The Man in the Tank (Fear an Tanc)

A Mystery

click on any picture to enlarge it for another account of this story, see here (click). This story will be on TG4 Player until 16 November 2014.
Plassy in 2010, she has deteriorated, and is now split open The Plassy
Inis Oir is the smallest of the Aran Islands, measuring about two miles by three miles. From a maritime history perspective, it is best known for the wreck of the Plassy, the “Fr Ted” ship which features in the opening sequence of each episode of that series. During the Second World War, wreckage from ships which were lost in the Battle of the Atlantic was washed up on western shores. In this particular case, a railway tank wagon (intended to contain a liquid such as water or petrol) came ashore.
headstone headstone
When it was opened, it was found to contain a corpse! We do not know who he was. Locally he was dubbed “Fear an Tanc” or the “man of the tank”. He was buried in the local cemetery, which is the site of the ruined monastery of Saint Kevin. This page is a summary of what is known and speculation of what remains unknown. These notes were prompted by Aenghus Geoghegan of Snag Breac Films who was making a documentary on this subject for TG4. Mark McShane, author of Neutral Shores, did considerable research in the archives at Kew, establishing details, such as: Jessmore was the ship which sank. When we went to the island, the people there were extremely helpful, in particular Paddy Crowe, the Co-op chairman; also Michael ÓConghaile (bike hire) and Ned of Teach Ned. While almost all on the island were very helpful.
Holy Ground - fifth century church St Kevins, a fifth century church this is Holy Ground

Messenger

Their experience of John Messenger who wrote ‘Inis Beag: Isle of Ireland’ and ‘Inis Beag Revisited’ was, from their point of view, an unpleasant betrayal of trust. His book commented on the islanders, who spent their days in alcohol fuelled fights. That is the mildest of his observations. He said a lot more. Perhaps that is why they won’t oblige other strangers asking questions. Those who would talk acknowledged that a corpse was found in the tank, and they buried it. They claim that there was nothing to identify the corpse; not even clothing! John Messenger was on the island when the Plassey went aground. We are fortunate that he had a camera and took photographs of the rescue. There are prints of those photographs in the National Maritime Museum in Dún Laoghaire. There is a far better preserved set in Aras Eanna on the Island and another in Teach Ned, a pub.
Photo of the Plassy rescue A Photograph, in Aras Eanna, taken by John Messenger of the Plassy Rescue.

Turkey

The railway tank wagon was part of a consignment sent to Turkey during the war. We are unaware of any other export, to other nations, of rail locomotives or rolling stock in the early years of the conflict. Britain needed the steel to fight the war! The War Department did send trains to Egypt, Palestine and Persia. This export was unusual. Turkey had ordered 58 locomotives and 600 wagons before the war. At the outbreak of the war, the British would not fulfil the order. Hitler then sent “kriegsloks” locomotives to Turkey. Britain then supplied 25 locomotives, which were originally intended for the war in France. After the fall of France, there was no immediate requirement for them. For “diplomatic reasons” (to maintain Turkish neutrality) they were sent to Turkey on a number of ships. Two ships were lost: the Jessmore in the Atlantic, west of Ireland and the Berhala off Freetown, Sierra Leone. In recent times (2010), some engines have been brought back to England and restored by enthusiasts. They were built for the “standard gauge” of 1,435 mm or 4 ft 8 1⁄2 inches, which is used in France, Turkey and Great Britain. In Turkey, these engines were known as “Churchills”. Turkey remained neutral. Near the end of the war Turkey did declare war on Germany. This was technical, allowing Turkey to seize German assets in Turkey. Turkish troops were not involved in any combat.
Jessmore Lost Jessmore is lost, with thanks to Mark McShane

