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The Tides of War

Canton Rescue Kilcummin

James McLoughlin (1909-1992), left, is awarded a silver goblet on November 23, 1991, by Swedish Government representative, Anders Sjodin, in recognition of his heroic rescue of the survivors of the SS Canton off Kilcummin Head n August 1940. Photo: Dorothy Evans, Brookfield Journal.

August 1940 was also the month in which one of the most courageous and difficult rescues of shipwrecked seamen took place off the coast of Ireland during World War 11. The rescue took place off Kilcummin Head when local fishermen showed skilful seamanship and noble humanity when they risked their lives in treacherous seas to row out three miles to tow to safety a lifeboat full of weary sailors in danger of being smashed against the rocks.

Late on Friday, August 9, 1940, the unescorted Swedish motor merchant, Canton, was hit by one torpedo from U-30 and sank 70 miles west of Tory Island. The ship was on its way to Liverpool from Calcutta via Freetown, carrying 3,000 tons of pig iron, 2,700 tons of linseed, 1,152 tons of general cargo and 1,034 tons of hessian.

Two lifeboats were launched; the captain and 15 crew were never heard of again, but the second boat with 16 men reached the Mayo coast on Sunday morning, August 11, 1940.

By the time they came in sight of the Kilcummin shoreline, the 16 seamen were exhausted and cold after two nights being tossed about in a cramped lifeboat in a wild North Atlantic. Dejected, the survivors were in no fit state to row their vessel through the treacherous waters, avoiding reefs and skerries, to the small harbour near where General Humbert’s French Forces landed in 1798.

Following in the family tradition, Jim McLoughlin (1909-1992) was a marine pilot since he was 19, guiding cargo boats into Killala Bay and up through the narrow silt reefs of the Moy Estuary to Ballina Harbour. He owned a 22-foot blue and white skiff he named St. Anne which he used for coastal fishing along with seven other men, relatives and close friends, including his younger brother, Mike.

Alerted by the coastwatchers at Kilcummin LOP who had spotted the lifeboat in difficulty passing the headland, Jim McLoughlin and his comrades did not hesitate for one minute when they looked out over the bay from the cliffs at Croagh Mor and saw the plight of the men aboard the lifeboat. Within minutes, they had launched St. Anne into the dangerous sea swell that kept all boats harbour-bound that inclement summer Sunday.

The crew of St. Anne on that day comprised James McLoughlin (31) Skipper and Michael McLoughlin (24), who were brothers; John McLoughlin (70) a cousin of the previous two men, John Kelly (33), John Langan (60), William Knox (40) all of Parke; William Hughes (60), Ballinlena, and Thomas Hughes (40), Kilcummin.

The drama and gallantry of the rescue could well have turned into a terrible tragedy for Kilcummin, but for the seamanship and bravery of the crew of St. Anne. Over 80 years later those of us who are familiar with Kilcummin’s big waves can appreciate the enormous courage shown by the men of St. Anne to even attempt to row beyond the shelter of the wave-lashed harbour.

Rowing out three miles through the treacherous currents and high rolling seas, the Kilcummin men saw that the lifeboat was almost twice the size of the skiff and taking water. A collision would see them all drown. There was no response to calls to take a tow line; the lifeboatmen who were crouching under a tarpaulin were cold, seasick and losing hope of rescue. Bravely, Jim McLoughlin jumped from St. Anne into the lifeboat and as the survivors slowly emerged, he secured the line and took the tiller as the oarsman in St. Anne began pulling for home.

“The haul home was tough going for the rest of them. The much larger lifeboat had 17 people and a lot of water in it and they had to keep ahead enough at times so that she wouldn’t bear down on them. They were cold, wet, and tired. As they approached the little harbour, they could see cars full of people as well as ass-carts and bicycles and those on foot and horseback from all over the region.” 43

As the Canton crew, comprising Swedes and lascars (sailor from the Indian Subcontinent and South-East Asia) came ashore at Kilcummin, one of the crew who was a Filipino “fell on his knees, blessed himself, and kissed the ground ” 44. Some of his comrades were not as lucky; the bodies of Edwin Andersson, from Malmo, Sweden, and Heikel Sverin, both Canton crewmen, came ashore later in the month in Donegal and two empty lifeboats from the steamer also washed up.

The warmth and generosity of the reception the shipwrecked sailors received in the welcoming homes of Kilcummin that day contrasted with the cooler reception the Canton crew would later receive from officialdom in Ballina. The stricken seafarers were declined entry to the local hospital as “the number of patients was so great at the time that there was no accommodation for them”. 44 The matron lent 24 blankets which were returned and, having been disinfected and laundered, they were returned to store.

