Nefyn During the War

August 1941

Not much has been written about Nefyn during WWII. I was born in August 1941, so I was too young to really remember a lot about it. The stories I heard from my parents and others indicated that it was an exciting place during those difficult times. It was certainly a time when everyone pulled together for the greater good. All the fit, able- bodied, young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two were called-up to serve in the army, navy, or air force. Most Nefyn men preferred being at sea, and many were already seamen on merchant navy ships carrying crucial supplies across the Atlantic in convoys from Canada and the United States. Others were in the army that was initially evacuated from Dunkirk, but later regained its strength after being reinforced with new recruits, and with tanks and weapons from America. The combined allied effort later triumphantly drove the Germans out of North Africa, Italy, and eventually swept across Europe following the D-Day landings.

Gas masks were issued to everyone in Britain early in the war. The government believed that some form of poison gas would be used against the civilian population, and they were particularly concerned about mustard gas being used by the German Luftwaffe. The gas mask was made of rubber and the canister on the end contained a carbon filter to remove the poison gas. Our gas masks were kept in a cupboard on the top of the stairs at our home in 6 Church Street. I recall trying one on a few years later, and finding it very uncomfortable and difficult to breathe. It was hot and stuffy with an overwhelming smell of rubber. Ration books were also issued to more fairly distribute the available necessities, such as sugar, bread, meat, butter etc while at the same time minimizing consumption and waste. I remember well that daily teaspoonful of cod liver oil and the other teaspoonful of orange juice that we used to get as children, in that order thankfully. They were from two small bottles my mother used to get every month with her ration book. A strict blackout was in force across the whole country, which meant no street lighting, black material covering all windows, and car headlights turned off. Very few people had cars anyway, and since petrol was also rationed, people walked or bicycled everywhere. Many English children were evacuated from the cities to the Nefyn area, and I have a vague recollection of one such evacuee, a boy named Gerald who was staying in a home on Palace Street. Everyone was glued to the wireless for the latest war news listening to Churchill’s epic pronouncements and famous speeches, although they were not so epic or famous just downright scary at the time. Rumours were continually circulating about a flotilla of vessels on standby in Liverpool Bay ready to evacuate the whole British Government to Canada should Germany invade. They were dire times indeed for the ordinary citizen.

The economic conditions were difficult for the people of Nefyn in the late 1930’s. Many men were out of work, and the gradual closure of the local quarries, especially the Gwylwyr Quarry in 1937, had made the problem even worse. There was a lot of poverty in the area, certainly compared to current standards, but the job conditions were improving gradually. Some men found work with the company that was renovating the electrical delivery system. Many of the houses on the mountain above Nefyn were still using candles and oil lamps, or if they were more modern, running their electric lights off accumulators (batteries), which needed to be recharged weekly at Mrs. Ellis’s shop. The number of English visitors in the area was getting larger, and this was a source of additional jobs in the summer. Fishing was a natural sideline and it even provided a livelihood for many fishermen. Word spread very quickly if they had any fish for sale. Vegetable gardens were grown in the back of almost every house in town. Some houses had a greenhouse, and some even a coop with several chickens for eggs if they had the extra space. You woke up in Nefyn in those days to a crescendo of cockerels crowing merrily in the early morning hours.

Rabbit hunting was another prominent sideline, and it helped provide income and extra food on the table. There were rabbits everywhere, and snares (croglethi) could be purchased in Shop Newydd the ironmongers on High Street for a couple of pennies a dozen. The farmers in general had no problems with hunting since rabbits damaged crops and were regarded as pests. It was a common sight to see men walking through town with a large number of rabbits hanging from a pole on their shoulders heading for Guto Parry’s shop at Pen y Bryn who served as the local distributor. Of course, every housewife in town knew how to clean a fish, pluck a chicken, and skin a rabbit. How things have changed!!! Come to think of it, that rabbit stew my grandmother used to make in the Fron was exceptionally good. The rabbit disease myxomatosis was not yet an issue, but when it was introduced later in 1953 it wiped out the entire rabbit population. The build-up in war activities, and the on-going community efforts, was also providing further jobs for both men and women.

