Pembroke and area Military History


Pre First World War | First World War | World War II | Post World War II

Please use the four links above to explore aspects of Pembroke's military history, and that of its nearby neighbours.

For photographs of Pembrokeshire's military click here. We wish to acknowledge the invaluable contribution of John Rolls in editing the document.


Nineteenth Century fortifications

In 1815 plans were made to defend the Royal Navy’s new ship-building facility in the fortified parish of nearby Paterchurch (now Pembroke Dock) in response to the British wars against America and France.

Construction finally commenced in 1848 and was completed three years later. The roof gun platform was state-of-the-art and was equipped with a 32lb smooth bore cannon, with four 12lb howitzers below on the upper floor. The War Department anticipated a 90% kill rate against enemy marines attempting to land on the beach guarded by the tower.

The armaments were unfortunately quickly superseded, and the tower became an observation post. By the end of the century it housed families of the Royal Artillery, who acted as caretakers.

During the Second World War the tower was fitted with four .303 Lewis machine guns to provide anti-aircraft cover and to train the gunners of the RAF Sunderland flying boats. In 1940 the tower opened fire on a German bomber - becoming the only fortress on the Haven to fire in anger.

In the 1950s the tower became the base for the local Sea Scouts prior to becoming used as a navigational marker for ships operating on the Haven.

In 2000 the gun tower was sold by the Local Authority and is now a family residence undergoing renovation and closed to the public.


The importance of Milford Haven estuary and the Royal Naval Dockyard

It is purely by accident of nature that the Milford Haven waterway is perfect for exploitation by human beings - often for military purposes but also for trade and mission. The Romans used it for their fleets which patrolled from their base in what is now the Cardiff area. Early Christian missionaries used it as a route into mainland Britain. Vikings used the waterway for their brutal raids.

With the Norman invasion after 1066 a series of stone castles was built across the middle of Pembrokeshire, in order to delineate the northern parts of the county from the southern, more Anglicised part. Milford Haven was in the southern part of the county, and so assumed increased importance for the occupying Normans.

Many times the Haven has been a centre for invasion, both into the British mainland and without. Henry II invaded Ireland in 1171, using the estuary to gather more than four hundred warships prior to launching the assault. Similarly, Richard II and Oliver Cromwell launched their attacks on Ireland in 1397 and in 1649 respectively, by using the estuary. Also, in 1485 Henry Tudor arrived in the Haven in order to defeat Richard III. In 1405 the waterway was used by a significant number of French mercenaries looking to support Owain Glynd┼Ár's revolt.

During the Middle Ages and beyond the Haven was very significant as a port; with the town of Milford being founded in 1790 by Sir William Hamilton, the husband of Admiral Nelson's mistress Emma. The importance of the port was confirmed by Nelson during a visit to the area in 1802. In fact, between 1797 and 1814 Milford briefly served as the base for a naval dockyard; but this failed to last because the land around it was privately-owned (so severely limiting the opportunities for expansion), and the town itself was too close to the mouth of the estuary. As a result the Navy Board of the Admiralty moved its yard a few miles upstream to what would later become Pembroke Dock.

The yards themselves at Pembroke Dock were used for more than a hundred years until 1926, and during that time four royal yachts and 263 warships were built there. The dockyard was used again after 1930 when the RAF built a base for the giant Sunderland flying boats, which were also used in the Second World War.


The bombing of the oil tanks in 1940

In August 1940 bombs were dropped by the German Luftwaffe on the several oil tanks close to Pembroke Dock. Thousands of gallons of oil needed for the British war effort were contained in the tanks. The resulting fire lit up the surrounding area and burned for more than two weeks. At the time it was the biggest fire Britain had suffured since the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Local Pembroke resident Eric Gwyther remembers his grandfather telling him that the resultant ash which fell for days afterwards covered nearby pastures and unfortunately killed many of the farm animals.

Recently-discovered photographs of that fateful day are available to view on the website of the Western Telegraph and on the website of the Sunderland Trust.