The Mayo Victims
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.
Born and reared in Bridge Street (now Tolan Street), Gerald was the youngest of a family of 11 children. After completing his studies at St. Muredach’s College, Ballina, he moved to Dublin to study wireless telegraphy at Atlantic College.
First employed as a radio officer on board ocean-going ships, he later served in the British Merchant Navy cargo vessels, especially during the final year of the First World War. As an experienced wireless operator, he graduated to transport and passenger ships. In 1932, he married his next-door neighbour, Jenny Melvin, daughter of shopkeeper Martin and his wife Ann “Nannie” (née Lynch from Hill Street).
Gerald suffered from asthma and bronchitis and spent several months at home in 1939 recovering from a respiratory illness before returning to his duties just as the Battle of the Atlantic was beginning to take its toll on the merchant navy.
On August 19, 1941, Gerald O’Hara was the 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 southwest of the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, in the Pacific Ocean.
The Ballina man was one of 32 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 submarine 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 conditions and was one of five Irish-born British Merchant Seamen who lost their lives in the Bremen-Farge Labour Camp. He died on March 15 1944, leaving a wife, Jennie, and two sons, Padraic and Edward. He is buried and is commemorated at Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Rheinberg, Germany. He is also remembered on the Melvin family headstone in Leigue Cemetery, Ballina. The camp was liberated on April 28 1945, by members of the 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 Japanese 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 cruelty must be seen to be believed”, he wrote. 54
In the early days of the Battle of the Atlantic, elements in the British Admiralty 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.
Submarine activity off the Mayo coast was intense throughout the Battle of the Atlantic. Reacting to the rumours of U-boats receiving assistance along Ireland’s western seaboard in 1939, British naval intelligence dispatched submarines to search for U-boats off the west coast. This secret mission resulted in the only recorded account we have of a British naval vessel entering in a Mayo harbour during the Battle of the Atlantic.
As early as October 1939, the British submarine H 33 was hunting U-boats off Eagle Island and patrolled at periscope depth off the Inishkea Islands where the crew listened on hydrophones for German submarines.
Another British submarine H 43 was also covertly patrolling off the Mayo coast in company with HMS Tamura, an armed Q ship (a heavily armed merchant ship with concealed weaponry, designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks). Tamura was disguised as a fishing trawler allowing her to search the bays and harbours along the west coast for U-boats whose whereabouts if found would be betrayed to the shadowing submarine escort.
On a bitterly cold January 18, 1940, Tamura, crewed by Royal Navy personnel, dropped anchor at Blacksod. Captain W. R. Fell, Commander of the clandestine trawler, recorded how coastwatchers from Termon Hill Lookout Post rowed alongside the trawler. He “found that the people in Blacksod knew nothing of any U-boat having been there. The Coast Watchers now wear uniforms. They were… most anxious to help in any way they could while having no suspicions as to Tamura’s function.” 54b
The significance of Tamura’s log entry is that it is the only recorded evidence we have of a Royal Navy vessel entering the shelter of a Mayo bay during World War 2.
As we have already read, the only evidence of a U-boat approaching the Mayo coast occurred when U-37 entered Killala Bay to drop off Nazi agent, Ernst Weber-Drohl near Enniscrone.
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, England, aged 73 in 1983.
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 the tanker, 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 of her crew.
Bound for Avonmouth, England, with 11,200 tons of aviation fuel, loaded in Aruba, Dutch West Indies, she was set ablaze after being hit by shells from the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer in the mid-Atlantic on November 5, 1940. The following day the crew re-boarded 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 entered Blacksod Bay after rounding Achill Head from the south. Sadly, Greaser John Boyle, who had earlier been injured while 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 to the mouth of the River Clyde, docking on November 16, 1940.