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The Tides of War

Ville de Gand Lifeboats

Survivors from Ville de Gand came ashore in lifeboats at Annagh and Achill in August 1940. Image: Public Domain.

In late August 1940, the rescue of two lifeboats full of sailors who reached the Mayo coast made newspaper headlines around the world. In two dramatic rescue operations, fishermen from Erris and Achill brought ashore 26 Belgian and Dutch sailors, survivors from the the S.S. Ville de Gand.

The unescorted steamer, en-route from Liverpool to New York, with a general cargo, was torpedoed and sunk by U-48 about 400 km northwest of Eagle Island on Monday, August 19, 1940. The master, Raoul Carlier, and 13 crew members, including Irishman Christian Copley (43), a fireman, were lost in the lifeboat which was never found.

Without a compass and guided by the sun and the moon, the first group of survivors from the Ville de Gand sailed their lifeboat through heavy seas until they touched the Mayo coast at Annagh Head at 6.30am on Wednesday morning, August 21, 1940; 55 hours after they were torpedoed. Out of the lifeboat climbed 12 weary sailors, ten Belgians and two Dutch. They had voyaged some 230 miles in their little craft before being landing at Annagh.

Members of the Annagh Head Coastwatching Service saw the lifeboat approaching the Erris shore and sent word to Belmullet, summoning the help of Gardai, LSF and Red Cross. The emergency services rushed to Annagh where they provided clothing and conveyed the weary sailors by car to Belmullet Hospital where they were given hot food and clothes. Amongst those who rendered aid were Dr. John Conway and A.J. Valkenberg, Shipwrecked Sailors, and Martin McIntyre, a businessman of McIntyre’s Stores.

The survivors were led by their Chief Officer, Raymond G. Lemaire, a young Belgian, who had been twice torpedoed in the war. The Chief Officer had taken a compass with him and set it up in the lifeboat. Unfortunately, one of the crew in excitement kicked it over and broke it

“We had the moon, however, and I hoisted a sail and steered for the nearest land. We had a rough time of it, but got in all right, and as you can see the boys are all cheerful.” 24

The survivors who arrived at Belmullet were:- Henri Wttervulge (36) and Julian De Clippeleir (33) Merchant Seamen and Pieter Peeters (44), fireman joined the ship at Antwerp; Pierre Lejeune (28), ordinary seaman. Albert Dewachter (29) deck engineer; Georges Feron (47), water tender; Hendrik Kolmer (45), water tender; Alois Wielandt (47), oiler and Jacobus Antoon (Jack) Van Leeken (39), second cook, who joined at New York; Alfons Van Maele (44) storekeeper, who joined at Cardiff, and Herman Rozing, the ship’s only passenger who joined at Liverpool. All Belgians except Rozing and Kalmer who were Dutch. 25

The survivors, accompanied by Mr. Valkenberg, left Belmullet for Ballina by bus at 9am on Thursday morning August 22, 1940, and on arrival in Dublin were visited in the Seamen’s Institue, Eden Quay, by The Belgian Legation Minister and Madame Goor who thanked the people of Belmullet for their incomparable hospitality. 26

Achill Rescue

As Belmullet was opening its doors to shipwrecked sailors, a second lifeboat from Ville de Gand was desperately trying to make its way to safety through violent seas off the Mayo coast.

Without a rudder, the Second Officer, a young Norwegian, Ove Arthur Skaug (24), guided the flat-bottomed lifeboat towards the mist-shrouded Mayo coast. He steered with an oar during the week-long ordeal and he rigged up a blanket on the boat hook as a sail. He had a compass, but no sextant and none of the crew had the least idea where they were. When they saw the high headlands of Achill, they thought they were off the north of Scotland.

Cold and frightened, the crew had plenty of hardtack, (a rock-like biscuit and a standard ration in lifeboats during World War 2) and some bully beef (corned beef), but the water had given out before they sighted land and the despondent sailors had given up hope of rescue. A lack of water was one of the biggest causes of death among Battle of the Atlantic lifeboat survivors as they tried to make landfall. Those who succumbed to the terrible temptation to sate their agonising thirst with seawater usually died.

