16 Ships Lost in Unprovoked Actions

Captain Frank Forde, the author of this articleCaptain Frank Forde, the author of this article
In the years following 1922, Ireland, unlike the majority of more recent independent nations, made no attempt to encourage the development of her own mercantile marine. Each year the fleet declined: from 127 in 1923, until in September 1939 we had only 56 ships flying the Irish flag, none ocean-going, all designed for the short sea trades. They were a very mixed lot, including passenger vessels, livestock carriers, coal colliers, lighthouse tenders, schooners and general cargo traders. The oldest was the schooner Brooklands of Cork, built in 1859; the most modern the motor vessel Menapia of Wexford, just launched and fitted out at her builders in Rotterdam. Within a few days of the outbreak of war a massive exodus from the Irish register had occurred and we were left with only those 56 ships.

Ships bought

This tiny fleet increased with the formation of Irish Shipping Ltd. in March 1941 when, under great difficulty, 15 ocean-going dry cargo ships were purchased or chartered. Finding suitably qualified personnel was another major problem but many Irishmen, serving under other flags, were glad of the opportunity to sail for the first time on their own ships and the manning shortage was overcome. Casualties were heavy, for although never more than 800 men were serving the fleet at any time, 136 of them died in 16 ships that were lost. In addition to these fatalities a further 14 fishermen were killed aboard two trawlers.


The first Irish ship to be sunk in World War Two was the passenger ship Munster, which fell victim to a mine in Liverpool Bay on 7th February 1940. Built at Belfast in 1938 for the British and Irish Steam Packet Company she ran on a nightly service between Dublin and Liverpool until the out -break of war when the service was suspended. She was trading between Belfast and Liverpool, on charter to the Belfast Steam Ship Company and commanded by Captain J. Paisley when sunk. Fortunately there were no deaths, though Captain Paisley and four of his crew were wounded. Over 200 passengers and the crew of fifty escaped in lifeboats and were rescued a few hours later by the collier Ringwall.


Steam Trawler Leukos
Steam Trawler Leukos
A month later on 9th March 1940 the steam trawler Leukos, owned by the Dublin Trawling Company, was sunk by gunfire from U - 3 8 (Kapitanleutnant Heinrick Liebe) while fishing off Tory Island. Eleven men died with her.


City of Limerick was the first Irish ship to be sunk by German aircraft in World War Two. Owned by Palgrave Murphy Ltd. and commanded by Captain Robert Ferguson she departed Cartagena, Spain for Liverpool in early July 1940. At 8 a.m. on 15th July, when 100 miles west of Ushant, she was attacked from astern by an aircraft with machine-gun fire. As the plane roared overhead it dropped a stick of bombs which hit the ship but failed to explode. It returned for another attack and this time two men were killed. The ship was now stopped and disabled and the captain gave the order to abandon her. As the crew pulled away in lifeboats more German planes appeared and following further attacks the ship sank. After a cold night in the boats the survivors were rescued next day by a Belgian trawler and landed at Penzance, Cornwall.


Meath, a livestock carrier was built at Ardrossan, Scotland in 1929 and was owned by the British and Irish Steam Packet Company. Just before midnight on 15th August 1940 she sailed from Dublin for Birkenhead with 700 cattle on board. She first had to call at Holyhead to obtain clearance from the Naval Control Service. The work was completed when a terrific explosion occurred under the port side of the bridge; a magnetic mine had gone off beneath her. Three men including Captain Thomas MacFarlane were wounded. All hands cleared the ship in the port lifeboat. Twenty minutes later they were picked up by a trawler and watched Meath sink with the 700 animals still on board.


In 1922 the Limerick Steam Ship Company purchased the steamer Fairfield and renamed her Luimneach. She saw action during the Spanish Civil War enduring twelve air raids in five days in Valencia in October 1938. In the last attack the ship was hit and one man killed. 4th September 1940 found her in the Bay of Biscay bound from Huelva, Spain to Drogheda with a cargo of iron pyrites commanded by Captain Eric Jones. Shortly after 7 p.m. a submarine was sighted astern, rapidly overtaking the Limerick ship. What happened next is record - ed in Captain Jones’s logbook; “4th September 7.30 p.m. sighted submarine, warning shot across bows, hoisted name and destination. Nationality plainly marked on vessel’s side. Second shot fired, vessel stopped. All hands manned star-board lifeboat and pulled clear. Submarine hailed me, told me to return for second boat, this done, pulled clear with nine men in each boat. Vessel sunk by gunfire”. The submarine that sank her was U- 46 (Oberleutnant zur See Englebert Endrass). Two days later the captain’s boat was sighted by the French fishing boat St. Pierre, which transferred them to a Spanish boat that a week later landed them near San Sebastian. A French fishing boat also rescued the other boat but they were brought to Lorient in German occupied France.
Artists impression of the Kerry Head, first Irish ship to be deliberately attacked. This and other pictures in this article are from paintings by the marine artist, Kenneth King.
Artist’s impression of the Kerry Head, first Irish ship to be deliberately attacked. This and other pictures in this article are details from paintings by the marine artist, Kenneth King.


