One of the longest campaigns of the Second World War, one that perhaps encompassed the totality of the war as it pertained to Europe, was the Battle of the Atlantic. As had been the case in the First World War, British dependence on the sea as a means of trade and the importing of needed supplies meant that it was an avenue the German Kriegsmarine went all out to close off. The result was an escalating back and forth between some of the world’s most powerful navies, all striving to secure or deny sea lanes. Caught in the middle were the ships of various merchant marines, those civilian vessels and sailors tasked with the transport of goods and material needed for the war efforts or needed to keep their nations going. Neutral powers were no exceptions to this, and in this entry we will discuss the experience of the Irish mercantile marine of the Second World War, an experience that was steeped in loss and bloodshed. For those who experienced it, it was “The Long Watch”.
It is perhaps so blindingly obvious that it shouldn’t need to be said, but merchant shipping was very important to Ireland. Eamon de Valera may have committed himself and his government, in light of the Economic War, to a degree of self-sufficiency within the Irish economy, but he couldn’t alter the geographical reality: as a small island, Ireland was dependent on a degree of import and export to make money and to gain needed goods that it could not produce itself. Exports, with the United Kingdom as the main trading partner, were especially important, something we have already discussed in the context of Irish neutrality.
Yet despite this, the governments that existed between 1923 and the start of the Second World War had neglected the support and maintenance of Ireland’s mercantile fleet, whether because of economic contraction or outright negligence. When the Civil War ended 127 ships could claim to be part of that fleet, but the number reduced bit-by-bit, until only 56 could be said to be on the books in 1939. That number alone was not enough to keep Ireland supplied, and a dependence had grown on foreign owned ships to make up the shortfall, especially those registered in the United Kingdom. Predictably, this created a crisis when war was declared in September 1939, and suddenly many of those same foreign-registered ships that Ireland depended on for trade were withdrawn from that service, a situation complicated by the many instances of confused nationality. Some ships were owned by British companies but registered in Ireland, so awkward choices had to be made about what flag to fly (sometimes made even more awkward when some crewmembers refused to serve under a tricolour). Before one even considered the danger that now existed for ships of the Irish mercantile marine, the government had to suddenly go about making up for years of neglect, and rapidly attempt to increase the size of the fleet in the most trying of circumstances.
All of this comes ahead of an examination of just what life was like on those ships, which was a mixture of nerve-inducing boredom and moments of extreme terror. Irish ships did what they could to identify themselves to any belligerent power that was watching whether it was on the waves, below them or in the air. This meant large tricolour flags or the word “EIRE” painted on all decks and and all sides of the ship, to be illuminated at night as much as possible, with no blackout procedures. Such things helped to ward off attack, but were never a surety of safety. On plenty of occasions, warring powers would open fire on Irish ships, and on more than one occasion this was done deliberately. To be struck by a torpedo or bomb in the high seas meant a likely loss of the ship and a very good chance of being lost at sea, unless you were fortunate enough to be able to limp back to a port, make your way to a lifeboat or be otherwise rescued by a passerby: the latter often did not happen in regards the belligerent powers. The ability to stop such attacks through communication with the belligerent vessel was limited, and often failed to convince anyway. Neutrality was no great shield at sea, with Irish exports to Britain a convenient excuse for German U-boats found striking at Irish shipping, and mistaken identity a ready-made excuse for any power otherwise.
Early in the war, Irish merchant ships joined British convoys, for reasons of seemingly better protection and cheaper insurance options (the longer the war went, the harder it began for Irish ships to get adequately insured), but the experience proved difficult for both sides. As stated many Irish ships early in the conflict did not undertake to blackout lights, which made convoys more noticeable at night, and in practice the convoys proved not as capable of protecting merchants as was hoped. The case of the convoy dubbed “OG 71” , which sailed in August 1941, is instructive. Dubbed “the nightmare convoy” in the aftermath, it consisted of 23 merchant ships and 13 escorts. Two of the merchant ships, the Lanahrone and the Clonlara, were Irish vessels of the Limerick Steamship Company, carrying a cargo of British coal. Unable, or maybe unwilling, to blackout their lights, the two were placed in the centre of the convoy in an attempt to limit their visibility. The convoy was spotted a few days after leaving Liverpool by a Luftwaffe aircraft, and then set upon by a U-boat “wolfpack” operating out of Brest. Eight of the merchants and two of the escorts, at the cost of over 400 lives, would be lost. The Clonlara was one of the sunk merchants, taken by U-201 as it broke from the convoy and attempted to make it to Lisbon, with the loss of 19 lives. The Lanahrone did make it to Lisbon, along with nine others that refused to follow the convoy path to Gibraltar, at which only five of the merchants eventually arrived. The Lanahrone later joined another convoy going the other direction, in which nine merchant ships were lost, and the others spared because the attacking submarines ran out of torpedoes. Of course we cannot say for sure that the lights of the Irish vessels insured doom for the convoy, but they certainly did not increase its security. In the aftermath of OG 71 the practice of Irish ships sailing with British convoys gradually reduced, until by late the following year it had essentially ceased. One suspects that both sides of the arrangement would have reason to be pleased with such an outcome.
