Over the centuries the restless sea in its savage moods has cast many grim and sad tidal relics into the bays and onto the beaches that seam Mayo’s storm-battered Atlantic coast. But nothing to match the scale of human tragedy that came ashore from the Battle of the Atlantic during World War 2. Scores of dead bodies from torpedoed ships were washed up along Mayo’s coastline as German U-boats roamed the North Atlantic hunting down UK-bound ships, bringing vital imports to a beleaguered Britain. But amid all the sadness there were some joyful moments, too, when lifeboats filled with wet, cold and frightened shipwrecked mariners made it safely to Mayo shores, often thanks to the bravery of coastwatchers and local fishermen.
Mayo and the Battle of the Atlantic (1939-45)
© Anthony Hickey 2021. All Rights Reserved.
In 1940, German U-boats were a stalking horror off Ireland’s west coast, sinking merchant ships as sailors brought their precious cargoes around the North West Approaches, one of the major sea lanes to Britain, located off the coast of Donegal. It was the last leg of their voyage from the US, Canada and far-flung parts of the globe to the ports on the Clyde, Liverpool, Bristol and Swansea. But beneath the waves the ravening U-boats waited, torpedoes primed, for their prey to enter the periscope’s cross-hairs.
The Battle of the Atlantic, in all its relentless cruelty, took place beyond our western horizon; the thunderous roars and deathly flashes of naval warfare; the terrifying death-knell of sinking ships and the desperate cries of drowning men, women and children was out of sight and sound. But, as the restless ocean with a cold indifference randomly sent the sea-ravaged dead on the unwearying tide to our shores, coastal villages felt the bitter winds of war send shivers through their tranquil and simple lives.
The forces of nature do not answer man’s command. Tide, wind and currents and the boundless sea have no borders, and human intrigue is lost beneath the waves in the fathomless depths of the ocean.
Ireland’s neutrality during World War 2 did not spare remote coastal communities from witnessing the consequences of the horrors of naval warfare fought out on that oceanic battlefield beyond the setting sun. Nor could we escape being mere bystanders to the senseless barbarity of man’s inhumanity to man that cost tens of thousands of lives in a merciless struggle by a besieged Britain for survival against Nazi Germany’s U-boats sent to choke off the island’s supply of food, fuel and essential raw materials.
From 1940 to 1945 scores of bodies of merchant and navy seamen, soldiers, and civilians, were washed ashore all along Ireland’s unbending coastline; the victims of ships torpedoed by German U-boats in the North Atlantic.
From July to December 1940, 51 bodies were washed ashore in Mayo, most unidentified and victims of the Arandora Star sinking 01. Throughout WW2, many scores of unidentified bodies came ashore in Mayo. The best estimate, based on official figures, is that at least 90 bodies were recovered along the Mayo coastline.
In its edition of October 24, 1942, the Western People reported assistance officers had submitted claims to the Mayo Board of Health for payment for supervising the burial of bodies washed in by the sea.
The numbers were: Belmullet, 34; Achill 17; Ballycroy, nil; Ballycastle, 6; Bangor 5; Clare Island, 1; Killala 4; Knocknalower (Kilcommon Parish), 6; Westport, nil. The report does not say for what period the returns related. That’s a total of 73 bodies, excluding Louisburgh and Newport for which no reports had been submitted.
Coastwatchers also reported many other bodies floating out at sea that could not be recovered. Official records estimate that 348 bodies were washed ashore in Ireland during the Battle of the Atlantic, but this figure is likely on the low side.
As dead bodies began to wash up on Mayo beaches during August 1940, the Western People prayed “that the great evil which thunders over Europe may pass us by”. 02 However, there were so many bodies coming ashore, that it was decided by late 1940 that remains could be interred on the word of the local doctor without a post-mortem or inquest.
Remembering The Brave
This is the story of the great bravery and compassion shown by Mayo’s coastal communities from Killala to Killary during the long years of the Battle of the Atlantic (1939 to 1945) when coastwatchers, fishermen and Gardai took to dangerous seas to rescue shipwrecked sailors and more regularly carry out the grim task of recovering the sea-shattered bodies of victims of the war in the Atlantic.
Brave men, no longer with us, such as Pat Lavelle, Annagh, and his son Dominick who risked their lives to save stricken sailors. And the many other Mayo coastwatchers and fishermen who ignored the ocean’s savage moods to row, or wade out through crashing waves, to recover the broken bodies of sailors and civilians who had died when ships such as Arandora Star, Upwey Grange, Mohamad el Kebir and S.S. Nerissa were sent to the Atlantic’s icy depths by U-boats.
The fortunate survivors of torpedoed ships like Canton, Davanger and Ville de Gand, who made it to Kilcummin, Belmullet and Achill on lifeboats, knew they were the lucky ones; welcomed and well-cared for, they would see their families again despite their terrible ordeal.
