Review: Hands Off Wales: Nationhood and Militancy by Dr Wyn Thomas
When explosives were first used by Mudiad Gweriniaethol Cymru (Welsh Republican Movement) on the 19 October 1952, as a means of direct action to protest against the flooding of Cwm Caerwen, it ushered in an era of growth in militant Welsh nationalism.
The Birmingham Corporation’s reservoirs in the Elan Valley took their place among threats to both the cultural life of the nation and to the landscape of the country. Farmland requisitioned by the MOD on Epynt in the early 1940s was never returned to the Welsh speaking farmers who had owned it, while there were plans to add 10,000 acres to a military range at Trawsfynydd.
Rural depopulation, the ‘awful march’ of alien conifers and the legal status of the language all exercised minds. For some, Plaid Cymru’s non-violent, constitutional approach to the problems was insufficient, as were the daubing protests of Cymdeithas yr Iaith as it tried to see Welsh given legal status in its own country. The flooding of Tryweryn saw a dam burst of discontent.
In this cauldron of disquiet was born two organisations which provide the mainstays of this meticulously researched and carefully argued book, being the Free Wales Army and Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru.
These were very different beasts, the former brash and showy, liking to dress up in uniforms and appear on chat shows while the meticulously clandestine MAC clung to the shadows, using a cellular structure designed to keep even its members in the dark about who was running things.
In the case of MAC it was its director general John Jenkins, a sergeant in the Royal Dental Corps who was instrumental in a chain of bombings which unsettled the British State and sent waves of anxiety down the corridors of power.
The FWA on the other hand was under the command of its self-styled leader Cayo Evans, a charismatic former public schoolboy who became a horse breeder, a talented harpsichordist and ready raconteur who liked the limelight.
He often had the quick-witted Llangennech rabbit breeder Dennis Coslett at his side. Coslett was hyper articulate, if prone to exaggeration, who helped supercharge the propaganda-spreading role of what some saw as a bit of a ‘Dads Army.’
Coslett noted how the media bent over backwards to talk to him and other senior figures and he was happy to give them good copy. All water supplies to England would be ‘crippled’ in six months, he claimed, piggybacking on MAC’s successful attack on a water pipeline from Llyn Vyrnwy to Liverpool.
He described a force of 7,000 armed men, all armed to the hilt, including ‘four heavy machine guns’ landed secretly by trawler in Aberaeron. Sometimes his briefings strayed into perfect fantasy, such as his description of dogs with explosives strapped to their backs which could be used to destroy approaching tanks.
This almost matched some of the more preposterous claims made by Cayo Evans who told one newspaper that a friend of his called Griffiths was going to fly over the site of the Severn Bridge and drop an atom bomb.
But some aspects of the militants’ story were less fanciful. The KGB had a plan to destroy a bridge between Porthmadog and Caernarfon before sending an anonymous letter to Gwynfor Evans suggesting it was the work of British intelligence, hoping the Plaid M.P would then bring the matter up in the Commons.
Meanwhile the ultra-Marxist German agitator Rudi ‘Red’ Dutschke offered MAC unlimited financial help from East Germany, an offer promptly refused by Jenkins who did want to ‘exchange a master in London for one in Moscow.’
As the British State became increasingly exercised by the growth of militant Welsh nationalism, and the paucity of arrests or, indeed any information whatsoever about MAC, a special police unit was established in Shrewsbury.
Under the former head of Special Branch in Brixton and Cold War intelligence expert John ‘Jock’ Wilson, it was tasked with chasing down the shadowy perpetrators and was soon trying to infiltrate the organisations or harry journalists into revealing their sources.
It led to nine members of the FWA being arrested conveniently ahead of the Investiture of the Prince of Wales in Caernarfon, a show trial at a time when simmering nationalist discontent threatened to boil over. In some ways it did.
Alwyn Jones and George Taylor died when the device they were trying to plant in Abergele on the eve of the Investiture exploded. Another device exploded later on, maiming 10-year-old schoolboy Ian Cox, who lost a leg as a consequence.
While some, such as Lord Snowdon who organised the Investiture felt it was a ‘resounding success’ John Jenkins felt he had done enough to puncture the party balloons, even though he felt anguish at the loss of life and the suffering of Ian Cox. Jenkins said:
“On the day, police lined the route along the streets in Caernarfon and behind each man was a man turned around to face the crowd. This was in case the crowd started getting nasty. Well, that takes a bit of doing. This was no Mardi Gras or carnival with people dancing in the streets, not by a long chalk. It was a charade, an insult and we wanted to show it as such. So we (MAC) succeeded in that.”
The various bombs placed in Caernarfon, as well as in Holyhead and an array of other targets, would accelerate the manhunt which would ultimately lead to the arrest of John Jenkins and fellow MAC member Frederick Alders. An explosion, meanwhile at RAF Pembrey which resulted in Warrant Officer William Hougham receiving significant injuries was concomitantly, Wyn Thomas suggests, the single event ‘that ensured the demise of the FWA.’
Hands Off Wales: Nationhood and Militancy is a monumental and scrupulously argued book built on a bedrock of enormous research, shored up by countless of hours of interviews with the people involved, both with those organising the militancy and those tasked with trying to stop it. These offered Thomas the sort of direct access historians can often only dream about.
He has also combed through the newspapers and examined the official record to give us a rounded, forensic but also very human account of a campaign of violence which might so easily have spiralled out of control. And as the book sagely cautions such ‘violence therefore ultimately destroys – or at least threatens to destroy – the very community it seeks to protect.’
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