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The Tides of War

After the Storm

After 1942 fewer bodies of casualties of the war at sea came ashore along Ireland’s west coast due to a combination of factors that saw the Allies enjoy much more success in countering the threat of U-boats. The cracking of the Enigma encrypted U-boat communications provided the intelligence that enabled convoys to detour to avoid the waiting packs of U-boats off Ireland’s northwest coast. Maritime air cover, flying out of Northern Ireland, also put the U-boats on the back foot as did an increase in naval escorts equipped with better sonar technology. But above all the entry of the United States and all its industrial and military might into the war foreshadowed the end for Nazi Germany.

Today, there are 40 Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) headstones in graveyards along the Mayo coast marking the final resting places of those who died during the Battle of the Atlantic (see table at end of article).

It must also be noted that there are many unmarked plots where the bodies of unidentified sailors, naval personnel and civilians are interred, their exact burial location has been forgotten over the decades. For example, my research has discovered that there are unmarked graves in Kilgalligan, Crosspatrick, Geesala and Ugool; in most cases, it is only possible to give an approximate location of these burial plots.

In 1924, the Irish Government agreed to undertake, at its own expense, the care and maintenance in perpetuity of the graves of the 1914-I8 War, and to provide permanent headstones on these graves, rather than become a member government of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. These maintenance arrangements were later extended to include the graves of the 1939-1945 war and the work is carried out by the Office of Public Works (OPW).

The OPW has a close working relationship with the CWGC, which involves inspection visits by Commission staff to identify work. The OPW provides financial and other support, typifying how the Irish Government meets its historical undertaking to maintain war graves in Ireland. The total number of war graves in Ireland is over 3,000 and they are to be found in 655 cemeteries and churchyards.

During World War 2 neutrality did not save Ireland’s mercantile marine from suffering heavy casualties during the Battle of the Atlantic. Of the 800 men who served in the Irish merchant fleet during World War 2, 136 men died in 16 ships that were lost. In addition to these fatalities, a further 14 fishermen were killed aboard two trawlers. 57

By the end of World War 2, it is estimated that 32,248 of the 185,000 seamen who served in the British Merchant Navy had lost their lives. And, as we have read, many of these brave souls were Irishmen, including sailors from County Mayo. Of the approximately 800,000 officers and men serving in the Royal Navy by the end of the war, 50,787 are recorded to have perished, including many Mayo volunteers. 58

Today, only the war graves located in coastal cemeteries along Ireland’s western shores recall the tragedies of the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest battle of World War 2.

Far out at sea, deep, beneath the restless North Atlantic’s tossing waves lie the bones of thousands of brave seafarers, and their ships. And alongside those sad relics, lie the U-boat wrecks; steel coffins where most of the 30,000 young German submariners who died from 1939 to 1945, are entombed. It’s estimated that only 8,000 out of the 38,000 U-boat crews who went to sea survived the Battle of the Atlantic

It’s not the historic naval battles, or the daring strategies of a warship captain, or a foxy U-boat commander, that echoes down the decades, but the realisation that all that remains after the guns of war fall silent is the enormous waste of human life told through individual familial stories of sacrifice, unbearable grief and never-ending loss.

In the words of the German song:

No Roses

No crosses mark the ocean waves;
No monuments of stone.
No roses grow on sailor’s graves,
The sailor rests alone

His tributes are the sea gulls’ sweeps,
Forever wild and free . . .
And teardrops that his sweetheart weeps
To mingle with the sea

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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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