Ireland’s Wars: The Voyage Of The Aud

When Imperial Germany decided to send aid to those factions within Ireland preparing for a rebellion against British rule, they did not do so with any great enthusiasm or gung-ho attitude. The guns sent were less than what was requested, and were, if not quite obsolete, less than state-of-the-art. No soldiers or officers were to be sent, and at no point does the German High Command seem to have taken seriously the possibility of actually invading Ireland.

But the guns were to be sent, indicating at least a half-hearted belief that something to Germany’s benefit could be gained from the exercise. But getting them to Ireland, and then off-loaded safely, would be a very difficult matter, in wartime, and with the Royal Navy still the undisputed King of the waves.

The Germans proposed to John Devoy of Clan na Gael, one of their primary contacts, to land the arms between the 20th and the 23rd of April and Devoy, without consulting anyone in Dublin, agreed. The task of getting the guns to Ireland fell to Junior Lieutenant Karl Spindler, a 28 year old member of the Kriegsmarine without any truly exceptional service in the war thus far. On the 20th March he was given the assignment: to take a merchant freighter, suitably disguised, to the west coast of Ireland, rendezvous with the U-Boat carrying Roger Casement, unload his cargo of guns, and return home, without any kind of British entanglement.

The freighter he was given to command had spent most of its life as the British merchant the Castro. Captured in German waters on the outbreak of the war it had been requisitioned into the Germany Navy as the Libeau and was now disguised as a ship from neutral Norway, the Aud. Spindler was on his way on the 10th April, with instructions to be in place on the 20th. Spindler tried to be as meticulous as possible with the deception, to the point of even having a dog brought on-board to replicate what he thought was normal practice on a merchant steamer. The German crew wore civilian clothes, decorated their quarters with Norwegian accoutrements, and were warned to speak in “low German” – a vernacular sub-set of German more similar to Dutch – if caught and questioned by any Royal Navy personnel.

Spindler, his crew and the Aud had drama aplenty long before they arrived off the designated point at Tralee Bay. Poor weather endangered the voyage, and they also had to deal with the attentions of several ships of the Royal Navy. That the Aud avoided direct entanglement with the Royal Navy may not be all down to Spindler: though it has never been confirmed it is strongly believed that the British were aware of Spindler’s mission through their intelligence network, and may have allowed it through in the hopes of using an arms landing as an excuse to launch punitive measure against nationalist organisations in Ireland.

The Aud’s route was elongated, up the coast of Norway, then going close to the Arctic Circle and then south near Rockall, due to Spindler’s efforts to avoid detection and to arrive at the right time. In this, he was unaware that events had changed while he was at sea, with Clan na Gael sending radio messages from America asking that the shipment be delayed until the 23rd, having received word from Dublin. It was a confusing message, that seemed to indicate a late preference that the U-Boat head for Dublin if possible, and that the boat bringing the guns not attempt any kind of smuggling. Instead, with the expectation that local Volunteers would control the area after the commencement of a Rising, the military council wanted it done in the open. The problem was that Spindler didn’t have a wireless to receive any kind of message from and was duly off the coast of Kerry on the 20th, as originally ordered.

 

Spindler, or so he claimed, was in the right place at the right time, but neither the expected U-Boat, nor any kind of pilot boat from the shoreline, was there to meet him. In this, there has been some dispute about Spindler’s account, as U-19 was in the general area at the time, having dropped Roger Casement off ahead of his capture by local police, and it is quite possible that the Aud was not where it was supposed to be.

Either way, there was no signal from the shore at all, with the Aud cruising near the Tralee coast for over a day, coming very close to the pier at Fenit at one point. This is strange enough if Spindler is to be believed, that locals would have exhibited not even simple curiosity about a strange unknown ship parked off the coast during wartime. This may indicate that the Aud was not as close to the rendezvous point as Spindler later claimed. The Aud was boarded though, by the crew of the HMT Setter II, a British scout ship. Its crew were not Royal Navy personnel, and Spindler was apparently able to convince them he was Norwegian, and that the Aud was having engine trouble. Spindler later claimed his opposite number even warned him they were on the lookout for a German vessel.

The local Irish Volunteers, headed by Tralee native Austin Stack, have left little in the way of firm indications they were in any way prepared to assist the landing of arms. Stack spend the weekend of the Aud’s appearance involved in semi-farcical scenes, single-handedly holding up a local RIC barracks to free a Volunteer comrade captured as they had attempted to find Casement, only for the said comrade to be re-captured and for Stack to then hand himself in, spending the rest of the Rising in captivity. He and his local unit would later receive some criticism for making no effort to save Casement, when they undoubtedly had the means to do so, heavily outnumbering the local RIC.

The other aspect of the landward preparations ended in tragedy on the Friday evening. On the direction of Sean McDermott, two cars were sent to the village of Cahirciveen to steal wireless equipment, for the purpose of making contact with the German ships. The second car took a wrong turn and blundered off a pier into the ocean: three of the four occupants drowned, arguably the first casualties of the Rising, with the first car then abandoning the mission.

Spindler, not knowing what else to do, allowed the Aud to drift south-west, where it was eventually discovered by armed British ships. The German officer would later claim he was taken in by a “whole swarm” of British war ships, but this is more than likely an exaggeration. Escorted into Queenstown (Cobh), he choose to scuttle his vessel as it neared the harbour, doing so on the morning of the 22nd. Spindler later claimed his action blocked the harbour for several days, but there is little to back this up. The Aud and its cargo of guns went to the bottom. The remains of the ship were depth-charged during the Second World War owing to an error in identification, but what is still there continues to be a popular destination for local divers.

Spindler and his crew remained as POW’s for most of what was left of the war, being freed as part of a prisoner exchange just before it ended. He would emigrate to the United States shortly after, where he was feted by Irish-American nationalists groups and published a racy account of his voyage. When the Second World War drew in the United States, Spindler was interned, suffered increasingly poor health, and later died in 1951.

There would be no German guns, beyond those brought in on previous gun-runnings, for those about to engage in rebellion. But there was one more connection between the Easter Rising and the Germany Navy, as their attack on Yarmouth and Lowestoft on the 24th April, one of several bombardments of British coastal towns during the war, was partly planned to coincide with the rebellion. It would be grandiose to term it a distraction, as the British military would need far more than that attack to prevent it putting into action a plan to counteract the rebellion.

All that is left before the Rising itself is those final desperate days in Dublin, as the Volunteers became divided against each other, and some of the most controversial events of Irish history took place.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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