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A CAR book can offer most marvelous tales having nothing to do with cars. And so it is with Bentley Motors On The Road, an assemblage of the owners’ magazines originally appearing in the 1930s. The tale, “When Britain Was Last Invaded,” describes happenings along the rugged Welsh coast in the year 1797.
To set the stage, on February 14, 1797, the English had driven the Spanish fleet back to Cadiz in the battle of Portugal’s Cape St. Vincent. Napoleon was a separate threat. Tension ran high.
On February 22, three men-‘o-war and a transport ship were observed off St. David’s near the westernmost point of Wales. At first, they flew the Union Jack, but as they anchored off Strumble Head, not far from Fishguard Bay, they changed to the French tricolor. Coming ashore were Irish-American General William Tate, his force of 600 French regulars and another 900 jail-birds of mixed heritage known as “the Second Legion of France.”
Britain was being invaded.
Not very successfully, though. Landing in treacherous surf, the invaders lost their larger guns. Once ashore, the best they could do was con hot meals from some of the locals. One French soldier did shoot a grandfather clock as he thought someone was hiding inside it.
The British retaliated the next day, with Captain Davies mustering 700 men in defense. Though outnumbered, he managed to outwit the invaders: He had his men march around and around a hill in repeated sight of the invaders, thus suggesting an army of colossal proportion. He also assembled a volunteer force of Welsh women dressed in red cloaks and black hats. Appearing from afar to be British Grenadiers, these women marched up and down another hill.
What with these most effective deceptions—and Tate’s four ships prematurely setting sail—the invading force lost heart. Under a flag of truce, a letter sent to the British requested “negotiation upon principles of humanity for a surrender.”
French envoys tried a bluff by demanding that their force be sent home at the expense of the British government. The Brits had a bluff of their own: Surrender unconditionally or our “20,000” troops will attack at daybreak.
Tate accepted unconditional terms; he and his soldiers were sent to local lockups. The British are said to have celebrated the Battle of Fishguard Bay with beer, beef and Yorkshire pudding.
But there’s more: Two of the French soldiers imprisoned in Pembroke Castle won the hearts of a pair of Welsh women engaged in tidying up the place. The soldiers used a shin bone of beef to dig a tunnel; the women conspired by surreptitiously removing the loose dirt.
Several days’ work was sufficient: A hundred men escaped with the Welsh women in tow. They commandeered a ship in the harbor, but setting sail, they promptly ran it aground.
Nearby was a small yacht with space for only 25 people. The two Welsh gals, their lovers and, apparently, another lucky 21 escaped. The remaining soldiers crept back through the tunnel into prison.
Not until the next morning did anyone realize anything was amiss.
Many days later, wreckage of the yacht washed ashore. However, the escapees had commandeered yet another craft and finally got to France. The pairs wed and, years later, it’s said one couple even returned to visit relatives.
All this, illustrated with wonderful photos of beautiful Bentleys. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2012