This article was first published in the Sunday Express on 19 February 1967.  It was reprinted in the Winter 2004 edition of Iris na Mara
On the broad chest of the Atlantic the tramp steamer was at first only a speck to the German bomber crew. The crew of the Greek vessel Vassilios Destounis were not expecting danger from the sky. As they went about the daily routine they glanced occasionally at the cold waves tugging at the Destounis’s rusty skirts. That was where trouble was most likely to come from – a pattern of torpedo bubbles threading toward the defenceless heart of the ship. In this chill, wartime February of 1941, the menace of U-boat packs was the thing that unnerved every sailor. The first stick of bombs punched open the sea and huge fingers of water engulfed the Destounis. The bomber climbed away sharply and began a second run.  This time her guns chattered instant death along the ship’s narrow decks. The order came: “Abandon ship.” There was a scramble for the boats and the crew pulled away.

Taken in tow

Weeks passed. Wind and sea drove the empty vessel in to the stormy Bay of Biscay. Here, one day, Spanish fishermen saw the ghost ship looming eerily out of a fog bank. Tow lines were fixed and slowly they struggled home with her to the port of Aviles, in Spain. That day’s work was to net them £80,000 in salvage money. Because of the war, foreign vessels, particularly British merchantmen, could no longer bring in Ireland’s vital supplies. A deep-sea fleet of her own was needed desperately. But ships were scarce. To tackle the mammoth job of finding them, the government, on the inspiration of Mr. Sean Lemass, head of two Ministries - Industry and Commerce and Supplies - had set up a deep sea shipping company, Irish Shipping Ltd. Its directors were drawn from three existing companies – Limerick Steamship, Wexford Steamship and Saorstat and Continental Steamship. Their job: To search the world’s ports for anything that would float. In Aviles Irish Shipping made its first buy - the ship a German bomber left for dead, the Vassilios Destounis.

£120,000 agreed

Mr. Samuel Roycroft, a director of Limerick Steam and Irish Shipping, made a bid for her, through the Irish consul in Madrid. He agreed to pay £120,000. In April 1941 Ireland had bought the first of her rusty navy. The problem now was to get her home. Captain Matt Moran, a Wexford man was flown to Spain to take command. With him went Leo Kirwan, who was to be his first officer, and an old Scots chief engineer, brought out of retirement. Their instructions: “Get the vessel shipshape and when you are ready send for a crew to bring her home.”

Only a shell

When the three ships officers reached Spain they found the Destounis had been moved to Vigo for temporary repairs. What they did not know was that the ship was little more than a shell. Everything movable - fittings, radio, wire, rope – had been stripped away as she lay in Aviles. The Spaniards had taken the lot. They were convinced no one would ever put to sea again in such a floating crate. It would take skilled men, brave men, to get her home. The Irish found them. Twenty-two men, hand-picked for the job of lifting their country from its peril, sailed for Seville aboard the freighter City of Dublin, as supernumary crew. Trouble shadowed the City of Dublin like a flag tied to a masthead.  Twice she broke down in convoy, and when she finally lumbered into Seville, one of the Spanish passengers dashed to the authorities with a spice morsel of news he had picked up on the voyage. Did they realise that an Irishman aboard the ship had fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War?

Message flashed

That did it. Promptly a message was flashed to the skipper of the City of Dublin” Any Irishman setting foot on Spanish soil will be interned immediately.” The crew bound for the Destounis were stranded. They had intended to travel overland to Vigo to collect the ancient tub. Now they had only one alternative - to stay under the protection of their own flag. They sailed on to neutral Lisbon. Again - a setback. Captain George Bryant, master of the City of Dublin, went ashore to arrange accommodation for his guest crew. He was soon back grim-faced. “The police chief says you must not come ashore until he has arranged for you to be put in a compound,” he told them. To the men it sounded like the first step to a concentration camp. They refused to leave the ship. “We stay aboard untilthe Spanish bring our ship here to Lisbon,” they said. The tough Portuguese attitude was, in a way, understandable. Lisbon was the only neural port of any value in Europe at that time. The city seethed with spies. Citizens of neutral countries were often found to be carrying false papers. No one could be trusted. The authorities were taking no risk with 22 Irishmen. Help came at last by air in the shape of 32-year-old John Moloney, assistant secretary of Limerick Steamship, sent out from Dublin to speed things up because, as Mr. Lemass told him: “We are scraping the bottom of the barrel for grain.” He booked into the Europa Hotel in Lisbon and joined the wait for the Destounis, which at the time of his arrival was on her way to Lisbon manned by a Spanish crew. Captain Bryant, from the deck of the City of Dublin, saw her coming into port and bellowed into the crew quarters: “Come up and take a look.” The crew, cooped up for six weeks dashed to the rails ready to cheer. They shaded their eyes against the midday glare. Then, out of the shimmering morning a dirty smudge grew before their incredulous gaze.