Their survival in no small way thanks to the heroism of Mayo coastwatchers and fishermen who launched their little curraghs to guide and tow lifeboats ashore in that final dangerous approach to land when men adrift at sea for days had neither the strength nor local knowledge to navigate treacherous undertows, rocks and keep clear of jagged cliffs. Against the small number who made it safely to Mayo shores, many thousands found their final resting place in the Atlantic’s fathomless depths.
The kindness, generosity and hospitality that was shown by Mayo’s coastal communities to shipwrecked crews rescued off our rugged coast is one of the untold stories of Mayo’s experience of World War 2.
Mayo and the Battle of the Atlantic is also a tribute to the brave seafarers of all nationalities, military and mercantile, who found their final resting place far from home in remotest Mayo. The bravery of Irish seamen, too, can never be forgotten, including many Mayo men, such as Brendan and Bertram MacHale, brothers from Belmullet, who died serving as merchant sailors in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. And Gerald O’Hara from Ballina, a Radio Operator in the British Merchant Navy, who was captured at sea and died a hero in a Nazi labour camp in 1944, never to see his wife and young family again.
And others like Patrick Colbert, a 22-year-old merchant seaman from Tramore, Co. Waterford, who died in a hail of bullets off Blackrock Lighthouse when the collier, Macville, bringing essential fuel supplies to Limerick, was attacked by a German warplane.
The most bodies washed ashore in any single month occurred in August 1940 when victims from Arandora Star were swept into coves and washed up on beaches along the Mayo coast. The Western People acknowledged the respect that was being shown to the bodies and hoped Ireland would be spared the terrible horrors the people of Europe were experiencing.
“Reverently, we lay to rest the bodies of those who are cast upon our shores, and for whom there are relatives who mourn somewhere in a world that has preserved this human attribute of grief, though bitterness and destructiveness have destroyed so many other human virtues, and dissipated so many human emotions“.02
Identity discs helped put names to some soldiers and navy men, but few civilians carried documentation. Unidentified bodies were buried, usually along a cemetery’s perimeter wall, sometimes referred to as the Strangers’ Plot. Simple stone or wooden crosses recorded the day the body was found. A spirit of egalitarianism prevailed and there was no distinction made by Mayo people between belligerents, race or religion; they were all victims. The remains of German submariners from U-boats were also washed ashore and buried in Termoncarragh and Kilgalligan cemeteries. Their remains were disinterred in the 1960s by the German authorities and re-interred in the German War Cemetery in Glencree, Co. Wicklow.
It was the small personal effects that helped identify some of the bodies washed ashore; such as a letter to a mother, a toy soldier, or a sweetheart’s photo; everyday keepsakes, familiar tokens of our common humanity; a tiny glimpse into a life cut short that still has an emotional resonance over 80 years later as it did for those who prayed over the bodies when they came ashore.
In many cases, bodies were only identified as a result of grim and painstaking work by local Gardai who could never have been prepared for the distressful task of recording as much detail as possible about the remains, often badly decomposed after weeks in saltwater. Responsibility for burials of the Unknowns fell to county councils with Relieving Officers and Home Assistance Officers providing the necessary funds for interment and the placement of a wooden or stone grave marker when funds were available for such. Discordant voices, at Mayo Board of Health meetings, were in the minority when they complained about the understandable strain the unforeseen cost of coffins and burials was putting on funds.
Remarkably, much of the story of Mayo and The Battle of the Atlantic is not widely known. Wartime secrecy and censorship meant that many of the epic rescues were not reported by local newspapers such as the heroic rescue of the survivors from the Swedish cargo ship, S.S. Canton, off Kilcummin, in August 1940.
There is no memorial at Kilcummin Harbour to honour and remember the selfless bravery of the crew of St. Anne and their part in the dramatic sea rescue that took place near the rocky shoreline where Humbert’s French army came ashore in 1798; the fishermen’s heroics matched later by the warmth and generosity shown by the people of Kilcummin to the Canton’s shipwrecked sailors; their kindness emblematic of many other little fishing villages in Mayo and all along Ireland’s west coast.
A memorial, wherever it was located along the Mayo coast, would not only commemorate the brave fishermen, but also the many Mayo coastwatchers who guarded our shores during World War 2. Such an installation along Mayo’s Wild Atlantic Way would be a focal point for visitors, weaving another fabric into the colourful tapestry that is Mayo’s rich, diverse and complicated heritage.
As storm clouds gathered over Europe in the early months of 1940, life went on as normal in Mayo. Dances, horse shows, regattas and community sports days heralded summertime joyfulness, but, bubbling beneath the carefree gaiety of summer Sundays, preparations were underway to guard our neutrality and repel a feared invasion by Nazi Germany.
