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The Tides of War

The Mayo Victims

Prisoners working on the Valentin submarine pens in Bremen-Farge, 1944, where Irish captured merchant seaman, employed on UK ships, were imprisoned. Image: Public Domain.

Many Mayo families, too, paid the ultimate price during the war at sea. Radio Officer Gerald O’Hara (1893-1944), Bridge Street, Ballina, sailed the seven seas in two wars, the 1914-18 war and World War 11. As an experienced merchant seaman, he had a matter-of-fact attitude to the sea. “Danger is the salt of every sailor’s life”, he told the Western People while home on leave for the final time at Christmas 1940.

On August 19, 1941, Gerald O’Hara was First Radio Officer on the S.S. Devon, a British India Steam Navigation Company liner, bound for New Zealand from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, with a crew of 144. Carrying a cargo of 4,570 tons of machine, aircraft parts and used car tyres it was intercepted by the German raider, Komet. The crew were taken aboard the Komet and Devon was sunk by gunfire, 200 miles south-west of the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, in the Pacific Ocean.

The Ballina man was one of 32 of the Irish nationals serving in the British Merchant Navy who ended up in the notorious Bremen-Farge concentration camp where prisoners were forced to do hard labour for 12-hour days building a protective shelter for a submarmine factory named Valentin on the Weser River at the Bremen suburb of Rekum.

The conditions were cruel. The workers were beaten and starved; many died as they worked and their bodies were dumped into the foundations. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 6,000 prisoners perished building the Valentin Bunker. 51.

Harry Callan, another Irish prisoner, later recalled how Gerald O’Hara was the calming voice who tried to keep his fellow prisoners spirits up.

“On Sundays, in order to stop us getting maudlin, he would start up conversations about football, hurling or politics, anything to get us talking to each other. It was he who encouraged us to keep as clean as possible and to carry out our ‘housekeeping’ tasks in the barracks. He was the glue that kept us together as a group.” 52.

Sadly, Gerald O’Hara did not survive the harsh conditons and was one five Irish-born British Merchant Seamen who lost their lives in the Bremen-Farge Concentration Camp. He died 15 March 1944, leaving a wife and two sons, Padraic and Edward. He is buried and commemorated at Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Rheinberg, Germany. The camp was liberated on April 28, 1945 by Irish Guards.

In a strange twist of fate, a neighbour of Gerald O’Hara from Bridge Street in Ballina, Surgeon Commander Vincent F. Walshe, was also taken prisoner during the war. A son of Francis, and Kate Walshe, who ran a public lounge and saddler shop at the corner of Bridge Street and Victoria Terrace, Surgeon Commander Walshe joined the British Navy in 1924 after serving in the Irish Army. He was aboard HMS Exeter when it was sunk by the Japaneses in the Battle of Singapore in February 1942 and taken prisoner. He had been previously reported missing.

In a letter, dated September 14th, 1945, shortly after the end of the war, Surgeon Commander Walshe wrote to his parents in Ballina telling of them his terrible three and a half years in the Japanese Prisoner of War Camp in Java. “The Japanese inhumanity and merciless cruetly must be seen to be believed”, he wrote. 54.

U-boat raid on Blackrock

James Joseph Stapleton (1926-1998) was just 17-years-old when he confronted a U-boat crewman at Blackrock Lighthouse off the Mayo coast in 1943. Photo: Courtesy Mark Stapleton.

Since the publication of this article, evidence has come to light for the first time of a daring World War 2 raid on Blackrock Lighthouse by armed members of a U-boat crew who were looking for food and water.

The story of the raid on Blackrock has never been revealed previously as the two lighthouse keepers were ordered not to disclose what had happened and cause a diplomatic incident as Ireland walked a neutrality tightrope between the Allies and Nazi Germany.

Now, almost 80 years later, Mark Stapleton, whose father James Joseph Stapleton was one of the Blackrock keepers the day of the surprise attack, has decided through email correspondence with this writer to make public what his late father told him about the raid.

The significance of the swoop on the Mayo islet is that it was the only incursion by armed Nazi forces on Irish soil during World War 2.

