World War One: Jamie Owen on grandfather's dockyard role

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Media captionTommy 'Pop' Owen was an engine fitter on WW1 submarines

I should have listened to my father. I won't be the first son to think that. But in researching my family history surrounding World War One I now have lots of questions he could have answered.

It's too late. Dad died some years back and trying to research his father's life - my paternal grandfather - has proved hard.

My father had a distinguished World War Two, serving from 1939 to 1945. He joined as a private and left at the end of the war as a captain. He married late in life and our childhoods were dominated by his reminiscences of his war.

But I never met Dad's father - my grandfather - as both my paternal grandparents died before I was born. And now that Dad is no longer with us I'm almost dependent on paperwork and archives.


There aren't many people left who remember my grandfather or World War One.

Thomas Edward Owen - "Pop" or Tommy - as everyone called him was born in 1883 and worked in the Royal Dockyard in Pembroke Dock as an engine fitter.

Dad told us he worked on submarines and warships. All of which sounds a rather tall tale until you begin to examine the extraordinary role the dockyard played before and after the Great War.

Tommy was paid as an artificer - he made things with his hands - and seems to have specialized in marine mechanical propulsion, which at this time would have been diesel and electric motors.

Pembroke Dockyard was always acknowledged as a busy factory turning out royal yachts and warships - but submarines too? Really?

Whenever you research family history they say you should start with the living members of your family.

My cousin Elizabeth was a little girl when Tommy was in his last years and remembers a quiet man in a dicky bow and a pork pie hat. She said he couldn't ever get a word in edgeways with my grandmother.

Elizabeth confirms my father's story, told to us as children, that Tommy was an engine fitter who worked on warships and submarines. She has also found some yellowing home movie footage - the first time that I have ever seen moving pictures of my grandfather - alongside my father.

Image caption Tommy, from a home movie in the 1960s

I watched alone in a quiet lunchtime BBC edit suite. The familiar faded figures came alive on screen enjoying an over-dressed day out at the beach in Pembrokeshire in the late 1960s. It was an emotional few minutes to watch and I'm glad there was no one else around.

The elderly man staring out from the home movie footage was involved in the construction in Pembroke Dock of the submarine L10.

It is difficult to imagine anywhere in Wales further away from the trenches but the Pembrokeshire dockyard played an important role in building and fitting out vessels for the conflict.

For the people of Pembrokeshire, who waved off their sons to fight, seeing the men of the dockyard go to work in comparative safety was the source of some considerable tension in the community.

We have grown up to believe that the WW1 united Britain in some patriotic swell of unity. But that was not true in Pembrokeshire. The local newspaper reports on the tensions of the cushy life that some of the dockyard workers led, how some private companies profited from the conflict and how the contrast with families who had waved off their men folk to war was keenly felt.

Image caption 'Even in dock the claustrophobia is unbearable'

But the men who worked on the submarines were not beyond danger. The same newspapers report that the sea trials of the submarine L10 nearly claimed the lives of the engineers and crew putting the vessel through its paces.

The sub was piloted from the dockyard out into open water where it began a submerge test. It dropped to the ocean floor but couldn't be refloated. Back at the dockyard women and children gathered at the entrance gates to await news of their missing loved ones. The hours passed. The sub didn't appear. It doesn't take much imagination to imagine the horror of being stuck in a submarine. I've been on one and even in dock the claustrophobia is unbearable.

Somehow the L10 miraculously resurfaced and made its way back to the dockyard.

Peace saw Pembroke Dock's frantic warship factory wind down. By 1926 the Royal Dockyard was closed. The ships once needed to protect a lost empire were required no more. The town never really recovered from central government switching off the oxygen to that community.

After the war, a broke Britain breathed a sigh of relief, the war to end all wars was over. But 20 years later Tommy's three young sons - including my father - all signed up. The war to end all wars was anything but.

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