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The Tides of War

Mohamed Ali El-Kebir

At twilight on Wednesday, August 7, 1940, 205 miles west of Malin Head, U-38b torpedoed the passenger-vessel S.S. Mohamed Ali el-Kebir with the loss of 96 of the 862 people on board. Bodies were washed up all along the Mayo coast. Image: Public Domain.

At twilight on Wednesday, August 7, 1940, 205 miles west of Malin Head, U-38b torpedoed the passenger ship S.S. Mohamed Ali el-Kebir with the loss of 96 of the 862 people on board. The remaining 766 survivors were rescued by HMS Griffin. On passage from Avonmouth to Gibraltar, she had on board 697 troops and 66 Royal Navy personnel. Ten of her crew, four naval ratings and about 95 soldiers lost their lives, including nine British soldiers whose remains were washed up on the Mayo coast.

Private John Halliwell Warham was found on the stretch of beach at Kilgalligan near Carrowteigue. He was a member of the Pioneer Corps, and left behind a young widow, Alice Warham, of Walton, Liverpool, and his two-year-old daughter, Jeanne. He was buried in Kilcommon Church of Ireland Churchyard in Belmullet.

Writing in 2017, Steven Mack, a grandson of Private John Halliwell Warham, in remembering his grandfather’s sacrifice, paid tribute to the Belmullet community who look after the graves of those lost in the Battle of the Atlantic.

“The John H. Warham buried there (Kilcommon COI cemetery) in grave 9 was just 25-years-old, a similar age to many who perished. The inscription includes mention of my mother, Jeanne, who was less than 2 years old at the time he died and so never knew her father.

This was a reality for many families at the time and the invisible sacrifices made by all who are affected by war remains as powerful today as always. As a descendant of one of those buried in this place, I wish to gratefully thank those who care for the grounds and who have done so throughout the years.” 34

Private Arnold A. Walmsley’s remains were discovered by an LSF patrol at Kilcummin on Sunday, August 11, 1940. Attached to the Pioneer Corps, he was a native of Bolton where he left a young widow. He was buried in Rathfran cemetery, overlooking Killala Bay where he came ashore, and near the tranquil ruins of the 13th century Rathfran Priory.

Personal loss and grief were multiplied for the family of Sydney George Betts (24), a driver Royal Engineers, 706 General Construction Coy., from Leicester who was washed up at Annagh Head. The contents of his pockets also revealed a family tragedy. In his wallet, containing two national registration cards, a driving licence, two photos, one apparently that of his wife and child; and, heartbreakingly, a form of leave to bury his child.

Three more soldier victims of the Mohamed Ali El-Kebir sinking whose bodies were washed up along the Erris coast would be buried in Kilcommon Erris Church of Ireland Churchyard before the end of the month.

Private William W. Hulme (27), Patricroft, Lancashire, a member of the Pioneer Corps; James J. Jaffray (27), Sapper Royal Engineers, 706 General Construction Coy., New Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire, and William Ewen Morrison, Sapper Royal Engineers 706 General Construction Coy., a joiner by trade

A further three soldiers who lost their lives on the Mohamed Ali El-Kebir were found at Achill Island. George G. Ironside (44), a Sapper Royal Engineers, was washed up Dooega, Achill Sound, July 28, 1940, and is buried in the Holy Trinity Church of Ireland Churchyard. He left behind a wife, Jessie Ironside, of Cuminestown, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Private Jonas Arthur Hardingham (23), a member of the Auxiliary Military, is buried in Dugort Church of Ireland Churchyard, Achill.

Private Emyr Prytherch (26) was washed up on Doohoma beach and is buried in Doohoma Graveyard. He was a son of John and Margaret Prytherch, of Holyhead, Anglesey.

One Irish merchant seaman also lost his life on the Mohamed Ali El-Kebir. William John Tyrrell (44), Quartermaster, Merchant Navy, was the son of Thomas and Louisa Tyrrell, of Arklow, Co. Wicklow, and is commemorated on The Tower Hill Memorial Trinity Square, Tower Hill, London.

Mayo Refugees

London Fire Brigade train their hoses on burning buildings in London during the Blitz. Image: Public Domain.