The sailors were taken to Enniscrone where they were accommodated in the local school before later travelling to Dublin en-route to the UK.

Some weeks after the rescue, Ballina businessman, E. M. Boshell, local representative of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society, and a member of Ballina Harbour Board, and also Lloyd’s Agent at Ballina, recommended the fishermen for recognition for their bravery to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

It wasn’t until November 1991 when Jim McLoughlin who was 82-years-old and living in the United States that his bravery was finally recognised when a Swedish government representative, Anders Sjodin, presented him with a silver goblet with his name and the date of the rescue engraved on it. 45

Upwey Grange

Bodies from MV Upwey Grange sunk off of Achill Head by U-37 on August 8, 1940, came ashore along the Mayo coast. Image: Public Domain.

On Wednesday morning, September 11, 1940, coastalwatchers at Kilcummin found a body dressed in a naval uniform washed ashore. From papers found on the body, it was found that the body was that of Cadet Geoffrey Charles Butcher, Appletree Cottage, 21 Fairfield Road, Orpington, Kent. He enlisted on the 17th of June and was aged 19 years. Other papers bore the marks “Imperial Transport”.

He was one of three crew members of MV Upwey Grange whose remains were washed ashore along the Mayo coast after the ship, heading for London from Buenos Aires, with 11 passengers and a cargo of 5,500 tons of frozen and tinned meat was hit by one torpedo from U-37 and sank 184 miles west of Achill Head, on August 8, 1940.

All three lifeboats got away from the ship safely and Captain William Ernest Williams ordered them all to hoist sail and make for Ireland. The wind was favourable for this, blowing strongly from the west, but the sea conditions were poor and the speed with which they had had to abandon their ship rendered them vulnerable to hypothermia. With Williams in the lead, the boats kept company for a few hours, but in the rough sea and swell, the boats were separated. 46

HMS Vanquisher came to the rescue of the first lifeboat. The second boat had made about 180 miles in three days and two nights and was within 50 miles of Achill Head when they were rescued by the Cardiff steam trawler, Naniwa, and on August 13; forty-eight crew members and eight passengers were landed safely in Cardiff.

We will never know the exact circumstances of what happened to Captain William’s lifeboat in the numbing cold of the turbulent North Atlantic, but we get some insight into the possible fate of the small boat from the account given by rescued First Officer Ellis, referring to the third day of their lifeboat ordeal.

“Things were, by now, very unpleasant; we shipped much water and baled continuously. A very high sea was running with a strong westerly wind; frequent squalls of moderate gale force from NW made a nasty cross sea.” 46

Nothing further was heard of Captain Williams’s boat. He was lost along with 31 crew members, one gunner and three passengers, including Upwey Grange’s Chief Engineer Major Clifford Mackrow (48) and Cadet Geoffrey Charles Butcher, “both of whom were known to have been in Williams’s lifeboat”. 47

Clifford Major Mackrow was washed ashore at Inishkea. He was a married man who lived at 49 Castleview Gardens, Ilford, Essex. He is buried in Kilcommon Church of Ireland Churchyard, Belmullet.

The bodies of two other crewmen from Upwey Grange were found in Mayo; AB George James Walters (47) was washed up at Achill Island and he is buried in Achill Holy Trinity Church of Ireland graveyard; Third Officer Edgar Hugh Mayes (33) from Northhampton is buried in Termoncarragh cemetery.

An Irishman William Francis O’Donnell (30), an engineer on the M.V. Upwey Grange, also died and he is commemorated at Tower Hill Memorial in London.

H.M.S. Patroclus

On Sunday, November 3, 1940, HMS Patroclus, an armed merchant cruiser, was 150 miles west of Bloody Foreland when she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-99. Royal Navy Reserve Seaman, Harry Kirkpatrick, was one of 56 of her 319 crew lost in the attack. His body was washed up at Cushlecka, Mulranny, and found by Patrick Moran, Cuskleacka, at about 10am, on December 18, 1940. He was buried in Achill Holy Trinity Church of Ireland Churchyard in Achill Sound. An only son, a wristlet watch found on the body was later forwarded to his mother in Orkney.

S.S. Nerissa

SS Nerissa was torpedoed and sunk by U-552 southeast of Rockall with the loss of the master, 82 crew members, two gunners and 124 passengers. A number of the victims are buried in Mayo. Image: Public Domain.

