In 1936, 174 men, most of them miners from South Wales, volunteered for the International Brigades and went to fight against Franco’s fascist troops in Spain. During the Spanish Civil War, approximately 300 people from Wales enlisted in the International Brigades and about 35 of them did not return home. This was an enormous contribution from a small country. Meanwhile, in North Wales, another – very different – battle was being fought.
On the 17th of September, 1936 a short item called “Fire at R.A.F. Camp,” appeared in The Times, which signalled the beginning of a pivotal episode in the history of Welsh Nationalism:
“A new charge of feloniously and maliciously setting fire to certain buildings, the property of the King, was preferred at Pwllhelli yesterday in the case brought against three members of the Welsh Nationalist Party, consequent on a fire at the new R.A.F. Armament Training Camp at Penrhos, near Pwllhelli.
“The defendants were committed for trial on the original charge, slightly amended, of causing malicious damage to contractors’ huts and stacks of timber valued at approximately £1,000 and on the new charge under section 5 of the Malicious Damage Act, 1861. They are Professor John Saunders Lewis, of Swansea University; the Rev. Lewis Edward Valentine, Baptist minister, Llandudno; and Mr. D. J. Williams, senior master at Fishguard County School.”
So why were three such respectable figures in the dock for setting fire to a few huts and who were they?
All three of the accused were ardent Welsh nationalists. Lewis and Valentine later became founder members of Plaid Cymru and leaders of the Welsh-language movement. They had attempted the arson attack because the “R.A.F. Camp” was destined to be the site of a bombing practice area, or “bombing school” on the Llŷn (Lleyn) Peninsula (Penrhyn Llŷn or Pen Llŷn) in north west Wales, near to Anglesey, in the modern county of Gwynedd.
What appeared to be most galling to Welsh people about the choice of that site was that the government in Westminster had looked at and rejected two sites in England: Abbotsbury in Dorset and Holy Island in Northumberland. Both had been rejected because they were the home of rare birds. There was no such wildlife on the Llŷn Peninsula and, as one of the defendants, D. J. Williams, remembered in a BBC documentary Yesterday’s Witness, made shortly before he died in 1970: “In the spring of 1932 there was an International Disarmament Conference under the auspices of the League of Nations held in Geneva. And at that conference it was the almost unanimous opinion of all the nations there that aerial bombardment of innocent citizens in towns and cities was too horrible a thing to be allowed to go on. … A law-abiding, faithful nation, always loyal to the Empire in its day of need – surely this nation would oblige, and take the site of an aerodrome or bombing school within their territory? In 1935, when this project was finally decided upon, public opinion straight away became forcible against the very idea… The whole nation stood on its feet in protest against it.”
Although the proposed bombing school was unpopular, the local population was not as united as Mr. Williams seemed to think. Many people were in favour of it as a much-needed source of jobs at a time of high unemployment. It is difficult to know how closely in touch the three defendants were with local people, although the case became a cause célèbre and they received a lot of support from nationalists in Wales generally, none of them were local people. Saunders Lewis (1893-1985) was a historian, poet, dramatist, critic, and activist, one of the founders of the Welsh National Party (later Plaid Cymru). Acknowledged to have been among the most important figures in modern Welsh literature, Lewis would be nominated for a Nobel prize in 1970. Lewis Valentine (1893-1986) was a Baptist minister from Conwy, who was also a prime mover in the Welsh language movement. The son of a quarryman, his studies for the Baptist ministry had been cut short by the outbreak of the First World War. David John Williams (1885-1970) was also a leading nationalist and Welsh-language writer from Carmathenshire. He would later say that he had had the privilege of being educated at three universities: University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, Oxford and Wormwood Scrubs. He was a schoolteacher and a socialist and again a founder of Plaid Cymru.
When the then Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, refused to hear the case against the bombing school, despite huge protests, many people in Wales must have felt disenfranchised. D. J. Williams later said; “The swannery in Abbotsbury and the duckery in Northumberland had been sufficiently powerful means of desisting the English Government from going on; well, there was nothing for us to do but to take direct action. Three of us were selected to do the job, of whatever nature. … So we three met on Monday night, 7 September 1936 and decided to do what we thought was our duty. Namely, to set the aerodrome site on fire. It was not an act of vandalism, but a direct protest in the name of the whole Welsh Nation, in order that we could plead our case in a public court of law. … My particular spot of setting on fire was a shed. It was a windy night. I had only one box and I used every match that I had, and I failed to get the fire going. So I had to go to my friend Valentine to borrow some more matches, but they failed.”
