Swansea, Chepstow and Newport were all suggested as potential names for sloops in the 1929 programme, but in the end only Milford actually saw the light of day (from the 1930 programme). At much the same time, one of the R-class submarines was very nearly named Red Dragon, but this was dropped at the last moment, perhaps because of the potential for confusion with the cruiser HMS Dragon. Finally, although no names were ever officially allocated to the huge ‘N3’ class battleships, cancelled following the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, it is widely believed that they would have been named after the UK’s patron saints, so one of them would have been HMS St David.

At much the same time that I was looking at these files, I also had an email from a correspondent in the USA wondering if there was any definitive information behind the rationale for naming a fast minelayer HMS Welshman in 1939. The files at Kew indicate that the first two ships of this class, Abdiel and Latona, were named after previous minelayers, while the third Manxman, was named following a direct appeal from the Isle of Man government for a warship to honour the island, and especially the contribution it had made during World War I. Although there is no specific evidence, it seems likely that Welshman was named to ‘pair’ with Manxman, especially as the last two ships, Apollo and Ariadne, reverted to Classical names. The name traditionally used to honour the Principality, Cambrian, was available, as the Pembroke-built cruiser of that name had been scrapped in 1934, but this clearly did not fit in with the quite rigid naming policy in force in the 1920s and 1930s. Wales seems to have suffered above all because of its lack of sufficiently large centres of population: when the final two Town class cruisers of the 1930s were named Belfast and Edinburgh, the Controller of the Navy noted that ‘This will make up a two Scottish names, one Irish, and seven English for the ten cruisers of this class. It is a little unfortunate that we cannot bring Wales into it, but they have had the Cardiffalthough she is soon to be scrapped’. In the event, of course, the outbreak of World War II saved HMS Cardiff from the scrapyard until 1946.

The Birth, Death and Rebirth of a Royal Dockyard

(Cross-posted on my other blog, gentlemenandtarpaulins.com)

I spent the weekend in Pembroke Dock, attending the launch events for the bicentenary of the foundation of the Royal Dockyard in 1814. The yard was established to take advantage of the tremendous deep water harbour of Milford Haven, and was intended to be exclusively a building yard. During its history, it built over 200 ships for the Royal Navy, many of which had long or remarkable careers: they included the Erebus, which took part in the ill-fated Franklin expedition; huge ‘wooden walls’ like the Duke of Wellington; ironclads like Dreadnought (1875) and Thunderer; the armoured cruisers Warrior and Defence, which were sunk at Jutland; and no fewer than five royal yachts, including the great Victoria and Albert of 1899. (A full list of the ships built at Pembroke Dock can be found here.) The yard closed in 1926 – I’m currently working on an article about the closure – and later became a flying boat base, playing a prominent part in the Battle of the Atlantic.

HMS Duke of Wellington, launched at Pembroke Dock in 1852 as the Windsor Castle; the Duke died on the day of the launch, so she was renamed after him
HMS Duke of Wellington, launched at Pembroke Dock in 1852 as the Windsor Castle; the Duke died on the day of the launch, so she was renamed after him

The dockyard site was neglected for many years, and many of the buildings were cleared and built over, primarily when much of the site was converted to an Irish ferry terminal in 1979. But two of the original thirteen slipways remain, albeit without the iron covers that were the first ever to be installed in a dockyard, as do the dry dock and caisson, the mast pond, and a number of the dockyard buildings, including the fine row of officers’ houses and the dockyard chapel. The latter, which was restored a few years ago, was the venue for the weekend’s events, which centred on the premiere of a remarkable digital reconstruction of the dockyard as it was in about 1860. This was produced by the Digital Building Heritage group at De Mentfort University, Leicester, and it certainly generated a great deal of interest from both the invited audience on Friday and the general public on Saturday.

The other really positive thing about the weekend’s events, and about the bicentenary commemorations as a whole, is the extent to which the local community has become involved with them. A dynamic team has encouraged people to come forward with their own memories and materials – producing, for example, the diary of the last established workman to be employed in the royal dockyard – and to undertake their own research, for example into the history of their own houses. (The entire town was built from scratch from 1814 onwards to accommodate the dockyard workforce.) It struck me that this is a terrific example of how to involve local people in their heritage, and the numbers present on Saturday certainly suggest that it’s proving to be a tremendous success. I hope to be able to go down to Pembroke Dock for some more of the bicentenary events, and will report back both here and on Twitter!

Interior of the restored dockyard chapel
Interior of the restored dockyard chapel

Welsh ‘Warship Weeks’ Updates

Further work by Peter Schofield has revealed the following changes to the South Wales listing previously posted on this site:

  • Abergavenny – should be MTB332, not MGB; the town’s Warship Week took place between 14 and 21 March 1942.
  • Ogmore and Garw Valley – it seems that these were two separate adoptions, HMS Quannet by Ogmore and MGB57 by Garw Valley.
  • Port Talbot Warship Week was 7-14 February 1942.

