The fire in Llŷn

The fire at Penyberth, in the Llŷn peninsula, is an important part of the history of the Welsh nationalist movement. In the early hours of 8 September 1936, three men, Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D. J. Williams, entered an aerodrome which was being built for the RAF as a bombing school and deliberately set fire to it. They then went to a nearby police station and just as deliberately turned themselves in. It was a political act: all three men were founding members of Plaid Cymru in 1925, and Lewis was then its president (with Valentine his predecessor). However, Plaid Cymru (as far as I can tell) had no direct involvement with the arson. A jury at Caernarfon failed to reach a verdict, and the case was moved to London (which act itself inflamed Welsh opinion), where the three men were sentenced to nine months' imprisonment.

Obviously what interests me here is the RAF bombing school (which, despite the arsonists' efforts, became operational in February 1937 as RAF Penrhos). Why set fire to a bombing school? Why in 1936? This was precisely the time when the RAF was starting to rearm, building up its bomber forces to fight the next war. Which of course was why the RAF needed a new bombing school, to train the airmen who would be flying those bombers. Was the fire a militant anti-militarist act, so to speak, the work of violent pacifists? 1 Was that why they chose their target?

The short answer is no, as a little reading shows. Penyberth was claimed as a site of some cultural significance for Wales, though exactly what that was is unclear to me. Wikipedia says a farmhouse there had been 'home to generations of patrons of poets', which is sufficiently vague to warrant a [citation needed]. Lewis told the Caernarfon jury that

It was the terrible knowledge that the English Government's bombing range, once it was established in Lleyn, would endanger and in all likelihood destroy an essential focus of Welsh culture, the most aristocratic spiritual heritage of Wales, that made me think of my own career, the security even of my own family, things which must be sacrificed in order to prevent so appalling a calamity.

I hold that my action at Penrhos aerodrome on September 8 saved the honour of the University of Wales [where Lewis lectured], for the language and literature of Wales are the very raison d'être of this university. 2

Kenneth O. Morgan says that 'there had been much local protest at the proposal to build this school, with the physical and cultural damage that would result to a traditional Welsh farming community'. 3 That seems consistent enough with Lewis's statement. And fair enough: when Welsh nationalists undertake a political act, you'd expect to find Welsh nationalism as the underlying reason.

But a few bits and pieces here and there do hint at pacifist motivations. For example, Geraint H. Jenkins says the Penyberth three were 'fired by strong pacifist ideas as well as cultural considerations'. 4 Plaid Cymru did have a pacifist culture in the 1930s (and so has had to be defended against charges of fascist sympathies from time to time), and the 1936 arson has certainly been appropriated by pacifists more recently.

I've found a poorly-sourced quote from an address or a pamphlet by Lewis which very clearly sets out an antiwar justification for the arson. According to the fullest extract, on the website of the Socialist Party of Wales, it was entitled 'Yr ysgol fomio yn Llyn' (which I think means 'The bombing school in Llŷn') and dates to 1936. A 'free translation' (lightly edited by me) is given as follows:

In the next war the battle of soldier against soldier will be only of secondary importance. The air force will be the most important; most important of all, bombers to destroy burn and poison cities, turning the inheritance of centuries to ashes, raining down death on defenceless men women and children, and ensuring that for any who remain alive there will be no food or shelter to keep them alive.

The aircraft will be so numerous and so powerful that the fliers themselves will only be in slight danger. They will be trained in cold blood to aim at all sorts of targets. When they return to earth having finished the dirtiest work in the history of creation, if someone asks them ‘Where were you trained?’ The answer will be ‘In Porth Neigwl in Llŷn and near Ynys Enlli and the road of the Welsh Saints and Pilgrims’.

Aside from the very specific Welsh references at the end, this is a very standard pacifist response to the threat of the knock-out blow. How important an element pacifism actually was in the resistance to the bombing school I don't know, but Lewis evidently thought that some element of a Welsh-speaking (or -reading) audience would respond positively to such a claim. Which is about all I can say without knowing more about the provenance of this quote. (Another version is given by the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Wales, similarly unsourced.)

It would be interesting to know what the reaction of non-Welsh pacifists was to the arson at Penyberth. Was it cheered for striking a blow against British militarism, or decried for using violence towards a just end? Unfortunately, the contemporary press coverage I've been able to check (not much) doesn't comment on any such aspect, treating it as Welsh nationalism pure and simple. But it looks like it may have been a bit more complex than that.

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  1. A contradiction in terms? Not always: consider the international air force championed at this time by another Welshman, David Davies.[]
  2. The Times, 14 October 1936, 11. See also the first draft of Lewis's speech.[]
  3. Kenneth O. Morgan, The Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880-1980 (Oxford and Cardiff: Oxford University Press/University of Wales Press, 1981), 254.[]
  4. Geraint H. Jenkins, A Concise History of Wales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 253.[]

3 thoughts on “The fire in Llŷn

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  2. David Morris Jones

    The reaction in England to the burning of the bombing school does not seem to have been widely reported at the time - but in fact it was considerable.
    There was a huge backlash against Wales. Welsh people applying for jobs in England found their applications were discarded. My own Welsh father, a fully-qualified Merchant Navy captain (and Royal Navy veteran) was shortlisted for the post of harbourmaster at Liverpool Docks. Unfortunately the Penyberth incident interceded before his final interview. Although he didn't have a nationalist bone in his body his application was summarily rejected.
    The English now viewed the Welsh far more warily. The possibility of another World War was very much a live issue and the vast majority of people - both English and Welsh - regarded re-armament and preparation a sensible precaution in the national interest.
    Penyberth did untold damage to the image of Wales and the Welsh and its malign influence continues to echo.
    It was the seed of the MAC terrorist bombing campaign of the 60s and 70s and the burning of "English-owned" homes in Wales . It was, in retrospect, an act of treachery perpetrated not only against the RAF and the United Kingdom - but the people of Wales. They are the ones who suffered from it the most.

  3. Post author

    Interesting anecdotal evidence. Did anyone say anything directly to your father about Penyberth or was it his inference that it cost him the job?

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