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Memorial gun restored as tribute to VC’s valour

In the centre of Chepstow in Monmouthshire, sited next to the town’s War Memorial, is a second memorial that commemorates the bravery of local seaman William Charles Williams at the Battle of Gallipoli during World War One. The memorial is a captured gun from the German U-boat UB91 and was donated to the town by King George V in Williams’s memory.

William Charles Williams VC was born in September 1880 in Shropshire and raised in Chepstow. He became an Able Seaman in 1901 and was commended for bravery during the Second Boer War whilst serving on board HMS Terrible off the coast of South Africa, and later during the Boxer Uprising in China.

In 1910 Williams left the regular service and joined the Royal Naval Reserve, working for the police force and at the Newport Steel Works. He re-joined the Royal Navy in 1914 and served on a number of vessels.

On 25 April 1915 he was involved in the ‘V Beach’ landing at Gallipoli in Turkey. Williams was assisting the commander of HMS Clyde, with three colleagues, in securing lighters to form a bridge to the shore, by holding onto a rope while chest deep in water. He was seriously wounded by enemy fire and then killed by a shell while the ship’s commander was attempting to rescue him. His act of bravery led to his posthumous award of the Victoria Cross. A bronze plaque mounted on the gun recorded his act of bravery.

The memorial is a deck gun from the German U-boat, which was a standard 10.5cm L45 calibre weapon. UB91 was commissioned into the German Imperial Navy on 11 April 2018 under the command of Wolfgang Hans Wertig. She only had a short period of active service, sinking four ships including two in Welsh waters: the US Coastguard cutter Tampa and a Japanese cargo ship, Hirano Maru.

The U-boat surrendered to the British navy on 21 November 2018 before touring a number of South Wales ports. She was broken up at Briton Ferry in 1921. Chepstow’s cenotaph and the memorial gun were unveiled by a Mrs Frances Smith, the sister of W C Williams VC, in January 1922.

In December 2018 Chepstow Town Council employed the services of Historic Metalwork Conservation Company Ltd (HMCC Ltd) to prepare a condition report and make recommendations for appropriate conservation treatment. Consultant Peter Meehan ACR inspected the gun and found it to be in a deteriorating condition. It had been subject to numerous periods of cleaning and repainting, but little had been done to treat or stabilise any underlying corrosion that was going on to the cast iron and steel components beneath the paint layers.

The most recent paint layers were found to be peeling and flaking from the surfaces of the gun. The gun barrel had localised areas of damage to the paint where people had been sitting or climbing on it. In the more recent past the bronze fittings and controls had all been overpainted in gloss black.

The cast iron base that supported the gun barrel and stock had an area beneath which water was regularly ponding, leading to the growth of vegetation and a build-up of rust layers. Steel covers on the recoil mechanism on top of the stock had corroded severely, with areas of metal loss.

Following the award of a grant from CADW in early 2020, Chepstow Town Council contacted HMCC Ltd again to undertake the works recommended in its report. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start by six months.

After fencing off the U-boat gun to protect members of the public, the conservation work was carried out during August this year. The bronze dedication plaque was carefully removed and set aside for treatment. Loose paint layers and corrosion were removed manually using abrasive papers, fine 3M Scotchbrite pads and scrapers, back to a sound surface.

In general, much of the earliest paint layers survived and were continuing to provide protection of the metal surfaces. The bronze and brass parts were stripped of all their later overpaint to reinstate their original appearance. Removal of the many layers of failing later paint also revealed much of the finer details of the gun, including the manufacturer’s stamp marks and date.

The heavily-corroded steel covers on the recoil mechanism were removed, revealing a history of patching-up and repairs to the covers. Beneath were thick layers of rust on the recoil springs.

Areas of remaining rust were treated and stabilised using Loctite 7500 rust converter applied by a brush. There were a couple of patches of surface damage to the paint of the gun barrel. Those were filled using a two-part polyester filler, Rustin’s Polyester filler paste. Bare metal and rust-converted areas were primed using two coats of Sherwin-Williams 489 Kem-Kromik zinc phosphate primer. That included all the areas normally hidden by the recoil mechanism covers.

The whole of the gun was then painted with one coat of Sherwin-Williams 671 undercoat, excluding the brass and bronze elements. As the steel covers on the recoil mechanism were badly corroded, new covers were fabricated in mild steel using the originals as part templates. They were protected with a coat of primer and undercoat.

A coat of Dinitrol High Performance Wax was applied to the hidden parts of the recoil mechanism before the new cover plates were fitted using new slotted machine screws. A bead of Sikaflex EBT sealant was applied at the interfaces to help prevent water ingress in the future.

The gun was then finish painted in the original German grey, identified during earlier paint analysis and from historical information. Sherwin-Williams Kem-Kromik 530 gloss was brush applied with a black gloss being used for the tompion and parts of the controls.

The bronze and brass elements were protected by brush application of a suitable metal lacquer, Sculpt Nouveau Smart Coat. A coating of Dinitrol High Performance wax was also applied to the inside of the gun’s base to address the problem of water ponding during wet weather and minimise further corrosion.

The bronze plaque was lightly cleaned using a very fine 3M Scotchbrite pad before the engraved lettering was carefully picked out using white Humbrol enamel paint. It was then returned to its original place on the side of the memorial gun.

The programme of conservation treatment has given the memorial a new lease of life and should provide on-going protection for the next 5-7 years before any significant new maintenance is required. It is also once again a fitting memorial to a local hero.

For further information visit www.hm-cc.uk

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