The Groes was the focal point for assembly, and on most weekdays it was quite busy. The men were there to buy a newspaper, have a smoke, and stand around discussing the latest news and developments. However for security and propaganda reasons, the news was severely censured especially when things were not going well with the progress of the war. The women were out shopping almost daily, and with the little money they had available, they focused first and foremost on those rationed necessities. The shopping needs of the town and surroundings were all met locally since it was an all-day inconvenience to travel by bus to Pwllheli. There were a lot of people walking around town, and there were many little shops competing for their business, even though the goods and produce they had were severely curtailed. I recall two active bakeries (Islwyn and Church Street); three greengrocers (Giddy’s, Capt Boyd, and Jones Dicws); six grocers (Glynllifon, Tan-y-Groes, Zebra, Pen-y-Graig, Gwalia, and Mrs. Ellis); and two butchers (Jones Glynllifon and Pen-y-Bryn). There were also two cigarette/sweet shops (Groes and Pen-y-Bryn); three newspaper shops (Old Post Office, Pen-y-Bryn and Mrs. Ellis); three men’s clothing/shoe shops (London House, Bradford House, and Owen Morris’s); two ironmongers (Shop Newydd and Nanhoron House); two cobblers (Ensors and Daniel Owen, Church Street); two chip shops (High Street and Tan-y-Maes); two barbers (Groes and Guto Parry’s Melbourne House); one paint shop (Sally’s, Well Street); one women’s hairdressers (Trenholme, Anchoria) and three banks. There might be a couple of omissions or errors in this listing, but again how things have changed!!

I remember well that small bakery on Church Street opposite the Blue Garage that was owned by old John Hughes. It was very close to our house, and the smell of that fresh bread permeated the whole neighborhood. As a child I was mesmerized by the large dough mixer located by the door and the oven with the long loading paddles visible in the back. A young man by the name of John (Eulwen and Guto Ifan’s brother) used to work there, and he was always lifting me on his shoulders. The bakery later moved to larger premises on Palace Street. I also remember John Owens chip shop at Tan-y-Maes, with the small sitting room in the back, and the delicious fish and chips, and deep-fried potato scallops he used to serve there in the 1950’s. Then there was the greengrocer Jones Dicws on the corner of Palace and Church Streets with the huge piece of slate protruding out from the corner to divert rainwater from the shop entrance down Church Street. Inside there was a huge wooden box that held potatoes, and a large scale that Miss Jones had on the counter to weigh produce for her customers.

Early in the war a small camp was opened in the field where Glan-y-Pwll is now located on the Morfa Road. It was sufficiently far out of town not to be very noticeable. The camp consisted of a few semi-circular, corrugated iron, Nissen huts assembled on concrete slabs. It was not a barracks since it had no sleeping facilities. Many small camps of this kind were located in towns and villages throughout the country. Their intent initially I believe was to provide areas where home guards could congregate and be trained to help the regular army defend Britain against the impending German invasion. The home guards were volunteers and able-bodied men over forty years of age who could not be recruited into the regular forces. Most of them had jobs and were only involved in the evenings and on weekends. They were nicknamed Dad’s Army. I was left with the impression that the local home guards were a rag-tag group. They took their training and duties rather lackadaisically, and they had leaders who apparently seemed to be totally incompetent. They were subject to a considerable amount of local humour and jocular ridicule. That was understandable perhaps since they used shovels, pitchforks, and dummy wooden rifles during training, and their marksmanship skills were very poor. But to their credit, they did do some very useful and meritorious work. They were involved in digging trenches along the cliffs, and manning those trenches at night. The trenches are still in existence on Nefyn Point and in the fields of the old Pen Isaf-y-Dre farm. They were involved in building an anti-tank barrier at the top of Lon Gam. They were also involved in reinforcing, and camouflaging the chain home radar buildings at Cefn Leisiog. The chain home radar was an early warning radar system upgraded from an earlier radio system for detecting and tracking radio emissions from thunderstorms. It was a very crude static aerial system without any of the modern-day rotating antennas etc. Nevertheless, the system functioned and was instrumental in pinpointing the location of German planes especially on the east and southern coasts thereby providing the RAF with an early warning capability. Although the Lleyn area only experienced minor attacks, the Germans did make use of neutral Ireland and the lights from the city of Dublin, much to everyone’s consternation, to align planes along the North Wales coast for bombing raids on Liverpool.

