U-boats sink the Mail-Boat and Many More in the Irish Channel
When ships crossed the channel between Ireland and England during WW1, they were attacked and sunk by German submarines. The loss of ships, Irish or not, with civilians, service men and women, was not only condemned by those considered to be ‘West Brits’, but anger and a sense of loss was felt by a large majority of Irish citizens - subjects of the British Crown. They were accused of it, but generally, we didn’t blame Britain for putting Ireland in the way of German harm because of its war with that country – we blamed Germans. And Germans didn’t believe they were attacking some kind of ‘occupied neutral’ country off the west coast of Britain – they believed they were attacking Britain and British ships. The channel between Ireland and England, described at the height of the U-boat campaign against Britain by some in the Admiralty and in Whitehall, as a ‘quiet lake’, was a blustering fit of pique. The war was not going well, and the real danger posed by a modern fleet of enemy submarines controlling the seas around Britain was advancing. Germany’s mass production techniques had carried over to building submarines and presented a growing threat. The part Ireland was playing in the war was quiet simple, and similar to any of the industrial counties on mainland Britain. It was also more comprehensive than post WW1 history suggested. It consisted of day to day general commerce, production of war materials, food and volunteers – implementing conscription in Ireland was a thorny issue for the Crown, and was avoided. As we have learned since, there were plenty of volunteers and a terrible price was paid. Ireland’s geography has always been interesting, and none less so today. Alongside Britain, it dominated access to northern Europe for centuries. Britain had shared control of the English Channel with France, and even without her at times, and meant that, during a time of war, northern Europe, the Baltics and Scandinavian countries could be compelled to make an arduous voyage round northern Britain, in order to gain access to the north Atlantic. However, if Ireland had been allowed to become independent, and derived an independent and sympathetic foreign policy with enemies of Britain, (As was wrongly attributed to it during WW2.) events in Britain and Europe might have developed quiet differently. Often forgotten, are the ancient trading connections between the west of Ireland and other Atlantic coasts of Western Europe, and right into the Mediterranean. This trade was carried on for centuries with little regard to any government controls. The north and south coasts of Ireland were ideally located and well suited to guard this strategic access to the Atlantic, and ultimately to and from the rest of the world. And although it is a different age of technology and communication now, it is nevertheless not surprising, that Britain still maintains a hankering for an unfettered control of the North Channel – an ocean gateway to its industrial heartland. The fact that control of Britain and Ireland is gradually being seeded and centred in the heartland and source of Europe’s historic conflicts, is an irony no one would have seen coming in 1917. Progress of the War. For a time, both the German and British High Seas fleets were bottled up. One in fear of the new German submarine menace, and the other compelled to use one or other of the ‘ocean gates’, expecting ambush going and coming. When the implications of Britain losing the war or suing for some kind of subservient peace with Germany became clear, America threw in with Britain. Not for the reason so often mentioned, ‘the sinking of the Lusitania’, but two years later, when the danger from a ‘new’ Europe became more apparent. A German dominated Europe with a combined battle fleet of unparalleled proportions, loose on the high seas, was not a desirable prospect. Little did the Americans know, they would have to perform a similar rescue twenty years later. When America committed, it quickly established large military, naval and air bases across Britain and Ireland. The bases were extensive, including those at the geographical sentinels in the north and south of Ireland. Acutely aware of America’s industrial capacity, the German strategy at this time was to throw as much resources as possible into the war, in order to force surrender or peace, before the Americans could make a difference. Just like in any of Britain’s counties, transport, one of Britain’s great strengths, needed to be maintained, in order for commerce to thrive, and war material to be transported. So too, it was with Ireland. Its connection with Britain had to be maintained at all costs, in order to keep her supplied with war materials, food on which she depended, and to service the protection of the gateway’s to the Atlantic. Jim Phelan 1941
