The anniversaries of the outbreak and early battles of World War I have led to a number of poignant commemorations throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, including Wales. They have also led to a considerable amount of new research being undertaken on the lives of those who fought in and lived through the war, and on the war’s impact on local communities. But there are still many untold, or very sketchily told, stories of the last days of peace and first days of war, and one of those is the story of the brief period in 1913-14 when Milford Haven served as an operational base for several of the Royal Navy’s battleships.
The decision to station warships at Milford followed the reorganisation of the navy in home waters in 1912, which saw the creation of First, Second and Third fleets. A number of old pre-Dreadnought battleships were allocated to the Third Fleet, and in 1913 several of these were deployed to Milford Haven as part of a plan to redistribute the ships in reserve. (It is possible that basing them in west Wales was at least partly intended as a response to potential future trouble in Ireland, where the Home Rule campaign, and Ulster’s opposition to it, were becoming increasingly problematic; however, this is speculation on my part, as I have found no firm evidence to support this contention.) The Goliath, which arrived on 30 April, became the senior ship, and by September the Third Fleet component at Milford comprised the battleships Goliath, Jupiter, Ocean, Canopus. and Albion, along with the large armoured cruiser Terrible, all moored at buoys in Scotch Bay.
Life aboard must have been distinctly dull. The surviving ships’ logs reveal an endless round of divisions, painting ship, PT drills, scrubbing the decks, making and mending clothes, and all the other humdrum activities of peacetime naval life, with boats ferrying men and stores back and forth between the ships and Milford, Neyland or Pembroke Dock. However, the skeleton crews of the ships (just over a hundred men on each of the battleships) swiftly entered into the life of the local area, and became important parts of the community. In August 1913 the ships entered crews in the Milford Haven regatta, held annually to commemorate Nelson’s visit to the town in 1802: Goliath won the whaler races for both seamen and Marines. The crews played football against local sides. In January 1914, for example, HMS Goliath‘s team, ‘the Gollies’, beat Narberth 4-1, while HMS Canopus drew 1-1 with Pembroke Dock St Patrick’s. The two teams played each other in March, but Canopus was hamstrung by being able to field only nine players, and the Gollies won 7-1. The men also contributed to the area in other ways: as one local newspaper put it in June 1914, ‘the presence of the officers and men has been welcomed from a business and social point of view, and everybody would be sorry now to part company with “Jack” who is now part of the life of the place’.
By coincidence, a full-scale mobilisation of the Third Fleet was scheduled for July 1914, with planning for this having begun in the autumn of 1913, long before war clouds threatened the peace of Europe. Thus the orders for the full-scale manning of the ships at Milford had already gone out when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo. On 15 July, the Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph reported that
At Milford Haven reservists began to arrive on Monday and were conveyed from Pembroke Dock to the battleships Goliath, Ocean and Albion so that on Tuesday, these ships which have been only manned by about 100 men each, have now a complement aggregating over 2000 men of all ranks. Rear Admiral Loftus Tottenham has hoisted his flag as senior admiral on the Albion, and Rear Admiral Phipps Hornby on the Ocean. On Tuesday the cruisers Gibraltar and Royal Arthur arrived and anchored off Newton Noyes pier, whilst two other cruisers went up to Pembroke Dock. These ships have crews of 100 men each, so that the entire fleet has nearly 1000 men aboard. The fleet leaves Milford Haven tomorrow (Thursday) morning for Spithead, and will be absent until July 21 or 25. It is not definitely known if the Albion will return with the Goliath and Ocean, as she is due at Devonport on August 1st for refit. It is hoped, however, that the Canopus, which has been away under refit for three months, will come back to the base.
However, it appears that a decision had already been taken to abandon Milford Haven as a base for Third Fleet ships, despite Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) denying this in a statement he made in June. Both the Jupiter (2 December 1913) and Canopus (31 March 1914) had already left, both for refit at Devonport, and the Terrible was destined for scrap. The Ocean sailed on 16 July 1914. On the twenty-third, the Cambrian Daily Leader reported that
Last week the three remaining vessels of the Third Fleet stationed at Miiford Haven, the Goliath, Albion and Vesper, left for the mobilisation at Spithead, and we understand that they will not return to Milford Haven. They are under orders to proceed to the Humber. where they will be stationed. Up to the present nothing is known of any vessel coming to Miiford Haven to replace them, and it appears that the idea of using the Haven as a naval base for large warships has been abandoned. Some months ago, when first the Jupiter and the Canopus left, rumours went round that they would not come back, and when the Admiralty decided to sell the Terrible, there was considerable anxiety in Pembroke Dock and Milford Haven with regard to the matter.
In the event, of course, all such speculation was swiftly rendered entirely academic by events. Less than a fortnight later, World War I broke out, and the ships that had lain in Milford Haven never returned to either there or the Humber. The Canopus was involved in the battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands in November/December 1914, while both the Ocean and Goliath were sunk during the Gallipoli campaign. As I observed in Britannia’s Dragon, Goliath in particular had a relatively substantial Welsh component in her crew, and her strong connection with Milford Haven ensured that she and her men were deeply mourned in Wales.
Milford Haven’s time as a fleet base was brief, but the presence in Welsh waters of a substantial part of the Third Fleet, and of some of the most poignant British naval losses of World War I, is an interesting episode in Welsh naval history which deserves to be better known.
[Sources: The National Archives, Kew, extant log books of Third Fleet ships; Welsh Newspapers Online]