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. 58
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. 57
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 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