The first Irish ship to be deliberately attacked was the collier Kerry Head of Limerick; the incident occurred on 1st August 1940 off the Old Head of Kinsale when an unidentified aircraft straddled her with bombs. No hits were recorded but the underwater explosions caused leaks through fractured plates and sprung rivets. Fortunately the pumps were able to control the inflow of water and she reached Limerick safely. Next time the attackers were more successful. On 22nd October 1940, in full view of watchers on Cape Clear Island she was bombed and sunk. There were no survivors from her twelve-man crew, which included two brothers, George and James Naughton of Windmill Street, Limerick.


City of Cork Steam Packet Company owned the livestock carrier Ardmore which sailed from Cork for Fishguard on 11th November 1940 under the command of Captain Thomas Ford. The crew numbered 24. She never arrived at the Welsh port but three weeks later the bodies of several crewmen were found on beaches north of Fishguard. Her wreck was discovered south of the Saltees in 1995. The damage indicated she had struck a mine.


Artists impression of the Kerry Head, first Irish ship to be deliberately attacked. This and other pictures in this article are from paintings by the marine artist, Kenneth King.
Isolda was a lightship tender owned by the Commissioners of Irish Lights and registered in Dublin. On her sides in letters five feet high were the words ‘Lighthouse Service’. At dawn on 19th December 1940 she sailed from Rosslare with relief crew for the Barrels and Coningbeg Light-ships. The relief men were placed on board Barrels and the ship then headed for the Coningbeg. When she was three miles from the lightship aircraft attacked her. Observers in the army lookout post at Carnsore Point witnessed the massacre as bombs hit the ship starting massive fires. Six men were killed and seven wounded. Next day the German High Command announced the sinking.


Innisfallen was a passenger ship owned by the City of Cork Steam Packet Company and in December 1940 she was operating between Dublin and Liverpool commanded by Captain George Firth of Clontarf, Dublin. At 6 p.m. on 20th December 1940 she left Liverpool landing stage for Dublin with 157 passengers and a crew of 63. She had just left the berth when air-raid sirens began sounding a warning and the harbour authorities closed the port to navigation. Captain Firth anchored the ship in the river as bombs and mines fell about her. At daylight it was reported there was an unauthorised passenger on board and when the ‘All Clear’ sounded Captain Firth took the ship back to the stage to land him. In the early afternoon the port re-opened and at 3 p.m. Innisfallen again sailed for Dublin.
Clonlara, sunk after picking up survivors from another ship during attack by seven U-boats

Big explosion

Twenty minutes later when moving slowly down river past New Brighton Tower a massive explosion occurred just forward of the bridge on the port side; a magnetic mine had activated. Three crewmen were killed outright and quartermaster Daniel Geary sustained injuries from which he died a few hours later. Two other seamen and Captain Firth were wounded. However he remained in charge and ordered the evacuation of the ship. He was the last off, sliding down a rope into a tug that had come to the rescue. Innisfallen sank fifteen minutes later. The Tower buoy off New Brighton marks her wreck.


Clonlara joined the fleet of the Limerick Steam Ship Company in 1926 when she was built at Dundee. Commanded by Captain Joseph Reynolds, the opening days of August 1941 found her in Cardiff loading coal for Lisbon. When loading was completed she sailed down the Bristol Channel and anchored in Milford Haven where convoy OG 71 was assembling. When they sailed, 22 strong, on 12th August another Limerick ship, the Lanahrone was with them. Their naval escort consisted of a destroyer, a sloop and six corvettes. All went well until a German aircraft sighted the convoy on 17th August and then followed six days and nights of battle as OG 71 defended itself against air and submarine attacks. In all seven U-Boats were involved in the battle and they were most successful sinking eight merchant ships and two naval vessels with no losses to themselves. At the height of the battle in the early hours of 20th August, Clonlara d distinguished herself when, with ships in flames about her, she stopped to pick up survivors from the Scottish ship Alva torpedoed in the column ahead of her. She herself was sunk two nights later with the loss of eleven of her crew.
NO COMPENSATION On August 16, 1940 the Loch Ryan (Captain J. Nolan) was bombed off Lands End. There were no casualties. On March 9 of this year The Irish Times reported that the German authorities insisted they had no liability for the bombing of the Loch Ryan. The family of the late owner of the Loch Ryan had sought compensation from the German authorities but, the paper reported, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Cowen, said there was no international legal forum before which Germany could be compelled to attend.