The ‘Welshness’ of HMS Carnarvon

The armoured cruiser HMS Carnarvon, launched at the Beardmore yard on the Clyde in 1903, was one of the first warships to be given a name from the ‘Celtic fringe’ as a way of deliberating enhancing the ‘Britishness’ and inclusiveness of the Royal Navy. In Britannia’s Dragon, I recount how, just before war broke out in 1914, she had a ship’s goat which was ceremonially paraded every Sunday, and how significant numbers of her crew spoke Welsh to each other as a matter of course. The National Maritime Museum also holds an interesting source from earlier in her career, a published account of her first commission from 1905 to 1907, which was spent principally in the Mediterranean. This includes an account of the events of 20 May 1906, when Admiral Lord Charles Beresford came aboard and presented the ship with a sliver shield, gong and bell. These were gifts from the county of Caernarfon, which had raised the necessary funds. Beresford then gave a talk on the history of the county (although he was singularly unqualified to do so, being the son of an Irish marquess and MP for Woolwich), before concluding:

he would say to the people of the county of Carnarvon, on behalf of the officers and ship’s company, that HM ship Carnarvon would uphold the glorious traditions of the British Navy, whether in peace or war, or any other duty she might be employed on, and he exhorted the ship’s company to remember their motto, ‘Y ddraigg goch a dary gychwym’ [sic] (The Red Dragon leads the way.)…The following is a description of the shield: at the head is the Prince of Wales’s feathers, with the motto Ich Dien, underneath is the (one time) Prince of Carnarvon’s flag, with the inscription, ‘Eryri, Eryr, Eryrod’ (The Eagle of the Eagles of the Eagles’ land). In the centre is a replica of the ship; at the bottom is shown Carnarvon Castle, the whole being surrounded with leeks, and on either side the Dragon.

HMS Carnarvon took part in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914 (a fact which is surely worthy of commemoration in her home county at the time of the centenary). She then served on the relatively quiet North American and West Indies station for the remainder of the war, being broken up in 1921. The name has never been used again, however, the Bay-class frigate Carnarvon Bay served from 1945 to 1961, although only six months of that time was spent in actual commission at sea.

The Last Voyages to Wales of HMS Colossus [1908] and Cornwall [2013]

HMS Cornwall laid up at Portsmouth, 5 September 2013

HMS Cornwall laid up at Portsmouth, 5 September 2013

With the imminent arrival of the Type 22 frigate HMS Cornwall in Swansea, where she will be broken up, naval shipbreaking resumes in Wales after a gap of some thirty years. This newspaper account, from the Cardiff Times of 28 November 1908, recounts the fate of one of the earliest warships to be scrapped in the Principality, namely HMS Colossus, which had served as the port guardship at Holyhead from 1893 to 1901. A second-class battleship, rather than a cruiser as stated in the report, her design was innovative in some ways but seriously flawed in others. She was the sister ship of HMS Edinburgh, launched at Pembroke Dock in 1882 by the Duchess of Edinburgh, daughter-in-law of Queen Victoria and sister of Tsar Alexander III of Russia.

HMS Edinburgh completing at Hobbs Point, Pembroke Dock [photo credit – Tenby Museum]


The cruiser Colossus, built over 20 years ago, and sold by the Admiralty recently to Mr Ward, of Briton Ferry, to be broken up, has been towed to Barry, where she arrived yesterday. The vessel was stationed off Holyhead for many years, guarding the Welsh port and cruising about the Irish Sea. Twice previously the Colossus formed one of the Metiterranean squadron, and was considered of good fighting strength before the days of the Dreadnoughts. A turret cruiser with a single funnel and guns fore and aft, the vessel looked well in Barry Roads on Sunday, where she rode for some time waiting a favourable wind to dock, a strong westerly gale blowing throughout the morning. The two tugs towing the vessel experienced great difficulty in manoeuvring her. It was impossible for the cruiser to have entered any other port in the Bristol Channel, owing to the fact that she has a draught of 25ft. 6in, In charge of Mr S. Davies, one of the leading Barry pilots, the warship was brought in at the height of the tide in a manner that was highly creditable, considering that almost a gale was blowing and that the cruiser had awkward projections above the deck level. With a beam of 70ft. she could not enter the Lady Windsor lock, and was taken in through the gates leading to the basin. The Colossus has a displacement of 10,000 tons, and after being lightened to the draught of 20ft, by the removal of guns and other materials, she will be towed to Briton Ferry. About 60 men will be employed in the task of breaking up the vessel.

HMS Colossus [1882]

HMS Colossus [1882]

HMS Monmouth Exercises her Freedom of the Town

Members of the crew of the Type 23 frigate HMS Monmouth have renewed the ship’s links with its namesake town by marching through the streets – full story here. Monmouth is one of the oldest ‘Welsh’ warship names, dating back to 1666-7, and originally bestowed in honour of Charles II’s eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. As recounted in Britannia’s Dragon, the loss of the previous Monmouth, a cruiser, during the Battle of Coronel in 1914, made a powerful impact on the town: the west doors of the priory church, installed just after World War I, serve as a permanent memorial to her sinking, and a book of remembrance for the crew is on display just inside the church.