Jessmore

The Jessmore was built in built West Hartlepool in 1921. Her dimensions were: steel 360´ long; 52´ beam; 2357 tons. Her first owner, Johnston Line, called her ‘Peruvia’. This company later merged into the Johnston-Warren Line. She left Liverpool, travelling in convoy OG53. The convoy was bound for Gibraltar, hence the prefix OG. The Jessmore intended to continue around Africa and through the Suez Canal to Turkey. Her log book cannot be located, however full details are in other records, such as the Commodores Report. (If a stowaway was found, there would be a mention in the ship’s log.) Considering when and where the man, dead or alive, entered the rail tank wagon. It could have been anywhere from where the wagon was assembled to Liverpool docks. While it is possible it happened on the ship, a dead body would have been thrown overboard; while a stowaway would probably prefer a lifeboat if he hadn't already revealed his presence. We are not certain that the wagon was made in the Gloucester Works. We can say, for certain, that the Jessmore sailed from Liverpool in February 1941. This was at the height of the Blitz. Contrary to some public perceptions, the blitz resulted in more crime, more criminals, more gangs and more murders. This has been recounted in books such as “The Myth of the Blitz” by Angus Calder, “Murder on the Home Front: A True Story of Morgues, Murderers and Mysteries in the Blitz” by Molly Lefebure, and “An Underworld at War: Spivs, Deserters, Racketeers and Civilians in the Second World War” by Donald Thomas. The average citizen was 85 per cent more likely to be a victim of violence in 1945 than in 1940.
Munster, an Irish passenger ferry Munster, an Irish passenger ferry, was mined and sunk on entering Liverpool.
Liverpool was the second most-bombed city, (London being the first). Amid this confusion, criminality flourished. At the outbreak of the war, large numbers of prisoners were released. The blitz provided ample opportunity for crime and the police were under-resourced. In 1941, when food was strictly rationed, 2153 beef and lamb carcasses were stolen. There was an increase in the number of prostitutes plying their trade in Liverpool docks, accompanied in the numbers murdered. However we were told that the man in the tank was male. In some high profile murder reports, the body was left in bombed buildings under rubble, in the expectation that the police would conclude that the victim was killed by the bombs. In a number of widely reported cases this ruse did not convince and the murderer was hanged. If the murderer knew that the wagon was bound for Turkey, exporting the body might have seemed preferable. He could have been murdered!

Convoy OG53

Convoy OG-53 departed Liverpool on 15 February 1941 and arrived in Gibraltar on 1 March 1941. It consisted of 45 merchant ships and 15 escorts from the Royal Navy. Not all the Ships were bound for Gibraltar. At various points, ships left the convoy, sometimes joining other convoys, for destinations such as North America and, as in the case of the Jessmore, some would continue south, around Africa. Similarly, escorts joined and left.  The convoy went around the north of Ireland and took a wide arc into the middle of the Atlantic. When Jessmore sank, she was 200 miles west of Ireland.  This route was taken to avoid German surface raiders and aircraft based in occupied France.
The Dutch 'Thames' is about to collide with, and sink, the City of Waterford The Dutch 'Thames' is about to collide with, and sink, the City of Waterford Painting in Dún Laoghaire Museum

Collision

At 3am 19 February 1941, another ship in the convoy, Baron Pentland, lost control of its steering and collided with Jessmore. A tugboat was dispatched from Londonderry (Derry) to tow Jessmore back for repairs. The convoy continued. HMS Scimitar remained with Jessmore. On the morning of the 21st , with Jessmore very low in the water and deteriorating weather, the crew were transferred to HMS Scimitar. At noon 21 February 1941, Jessmore sank at 53°11´N 16°07´W. It was an orderly evacuation. All the crew were accounted for. If there was another person on board, there was every opportunity to leave the sinking ship. As there was no reason to forget the ship's log and other papers. There were other losses from collisions in convoys, such as the loss of City of Waterford, which sank after she was accidentally rammed by the Dutch tug ‘Thames’ while they were part of convoy OG74. At the start of the war Irish ships did sail in convoys, this changed after the experiences of OG71 and OG74. For detail on the Irish experience of convoy OG71 and convoy OG74, which is not relevant to this story, click here