Three times they had sighted aircraft quite near them, but those did not seem to notice them. Once, they saw a big ship about 20 miles off and signalled to her, but the weather was so bad she did not see them. They had four days of violent storms and continuous rain, such that their clothes were frozen and they were frozen with the cold of the night. They slept in snatches leaving two to keep watch.

The day before they sighted land they saw a submarine quite near them. They took down the sail quickly and kept it in the bottom of the boat to avoid detection. But within hours their torment would be over as they sighted the high cliffs of Achill.

The dramatic rescue off Achill Head took place on Saturday night, August 24, 1940, when the Coastwatchers at Moyteogue Head on the western extremity of the island noticed a distress signal at about midnight.

Within minutes, a fishing a currach manned by four islanders – Pat Mangan, and Pat McNamara, Crampaun; and John Cafferkey and Michael Lavelle, Keel – took in tow the heavy lifeboat with 13 exhausted men aboard and all were safely landed at Keel after six days and seven nights at sea.

The 13 men were in a pitiable condition; soaked through and suffering severely from cold and wet. They had sufficient provisions, but their water supply had run out before they sighted land and they had almost given up hope. They were delighted to hear that one of the ship’s lifeboats had earlier turned up in Belmullet.

They stumbled out of the boat wearing lifebelts, their feet swollen and a week’s growth of beard on their faces. Some were without boots, others with garments wound about their heads, unable to walk at all.

Onboard the lifeboat five Belgians, one New Zealander, one Swiss, one Dutch Colonial, two Scotsmen, one of whom Alex Flynn, was married a girl from Dungloe, Donegal, named Boyle, whom he met in New York; one French Canadian and two Norwegians. They were delighted to hear that one of the ship’s lifeboats had turned up in Belmullet.

The rescued seamen were first brought to the Guards Barracks at Keel where Rev. John Godfrey C.C. was amongst those who welcomed them with sandwiches and tea. Those who required medical attention were treated by Dr. R. Donnelly. Later, the survivors of Ville de Gand were then transferred to Achill Sound where Joseph Sweeney, as the local agent of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society, arranged for their accommodation. By Sunday, they were all able to be up and about except for one man, who was still suffering from the effects of the fumes from the explosion when the ship was torpedoed. 27

The survivors of Ville de Gand, including the Second Officer, left Achill en-route to England on Wednesday morning, August 28, 1940, and before leaving the men expressed their thanks to the wonderful reception and treatment they had received in Achill.

“The shipwrecked seamen had a large quantity of American cigarettes which the stewards pitched out to them as the boat was going down and these were greatly sought as souvenirs by the islanders and visitors.” 28

There is a sad footnote to the Ville de Gand story. Tragically, the hero, who navigated the lifeboat to the safety off Achill, Ove Arthur Skaug, died the following year when as Master of the merchant steamer, S.S. Meridian, he was lost with all hands when the ship was sunk by U-561 on November 11, 1941, in the mid-Atlantic Gap, that area of ocean half way between Newfoundland and Ireland where German submarines operated freely as convoys left the protection of Canadian and US naval, and air cover, before meeting the Royal navy escorts further east.

Attacked off Blackrock

A Focke Wulf FW Condor 200 flying from Bordeaux in France attacked the collier Macville near Blackrock Lighthouse in late August 1940 bringing the Battle of the Atlantic terrifyingly close to Mayo shores. Image: Public Domain.
Sunderland and Catalina flying boats of RAF Coastal Command at Castle Archdale, Co. Fermanagh. Image: Public Domain.

As the summer of 1940 wore on, both British and German aircraft began to feature more in the Battle of the Atlantic off the North Mayo coast, often over-flying Irish airspace using Eagle Island and Blackrock lighthouses as landmarks. RAF Coastal Command Catalinas, protecting approaching convoys, flew out of Castle Archdale on Lough Erne, and German Condors, known as “the scourge of the Atlantic”, were spotted by Mayo coastwatchers with greater frequency. 29

It was one of those German Focke Wulf FW Condor 200 flying from Bordeaux in France that brought the Battle of the Atlantic terrifyingly close to Mayo shores in late August 1940 when a young Irish sailor, Patrick Colbert (22) from Tramore, was killed in a hail of gunfire when the British collier, S.S. Macville, bound for Limerick with a cargo of coal, was attacked with machine-gun fire and four bombs near Blackrock Lighthouse.