The example of these convoys gives an indication that the primary, though not only, threat to Irish shipping was from Germany, and specifically German U-boats. Karl Donitz, at the time the commander of the German U-boat arm and future commander of the entire Kriegsmarine (and the Nazi German state, at least for a very short time after Hitler’s death) specifically ordered his submarines to avoid neutral shipping and “Ireland in particular”, rightfully fearful that an unrestricted campaign that took in Irish targets would only serve to push Ireland closer to the Allied orbit. But in practice Irish vessels were often at the mercy of the individual U-boat captains. Sometimes they would knowingly attack an Irish ship because they knew or felt it was carrying goods to and from Britain. Sometimes they would fire on an Irish ship, and later claim it was flying a British flag. Sometimes they would surface next to Irish ships and demand to see papers confirming their registration (the latter sometimes leading to humorous incidents, such as when the 39-year-old Belfast born captain of the Irish Willow sent crew across to a waiting U-boat to explain the captain was too elderly to visit himself). Subsequent orders found on stricken U-boats confirmed that Donitz repeated his orders to respect Irish neutrality, but noted that determining the exact status of a ship within a blockade zone did not require any “special obligation”: in essence, German U-boats could fire on who they liked, and would suffer little to no censure for it as long as it was within defined areas of the sea. One Captain found to have torpedoed an Irish ship was deemed to have made “an understandable mistake” put down to being too “eager”.
The experience of the mercantile marine of Ireland during this period often focuses in an the MV Kerlogue as a prime example. The Kerlogue was a “coaster”, a relatively small, shallow-hulled ship whose primary purpose was not trips across seas or oceans, but instead transport of people and goods to and from different positions around the Irish coastline. It was crewed by just 11 men. The necessity of the Second World War forced the Kerlogue into service further and further away from Irish seas however, typically along a route that saw the ship deliver agricultural products to Britain, then British coal to Portugal, then American goods, often wheat, bought from Portuguese ports back to Ireland. The Kerlogue was to have numerous run-ins with the wa rin the course of its conflict career.
On the 2nd of April 1941, the Kerlogue was the nearest ship to an attacked British convoy, a few miles south of Wexford. An oil tanker had been destroyed with the loss of all hands, and the collier – a ship that transported coal – Wild Rose had been left badly damaged and with its lifeboats lost. The Kerlogue altered its course to assist and towed the Wild Rose back to Wexford where it was stranded on a beach, saving both the 13 crew, and the ship, which was later repaired in Dublin. Six months later, while undertaking a passage from Swansea to Rosslare, the Kerlogue struck a mine in Cardigan Bay, but survived without any lasting damage or fatalities.
Two years later in October 1943, while carrying a cargo of coal to Lisbon, the Kerlogue was circled by an RAAF flying boat, and seemingly misidentified as an enemy ship. Two hours later, fighters of the No. 307 Squadron, a Polish unit, attacked the Kerlogue, strafing her repeatedly for twenty minutes, injuring several crewmembers, including the Captain, before breaking off. The Kerlogue would later signal another flying boat for assistance, but were told none could be given. Bizarrely it was the cargo of coal that may have saved the ship, as the dense material helped to limit the full damage the British guns could have caused to the hull. The British would later make payments to the Kerlogue crew on the grounds that its Captain, Desmond Fortune, was regarded as a decent man who was willing to pass information to British ships, and the unfortunate victim of happenstance: British-crewed fighters may have been better placed to identify the Kerlogue.
Just over two months later, on the 29th December, a repaired Kerlogue was carrying a cargo of oranges from Lisbon to Dublin when they were signaled by a Luftwaffe aircraft with the message SOS. Following in the plane’s wake, the ship came upon the aftermath of what is known as the Battle of the Bay of Biscay: a German destroyer and two torpedo boats had been sunk, leaving 700 men dead in the water. The Kerlogue crew spent the next ten hours pulling survivors from the water, eventually getting in 168, who must have been crammed into every available space. Four would die onboard from injuries sustained. Using the cargo to prevent dehydration for the rescued men, the crew ignored twin requests to dock in France made by the Germans and in Fishguard made by the British and instead headed straight to Cobh, where the passengers were disembarked and went into internment. The Kerlogue crew received much praise from the Kriegsmarine for their action.