Letters from exiles in Britain, and nightly radio updates from Radio Eireann and the BBC, told of a Britain under siege and a population preparing for a German invasion. The Battle of Britain raged in the skies over the south of England as the RAF, in which many Mayo men served and died, fought desperately to prevent the Luftwaffe from taking control of the skies. News, too, of torpedoed ships in the North Atlantic, including an Irish trawler sunk off Tory Island added to the dread and sense of foreboding.
Set up in 1939 for the duration of World War 2 following the handover of the Treaty Ports from Britain in 1938, The Marine and Coastwatching Service (M&CWS), was a network of 83 Look Out Posts (LOPs) that were built around the coast of Ireland and manned by local men trained in signalling, first aid, identification of types of ship, submarines, aircraft, as well as basic meteorology and hydrography. The Coastwatchers were responsible for identifying and reporting on shipping and aircraft movements and also on any communications between ship and shore.
Look Out Posts, perched on windswept headlands with their distinctive EIRE signs, mostly comprised single-room concrete structures and began to appear all around the coastline from September 1939 after the outbreak of World War 2. Coastwatchers were paid 35/- per week and were recruited locally for their expert knowledge of the coast.
Isolated on the western edge of Europe and walking a complicated neutrality tightrope, Ireland, too, relied on its merchant marine to ship our needed revenue-earning agricultural products to Britain and return with wheat, fruit, tea, fuel, and vital raw materials from around the globe. Neutral though we were, Ireland depended on British tankers for our petroleum. Both Irish and many foreign seamen, serving in the Irish Mercantile Marine, showed remarkable bravery in running the gauntlet of the hunting U-boats which didn’t always recognise Ireland’s neutrality resulting in many Irish lives lost during the Battle of Atlantic. Indeed, Irish losses at the start of the war were a grim harbinger of the terrible days ahead.
As early as September 13, 1939, geography decided that Mayo would inevitably witness the consequences of the sea war as the British steam trawler, S.T. Rudyard Kipling, was stopped and sunk 40 miles West of Clare Island by U-27; the submarine taking the crew of 13 aboard and putting them in lifeboats five miles from Killybegs where they safely landed.
But it wasn’t until March 9, 1940, that the true horror of The Battle of the Atlantic became apparent when Leukos, an Irish trawler, was sunk by gunfire from U-38, northwest of Tory Island with the loss of 11 crew. It is believed that she may have moved between the surfacing U-boat and English trawler, in the hope that the tricolour would protect her while the English boat escaped. 03
By August 1940, the danger of a German invasion was on everyone’s lips and the fears were well-founded. Parish Councils were formed, representing a cross-section of society, with an immediate aim of safeguarding and storing reserves of food and fuel supplies by hiding them in rural areas. Germany’s hidden intentions towards Ireland were secret and malign; but crystal clear in her subterfuge, sending spies to collude with the IRA.
As early as February 9, 1940, Abwehr II agent, Ernst Weber-Drohl, was landed in Killala Bay by a U-37 and came ashore just outside Enniscrone, Co. Sligo. He was equipped with a radio transmitter, a large amount of cash, and instructions for Seamus (Jim) O’Donovan, the chief IRA contact for German intelligence.
In late August 1940, Garda and the army checkpoints on the bridges in Ballina were evidence that concern was growing in Ireland and families were told to prepare for a possible German invasion. Those fears were well-founded. In the Autumn of 1940, the German High Command in Berlin was putting the final touches to Operation Green (German: Unternehmen Grün); its plan to invade Ireland by sea and air.
Lifeboats Come Ashore
By late summer the sea’s bitterest tidings would reach Mayo shores as day after day the bodies began to be washed up along the rugged coastline. But first came the floating detritus from ships blown to pieces by torpedoes.
April 1940 brought the first such tidings of The Battle of the Atlantic from beyond our western horizon as north-westerly gales swept the dismal wreckage into the bays, coves and onto the beaches all along Mayo’s ragged 1,168 km of coastline. At first, came empty lifeboats, the flotsam and jetsam from sunken cargo ships, mute evidence of the destruction at sea.
Walking along the coast at Aughadoon near Erris Head in early April, John Carey of Aughdoon saw a lifeboat 30 feet long, fully intact except for the identification board which was missing, battered off by the jagged rocks. All efforts to save the craft from the grip of the rocks were futile. 04
Coast-watcher, John Gilboy of Annagh Head LOP, observed another empty lifeboat adrift in the Atlantic about a mile from the coast. The task of retrieving the lifeboat fell to Inishkea North-born, Pat Lavelle, known as “Pat Kheit or Pat Admiral”. 05 He had moved to Annagh when the islands were abandoned. A skilled oarsman, Pat with his son Dominick (14) set out in a curragh to tow ashore the drifting lifeboat. The sea was choppy and observing that the drifting craft was difficult to grapple with, John Fallon, corporal-in-charge Anngh Head LOP, dispatched two of his men who were highly skilled in the manipulation of a curragh and with their assistance the lifeboat was towed into Frenchport.