Hughes Bach Town Hall was a very active member and trainer in the home guard. He was originally from London, and worked as a cook in the Nanhoron Arms Hotel. He was an energetic individual full of enthusiasm about his assignment and responsibilities. He used to walk around town whistling merrily, and everyone called him the Colonel. He married a local woman, lived initially in the old Town Hall on High Street, and later moved to a house on Church Street. I got to know him quite well later since he was an avid coin collector, and was forever trying to get me to buy some Churchill crowns he believed were a really good investment. Thankfully I didn’t buy any. Hughes Bach said he had a challenging time handling the home guard volunteers. During weekend training, he would march the men from the camp, through Nefyn, around Bryncynan to Morfa Nefyn, and back home. He would lose several of the men at the Sportsman in Nefyn, and then some more when they rounded the corner by the Bryncynan Inn!! Discipline during training he said was a major problem!!

The home guard did not have early access to arms since rifles and ammunition etc were too much in demand by the regular army. But later in the war they were issued some older model WWI .303 rifles so they could conduct weapons training. The training was initially held on the mountain near Carreg Lefain, but they got into serious trouble up there when one of them ‘accidentally’ shot a sheep during target practice!! The accident was caused apparently by poor supervision during the practice, and by inferior marksmanship. The problem was hushed up very quickly, and compensation was paid to the farmer. The Carreg Lefain area had a large population of sheep in the summer, and to avoid the possibility of further incidences, it was decided to move the weapons training on to the cliffs with the sea as a background for the target practices. Unfortunately some gray seals in Nefyn bay then became ‘accidental’ targets.

There was only one incident that I am aware of where the home guards were actively armed in response to a perceived threat. The incident was talked and joked about for several years. Rumours were rife of a German spy living in one of those large houses along Tyn Pwll lane. So concerns heightened late one dark evening when someone was reported using a flashlight to signal out to sea from a field below Gwylwyr above Ddor Ddu. The home guards were called out, formed a line in the darkness along the wall on the Pistyll Road, and peppered the suspect field with rifle fire. No one was found there the following morning. Whoever was there apparently got out of the field in time!! The German spy story had nothing to do with the incident, and it turned out later that there was no German spy anyway just an eccentric Englishman who lived in Gorse Cliff and who liked to dress in some rather outlandish, desert-fox style, khaki outfits!!

During the war, Nefyn became a garrison town for a couple of different regiments including the Royal Irish Fusiliers and later the Royal Welch Fusiliers. The soldiers were billeted in houses in the town, and they were apparently fed in the Madryn Hall. The regiments made use of the camp on the Morfa Road, and there was army equipment everywhere. After the regiments left, the town then supported a group of young Norwegian men who had escaped from Norway by crossing the North Sea in sailing boats and small ships after the Germans invaded their country. They were assigned to the wilds of Wales and Scotland so they could be trained for covert, commando- style espionage raids, and to prepare for the retaking of their native country. They would often be out and around in Nefyn, and I recall my Aunt Nellie telling me about a young Norwegian nicknamed Alf who was a favorite among the locals. The men were encouraged not to use their real names for security reasons in case the Germans got to know their identities and retaliate against their families back home in Norway. Anyway, the locals used to tease Alf. “Surely Alf, there must be a good German”. “No,” was the terse and emphatic response in broken English, “All good Germans are dead Germans!!” Such was the intensity of the anti-German feeling amongst those refugees. When Alf was not seen for many weeks, inquiries about his whereabouts among the other Norwegian men was met with total silence. No one pursued the topic any further, and everyone concluded that the worse had happened to him on one of those commando raids.

They were an incredibly fit group of young men. I recall my father telling me about taking three of them in his boat down to Gorllwyn on a goat-hunting trip. Gorllwyn is that part of the Rival mountains that enters the sea on the eastern side of Nefyn Bay just north of Carreg y Llam (Bird Rock). They disembarked from the boat at the base of the mountain, and then scaled the cliff face in pursuit of the wild goats that lived up there. They got within range of one goat, and shot it. They recovered the kill off the face of the cliff, lowered it with ropes to the base, and had my father bring it back in the boat to Nefyn beach. The goat stank the boat to high heaven. A day or so later, my mother was given a butchered leg of goat as a present. It smelled even worse than mutton!!

