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The Tides of War

HMS Mashona

The British destroyer HMS Mashona was bombed and sunk off the coast of Galway by a Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 aircraft on May 28, 1941, with the loss of 48 of her 219 crew. Image: Public Domain.

The Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Mashona, was bombed and sunk off the coast of Galway by a Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 aircraft on May 28, 1941, with the loss of 48 of her 219 crew.

Seventeen-year-old, Peter Clifford McGlade, a Boy 1st Class Royal Navy, whose body was washed up on Glosh beach on June 27, 1941, was the youngest military casualty washed ashore in Mayo. He is buried in Fallmore Graveyard.

Also among the HMS Mashona dead were Petty Officer Jubilee Jack Tweed (44) whose remains were washed ashore on Clare Island and found at 5.30 pm on July 3, 1941, by Michael O’Grady. He is buried in the local cemetery. He was the husband of Alice Tweed, of Shirley, Southampton.

Leading seaman Jack Springett Johnson (37) also lost his life on the Mashona and is buried in Kilcommon Erris Church of Ireland Churchyard. He was the husband of Minnie Lily Lillian Johnson, of Dagenham, Essex.

The body of Frederick George Wheeler (34), Electrical Artificer 1st Class on the Mashona, was washed up on Dooagh beach, Achill Island, and found by Michael O’Donnell, Cloughmore, at about 8pm, on June 27, 1941. A St. Christopher medal was attached to his identity badge. He is buried in Kildavnet Catholic Graveyard.

Davanger Rescue

At 11.15am on Friday, October 18 1940, the Look-out Post at Portacloy on the clifftop on the most north-westerly tip of Co. Mayo reported that they had seen a lifeboat about four miles northwest of their post at 10.45am and the boat appeared to be sailing in a westerly direction.

The lifeboat contained the 12 survivors from the ST Davanger, a Norwegian cargo ship that had been torpedoed without warning at 8.45pm on Friday, October 10, 1940, and sunk 300 miles west of Broadhaven Bay by U-48 with the loss of 17 of her 29 crew. The torpedo struck the ship in the engine room and she sunk in about four minutes.

Davanger was laden with 10,000 tons of fuel oil, en route from the island of Curaçao in the Southern Caribbean via Bermuda and Halifax to Liverpool; the ship was in a convoy when she was sunk.

After escaping the inferno, 12 survivors, including Captain Elliot Karlsen and Chief Officer Kjell Johnsen, battled through that first night in heavy rain and high seas. As the winds decreased somewhat the next morning they spotted two lifeboats from a British ship which they hailed. Upon being asked what they wanted to do, the survivors in the other boats replied they were going to remain in the area to wait for help, but the Norwegians set sail, heading east for the Mayo coast.

On the morning of October 18, they spotted land and altered course for the North Mayo coast.

Garda Superintendant W. Burns, Belmullet, took charge of the rescue travelling to Broadhaven (Ballyglass) where two curraghs were launched to go to the assistance of the lifeboat which at this stage was just off Kid Island south of the Stags of Broadhaven.

Two hours later, at 2.30pm, the 12 survivors (10 Norwegians, 1 Swedish and 1 English) were landed at Ballyglass pier. They were exhausted, suffering from extreme exposure, and in a distressed state after their seven-day ordeal in which they had to row 300 miles through heavy seas. After receiving refreshments the shipwrecked sailors were admitted to Belmullet hospital where they were assisted by Leo Gaughan of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society. 50

In July 1941, the British Government expressed their gratitude to all those who had helped in the rescue of the survivors from the SS Clan Menzies and Davanger and, in particular, Leo Gaughan, Belmullet, and those local fishermen who had risked their lives to save the stricken seafarers.

Aghia Eirini Salvage

The rusting derrick and winch on the cliff edge near Cloghmore along Achill’s Atlantic Drive is a reminder of the biggest salvage operation that took place off the Mayo coast as a result of the Battle of the Atlantic.

The story began in Cardiff where the 4,330-ton Greek steamer, Aghia Eirini, took on a cargo of coal bound for Buenos Aires via Liverpool where she joined a 32-merchant Convoy OB 252 escorted by corvette HMS Arbutus and destroyers HMS Chelsea, Cottesmore, Verity, Veteran and Wolverine.

As the convoy made its way around the North West Approaches close to the Donegal coast in early December 1940 it ran head-on into Gale Force 10 and 11 winds. The freighter crashed broadside-on to the sea, taking on considerable amounts of water that caused her steering gear to fail.