During the Battle of the Atlantic many more empty lifeboats would come ashore along Mayo’s Atlantic coast. We will never know the fate of those who launched these lifeboats; they may well have been rescued and the abandoned boat was carried by the wind and currents as so often happened; or the craft may have drifted away in an oily sea after being launched amid the flames, turmoil and chaos around a sinking ship. It is worth noting that during March and early April 1940 the crews of several ships torpedoed in the North Atlantic were rescued leaving empty lifeboats to drift on the waves.
In the late Spring of 1940, a schoolboy discovered the first victim of the Battle of the Atlantic to be washed ashore in Mayo on Doolough beach, a beautiful stretch of golden strand framed by Achill’s peaks to the south and The Mullet peninsula to the west.
David Reilly from Doolough was just 15 years old when he discovered the unidentified body of a middle-aged seaman washed up by the tide on Saturday evening, April 6, 1940. David ran home and told his father who informed Garda Supt. Burns in Belmullet. Sergt. W. Dorrian, Bangor Erris, had the remains removed to Geesala where an inquest was held by Dr. James P. McNulty, Coroner for North Mayo, in the premises of John McGeehin, publican. Dr. John Callaghan, medical officer Bangor Erris, said the body had been about three months in the water. 06
It was to be the first of many such inquests that Dr. McNulty was to preside at throughout North Mayo over the coming months and years. A Killala GP, Dr. McNulty had succeeded his father, Dr. John McNulty, George Street, Killala. He was the medical officer of the Killala Dispensary District for 46 years and Coroner for North Mayo from 1934 to1966. He was Honorary Secretary of the North Mayo Hunt for many years and was also an enthusiastic yachtsman. Dr. McNulty died in London in April 1987 in his 92nd year.
However, before the year’s end, there were so many bodies coming ashore, that it was decided that remains could be interred on the word of the local doctor without a post-mortem or inquest.
Further evidence of the awful carnage taking place at sea began to wash up on Mayo shores in the weeks that followed, delivered by north-westerlies. Dangerous mines came ashore and even the bridge of a ship drifted close to the shoreline at Rossport. Not surprisingly, this flotsam and jetsam became a huge attraction bringing onlookers and enterprising beachcombers in their hundreds to the Mayo coast. The bounty was so plentiful that “lamps and torchlights illuminated the coast during the darkness of night“. 07
Barrels of grease, lorry tubes and tyres, packets of cigars, tobacco, coffee, cocoa, brooms and brushes, timber, and even a motor car, was washed up at various places. Eleven barrels of crude oil were washed in at Kilcummin and many other barrels of oil were washed ashore at other points.
One old-timer at Blacksod commented: “I hadn’t a ‘gaill’ * for the past two days as I cannot afford to pay 11 pence for an ounce of De Valera’s tobacco,” said an old coastal veteran as a box of flake tobacco in prime condition, sent as a gift, he said, from Hitler, came riding on a wave to his feet.” 08
Danger From Sea
While useful cargo came ashore, the dangers were everywhere, too, in the form of the many lethal mines that were washed up such as the one on Cross Beach; a large mine charged with sufficient explosives to blow up a warship. It could have caused carnage as hundreds of unsuspecting people came to look at it.
Small boys threw stones at the bomb, but luckily without hitting a vital point because, as disclosed when Chief Petty Officer Power of the Marines dismantled it, the mine which was of French design was alive and fully primed. At low tide, some 20 daring youngsters went out and sat on the mine. It was later drawn out by ropes through a passage bristling with jagged rocks and taken to the high watermark. Corporal John Fallon of Annagh LOP deprived the boys of further fun and danger and guarded the missile till the bomb disposal expert arrived to carry out his work watched by a crowd of onlookers. 09
Dangerous mines, many from mine-laying U-boats, came ashore all along the Mayo coast from Blacksod to Louisburgh, including one at Achill Sound, which beached itself beside the viaduct and caused alarm prompting villagers to prepare for evacuation. Many had left the danger area when some young men from the area threw caution to the wind and tethered the mine with ropes and chains to the beach to prevent it from moving nearer the viaduct or the village with the next tide. The army bomb squad later defused the device. 10 In other cases there were reports of damage to windows, slates and walls when army bomb experts from Athlone exploded the devices.
For many coastal dwellers, it was a case of every cloud having a silver lining as money was to be made from valuable wreckage such as the many tons of timber and barrels of oil that landed on their doorstep. Those who salvaged the debris had to report it to the Receiver of Wrecks at Ballina Quay or Galway, or the Gardai and were entitled to their share of the value placed on the salvage. As a result “many persons living along the coast are reaping a rich harvest”. 11