Later in the war, the camp was converted into a barracks to billet first a group of Italian prisoners and then later a group of German prisoners. I don’t believe it was large enough to be listed as an official prisoner of war camp, but that’s what it was referred to locally. A major glitch was made apparently when they brought some German prisoners there before the Norwegians had departed the area. The Norwegian men raided the camp, and the authorities got there just in time to avoid a catastrophe. I was told the prisoners wore a uniform with a yellow colored diamond patch on the back. They worked on farms locally, and were even paid for their work. They had a relatively nice time in the camp, and were free to roam around Nefyn especially after the war was over. They were invited into local homes on special occasions such as Christmas. I was aware of two German prisoners who eventually married local women, and settled in the Nefyn area. Both were from the eastern part of Germany, which fell under Russian control, and after the war they could not return home to see their families. I do not remember the name of one of them, but he married a woman named Nellie and lived at Craig y Mor a house just opposite Nefyn Elementary School. The other was Siegfried Nierada, who ran a successful garage business opposite Glan y Pwll for many years. He married a woman named Megan and lived at Pen-y-Bryn. I remember Siegfried well since we lived directly opposite the garage. He was a very nice individual, and a highly respected motor mechanic. He later used to drive around Nefyn in a Mercedes, and had a pet Alsatian whom he trained as a watchdog to guard the garage. When the Berlin Wall was demolished in 1989 and Germany was re-unified, Siegfried was finally able to return home to visit his relatives – can you imagine that, nearly forty-five years after the war had ended!!

The camp was demolished around 1950 to make way for the Glan y Pwll council estate, which was built by Gwilym Ifor Hughes’s local construction company. We moved to live in Glan y Pwll in 1952/53. Emrys Parry, now living in Great Yarmouth, England and who also moved to live there, remembers removing a large amount of loose stone from the back garden so his grandfather, John Parry Castle, could start a vegetable garden. The stones were from the foundation of one of those Nissen huts. There were also lots of pigeons around the area, a hangover from a large flock that apparently roosted in the hut rafters.

There were several reports of enemy warplanes crashing into the sea offshore during the war, and even parachutes being sighted in the water, but none of those reports were fully confirmed. A mine did come ashore on Nefyn beach midway between Carreg Frech, the rock that sits in the middle of the beach, and the bottom of Screw Road. It was deactivated, and because of its weight it rapidly became buried in the sand. Children used to play on the mine for many years afterwards. My brother Mike remembers a large flotilla of Ducks, amphibious landing vehicles, being used for training in Porthdinllaen Bay. They had wheels for use on land and a pair of propellers for use in the water. I only have a vague recollection of one becoming disabled at sea and coming ashore in a gale.

The blackout made the whole town very eerie on a dark night. No children were out after dark, and there was a lot more telling of scary and exaggerated stories. Old time fisherman John Gongl told his great-nephew Dr Dawi Rees-Ellis, now living in Tom’s River, New Jersey, that he used a flashlight to look up to the sky from his window in Bryn Neuadd one night to see Hitler flying over Nefyn in an German aeroplane!! It really frightened Dawi and his young friends!! Old John claimed the flashlight was so powerful that if he shone it on a rabbit on the side of Garn Boduan, when he got there the rabbit was cooked and ready to eat!! John Gongl was a wonderful, one-of-a-kind Nefyn character, and when he was not on the beach, he would be sitting on the boulder on the corner of the Tan-y-Maes chip shop telling the children all kinds of scary stories. The small boulder is still there on the corner of the old chip shop at Palace Street and the Maes. There would be a lot of children playing nearby below Pen-y-Graig, with the girls playing hopscotch in the middle of the street and the boys climbing the Pen-y- Graig wall. Old John would often visit his fishing partner Richard Hughes (Dic Ffani) Fron in the evening, and they would tell each other all kinds of exaggerated and scary ghost stories. They were so good at telling these, they would scare each other in the process. My Uncle John was out riding his bicycle with a friend late one night, and the two teenagers were yelling to each other in the darkness as they passed Bryn Neuadd. The following evening in the Fron old John reported looking out his bedroom window and seeing the angel Gabriel flying by with the Devil in full pursuit riding in a flaming chariot and vocalizing horrific, blood-curling screams!! He was certain that the Devil had a secret hideout somewhere along the nearby Tyn-Coed valley. Richard Hughes was too scared after to go to the toilet in the back of the house, while old John claimed he was too afraid to go home alone. My Aunt Nellie and her friend Madge, Richard Hughes’s daughter, would agree to accompany him back through the darkness to his home in Bryn Neuadd – crafty old man!!!