A positive wreck

Second engineer Charles Hawkshaw has that memory imprinted on his mind to this day: “She was the most desperate looking ship I have ever seen. “She leaned drunkenly on a 45-degree list. She didn’t steam - shestaggered in. “When she came up and dropped anchor she looked a positive wreck. Incredibly dirty and rusty. You would have thought she had just been hauled up from the bottom of the sea.” Hawkshaw had hardly finished gasping at this desperate sight when Captain Moran, the man who had to take her to sea again, stepped towards him: “I’m promoting you, on the spot, to chief engineer,” he said. If Captain Moran was depressed by the sight of his ship, and apprehensive of the task now facing him, he did not show it. He seemed cheerful enough as he invited his new chief to inspect the engines. Any smile that Charles Hawkshaw was about to raise froze as soon as he looked into the engine room. There was no need to go down the ladder for a close inspection. The place was half awash. Planks and debris floated around in a thick crust of coal dust. In the crew’s quarters bunks were broken. There were no washing facilities: a small collapsible wooden square did duty for a table. John Moloney, the Ministry trouble-shooter from Dublin, knew what he had to do. Spend money on the Destounis - and spend it fast. It cost £15,000 for repairs and bunkering.

Precious grain

At last the Destounis lay at a Lisbon wharf loading precious grain. Then more trouble – the Sunday jinx struck. On one Sunday a ship’s carpenter fell and broke an arm, and then a seaman fell over the side: another broke a leg. As another weekend neared John Moloney said to Captain Moran: “Whatever happens next sunday, Matt, you and I are going to a bull fight.” That Sunday the main-mast toppled

Mast inspected

Miraculously no one was hurt. First mate Leo Kirwan was taking no more chances. He immediately ordered seaman Desmond Branigan to climb the forward mast and inspect it. Branigan was apprehensive. He had seen the main-mast go and that had been nerve-racking enough. Kirwan, a veteran with a long scar slash on his cheek and a rough edge to his tongue, bawled out the order again. This time Branigan climbed but only to the point where the metal socket gave way to the wooden mast. He came down to report that it seemed sound. Recording the incident in the wship’s log Kirwan added this comment: “If the seaman had climbed right to the top of the mast, as ordered, he would have been as near to Heaven as he will ever get.” A ship with one mast, decided John Moloney, was better than none at all. With a wary eye on the already massive repair bills he asked permission from Ireland to sail the Destounis home without a main mast. The nearest place to get a wooden mast was Oporto, 400 miles away, so Moloney compromised with a metal one. The stays for this were the amazing work of Big Bill Harris, the bo’sun, who had developed into a king-sized do-it-yourself improviser. Old pieces of wire, steel and wood appeared from dark corners of the Lisbon waterfront. No one asked where from or how. By now the  Destounis was preparing for trial runs in the River Tagus. From the chaos of the engine room Charles Hawkshaw and his stokers had produced engines which “ran like sewing machines.” All was ready for the trip home.

Go it alone

But how? To join a convoy would bring the danger of submarine and air attacks. There was doubt whether the old tub’s plates would stay bonded together in a sea wracked with bombs and depth charges. There was only one way: To go it alone and hope that the neutral markings of the Irish Republic on the sides and the Irish flag flying would see them through. “I could not take the responsibility myself,” says John Moloney. “And I could not send a coded message to Ireland because there was an agreement between ourselves and the British not to do this.” Lisbon, city of spies, was far too dangerous a place from which to send an open request, unless it could be disguised. The cable sent by Moloney read: “Moran and staff desire return unaccompanied.” Would Dublin get the hidden implication of his message? Back came a prompt reply: “Permission Granted.” Out came the paint pots -green, white and orange. On October 7, 1941, the ancient first Irish lady of the sea, painted and pampered, thrust her slim figure into the deep water. As the first deep-water roller broke on her bows she was brought to an unladylike halt by a gruff challenge from a British destroyer. But the British boarding party who inspected her left with a smile and shouts of “Good Luck.” Seven days later, her quota of troubles used up, she slid past Dublin’s North Wall and steamed triumphantly up the Liffey. There to welcome the first deep-sea vessel of the Irish fleet – and 5,000 tons of grain - were the Taoiseach, Mr. Eamon de Valera, and the architect of the rusty navy Mr. Sean Lemass. Behind their welcoming smiles they kept a secret. As the ship which was to become the Irish Poplar docked, Ireland was, that very week, dipping into the last of her pre-war reserve stock of wheat. It was a close as that.