Pembrey Airport in World War II
The ancient churchyard of St. Illtyd's at Pembrey is the last resting place of more than two hundred seafarers who have lost their lives through the centuries in the treacherous waters and shifting sands of the estuary. Between 1940 and 1945 twenty-three young airmen were added to their number. The youngest was nineteen, the oldest thirty-nine. Five of them had come a long way to die for the struggle against Hitler and Nazism – they were part of a Polish contingent flying out of the airfield at nearby Pembrey.
Pembrey and the Battle of Britain
The British, Polish and Dutch squadrons stationed here were principally involved in patrolling the western coastline of Britain, the Irish Sea and the Bristol Channel, but for three months in the summer of 1940 they joined in the most famous air battle of the Second World War – the Battle of Britain.
Thirteen aircraft from RAF Pembrey, nine Spitfires and four Hurricanes, were lost in those three months: only one airman died – Pilot Officer S. Piatkowski of 79 Squadron who crashed at Carew after what should have been a routine patrol.
A Tragic Accident
The then Flight Lieutenant, later to become Squadron Leader, R.R. Stanford Tuck managed to be responsible for four aeroplanes being written off, but himself sustained only minor injuries. In an extraordinary and uniquely tragic incident Stanford Tuck was unwittingly involved in the death of his brother-in-law, Private John King Spark stationed at an army camp near St. Donat's in the Vale of Glamorgan. Stanford Tuck chased an enemy bomber, a Junkers 88, for thirty minutes before getting close enough to open fire. The bomber jettisoned its payload in an effort to escape, and hit the boundary of the army camp killing Private Spark.
An extraordinary incident, the stuff of high drama or low comedy depending on your point of view took place here in October, 1942. The story is well-known locally, but bears repetition.
In the late afternoon of 23rd June, the Luftwaffe was involved in an air engagement with the Royal Air Force in the skies over Devon. Luftwaffe pilot, Oberleutnant Armin Faber, Adjutant to the commander of III Fighter Group of JG2 stationed in northern France, shot down a Spitfire (the pilot, Sergeant Trejtnar of 310 Squadron, bailed out safely) in a dogfight over Exeter, and turned for home. But he turned the wrong way. Temporarily disoriented, as could happen easily in what were after all still the early days of flying, he headed north instead of south. Looking down from the cockpit of his Focke-Wulf 190A he saw what he thought was the English Channel and a French airfield in the distance. What he actually saw was the Bristol Channel and RAF Pembrey. Believing himself home and dry, he waggled the wings of the aircraft in a gesture of victory and came into land. As he taxied in, a quick-thinking Sergeant Jeffreys, the Duty Pilot, snatched up a Very Pistol, the only weapon to hand, jumped on to the wing and 'captured' the enemy airman – probably to the surprise of both.
Bad luck for Oberleutnant Faber was exceptionally good luck for the Royal Air Force. The new Focke-Wulf 190 fighters had been causing so much damage that the British high command had been contemplating a commando raid on one of the enemy's airfields to capture an aircraft for examination at close quarters. Now, one had landed in their laps!
The unfortunate Oberleutnant was arrested and taken to RAF Fairwood near Swansea. The aeroplane was too precious to be flown, in case of accidents, so it was dismantled and packed off by lorry to RAF Farnborough where it was re-assembled, painted in RAF colours, and examined for its secrets. It was later flown to RAF Duxford where it was used to develop the competitive capabilities of the latest Spitfire, the Mk. IX. Having given the RAF much valuable intelligence, it was scrapped in September, 1943.
Meanwhile Oberleutnant Faber was suffering from understandable shame, although he was not the first pilot to have mistaken one airfield for another. It was just his bad luck that he was flying an aeroplane of such high potential value to the enemy. It was said that he even tried to commit suicide. Along with many other German prisoners, he was transferred to Canada, and by 1944 had clearly got over his feelings of guilt and embarrassment well enough to persuade his captors that he was suffering from epilepsy and should qualify for repatriation. He was duly repatriated and again took up combat flying – in spite of the 'epilepsy'.
It is said that in later years, long after the war was over, Armin Faber was invited to return to Pembrey - he declined.
Pembrey Airport Post-War
When Winston Thomas retired in the mid-1990s after a long career overseas, he returned to his native Carmarthenshire with the idea of doing something for the county. So, he bought an airport and began the long work of restoration and renewal. Pembrey Airport is now the base for South Western Airlines, a small charter company operating freight and passenger services throughout the UK and Europe, and has been providing refuelling and support to military and emergency services (like Air Sea Rescue) since 1998.
Anyone can go along and take a look at the airport. On a fine summer's day, it's an impressive sight. Acres of even green land stretch to the distant fir-covered dunes, and to the east Pembrey mountain dominates the landscape.
Notes and Citations
- Image of St. Illtyd's Church Pembrey © Copyright Rose and Trev Clough and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
- Pembrey airport is 3 miles from Kidwelly on the A484 and 8 miles from Llanelli. 51° 42′ 50″ N, 4° 18′ 44″ W (51.713889, -4.312222)
- Trejtnar vs Faber June 23 1942
- RAF Pembrey