WW1 in the Irish Channel.In 1917, Germany piled her U-boats into these areas in order to choke off Britain’s supply corridors. And not only there, but they pushed on into the North Channel, the Irish Sea and the George’s Channel, all which we might call the Irish Channel. Here in the ‘quiet lake’, they attacked fishermen, merchant and naval ships, and the mail boats – the fastest ships in the channel. Attacks in the Approaches were devastating and rattled the nerves of the British Admiralty. There was a terrible loss of ships, men and material. The U-boat men perfected their methods and even began early attempts at ‘pack attacks’. Fishing boats to large liners, and even battleships, fell victim to their onslaught, but the actions were largely unknown about. Power over the press amounted to the same thing as it does today – power over people. Censorship was total, and the general public in Britain and Ireland were unaware of the scale of the German submarine campaign being fought on their shores. Things were slightly different in the Irish Channel. Both sides of the channel were lined with ports, where a huge number of ordinary citizens lived. A return trip across the channel might only last 24 hours, and any news, such as being attacked by a submarine, quickly spread amongst the close knit port communities. During the four years preceding the commencement of hostilities, there were 694 incidents of shipwreck around the coast of Ireland. During the four years of the war, . The threefold increase needs no explanation but the figures are what they always are – just figures. The statistics do nothing to help us understand the terror that was brought to sailors and their families in these waters, because no one knew about them. The port towns were alive with whispers, and worry for men-folk spread from one narrow street to the next, men who had to sail come what may. Whispers and here-say is one thing, but when the facts escape official record, that’s what they remain. The slow vessels, such as fishing vessels and old steamers, were sitting ducks, and were often sunk by the deck gun on a submarine after it surfaced. In just a few cases, reports of sinkings became acrimonious, when it was said that the submarine commander failed to give sufficient notice to the victims, in order to abandon their vessel, or even attacking the lifeboats. Researches show that there were few, if any such incidents and that, sailors on both sides, by enlarge, stuck to honourable conduct. There are so many incidents that one can choose to exemplify the conduct of the U-boat campaign in the Irish Channel or what it otherwise might be called, . The ones that stand out for me are the sinking of the pilot boat Alfred H Read in Liverpool Bay, the Guinness ship W M Barkley, the Wexford steamers Formby and Conningbeg and of course, the ship whose loss touched hundreds, if not thousands of families throughout Ireland, the mail boat Leinster. The reasons these and many others are of particular interest, was the terrible suddenness of the catastrophe, and an almost complete loss of all who were on board these ships. Some incidences display a cavalier attitude by the authorities to a sophisticated enemy. One could not have provided escort protection for all the ships crossing the channel at the time, but these incidences demonstrate a misunderstanding and disregard for the competence of U-boats and their commanders at the time. The Guinness sailor, McGlue and his account of escape from a U-boat attack is fascinating, and shows just how ignorant the general public and sailors were, of the enemy that patrolled on and beneath their seas.
Alfred H Read
Extract from log of UC75 showing how mines were laid across the Liverpool Bar and sank the Alfred H Read
W M BarkleyBecause of the world renown, Guinness brewery connection, and an excellent first-hand account by one of her crew, Thomas McGlue, made or released years later, the Barkley story although in ways regrettable, is also enlightening and even entertaining. The Barkley was carrying stout on the Dublin-to-Liverpool route when the war broke out. Mr McGlue joined the ship at the age of thirty-two in 1914, and remained with the Barkley as steward until the end of the war.
Painting of WM Barkley in Guinness Hop Store The Guinness ship W M Barkley sunk by torpedo fired by UC75
“I was in the galley, boteaft of the bridge. I was just reaching out to take a kettle off the fire to make a cup of tea for the officers. When we got the poke, the kettle capsized and shot the boiling water up my arm to the elbow. The galley was filled with steam and I said a few hard words, but apart from that there wasn’t much noise – not a murmur, in fact. The port side of the ship was locked to keep it dark, so I went through the engine room and out on the starboard deck. There was a lifeboat hanging there, hanging by one end to the forward fall. The Barkley was doing her best to go down, but the barrels were fighting their way up through the hatches and that kept us afloat a bit longer – in fact, it’s the reason any of us got out of her. The master gave three blasts on the siren and then I didn’t see him anymore. I climbed into the boat and a mate gave me a knife to cut the fall and the painter. The boat dropped clear and dipped under a bit and we had to do some fast bailing. The other fellow was all for us getting away while we could, but I said No there’s more than two of us here and they’ll want to come along. Then the gunner came up – we had one gun on the after deck but he wasn’t at it when we got the poke; as a matter of fact, he was in the galley with me, waiting for some hot water to do his washing with. I don’t know where he’d got in between. The gunwale of the lifeboat had been ripped when we were hit and