Fryars, Beaumaris During World War Two
by John Stops
Second in a series by John Stops who worked at Saunders-Roe, Fryars, Beaumaris from 1950-1957.
At the outbreak of WW2 Saunders-Roe flying boats had seemingly caught up with the times with the Lerwick. Sadly, it handles badly both on the water and in the air.
The writer once knew a man who had flown one and kept his log-book well hidden in case he was asked to do it again.
Efforts to correct the deficiencies of the machine did not succeed and production was abandoned, with only the initial batch of 21 aircraft being completed.
The Saunders-Roe production capacity in the South of England was used to produce the Supermarine Walrus amphibian, thereby allowing Supermarine to concentrate their efforts on the Spitfire.
In all, Saunders-Roe produced 461 Walruses and 290 Sea Otters, a development of the Walrus.
To take the intended role of the Lerwick, the government ordered Catalina aircraft from the USA. On arrival from America they had to be equipped and modified to meet constantly changing service requirements.
The task was given to Saunders-Roe who bought the Burton’s Fryars estate near Beaumaris. The Menai Straits provided excellent water for flying boat operations.
For three years there were flying boats stretching from the Gazelle down to Fryars Bay. In all, 399 Catalinas came through the site. Substantial work was done, including installation of ASV (air to surface vessel) radar, work carried out in strict secrecy.
Another major installation was the Leigh Light, a radar guided searchlight for attacking U-boats when they were charging their batteries on the surface at night.
It was an RAF Catalina which passed through Fryars that found the Bismarck after it had escaped in bad weather. A painting of the exploit hung proudly in the works canteen.
The Saunders Roe design development had also moved to Beaumaris, as work at Cowes was being constantly interrupted by air raids. Two of the company sites at East Cowes were totally destroyed in one air raid in May 1942.
As well as the main effort on the Catalinas, much other design work was done. One example was a wooden hull for the Walrus which was used in the final 191 Walruses produced. The first five of these hulls was made at Beaumaris.
Another undertaking was the wing for the Shetland flying boat, a project shared with Short Brothers who were responsible for the hull.
The flying boats were hauled out on the slipway which remains on the foreshore in front of Fryars. Most of the wartime hangars remain on the site although some have been substantially altered.
Many other premises around Beaumaris were used for production and storage, including a garage in Chapel
Street. Personnel accommodation included Henllys Hall and Plas Rhianfa.
After the war had ended, the company decided to transfer its marine activities to the Beaumaris site, under the name Saunders Shipyard. At first, little shipbuilding work materialised.
The exception was the motor torpedo boat P1602, which was the first in the world to be made of aluminium alloy. Other work included the refurbishment of wooden military bridging pontoons, many of which had been produced by the company in Edmonton.
The main product at this time was bus bodies for both the home market and for export. Possibly the works were saved by an order from London Transport for 300 RT double deck bodies.
Standards demanded by this operator did much to improve quality. One of these vehicles visited Beaumaris in 2002.
These early bodies followed pre-war coach building practice, which proved inadequate for conditions overseas, so a completely new design was developed.
The first twelve of this new model went into service in North Wales with Crosville. Meanwhile, a completely new style of body was developed for the Leyland Royal Tiger chassis, which had the engine under the floor.
A breakthrough came with an order for 620 of this new model for Havana, Cuba. It was this order that led the writer from Saunders-Roe at Cowes to Beaumaris. Initially only for seven months, he ended up staying seven years.
One of the staff, Alan Dunsmore, went to Cuba to help with the assembly of the new design. One day he was summoned to see General Batista, Castro’s predecessor. Alan’s lasting memory was of the bodyguards, who never took their hands from their guns.
The contract was completed in 21 months, the biggest single dollar order obtained in Britain at that time.
Substantial further orders for similar vehicles were obtained from Argentina, the Gold Coast and Auckland, New Zealand.
The latter included 40 trolleybus bodies which were 36 feet long and 8 ft. 6 inches wide. They had to be delicately threaded through the Menai Bridge under tow to Liverpool for shipping.
The company became a pioneer in the application of aluminium welding, which was applied to a large yacht, Morag Mhor. This was built for the British Aluminium company to promote the use of aluminium alloys in marine applications.
Sam Saunders would have found these developments fascinating, but he would have revelled in what was to come.
In a few short years, no less than twenty-one small craft were built for the Royal Navy and the navies of Burma, Finland and Japan. Look out for the next instalment......
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