Pembrokeshire’s ‘yanks’ arrive: Memories of 77 years ago.

Military anniversaries occur each and every day. Many are heralded way in advance, such as 80 years since the Battle of Britain recently, but most come and go with barely a mention. The next anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 2021, will undoubtedly be highlighted well ahead and, of course commemorated – perhaps limited in scale due to Covid-19 restrictions!

Yet an event occurred 77 years ago that had a major effect on the course of the Second World War here in south Wales and the build-up to the Normandy Landings, when the first complete US Army Infantry Division sailed into the Bristol Channel prior to disembarking at our ports.

Mustering over 14,500 men, the 28th ‘Keystone’ Division, Pennsylvania National Guard were not alone when they left the United States as they voyaged in the biggest troop convoy of the war to date.

Sailing on Friday, October 8, out of Boston, Massachusetts, the five troopships joined no fewer than 15 others, plus various freighters of US registration from New York making up Convoy UT 3 – transporting 66,500 troops in all and protected by a large US Navy escort.

The division, scheduled for stationing in the south of England, discovered in transit that its camps weren’t ready, so troops (many of whom were descended from former Welsh immigrants to places like Scranton) were delighted with their new locations. Tenby was to be the headquarters with the three regiments and divisional units spread right across south Wales.

The 110th Infantry in Pembrokeshire, the 112th in Carmarthen / Cardiganshire and the 109th in Glamorgan, although 2,000 men of the latter, aboard the 12,000 ton USAT George W Goethals, had another surprise when their ship broke down early on, causing a return to their embarkation Camp Myles Standish for two weeks before moving up to Halifax, Nova Scotia for shipment aboard the fast, independent HMT Aquitania.

By October 17, the storm-battered convoy made landfall, coming into the calmer Irish Sea via the usual North Channel route having been overtaken by the grey clad HMT Queen Elisabeth (AT69) with 13,000 other troops embarked proceeding to Gourock on the Clyde, closely followed by five troop ships from UT3.

Then five more, plus the escort oiler SS Chicopee broke away to starboard conveying the 2nd Indianhead Infantry Division to Belfast, Northern Ireland leaving five ‘troopers’ to follow yet another fast independent, this one being HMT Mauretania (AT68) into Liverpool; the remainder heading for the Bristol Channel.

Docking on October 18, the SS Santa Rosa, with her sister ship Santa Paula, carried some 7,000 troops of the 28th ID including the 112th Infantry sailing into Swansea and Cardiff respectively.

The USAT Cristobal unloaded 3,000 men of the 110th at Newport, Gwent, with the specialist transport SS Lakenhurst unloading locomotives and the SS Seatrain Texas docking with the USAT Henry Gibbons with more of the Pennsylvanian National Guard at Avonmouth, which included the 110th Cannon Company.

Unfortunately they were faced with a lengthy rail journey down to their camp at Cresselly House and their comrades of the Anti-tank company took the best berths as they got there first having landed in South Wales.

Such a wealth of detail is an example of what can be found in a new book published earlier this year entitled ‘Oxwich to Omaha’ – American GIs in South Wales, researched, written and published on Amazon by former Pembrokeshire resident Phil Howells.

Twenty-six years in the making, the book has already received some glowing reviews, but the author is quick to point out that much local information is down to others who took the trouble to record anecdotes and pieces of history.

"I’ve been able to add the military detail of ‘what, when and where’ to the stories of, for example, the former Western Telegraph journalist, the late Vernon Scott,’ he said.

"His book An Experienced Shared contained valuable recollections of US servicemen, especially in west Wales and speaking with him years ago provided so much for me to work on," he added.

In Pembrokeshire, the 110th Infantry headquarters and 1st and 2nd Battalions were at Llanion Barracks in Pembroke Dock, part of the 3rd Battalion in Haverfordwest and ‘I’ and ‘K’ Company’s originally in Lamphey, prior to transferring to Cwm Brandy near Fishguard.

Other divisional troops including the 103rd Medical Battalion, which was housed at the Penally Training Camp (so much in the news now, but with different in-comers) and the following month the attached 462nd AAA (Automatic Weapons) Battalion would be based about as far west as anyone could get at East Blockhouse overlooking the entry to Milford Haven.

Chronicling the activities, training and leisure of the US Army and Navy during their preparations for D-Day has resulted in a unique book that is both hugely informative but also very readable.

It dovetails together Operations Bolero, Overlord and the naval offshoot Neptune, which saw the largest single force of over 42,000 troops sail from south Wales to Normandy on June 6, 1944.

All this was yet to come, but 77 years ago this combined convoy of UT3, AT68 and AT69 was collectively named by the US Army Transportation Corps as ‘the biggest of the war’ carrying 87,897 men, and it took 236 trains over several days to transport the troops to their various camp locations all over the British Isles.

If you would like to win a signed copy of Oxwich to Omaha, by Phil Howells, published by Amazon, then email using Book Competition in the subject line and including your name and address and the answer to this simple question: What was the name of the former Western Telegraph reporter who was the catalyst for so many of the stories in the book?

The closing date is October 30. The editor's decision is final. Normal Newsquest terms and conditions apply.