Late on the night of December 7, Aghia Eirini’s master sent out a distress message as the steamer drifted out of control in mountainous seas. The message read:

“Aghia Eirini, position 52° 38’ N — 22° 52’ W at 10.51 GMT wants immediate assistance. 29 onboard. All holds full of water.”

At this stage, the ship was about 850 km west of Mayo.

Unknown to the crew, the distress message had been intercepted by U-99 under the command of Otto Kretschmer (1912-1998) one of Germany’s most decorated U-boat commanders who at that stage was stalking the Dutch ship SS Farmsum, straggling from the convoy, and also bound for Buenos Aires, with a cargo of coal.

After sinking SS Farmsum with the loss of 16 crew and 15 survivors, Kretschmer turned his attention to the storm-damaged Aghia Eirini.

Kretschmer recorded in his diary: “I plan first to sink the enemy
steamer that I have in sight, and then operate against Aghia Eirini. This
ship, a Greek of 4,330 grt, I can probably sink with artillery fire.”
50b

Kretschmer reached the last reported position of Aghia Eirini, at 0230 hours on December 8, but the Greek steamer was nowhere in sight. Believing the ship to be either drifting or sailing in the direction of the North Channel, U-99 headed in the wrong direction as Aghia Eirini drifted closer to its final fate beneath the cliffs of Achill.

At 0923 hours, Aghia Eirini sent out another message:

“Aghia Eirini. Lost every try to come near the shore in spite of the
ship’s holds being full of water. The helm is out of action now again. Position at 0725 GMT 53° 07′ N – 18° 11′ W.”

Kretschmer saw a second chance to sink the Greek steamer, but before he could reach the new position, Aghia Eirini was already in sight of Achill.

Aghia Eirini’s final message before it crashed into the towering cliffs of Achill’s lower peninsula between Ashleam Bay and Cloghmore on
December 10, 1940, read:

“To the Admiralty. No hope to come near the shore. We are asking
for your immediate help. Helm out of use. Ship is full of water.”
50b

Captain Stefanos Kolakis later explained why he decided to crash into the cliff. Aghia Eirini’s forward holds were filling with water on account of rough seas pouring into the vessel. Without proper steering, and, as the vessel was beginning to sink forward, he decided to beach Aghia Eirini at the point where she still lies to this day.

Gardai had been alerted by Captain H. Freyne of the Mercantile Marine Office in Dublin that a Greek steamer, badly damaged, was off Clare Island. Gardai stations and Coastwatchers along the southwest Mayo coast were put on high alert and personnel were instructed to render all possible assistance. Suitable boats were procured from local fishermen for a rescue, but owing to the strong gale and rough seas it was decided that it would be futile to attempt to go out to sea.

The bow of the ship had been brought to within a few feet of the land in a rocky cove a few hundred yards south of Ashleam Bay. A tricky rescue operation ensued as the cliff head was nearly 100 feet perpendicular above the deck of the ship. Mercifully, the ship was so close to land that the captain was able to throw a rope from the ship to the land on the cliff head. Then with the help of the Gardai and a group of local people all the crew were safely hauled by rope from the deck to the cliff head by 11.30am.
A warm welcome awaited the Aghia Eirini crew in Alice Sweeney’s and John Kilbane’s hotels, Achill Sound.50c

As the distressed crew of 29 (2 Egyptians, 1 Portuguese, 1 English, and 25 Greeks) enjoyed the hospitality of the people of Achill on that cold December morning little did they know that they had escaped U-99’s torpedoes and a more terrible fate.

The loss of the Aghia Eirini to Britain proved to be a gift for the economy of Achill thanks to the entrepreneurship of Achill Sound merchant, W. J. Sweeney who acquired the salvage rights, erecting a derrick and winch for the recovery operation, which can still be seen over 80 years later. The Sweeney family are still in business operating successful hardware and grocery stores at Achill Sound.

Otto Kretschmer sank 44 ships before his capture by the Royal Navy in March 1941. After the war he served in the German Federal Navy, from which he retired in 1970 with the rank of Flottillenadmiral (flotilla admiral).

Another shipwreck was a big talking point in the Bangor Erris and Geesala area in 1943.
The British 8,297 tons tanker, Thelma, was wrecked off Doolough Point, Blacksod Bay, on July 12, 1942. It was refloated but sank and foundered on the Doolough shoreline in July 1943.
The ship was purchased by Hammond Lane Foundry Ltd, 11 Pearse Street, Dublin, for scrap.