Born in the Lightkeepers’ cottages at Blacksod in 1926, James Joseph Stapleton, like his father and brothers, was a lighthouse keeper. He was only 17-years-old when the U-boat crew landed on the wave lashed Blackrock in the winter of 1943 demanding food and water. Blackrock, located about 10km from Blacksod, is one of Ireland’s remotest lighhouses, built on top of a 70 metre high rocky islet.

According to Mark Stapleton:

“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.”

It is indeed an interesting story, and, while not wanting to overdramatise the incident, it was the only time that a U-boat crew took Irish territory by force of arms during World War 2.

Througthout the Battle of the Atlantic, elements in the British Admirality were convinced that Ireland was turning a blind eye to U-boat crews who they wrongly believed were pulling into remote Irish harbours to stock up on food and water.

No evidence has ever emerged to support these claims and, indeed, to the contrary, De Valera ordered that sightings of U-boats off the Irish coast were to be reported through Army Intelligence to the British in line with our covert support for the Allies despite our stated neutrality.

Some evidence has emerged over the years of individual fishermen off the south coast travelling out to U-boats to sell fish to the crew, but coastwatchers never reported sightings of U-boats in Irish bays or harbours. Indeed, it would have been folly for a U-boat commander to give away his location and expose his submarine to possible attack by Allied seaplanes.

Submarmine activity off the Mayo coast was intense throughout the Battle of the Atlantic. As early as January 1940, the British submarine H43 was hunting U-boats off Eagle Island and patrolled at periscope depth off the Inishkea Islands. As we have seen U-37 entered Killala Bay to drop off Nazi agent, Ernst Weber-Drohl near Enniscrone.

After the War, James Joseph Stapleton was posted to Rockabill Lighthouse at Skerries, north of Dublin. He worked there with his brother, Joe. He was there until 1953 when he left the service after meeting his future wife at the holiday camp at Skerries. The couple moved to Liverpool to find work, marry and raise a family. Mr. Stapleton passed away in December 1998.

Survived the War

One Mayo sailor, about whose exciting life an Indiana Jones type film could surely have been made, was Maurice Moran of Arbuckle Row, Ballina, whose many heroic adventures took him from fighting with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War to Nazi Germany in 1941 where he was held as a prisoner after his ship was sunk off Trinidad with the loss of over 300. Reported missing and believed drowned, his return to Ballina after the war was one of the few happy endings to countless Battle of the Atlantic tragedies. 55.

Another Mayo merchant seaman, Andrew Joseph Moran of Saula, Achill, lived an adventurous and courageous life, having served with the merchant navy from 1939 to 1947. He was no stranger to the German U-boats and survived a 10-day ordeal at sea when his ship was sunk in the Indian Ocean. Later, he served on passenger ships to and from New York. He died in Lancaster in England aged 73 in 1983.

Some of the crew of MV San Demetrio after their return to Glasgow. The ship circled Blacksod Bay before making its way back to Glasgow. At the centre is Chief Engineer Charles Pollard, to his right is Mess Room Steward John Jamieson. Image: Public Domain.

Many exciting films were made about the Battle of the Atlantic, Sink the Bismark (1960) and The Cruel Sea (1953) among my own favourites.

During my research, I discovered that Mayo has a small link to a Battle of the Atlantic film that celebrates one of the most stirring stories of the war at sea, the attack on MV San Demetrio in November 1940. San Demetrio London, was the title of the film that told how the ship, disabled and left to the mercy of patrolling U-boats, was kept afloat by some her crew.

Bound for Avonmouth, England, with 11,200 tons of aviation fuel, loaded in Aruba, Dutch West Indies, she was set ablaze after been hit by shells from the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer in the mid-Atlantic on November 5, 1940. The following day the crew reboarded the ship from their lifeboat, put out the fires, and coaxed the badly damaged vessel towards the Mayo coast.

After seven days the San Demetrio reached Blacksod Bay, just off Blackrock Lighthouse. Sadly, Greaser John Boyle, who had been injured jumping into the lifeboat died of an internal haemorrhage. The Master decided “to cruise around the bay“, and they buried Boyle beneath its waters. 56

Declining the offer of a tow by a tug because of the high cost, they were escorted on to the mouth of the River Clyde, docking on November 16, 1940.

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”

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.
It was fantastic to read the above.

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Mark, thanks for taking the time to comment and for providing details of the raid by the U-boat on Blackrock Lighthouse.
See Page 7 above under heading U-boat raid on Blackrock

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