This is not relevant to the story

Convoys and Insurance

Initially Irish ships sailed in convoy, because the insurance companies insisted that they did. Lloyds of London would insure the ships, cargoes and the lives and health of the crew, provided that they sailed in convoy. Experiences of insurance claims and the perceived inability of the Royal Navy to protect them, changed attitudes and Irish ships sailed alone. The City of Waterford was in convoy OG74. On 19 September 1941, the Dutch tug Thames collided with City of Waterford and she sank. The crew were rescued by HMS Deptford and then transferred to Walmer Castle. Two days later the convoy was attacked, Walmer Castle was bombed and sunk. Five survivors of the City of Waterford died. While insurance was paid for the loss of the ship, life insurance was not paid as, when they died, they were not crew of the City of Waterford, but passengers of Walmer Castle. They were, the judge said: “technically unemployed”.

Nightmare Convoy

The experience of convoy OG71 settled the issue for many Irish sailors. This convoy became known as “nightmare convoy”. When the convoy was located, a ‘wolf pack’ of U-boats assembled. Every night the wolf pack attacked, and another ship was lost. Every day, they were bombed by the Luftwaffe. With eight merchant ships, two naval escorts and over 400 lives lost, with no German losses, the convoy retreated to neutral Lisbon. English girls, some just eighteen years old, had been trained as cypher and wireless operators. They were to be located in Gibraltar, where German radio messages would be intercepted. These WRENs were on the luxury liner Aguila. All were lost on 19 August 1941 when Aguila was torpedoed. Two Irish ships were in the convoy, Lanahrone and Clonlara. When Clonlara sank, 11 of her crew and 14 survivors from Alva (British) which she had rescued earlier, were lost. There were two Irish crews in Lisbon who watched this sad arrival; they were the City of Dublin and the Irish Poplar. On the requirement of Lloyds Insurance, the Limerick Steamship Company instructed that the Lanahrone be painted camouflage grey and have automatic blackouts fitted to doors. The crew responded by going on strike. After her return to Dublin, shipowners reviewed their policy. Thereafter Irish ships sailed alone, brightly painted with tricolours and EIRE painted large, under full lights.

The Rail Tank Wagon

The rail tank wagon could be opened and locked from the outside. There was an expansion valve to release pressure if the contents expanded in heat. The coast, where it came ashore, is all large stones. It has been described as a “pebble beach”, if so the pebbles have a diameter of a meter or more. These rocks are moved about by storms. The storms of January 2014 were particularly damaging. Pieces of the rail tank wagon are strewn along the coast. These stones are unstable. I didn't venture over to the rusty remains. My thanks to Paddy Crowe for taking this photo.
The remains of the rail wagon The remains of the rail wagon on the beach. Photo by Paddy Crowe.

Where was it made?

A brake block is inscribed with the word “Gloucester”. We are fortunate to have it, as it was removed by an islander as it was convenient to shape horse shoes. Irish railway historian Jonathan Beaumont (author of ‘Rails to Achill’ and ‘Rails through the West’) identifies “Gloucester” with the Gloucester Railway Carriage Works, where it probably was manufactured. On the other hand Alan Drewett wrote: “I for one had no recollection of an order being placed directly by the Ministry of Supply or other British Government body with the Bristol Road Wagon Works for any tank wagons for Turkey”. “It is not impossible that it was another maker’s wagon with a spare GRCW brake block added during hasty wartime repairs.” So, we do not know where it was made. Ten months after the Jessmore was lost, the rail tank wagon was sighted off the coast of Inis Oirr. After it came ashore, it was opened and the corpse was found. Those who found it say that the man could not be identified. He was buried in the grounds of the ruined church of Saint Kevin. Others were washed ashore and were buried near where they were found. They would only have buried this body in such a sacred place, if they knew that he was a ‘good Christian’. What was left of the rail tank wagon has been damaged by subsequent storms. Serious damage was inflicted by the storms of January 2014. Parts of the wagon remain strewn along the foreshore.
The grave of 'Fear an Tanc' The grave, marked only by the stone illustrated above

What is known:

  • A corpse was found in the rail tank wagon
  • It had been closed on the outside
  • It was cargo from the Jessmore en route from Liverpool to Turkey.
  • It was not a member of the crew
  • Those who found it say that there was no identification, not even clothing.
  • Yet he was buried in the grounds of Saint Kevin’s.

