Europe was at war and bombing raids by the Luftwaffe were frequent.
In the early hours of August 30, 1940, German bombers were heading for Liverpool and dockland sites on the River Mersey.
In an effort to draw the planes away from these heavily populated and strategically important sites, the men of the home guard would make their way to the nearby uninhabited mountains and light fires that it was hoped would dupe the enemy into thinking they had reached their targets.
It has been suggested that the Minera pans were a protective decoy for Brymbo Steelworks two miles to the north. Steelworks with blast furnaces were notoriously difficult to black out. Brymbo was of vital importance to the war effort, having been selected to supply quality steels to the Air Ministry. Seven months before the outbreak of war work had commenced on the installation of four electric arc furnaces, three of which, ironically, were of German origin, manufactured by Siemens Schuckert, whose experts oversaw the installation! With the formation of the Ministry of Aircraft Production in May 1940 the works was put under the control of Thomas Firth and John Brown Ltd.
But there would be few better documented potential targets on the files of Luftwaffe Intelligence! Was it coincidence, or just part of the general mayhem, that the steelworks was bombed on the night of 31 August / 1 September 1940? Fortunately damage was confined to the scrap yard so that there was no disruption in steel production. The evening of Wednesday, 28 August 1940, although industrial targets in the Midlands were the main objective, marked the first of four successive nights of bombing on Merseyside, each increasing in severity. A short ‘Purple Alert’ (0050-0130hrs) was logged by Flintshire Police. A half-hearted attempt at 0300hrs to bomb the RA Training Depot at Kinmel Park was probably associated with minelaying activity in Liverpool Bay. But the following night all hell broke loose as Liverpool suffered the heaviest night raid yet on a British city, not only because it was the country’s second port but also as a reprisal for the attack on Berlin the previous evening.
As an adjunct to these raids Flintshire Police divisions reported over thirty incidents in the county. Inexplicably Denbighshire Civil Defence logged just the two bombs (one an UXB) at Gresford. No mention is made of the fire on Ruabon Mountain. For this one turns to Colin Eaborn, FRS, lately Professor of Chemistry at the University of Sussex, but then of Rhosymedre (and earlier of Holt) and a 17-year old sixth-former at Ruabon Boys Grammar School.
As a member of the recently formed LDVF he was doing his regular Thursday night stint of guard and patrol duty. He writes:
On a Thursday in August 1940, as a member of the Local Defence Volunteers, I was on guard on the railway viaduct at Newbridge along with a fellow sixth-former and two veterans of the 1914-18 War. One of the latter, a holder of the Military Medal, was the corporal in charge of our group. In the early part of the night we were watching the flashes from the bombs dropping on Liverpool and the lights in the sky from the flames, when suddenly a long line of fire appeared on the moors in the area between Garth and Rhos. I would estimate that it was at least half-a-mile long, and its nature was such that the corporal shouted, “They have hit a pipe line”, though we quickly recognised that it was an unlikely place for such a thing! The flames quickly spread as the bracken caught fire.
From then on many of the planes turned away from Liverpool to drop their bombs, mainly harmlessly, onto the burning area, and continued to do so for the duration of the raid. The bombs sounded, and felt, alarmingly close to us, but in fact could not have been less than two miles away! At one point one of the bombers flew very low directly over us, probably no more than 300ft, going south along the main railway line, which in the bright moonlight would have provided an excellent pointer to its way home.
The next day some of us from the LDV, mostly schoolboys, were taken to the moors to help firemen fight the fires which were threatening some farmhouses. We succeeded in protecting the building assigned to us but, not realising that the fires had been started deliberately, I was puzzled by the feebleness of the overall effort being made to put it out. The blaze, which continued to burn for about a week, attracted some bombers every night, though it is my recollection that the proportion going there rather than to Liverpool fell away fairly quickly after the first two nights. There were some deaths from the bombs in the Rhos area, including that of a boy from my school.
What Professor Eaborn saw was the detonation of the southernmost decoy pans. At exactly the same moment a platoon of Cheshire Home Guard, from their vantage point high on the Bickerton Hills, were startled to see the faint after-glow of the western night sky riven by sheets of flame as all the pans along the moorland edge were ignited. Uncomprehendingly, they could only settle back and watch as the blazing heather began to attract its quota of incendiary and high-explosive bombs.
Writing in October 1977, former Pte. A. T. Hughes of Brown Knowl, Broxton, reported:
I had a grandstand view of this occasion. Four of us were on Home Guard duty on Maiden Castle, Bickerton Hill. My son, then aged fifteen, had come with us that night and he and I went for a stroll across the front of the hill. We quickly became aware of the streams of German aircraft coming over and saw the first batch of incendiaries start the fires. I went across to the but to fetch the other three Home Guards and we lay in a depression on the hill top and viewed the rest of the raid. It was a truly terrible sight. When we came to leave the post at daybreak we could not see anything of the mountain for the smoke. I was told by a person who had been to Wilmslow that day that the smoke could be smelled there. After the first planes had got the fires going successive waves arrived with the high explosives that caused the damage and the casualties.
Duty done, Army personnel had fled the mountain. But they were back in force the next day to control and contain, rather than extinguish, the fires. Thrown up in haste, the improvised pans now lay empty, smoking and holed. No thought had been given to staggered detonation or keeping some in reserve for use on successive nights. This would come with experience. W. G. Parry-Ralphs recalls the Army ‘up on top keeping the fire stoked up’, with loads of used tyres and ‘pine cuttings’, in other words pit-props scrounged from Bersham and Hafod collieries, being off-loaded to form the next night’s decoy pyres, the aim being ‘to make as much smoke and flames as possible’.
If the pounding given to Ruabon Mountain is any yardstick the decoy ploy was a success, admittedly with diminishing returns as the week ended. Inevitably there was a debit side, with farms, hamlets and villages receiving a dose of IBs and a leavening of HE. Each incident on its own gives the impression of indiscriminate bombing, a haphazard jettisoning of a bomb load. Viewed overall one can discern a broad belt of secondary bomb damage flanking three sides of the burning mountain — from Llandegla, round through Glascoed, Cae-llo, Pentresaeson and Brymbo, then south via Summerhill, Coedpoeth, Plas Power, Frondeg and Bronwylfa to Rhos, where an UXB in Osborne Street would kill seven people and injure five, and on to Penycae, where the Plas Ucha family and farmhouse were wiped out. Till trail of destruction petered out on Garth Mountain although Shropshire people would like to move the whole senario southwards to Bronygarth Mountain!
Colin Eaborn’s reference to German aircraft flying along the railway is not far off the mark. Providing they could be seen railways, canals and rivers were flawless navigational aids to friend and foe alike.
These early raids on Merseyside trailblazing ‘Adolf’s Railway’ that ran via Lyme Bay, Bristol Channel, Severn estuary, Welsh border, Dee estuary and thence to Liverpool, with a right turn for Manchester at Shocklach! Additionally, by following railways, one never knew what targets of opportunity might present themselves in the shape of trains, marshalling yards and railway junctions. The seemingly haphazard visitations of Shropshire over the same four nights might best be interpreted as railway orientated.