S.S. Serbino

Robert Mackay Sutherland (27) was the Second Radio Officer on the S.S. Serbino, a British cargo steamer en route from Mombassa and Freetown for Liverpool carrying a general cargo when she was torpedoed by U-82 and sunk on Tuesday, October 21, 1941, with the loss of 14 of her 65 crew. His remains were washed up on Dooyork and he is buried in Geesala cemetery. Like many radio operators, he was probably one of the last to leave the ship as he tried to radio for help.

S.S. The Sultan

Boatswain John Murphy (26) was lost when Glasgow registered S.S. The Sultan was bombed and sunk in the North Sea by Luftwaffe aircraft on Sunday, February 2, 1941. One other member of her 14 crew, a gunner, was also lost in the attack. Survivors were rescued by the trawler, Lord St. Vincent. After Murphy’s body was washed up at Achill Island, he was interred in Achill (Holy Trinity) Church of Ireland Churchyard, Achill Sound.

S.S. Dione II

A British destroyer on convoy duty in the North Atlantic during World War 2 dropping depth charges as it pursues a U-boat. Image: Public Domain.

One of the most distressing sights Mayo coastwatchers came across during the entire Battle of the Atlantic occurred on Tuesday afternoon, April 15, 1941. Coastwatchers from Annagh were patrolling at Port Glosh when they noticed a strange craft bobbing on rough seas off Tirraun Point on the north end of Glosh beach. The craft was driven onto the rugged shore by a stiff westerly breeze.

During the war, the British Navy adopted the large merchant service self-launching life raft, which had a wooden frame and deck built over 45-gallon drums. It kept men out of the water, safe from both hypothermia, and, boiler and depth charge explosions, and with luck, they kept survivors alive until rescue came.

Before wading out to the raft, the coastwatchers called for help and Gardai and LSF men joined the effort to retrieve the raft which consisted of planking affixed to six barrels. Reaching the raft, a grim sight met the Erris coastwatchers eyes. The dead men sat upright on the raft just as if they were alive. They were in an advanced state of decomposition and evidently had been a considerable time at sea.

Only one of the bodies could be identified from personal documents in his pockets. Frederick Richard Thomas (37) Great Crosby, Lancashire, was a Second Officer, on the S.S. Dione II, a British steamer in convoy destined for Cardiff with a cargo of iron ore. She was slightly damaged by German Fw200 Condor aircraft on February 3, 1941, and sunk the next day in a submarine attack, northwest of the Aran Islands. In his pocket wallet, Gardai found a religious picture and a sacred heart medal. He is buried in Termoncarragh cemetery alongside his two unknown comrades.

Three young Irish merchant seamen were among the 28 crew members and one gunner who were lost on Dione II. Sailors Maurice Cooney (25), Youghal, Co Cork; James Kehoe (27), Campile, Co. Wexford, and George Christopher O’Hara (20), Cork, are all commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial in London. Five crew members were picked up by the British steam merchant Flowergate and landed at Glasgow on February 8.

By Anthony Hickey

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

11 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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This was a very interesting article, Anthony. I read it in detail and found it very interesting being originally from the area. That would have taken considerable effort to research and compile. Thank you for investing the time and effort to write what is a valuable record of events that not many people will be aware ever happened.

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Niall, thanks for taking the time to read my article. I will be updating the Tides of War during 2022 with further information regarding Mayo and the Battle of the Atlantic that I discovered during my research.

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I found “The Tides of War” when researching one of those lost in HMS Mashona, Frederick George Wheeler, originally from my home town, Northampton. I found myself pleasantly diverted from my research by other parts of your site, as well as finding very useful information on the matter at hand. Thank you very much Anthony Hickey.

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Dave, thanks for your positive feedback. It’s gratifying when research such as “The Tides of War” is helpful to others.

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My mother told me about the little girl on Dooyork beach, she had described her as dressed in a red suit which was obviously the pyjamas. The story always stuck with me, I never knew she was buried in Geesala. My mother was from Dooyork and our field ran down to the shore. Mom was in the Red Cross and attended at some crash landings also during the War

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Anne, thank you so much for sharing this important anecdotal evidence.
Over the past year, I have spoken to several people in Geesala but, not surprisingly, over 80 years later, no one could recall hearing this story.
So your recollection of what your mother told you is significant and adds greatly to the documentary evidence that I have been able to find in the National Archives.

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