There were many very serious stories also about the wartime exploits of some of the local men, although most were reluctant to talk about them. I recall old Robin Jones, who also lived in Glan-y-Pwll, telling us youngsters about some of his experiences. Robin was originally from Blaenau Ffestiniog and was a soldier with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He married a local woman named Betty and settled in Nefyn. One story that stuck in my mind concerned his exploits in the Western Desert, and his utter contempt for the Italian soldier. If you were caught by them, as several of his fellow soldiers apparently were, you were in trouble since the Italians could be very cruel as a group. You were much better off being a prisoner of the Germans. The Italian soldiers were not very well trained, and you could get to them psychologically at night, he said, when they were alone with their thoughts. Close by in the desert trenches, you only had to make a lot of noise and shout specific sentences in Italian, and their trenches would be empty the following morning. The technique most certainly did not work on the Germans, he added.

Then of course there was the famous escapade of the young seaman John Lewis Jones and the San Demetrio. The story was made into a movie titled, “San Demetrio London” in 1943. He was the son of Jones the local Nefyn policeman. He was known as Jack Plisman, and he started his career in the merchant navy in 1937 when he was just sixteen years old. By the time he was nineteen, he was still serving his apprenticeship and on his second ship the tanker San Demetrio. The tanker was loaded with aviation fuel in Galveston, Texas and sailed up the US east coast to join a convoy off Halifax, Nova Scotia in November 1940. Like most of the early convoys, it was not adequately defended, and the convoy was attacked in the middle of the Atlantic by the German pocket battleship the Admiral Scheer. The San Demetrio was hit several times and caught fire. Because of the volatility of the cargo, the crew decided to abandon ship and take to the lifeboats. The following day in a heavy gale the crew in one lifeboat, which included Jack, managed to re-board the ship, and even though the ship was heavily damaged and still burning furiously, they were able to restart the pumps and put out the fires. They were further able to repair and start the engines, and eventually navigate the ship successfully across the remainder of the Atlantic to Britain with its valuable cargo intact. Jack was awarded an OBE for services rendered in helping to navigate the vessel without instruments or charts, and for volunteering with the chief engineer to enter the pump room and open valves even though the room was full of explosive gases. He showed himself to be an admirable second-in-command. The San Demetrio was repaired, put back into service in the merchant navy, and was sunk in March 1942 by a torpedo fired from a German U-boat with the loss of forty-eight lives. Jack ended his career as a Captain in the merchant navy, but was forced to retire due to ill health in 1971. He returned to live at his home the Highways in Morfa Nefyn, and passed away in 1986. His own recollection of the San Demetrio story has been described in detail on

After the war, ceremonies were held by the British Legion every Remembrance Day at the War Memorial on St David’s Road to honour the local men who died in the conflict. Remembrance Day falls on the Sunday nearest November 11 when WWI ended at 11:00am in 1918. People would come out of the church and chapels early on that Sunday morning so they could attend. I remember watching the ceremony there with my mother in November 1947. There were many in attendance, and I recall several people openly crying. The Memorial was literally covered with poppies and wreaths of all kind. Billy Byrne, Fron and Jimmy Trenholme, Blue Garage were two of many active participants in those British Legion ceremonies in later years with Guto John Williams, Glan y Pwll playing the last post on his trumpet. The attendees decreased over the years, and with the closure of the chapels, I doubt whether any remembrance ceremonies are held there these days.

The names of the men who perished in WWII are listed on the Memorial together with the names of the houses where they lived in Nefyn. They include:

  World War II
Morwyr (Sailors)   Milwyr (Soldiers)
T D Davies  Isfryn   O L Roberts Tyncae
R G Evans Bay View   D Williams Fronoleu
G C Roberts Bryn y Ddol   H J Jones Frondeg
F Griffiths Minafon   G F Owen Gwalia
J N Rowlands Plas      
D A Rowlands Plas      
R F Davies Glan y Ddol      
R O Griffith Maes Gwyn      
O Williams Bodefi      
W H Williams Bodefi      
T J Williams Bodefi      
R J Jones Arosfa       

We never got to hear the stories of these men, but I am certain they were also involved in many acts of heroism. Please note tragically the three members of the Williams Bodefi family who perished at sea - I have no knowledge how they were related – and also the two brothers of the Rowlands Plas family.

Dr. Brian Owen
Emmaus, PA, USA

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