Irish territory was a battleground during the Second World War, in different ways. That can be seen in the way that Irish land was bombed by the German Luftwaffe on multiple occasions, or in how German spies were implanted in Ireland in efforts to improve the German position there. It can be seen in the various travails of the Irish mercantile marine, or in the complicated diplomatic maneuvering that accompanied the Dublin government’s status of neutrality. But there were others way too. A key aspect of the Second World War was the conflict at sea, specifically the war-long Battle of the Atlantic. In this, Allied and Axis navies vied with each other to see who could sink the most shipping, or sink the most belligerent vessels. The defining weapon-of-war for this campaign was undoubtedly the German U-boat, and from the start of the war to its finish, combat between these submarines and their enemies occurred in and around Irish waters.
The Battle of the Atlantic was a tonnage war: on the Allied side it was about protecting the transport of supplies that Britain needed to maintain its war effort, and on the Axis side it was about disrupting that effort. As we have already seen, the true battleground was largely around civilian shipping, that the Kriegsmarine, and to a lesser extent the navy of Italy, went about sinking as much of as they could. In response, the Allies formed convoys, civilian ships escorted by fleets of military vessels of various sizes. For the vast majority of the war, the contest ebbed back and forth, with the Germans sometimes sinking so much material that it could not be affect daily life in Britain and other places, and at other times the Kriegsmarine being forced to back off from the arena owing to the large amount of losses they were suffering.
At the heart of it, indeed the German’s main offensive option in the Atlantic, was the U-boat. Germany had been experimenting with submarine technology since the mid 19th century, but it wasn’t until the First World War that the “Unterseeboot” became really prominent. Though half of the U-boat fleet involved in that conflict was lost, the sinkings that they inflicted terrorised many in Britain, who invented convoy tactics as a counteraction. It’s no surprise that the Treaty of Versailles expressly forbade the building of German submarines, and perhaps no surprise either that it was of the many tenets of that treaty that the Nazi’s were more than happy to break. By the time the Second World War started Germany was able to employ over 60 U-boats, and many more would be built over the next few years. The capture of French ports such as Lorient in 1940 extended their operating range into the Atlantic, and the early years of the conflict were a bountiful time, as the submarines operated outside of the range of Allied air cover. Allied innovations in sonar were countered by the creation of “wolfpacks”, U-boats that attacked in groups; the Axis achieved enormous victories during the so-called “happy times” of late 1940 and early 1942.
But why should there have been such a significant amount of U-boat activity off of Irish shores? It was not, as some ill-advised people may think, because U-boats were finding succor in Irish ports. No, the answer was much simpler: Allied shipping, going to and from America or other places, still routinely travelled close to or straight through Irish territorial waters. In such circumstances, it was inevitable that German vessels would travel into the same waters in search of targets. Irish neutrality stood against such things of course, but without the requisite naval power to back that neutrality up with force, then all the Irish could do about German operations in their waters were diplomatic complaints. Sea lanes within patches of water like the Irish Sea could be positively groaning with Allied shipping going back and forth between Ireland and Britain, or to the other places, so would always attract U-boat captains looking to increase the amount of sunken tonnage they could claim responsibility for. We have already seen, in the case of the mercantile marine of Ireland, the many instances where Irish ships were victims.
As such, there were numerous incidents of combat between U-boats and Allied navies during the war, and several known examples of U-boats being sunk, off the Irish coastline. Such combat was a miserable tense affair for either party: U-boat service tended to be marked by extremely lengthy periods of boredom followed by brief moments of sheer terror, while Allied warships would spend a great deal of time fruitlessly searching for a target that they couldn’t pinpoint. The moment of decision, when it came, tended to be very quick, whether it was the successful detonation of a torpedo, or being caught by anti-submarine weapons. U-boats, when spotted, were vulnerable, and there are numerous cases of Allied ships simply ramming them when they got the chance. There was little chance of escape from such submarines when they received damage, and many of the U-boats lost during the war are recorded as having gone down with all hands.
A brief outline of the known U-boat wrecks in or around Irish waters may be instructive. In or around the 28th November 1940, U-104, which had only had time to sink two merchant ships in its brief operational history, disappeared north-west of Tory Island, and is considered to be a victim of a minefield that had been laid in that region only a few weeks before. U-772, on only its second patrol and without any sinkings to her name, was destroyed by depth charges, explosives designed to be dropped from ships that would detonate at a certain depth, dropped by the HMS Nyasaland off the coast of Cork on the 21st September 1944. U-1051 was sunk by a combination of depth charges and ramming in the Irish Sea in January 1945 before U-1172 suffered the same fate off the coast of Wexford a day later: U-boats were fragile vessels in many ways, and not especially quick when on the surface, and could rarely stand up to such impacts from bigger ships. A convoy of frigates sunk U-1014 off the Derry coast in February 1945 and in the same month U-1276, after sinking the corvette HMS Vervain, was destroyed by the sloop HMS Amethyst off Waterford. U-272 was sunk by a mine off Wexford in April, shortly before the end of the war. There were other examples, of U-boats rammed, mined, destroyed by depth charges or scuttled rather than be captured, with a preponderance of wrecks forming off Irish shores in the final months of the war: evidence of the way that the war was going.
In the later years of the war, the U-boat threat diminished sharply. The Allies counter-submarine tactics had evolved rapidly, and just about every facet of the conflict at sea – aerial cover, the number of surface ships employed, convoy movements, technological innovations, the ability to replace destroyed submarines – had all turned against the Germans. Spotted U-boats began to be swamped by Allied naval vessels, and the Kriegsmarine leadership had little option but to order a withdrawal from the deep Atlantic: hence the high radius of U-boat sinkings in and around Ireland in 1945, with the Battle of the Atlantic largely decided by the end of 1943. The German Navy could do little to stave off defeat in the larger war as things wound down, though Karl Donitz would remain high enough in Hitler’s estimation to be his designated successor after the formers suicide.
The coastline of Ireland remains somewhat littered with sunken ships from various wars, and among them are several U-boats of the Second World War. Some have been popular diving locations for many years now. The wrecks remain a potent reminder of that period of conflict, when German ingenuity below the waves met Allied fortitude above it, with the Allies eventually overcoming their foe. The fact that such things happened where they did is proof that Ireland’s neutrality was often not worth the paper it was written on, and shows that the island was more deeply involved in the war than some fully realise.
Having discussed this, we now move on to a more controversial topic, where the connections between Ireland and Germany were once again in the spotlight. While the number was tiny compared to those who were involved in the Allied war effort, there were still a number of Irish people who fought for, or actively aided the German war machine, and they will be the subject of the next entry.
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