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The Special Operations Executive (SOE) undertook a range of intelligence and sabotage operations during the Second World War, and in 1943 they established a top secret research station for trialling miniature submersibles in Fishguard Bay.

In July 1943, the British government’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) proposed the formation of a top secret trials and training base at Fishguard/Goodwick for its experimental miniature submersibles designed to support reconnaissance, sabotage and espionage in enemy territorial waters in Europe and South-East Asia. These craft included the Welman one-man submarine, built at Morris Motors in Oxford and initially tested on the Queen Mary Reservoir west of London, as well as the Welfreighter midget submarine that was designed to land supplies and up to four agents behind enemy lines.

Senior military personnel expressed concern about the security of the port and its appropriateness for covert sea trials. In top secret memos, Captain A. J. L. Phillips, Director of Local Defence, explained how Fishguard might be a security risk because it handled sea traffic from neutral territories such as ‘Eire and the Iberian peninsula’, while the Assistant Director of Naval Intelligence J. H. Lewes confirmed that:

In view of the Irish traffic in the Port and for the other reasons stated…, it is considered that, on security grounds, the selection of Fishguard for a training establishment would be unwise.

Helford on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall was suggested as an alternative location, but with its intensive use by allied powers for cross-channel operations to France, the security concerns were eventually overruled and Fishguard was chosen as the base for experimental station IXc. In late summer 1943, it was agreed that fifteen officers would be housed on the second floor of what had been the Great Western Railway’s Fishguard Bay Hotel in Goodwick, while a further thirty-five technical staff would sleep in huts on the quayside. Station IXc was an off-shoot of the Inter-Service Research Bureau (ISRB), the experimental equipment division of SOE that was headquartered at The Frythe near Welwyn Garden City – hence all of their prototype craft were named with the prefix ‘Wel’. While the experimental trials of the Welman submarine were largely undertaken in Scotland, a prototype of the much larger Welfreighter arrived in Fishguard for its seaworthiness trials in February 1944, undergoing surface trials, diving trials and endurance trials in Fishguard Bay.

Relatively little has been written about the secret trials, and very little use was made of the submersibles during the war. Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten was said to have been very enthusiastic about the project, ensuring that at least six Welmans and eight Welfreighters were sent to Australia and South-East Asia for Allied operations. After the war, the Fishguard Bay Hotel reverted back to being a railway hotel and it was only with the release of government files in 1972 that this secret history of the port became more widely known.

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