Another example of a ship worth exploring more is the Irish Oak. This was an American steamship that had been chartered upon the outbreak of the war, designed to carry wheat from North America, but had numerous difficulties owing to her poor condition and constant need for repairs: an incident where it was left behind by a convoy when its engine failed helped to contribute to Irish unease with convoys. The Oak was hit and sunk by torpedoes from U-607 in the Atlantic on the 15th May 1943, with all crewmembers getting off on lifeboats: the incident became hugely controversial. A British convoy was sailing nearby, and a question as to whether the British captain of the Irish Oak had notified the convoy of the U-boat’s presence has never been satisfactorily answered. Rumours that he hadn’t engendered outrage in the House of Commons, though it later emerged the convoy had been well aware of the presence of U-boats in the area; in Ireland, the rumours that he had prompted criticism of the government for allowing a non-national to helm an Irish vessel, who may subsequently have undone her neutral status and made her a legitimate target. The issue became a talking point of that years general election, and may have helped to contribute to Fianna Fail’s loss of seats.
The lasting impact of the war o the Irish mercantile marine was the sheer number of ships and men who were lost. The Munster, a passenger vessel that ran a nightly service between Ireland and Britain, was the first to be sunk by belligerent action, hitting a German-laid mine on the 7th February 1940: all of its crew and passengers escaped. The City of Limerick, a cargo/passenger ship, was sunk on the 15th of July with the loss of two crew, the victims of a German bomber: the remaining crew were rescued by a Belgian trawler. The Meath hit a mine in the Irish Sea on the 15th August, going down with wounds to three crewmembers. The Limerick was sunk with one crewmember dying by U-46 on the 4th September, perhaps as a result of mistaken identity, with some of the rescued crew forced to remain in German-occupied France for the remainder of the war. The Kerry Head survived one Luftwaffe attack in August of 1940 before succumbing to another on the 22nd October near the coast of Britain, with the loss of all 12 men aboard. The Ardmore disappeared in the Irish Sea in November 1940, and was only discovered on the seabed 55 years later, the victim of a mine that killed its 24 crew. The next month the Inisfallen, a passenger liner, stuck a mine and sank after leaving Liverpool, taking four crewmembers with her. The St Fintan, a collier, was sunk by German aircraft off the Welsh coast in April 1941, with the loss of nine lives. On the 2nd of June of the same year the transport ship City of Bremen, while carrying a cargo of grain, was attacked and sunk by a German aircraft; the crew were rescued by a Spanish trawler, with a Russian member of that crew going by “Paddy Murphy” when he disembarked in Franco’s Spain a few days later. On the 16th November 33 crew of the Irish Pine were killed when their ship was torpedoed by U-608 off Cape Breton Island. The Kyleclare suffered a similar fate, blown to smithereens by numerous U-boat torpedoes in the Atlantic with the loss of 18 in February 1943. Cymric and her crew of 11 vanished in February 1944. Other ships were lost in less violent ways as well of course, hitting rocks or being beached: the normal dangers of a maritime life had not ceased because of the war.
By 1945 the threat of German U-boats and planes had lessened significantly, as the Kriegsmarine found itself unable to make-up for increasingly heavy losses in the Atlantic and a lack of supplies available from territories being lost all over Europe, but things remained hazardous for the mercantile marine all the way up to the official end of the war in Europe. The loss rate speaks for itself: during the war, one in five of the sailors employed on Irish mercantile ships died during that service, a fatality rate that outstripped those being suffered by many belligerent navies during the conflict. For that sacrifice, the mercantile marine was able to do its part to keep Ireland going, and to insure that its political freedom to choose a course of neutrality was not removed owing to the pressures of blockade or a lack of adequate supply.
We will come back to the war at sea and its impact on Ireland again. For now, we move on, and back to the larger picture of the war. 1943 had seen Allied advances on all fronts give a clear indication that the war’s outcome was only going to go one way, and in 1944 the Allies were determined to press that advantage: through continuing offensives in Italy and the Far East, and through the opening of the long awaited second front in France. In all cases, soldiers of the Irish named regiments would be making an impact, and in many cases at an enormous cost in lives.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.