According to the Times report, the night watchman, a disabled ex-serviceman named David Davis, came upon two of the arsonists and was assaulted by them. This does not appear in the slightly romanticised reminiscences of the BBC documentary, Yesterday’s Witness.
D. J. Williams may have failed to start his fire, but some of his colleagues succeeded. The three were arrested and taken to the nearest police station in Pwllhelli. There they handed in a letter addressed to the Chief Constable:
“We who sign this letter acknowledge a responsibility for the damage which was done to the buildings of the bombing camp this evening. Ever since the intention to build a Lleyn bombing camp was first announced we, and many other leaders of the public life of Wales, did everything we could to get the English Government to refrain from placing in Lleyn an institution which would endanger all the culture and traditions of one of the most Wells regions in Wales.
“But in spite of our pleading, in spite of the letters and protests forwarded from hundreds of religious and lay societies throughout the whole of Wales, and although thousands of the electors of Lleyn itself signed a petition imploring prevention of this atrocity, yet the English Government refused even to receive a deputation from Wales to talk over the matter.
“Lawful and peaceful methods failed to secure for Wales even common courtesy at the hands of the Government of England. Therefore, in order to compel attention to this immoral violation of the sure and natural rights of the Welsh nation, we have taken this method, the only method left to us by a Government which insults the Welsh nation.”
The trial took place at the Assize Court at Caernarfon. In the Yesterday’s Witness documentary, it was described vividly by Catrin Daniel:
“The scene at the court was quite extraordinary. The judge… looked a little apprehensive, because I think the streets of Caernarvon were so crowded and the noise outside was so menacing that the judge grew more nervous as the trial wore on. There was deathly silence in the court as the three men made their defence, and when applause broke out, the judge got extremely nasty and rebuked Saunders Lewis several times for a rousing enthusiasm in the court.”
After ninety minutes the jury returned having failed to agree a verdict. A retrial was ordered, this time at the Old Bailey in London. Local people felt that this meant the defendants had no chance of winning the case. At the Old Bailey, the defendants refused to speak in English as D. J. Williams recalled:
“Saunders Lewis and Valentine refused to give their evidence in any language but their own, in Welsh. And that wasn’t allowed, so they didn’t say a word at all. But as it happened, no one of the prosecutors had heard me speak any English at all, with the result that I was allowed to speak in Welsh… The funny part about it was that I had been English Master in the Fishguard Grammar School for fifteen years, and nobody knew apparently that I knew any English.”
The trial ended with convictions and sentences of nine months. When they were released the three men were greeted with a huge audience of supporters at the Great Pavilion, Caernarfon. The bombing school opened a year later, but was found to be completely unsuitable for purpose and it was closed four years later.
Saunders Lewis later became a controversial figure. He had converted to Catholicism in 1932 (from a Calvinistic Methodist background) and resigned from Plaid Cymru in 1939, citing that he felt Wales was not ready to accept the leadership of a Catholic as his reason. His position during the Second World War was controversial as he felt that Wales should take a completely neutral position and supported the campaign for the Welsh to become conscientious objectors. He argued with the left of the Welsh nationalist movement and was seen by some as having an elitist approach. Perhaps his most controversial statement, though, was when he appeared to show admiration for Adolf Hitler – as late as 1936, the year of the arson attack, when he wrote: “At once he fulfilled his promise — a promise which was greatly mocked by the London papers months before that — to completely abolish the financial strength of the Jews in the economic life of Germany.”
Valentine returned to his ministry and Williams to his teaching, although both remained active nationalists all their lives. Despite feeling hard done by as nationalists who did not recognise the jurisdiction of English law, the three men may have been lucky to receive relatively light sentences. Arson on military premises was considered to be an extremely serious offence. (“Arson in a Royal Dockyard” was a capital offence until 1971.) Sympathy for this case will depend upon feelings for the nationalist cause. However, what is striking is that the government’s lack of willingness to engage and compromise with the protestors led to a few people taking an extreme form of action. It may not have worked as far as the Llyn Peninsula was concerned but it probably helped galvanise nationalist feeling in Wales for many years to come.