S.S. Nerissa was the only transport carrying Canadian troops to be lost during World War II. A passenger and cargo steamer, en route from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Liverpool, she was torpedoed and sunk on the night of April 30, 1941, by the German submarine, U-552, northwest of Rockall.

The sinking of the S.S. Nerissa resulted in 207 casualties, including military and civilian; and British and Canadian diplomats. This was the third-largest loss of life for a ship sunk by U-boats in the approaches to Ireland and Britain. The 84 Nerissa survivors were transferred from their lifeboats to HMS Kingcup, which took them to Derry.

In war, some families seem to bear an unbearable price for their service and sacrifice as we have already read concerning the MacHale family from Belmullet.

Buried in Kilcommon Church of Ireland Churchyard, Belmullet, is Archibald Graham Weir (55), Pensbury House, Shaftsbury, Dorset, a Wing Commander Royal Air Force and a victim of the Nerissa sinking. His body was found washed ashore at Corraun Point, Cross beach, near Binghamstown, on July 4, 1941. An Oxford graduate, he was a veteran of World War 1 and, at the time of his death, Wing Commander Weir (with a staff of 11) served as Officer Commanding Royal Air Force personnel bound to and from the UK.

RAF Wing Commander Archibald Graham Weir (55) died when the SS Nerissa was sunk off Donegal by U-552 on April 30, 1940. Wing Commander Weir’s body came ashore at Corraun Point, Cross, and he is buried in Kilcommon Church of Ireland graveyard, Belmullet. Image: Public Domain.

His two sons also died in the war. Flying Officer Archibald Nigel Charles Weir D.F.C., died when his Hurricane crashed into the sea on November 7, 1940, after combat with a Messerschmitt Bf 109 off the Isle of Wight. Nigel’s younger brother, Adrian John Anthony (23) was serving as a Major in the 1st Battalion The Scots Guards when he was killed on February 2, 1944, at Anzio, Italy. He was awarded the Military Cross. 48

When Wing Commander Weir’s body was found washed ashore at Corraun Point, among his possessions was his personal diary; his last entry on the morning of that fateful day was a tender final message to his wife, Mary, looking forward to seeing her within hours.

“Have just come off watch on the bridge from 4-8 am. Marvellous sunrise, squalls, and an upturned lifeboat dead ahead, which gave us a fright until we saw what it was. We are 250 miles from the north of Ireland, and the waters sufficiently dangerous; however, by tomorrow morning all should be well, and one will be able to take a bath without wondering whether the alarm will go into the middle of it. Á bientôt, must go and have breakfast.” 49

In late September after being informed that her husband’s body had been recovered, Mary Weir, widow of Wing Commander A.G. Weir, wrote a letter 49b to Rev. Rodgers, Rector of Belmullet, wondering “…if his signet ring was still there, which is of great sentimental value to us, being made of his parents’ wedding and engagement rings.”

“He just vanished ‘into the blue’, somewhere overseas early in the year, and was almost home again when the disaster happened, and I know nothing at all about his end and very little of his voyagings. Just a few little details pieced together from survivors’ stories.”

Concluding her letter, Mrs Weir mentioned that her “elder son was killed in action flying six months before his father, but I have a son in the Army and two daughters left.”

Tragically, her second son was taken from her, too. Mrs Weir died in 1972. A ring was not listed among the personal items found on Commander Weir’s body.

Canadian Officer, Thomas Elvin Mitchell (20), a Lieutenant in the Carleton and York Regiment, R.C.I.C., was one of 108 Canadian Army personnel to perish on the Nerissa. His remains were washed ashore at Aughadoon, Belmullet, on May 23, 1941, and found by Anthony Dixon, Aughadoon, during an early morning walk along the shore. Son of Thomas and Bessie Irene Mitchell, he came from St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada. He is buried in Kilcommon Church of Ireland Cemetery, Belmullet.

S.S. Homeside Mystery

Short S.25 Sunderland of 210 Squadron RAF, Pembroke Dock, on convoy protection duty, 31 July 1940. Image: Public Domain.
U-426, down by the stern and sinking, after attacks by a Short Sunderland flying boat during the Battle of the Atlantic. Image: Public Domain, Royal Air Force official photographer.

In January 1941, the British cargo ship S.S. Homeside, on a voyage from Pepel, Sierra Leone, for the Tees, in convoy SL-62 with a cargo of iron ore, went missing. The only evidence of her fate came on July 8, 1941, when a body washed ashore at Ashleam, Achill, was identified as that of John Murphy lost when S.S. Homeside went missing, presumed sunk, on January 28th 1941. Thirty-five crew were never heard of again.

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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