the gunner gashed his leg on it, getting in. Then another A.B. [Able-bodied seaman] jumped in and that was four of us. We rowed away from the Barkley so as not to get dragged under, and we saw the U-boat lying astern. I thought she was a collier, she was so big. There were seven Germans in the conning tower, all looking down at us through binoculars.Thomas McGlue retired from Guinness in 1947 at the age of 65, but even then, he could not contain his love for the sea. He attempted to re-enlist at a Dublin shipping office, where he was kindly advised that enough was enough, and unlike many of his earlier shipmates, Thomas lived a ‘gentleman’s life’ for many years.We hailed the captain and asked him to pick us up. He called us alongside and then asked us the name of our boat, the cargo she was carrying, who the owners were, where she was registered, and where she was bound to. He spoke better English than we did. We answered his questions and then asked if we could go. He told us to wait a minute while he went below and checked the name on the register.Then he came up again and said: “I can’t find her.” He went back three times altogether. Then he came back and said: “All right we’ve found her and ticked her off.” We said can we go, but there were two colliers going into Dublin and he told us to wait until they were to windward and couldn’t hear our shouts. Then he pointed out the shore lights and told us to steer for them. The submarine slipped away and we were left alone, with hogsheads of stout bobbing all around us. The Barkley had broken and gone down very quietly. We tried to row for the Kish [Kish light vessel] but it might have been America for all the way we made. We got tired and my scalded hand was hurting. We put out the sea anchor and sat there shouting all night. At last, we saw a black shape coming up. She was the Donnet Head, a collier bound for Dublin. We got into Dublin about 5 AM and an official put us in the Custom House at the point of the Wall, where there was a big fire. That was welcome because we were wet through and through and I’d spent the night in my shirtsleeves. But we weren’t very pleased to be kept there three hours. Then a man came in and asked “Are you aliens?” Yes, we’re aliens from Dublin. He seemed to lose interest then, so we walked out and got back into the lifeboat and rowed it up to Custom House quay. The Guinness superintendent produced a bottle of brandy and some dry clothes and sent the gunner off to hospital to have his leg seen to. The rest of us went over to the North Star for breakfast. And later, after I’d had my arm dressed – the doctor said the salt water had done it good – the superintendent gave me a drayman’s coat to wear and put me in a cab. I was glad to get back to Baldoyle, because I’d left my wife sick and was afraid she’d hear about the torpedoing before I could get home.”
The Formby and ConingbegThese two Waterford steamers were considered modern and were fairly typical of their day. The twin sinkings occurred within a couple of days of each other, 15th and 17th of December 1917, while sailing from Liverpool to Waterford. The attacks were carried out by Commander Ernst Hashagen in U-62, and the result was a total loss of both steamers, and all aboard them. 77 crew and 6 passengers. Although the ships were built for cargo, with generous accommodation for passengers, there were few on board while they carried a ‘general cargo’. The majority of the crew were from Waterford city. The long list also included gunners who manned the defensively armed steamers.
....“It is rather dreadful to be steaming thus alongside one’s victim knowing that she has only ten or maybe twenty minutes to live, till fiery death leaps from the sea and blows her to pieces. A solemn mood possesses the few upon the bridge. The horror of war silences us. Every one of our orders, every movement, every turn of a wheel is bringing death nearer our opponent. All is exactly settled in advance. We too, have become a part of fate....Attack commencing...Full speed... Attack! Both tubes ready...First tube standby...First tube fire!!!... On the tower we all stare at the dark ship. Suddenly, a gigantic tongue of fire in the night! A powerful explosion follows. Our ear-drums tremble...We see the ship break in two pieces, with flames and smoke. The forepart goes down like a stone. The after part heaves up, glowing and hissing...once more the flames blaze up, then everything fades into darkness. A single light is seen upon the sea, flickering miserably. It is the vessels night life buoy, which has released itself and burns now for a gravestone above the unfortunate ship...”Even considerably abbreviated, the account is moving stuff. The two Waterford steamers were attacked in the night, no one was saved and no one heard their screams. Worse, for a long time they were reported – ‘missing, presumed drowned’. Not even Hashagen’s conscience escaped. The Royal Mail Steamer Leinster – The Mail-Boat
It was reported that there were 771 people on board the Leinster when she was sunk and that 501 were killed. These figures have increased since, and may continue to do so. Not an ‘Irish’ sinking, the Lusitania, I consider the sinking of the mail-boat Leinster to be the worst shipping disaster in the history of Irish sea tragedies.Roy Stokes,October 2013.