Uncertain:

  • The rail tank wagon was made by the Gloucester Railway Carriage Works?

Strange:

  • Where is the ship's log?
  • Why was the corpse in the tank?
  • Ten months seems a long time to be adrift
  • How did the islanders know that he was a good Christian?
  • Did the islanders know his identity?
  • If so, why did they conceal it?

Speculation:

  • Murder: He could have been murdered and the body was dumped into the wagon. Perhaps the murderer(s) knew that the wagon was bound for Turkey. The murder could have been anywhere from the factory to Liverpool docks. If there was a murder on the ship, the body would have been weighted and thrown overboard.
  • Stowaway: if a stowaway was in the tank then he would have needed an accomplice, a member of the crew, to feed and release him. If there was an accomplice, then why wasn’t he released? There was adequate time. Also, stowaways usually made their presence known once they were at sea and it was too late to return them to shore. Once they identify themselves, they have to be given food.
  • Accidental Suffocation: The tank could be sealed on the outside. If an accomplice sealed the tank and the stowaway suffocated, what would the accomplice do when he found the stowaway dead? Possibly nothing?
  • Industrial Accident: during manufacture some worker was overcome by fumes in the tank while welding and remained unnoticed?
  • Accidental self-entrapment: If there was no accomplice, a lone stowaway could accidentally trap himself and suffocate.
  • Accident during an air raid. Perhaps someone sought shelter during an air-raid?
  • A vagrant: There have been recent incidents of vagrants sleeping in large refuse bins resulting in tragic loss or lucky escape. At any point from factory to the port, a vagrant might consider the tank as a protection from wind and rain.
If “fear an tanc” found that he was trapped, there would be evidence of desperate attempts to escape.

Was “fear an tanc” buried on holy ground?

I assumed that it was "holy ground".  It is close to the ancient ruined church.  There are other graves all around it.  However islanders said that he was buried outside the perimeter.  Later this perimeter was extended to include “fear an tanc”.  However, he was not buried, as others were, on the foreshore near where they were found. This article is just speculation. Do you have a theory? Do let us know.

END

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3 comments on “The Man in the Tank (Fear an Tanc)
  1. Alan Drewett says:

    Thank you for a very well written and thought provoking article. The tank wagon could of course have been a Gloucester RCW product that was requisitioned from a civilian owner by the British government to send to Turkey, and more research is being carried out regarding this. I also did not realise that the wreck of the Plassy Inis Oir was in fact the “Father Ted” ship! Was any of the rest of the series filmed on the island?

  2. Ed Coyle says:

    Not sure how much else of the series was filmed in the Aran Islands but the house, that particular period house you see at the start is somewhere in Co Clare or on the Clare/Galway border I believe.

  3. John Coyle says:

    My father, Donny Coyle, told me of the rail tanker washed up on the Aran Islands during the war. He had set up Cold Chon (Galway) Ltd to make emulsified bitumen for the roads. They needed storage and he made an offer for the tanker which was accepted.
    A body had been found in the tanker. He always assumed that a seaman had sought refuge in the tank when the ship sank and could not get out of it. He made no mention of a closed hatch. He said that the tanker had been set adrift as the islanders associated it with the man’s death. According to him it sank and that was the end of it. It is interesting that it survived and that so much is known about it and the ship carrying it.

Why are goods transported on land called a "shipment" and why are goods transported by sea called "cargo"?