Such was the terror and fear evoked by the attack, so close to Blacksod, it prompted the Western People reporter to pen a wonderfully eloquent and heartfelt plea that the war would pass us by.

“I prayed, as so many other Irish people pray today, that we should continue to be allowed to be mere spectators and providers of succour for the casualties of the belligerents cast onto our shores.” 30

At 1pm on Tuesday, August 20, 1940, Macville was steaming eight miles west of the Erris coast when the crew spotted a Condor approaching near Blackrock Lighthouse. The plane rained bullets and dropped four bombs in an attempt to sink the ship. No lighthouse keepers were hurt when the lantern panes and the roof of Blackrock Lighthouse were damaged by gunfire from the bomber.

Later, that August evening in 1940, Blacksod basked calmly in the rays of the evening sun. But the chill from a biting cold north-westerly breeze brought a pervading sense of foreboding to the tragic and sombre scene. Tears were shed by many of those who lined the quayside to pay their respects as the young Tramore man’s body was brought ashore. Others stood in silence before the coastguard station (at that time converted into a Garda Barracks and Post Office) looking directly across at the ill-fated ship, standing off the coastline, about a quarter of a mile out in Blacksod Bay.

The body of the dead seaman was reverently lowered into the ship’s lifeboat and when the craft reached the pier, the sailors raised their sail-shrouded burden and two Guards and many local helpers stretched out their hands to “receive this latest gift of the war at sea to Erris soil”. 31

Dr. John Conway carried out the post-mortem examination followed by the inquest which was held in the Garda Station, attended by the distraught master of the attacked ship, Captain John McVicar, a Scotsman, who was clad in his gold-braided tunic and cap. Dr. McNulty, presiding, had arrived from his home in Killala, and the jury comprised P. J. Conalty, Aughleam (foreman); John Padden, Glosh and Michael Gallagher, Frank Berry, Anthony Heneghan, Michael Chambers and Edward Reilly, of Blacksod. Garda Supt. Burns examined the witnesses on behalf of the State.

The Macville had left Blyth (near Newcastle) on Monday, August 12, 1940. The ship had to wait for a convoy, before sailing on Friday, August 16. She left the convoy the day before the attack, August 19, and proceeded to the Mayo coast alone. From the North of Ireland, the ship was on a straight course for Eagle Island. It had passed Eagle Island and was standing out about half a mile off the brown rocks, beyond Blackrock, when it was spotted by the Luftwaffe Condor. Captain John McVicar was on the bridge with the mate, Paddy Colbert, and another young crewman when the German plane suddenly appeared out of the mist.

Captain John McVicar vividly recalled the brief but desperate action off Blackrock.

“I saw the white background and the black arrows and it had either two or three engines. I could see it had two, but there may have been another in the centre. I shouted to the men – THAT’S A GERMAN!

“I had hardly the words uttered when the plane swooped and gave us a burst of machine gun fire. It splattered on the bridge and the deck. The plane went ahead turned and swooped upon us again. We tried our machine gun. but it jammed. By that time the plane was on us again, about twice the height of the mast above us, its machine rattled and its bullets whined and plugged about us. Paddy was stopped down in front of me. As the bullets rained down on us, I saw him slump – I thought maybe be was hit or he might be crouching for shelter.

“Back again came the plane and gave us another burst of gun fire. Again it rattled on the bridge and deck. One of the crew got three or four bullet holes through the leg of his trousers, but they didn’t get him.

Blood

“A fourth time the plane turned and came at us with a swoop and a burst of gun-fire. More splinters were shot out of the bridge and deck, but mercifully we escaped except that the mate had a couple of splinters of wood sprayed about his nose which drew blood. My nose? Oh, yes. That was nothing — a mere scratch. You don’t get time to think of little things like that when planes rain death from the skies and any moment may be your last, as it was poor Paddy’s.