Reflecting on the suffering of those caught up in the war especially the Irish in Britain, the Western People spoke for many families when it commented in August 1940:

“The greater evils of war have happily not touched our lives as a whole, though mourning has been brought to some of our Irish families whose sons have been involved in the great catastrophe of battle.” 35

Among those Irish families in mourning by early September 1940 was the McHale family from 4 Chapel Street, Belmullet, who like many other families were to pay too high a price in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Brendan Aloysius MacHale (28), a second officer on the British merchant ship, M.V. Neptunian (Newcastle-on-Tyne), died when she was hit by one torpedo from U-47, northwest of Rockall and sank capsizing after seven minutes on September 7, 1940. The master, 34 crew members, and one gunner were lost.

Brendan’s younger brother, Bertram Joseph MacHale, also served in the merchant navy as a boatswain, surviving until January 14, 1945. He died along with the master and two crew members when the motor tanker, M.V. Athelviking (Liverpool), was sunk by U-1232, east of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The other 39 crew members and eight gunners were rescued by the Canadian motor launch HMCS ML-102.
Bertram McHale was posthumously awarded the King’s Commendation for bravery.

The sons of Dr. Patrick J. MacHale and Julia M. MacHale (nee Burns), Belmullet, the brave brothers are remembered at the Tower Hill Memorial in London and also on the headstone of their parents’ grave in Termoncarragh cemetery.

Isolated on the western fringe of Europe, Ireland could look on with some degree of detachment as the great countries of Europe fell to the unstoppable German army in the early summer of 1940. But by July after the Fall of France when the Battle of Britain between the RAF and Luftwaffe for control of the skies was raging above England, it was clear that the war was on our doorstep.

And, tragically for some Mayo families, the thunderous roar of naval warfare echoed all the way to their front door as news filtered home of sons and relatives serving in the merchant navy who had fallen victim to the preying U-boats.

One such victim was John Jordan, fireman, Ballmachugh, Ballycastle, Co. Mayo. In June 1940, the British Minister of Transport reported that Mr. Jordan was among those merchant sailors lost at sea. 37 Many Mayo families were to endure similar tragedies throughout the Battle of the Atlantic. In June 1942, Henry W. Hunter, first mate, Lecarrow House, Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo, was also included in a list of merchant sailors and fishermen lost at sea. 38

Unable to smash the RAF, the Luftwaffe started bombing British cities on September 7, 1940. The war was coming all too close and personal for many thousands of Irish families who had loved ones, living and working in Britain. Letters home spoke of the death and destruction as the Luftwaffe bombers unleashed nightly blitzkriegs. Many Mayo families were to lose family members in the Blitz during the war and many other Mayo families whose sons served with the RAF and British forces were also to receive the dreaded telegram.

Worried relatives heard of tragic stories of homes demolished and of sleepless nights in underground shelters as the carnage rained down from the German bombers onto the streets above. Local newspapers reported over 50 Mayo people being killed in the Blitz. But it is likely many more unfortunates among the thousands of Mayo emigrants working in England died.

Soon, the refugees, particularly mothers with children, began to make their way back to the safety of Ireland leaving their husbands to bravely continue to work in London, Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester.

“The worst noise of all is the swish of the bomb falling through the air…It certainly strikes terror into the stoutest hearts.. and then the crash and the topolling houses,” 39 wrote a Mayo doctor to his family in October, 1940, describing his medical work in London during the blitz.

Among the refugees who arrived at Westland Row from Holyhead on Friday night, September 2, 1940, on the mailboat, were Mayo natives. James Boylan, from Belmullet. He told the Irish Press in September 1940, the bombs were dropping about North Wales so fast he decided to escape.

Mrs. Mary Walsh, carrying her six-month-old baby daughter, told of her home being wrecked by a bomb. She was going to relatives in Ballyvary. “I have had no sleep for weeks and I am glad to get to Ireland”. 40

Another Mayo woman fleeing the carnage was Mrs. Mary Halloran whose house had also been wrecked by a bomb. Her three-month-old baby boy and her sister, Miss B. Coyne were with her and they were going to relatives in Dounetter, Claremorris.

“I am too tired and too glad to get back to Ireland to talk,” said another young woman who was going to Co. Mayo with her baby daughter. 41

By September the ferocity of the war in the Atlantic was so intense that explosions at sea could be heard along the North Mayo coast. “So violent were the explosions that the delph on Belmullet kitchen dressers rattled for some time. Vivid flashes were observed from the shore”. 42

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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