Twice Bombed

“Well, he came back a fifth time. We were expecting another gunning, and trying to get our own gun in action. This time he did not gun us. Instead he dropped two bombs. They missed the ship by about 20 feet on our starboard side, aft. Still our gun was not ready.

“Once more the plane went ahead, turned, came towards us and swooped for the sixth time. It dropped two more bombs. Again, he missed us by about the same distance, but this time on our port bow.

“But just as he dropped his bombs the boy there got our gun going. He gave him a full belt as hard as it would go. He told me he saw his bullets hitting, but I don’t know what damage he did. The plane swooped down, went out to sea, disappeared in the mist and never came back. Maybe we got him and avenged Paddy, poor lad! We are all under the impression the plane was struck. The gunner saw his bullets making sparks off him. Whatever was the cause he didn’t attack us again.

“After each bomb explosion the ship heaved out of the water, and we thought she was blown up. She began to make water. We got the pumps going and kept them going. I thought we’d have to beach the ship, but maybe she’ll close up again. She was shaken, anyhow, but she is not making water now and I think we’re all right.” 32

In a sequel to the Macville attack, three hours later an Fw 200 Condor which had taken off from the Luftwaffe airbase in Bordeaux, France, earlier that fateful day crash-landed in the Kerry mountains. Although the two incidents have never been officially linked the evidence clearly points to the crashed plane being the same Fw 200 Condor which had been damaged by defensive gunfire from Macville.

Indeed, the Western People speculated in the issue of August 24, 1940, that it was the same plane that had crashed in Kerry in a report under the double-decker headline, The Plane Crash in Kerry – Was it the Victim of the Steamer’s Gunfire?.

The Condor 200 crash-landed on Faha Ridge, above Cloghane, on the Dingle Peninsula, at the foot of Mount Brandon, Co. Kerry, and the crew immediately destroyed all evidence by setting the plane on fire. The damage the plane had sustained from the few bursts of fire from the Macville’s Lewis machine gun was likely to have caused the crash-landing and not as a result of developing engine trouble as the crew told the Irish Defence Forces.

The six German aviators survived and were the first aircrew from Germany to land in Ireland during World War 2 and were imprisoned for the entire war. Their incarceration was humane in the Curragh Internment Camp which contrasted sharply with the brutality meted out to many Irish seamen who were imprisoned and used as slave labour in the German labour camps, including Ballina man Gerald O’Hara (see below).

One engine from the Condor that attacked Macville off Blackrock is displayed outside one of the pubs in Cloghane. The last survivor Kurt Kyck, who returned to marry and live in Ireland, died in August 2010 33.

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.

5 replies on “The Tides of War”

It was fantastic to read the above..
My father was a light keeper at Blacksod, Eagle Island and Blackrock during the war. He told of being on Blackrock when a U boat crew landed looking for supplies and the altercation that ensued.
As my father told it, it was the winter of 1943 and he was stationed on Blackrock as trainee lightkeeper with one other keeper; sorry I don’t have a name for this chap, though it may have been Sweeney. Blackrock lighthouse is over 10 miles west of Blacksod light and Ireland’s most westerly lighthouse. He was stationed there and had as a companion a black dog called “Bess”.
A U-boat crew landed on Blackrock during the night and basically they were looking for supplies of water and food. When they were discovered by the lightkeepers it was obvious that they were armed. And the keepers were under strict orders not to be confrontational.
It got kinda ‘heavy’ when ‘Bess’ decided to protect the island and attacked one of the U-boat crew. The dog was kicked by the U-boat crewman prompting my dad to attack the crewman. A scuffle ensued and my dad found himself locked in a stores cupboard (that was now empty) in the lighthouse with ‘Bess’.”
“The senior lightkeeper was informed not to let my dad out until the U-boat had left.
“And that’s that, not a story about heroics or bravery, but an interesting story that has never been told, to the best of my knowledge.

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Mark, thanks for taking the time to comment.
I have been unable to find any documentary evidence of this raid in the historical records. If anyone has further knowledge or information regarding Mark’s story I would be delighted to hear from them.

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