City of Waterford was built at Belfast in 1879 as the Fair Head for the Ulster Steam Ship Company and was renamed when purchased by Palgrave Murphy Ltd. in 1934. Under the command of Captain Thomas Aplin from Sandymount, Dublin she joined convoy OG 74 at Milford Haven in September 1941. The naval escort in addition to a destroyer, sloop and six corvettes included the escort aircraft carrier, HMS Audacity and the rescue ship Walmer Castle. When all its 22 ships had assembled the convoy sailed for Gibraltar. On 19th September 1941 City of Waterford sank following collision with a Dutch ship which was also in the convoy. All her crew were rescued by a naval escort and transferred later that day to the rescue ship Walmer Castle. She was attacked by aircraft next morning and sank with heavy loss of life including five survivors from City of Waterford. Several months after the sinking there was a postscript to the saga. In the Dublin Circuit Court Judge Davitt ruled that the parents of Seaman Edward Kearney had no case against Palgrave Murphy Ltd for the loss of their son, for his contract of employment ended when City of Waterford sank and he was technically unemployed when killed on board the rescue ship. Therefore damages could not be paid under the Workmen’s Compensation Act.

Torpedoed ship’s crew rescued by another Irish vessel


In September 1941 at New Orleans the American steamer West Neris was taken over by Irish Shipping Ltd. and renamed Irish Oak. Built at Seattle in 1919 she was a sister-ship of Irish Pine sunk in November 1942. She too would not survive the war. Under the command of Captain Eric Jones she departed Ta m p a , Florida for Dublin with a cargo of phosphate in late April 1943. Shortly before dawn on 15 May she was sighted by U607 (Oberleutnant zur See Wolf Jeschonnek) who noted the neutrality markings and name but was unable to find Irish Oak in his Standing War Orders as a recognised neutral. At 12.19 German Summer Time he fired two torpedoes. One missed, the other struck the port side of No. 1 hatch and exploded inside raising clouds of phosphate dust. A radio distress call was transmitted and picked up by Irish Plane that was eighty miles away. All hands safely cleared Irish Oak in her lifeboats and were rescued in the afternoon by Irish Plane and landed in Cobh on 19 May.


Shortly after the formation of Irish Shipping Ltd. in March 1941 the company chartered two ships from the American government for the duration of the war. West Hematite was taken over at New Orleans in October and renamed Irish Pine. For the next twelve months she carried grain across the Atlantic from Canada. In November 1942 she was bound to Boston and was only two days from there when sighted by U- 608, (Kapitanleutnant Rolf Struckmeier). He followed her for eight hours, frequently losing her in rain and snow squalls. At no stage does he record seeing her neutrality markings. At 7.15 p.m. Zone Time on Sunday 15th November he attacked her. The War Diary records the last moments:
“Range 800 metres, torpedo depth 2 metres, running time 80 seconds. Target stopped. The torpedo hit the after part of the ship and she began to settle immediately by the stern. A lifeboat with a very bright light is lowered. Ship becomes perpendicular and sinks stern first at 0017 Central European Time. Wind north-west force 6, sea very rough, barometer 1014 millibars, temperature 12 Centigrade”.
So ended the Irish Pine, sinking in just three minutes. No wreckage or any of the bodies of her 33 crew were ever found.


Kyleclare was built at Dundee in 1932 for the Limerick Steam Ship Company and up to the outbreak of the war mainly traded from ports in the west of Ireland to Liverpool. The morning of 21st February 1943 saw her departing Lisbon for Dublin as she steamed down the Tagus and into the Atlantic. Two days later she had made good progress northwards and was at 48 50 north, 12 20 west when sighted by U-456 (Kapitanleutnant Max Teichert). He manoeuvred into attack position; wind was south-southwest, force 3, sea smooth, gentle swell, good visibility. He later claimed that he had not seen Kyleclare ’s neutrality markings as she was so low in the water, listing to starboard and his periscope was awash. From a distance of 500 metres he fired a fan of three torpedoes. The moment of firing was logged; 2.38 p.m. Central European Time, 23 February 1943. As the torpedoes left the tubes, the submarine rose higher in the water and at that instance Teichert saw the double inscription EIRE on the ship’s side. Seconds later a double explosion echoed throughout the submarine. He proceeded to the position of the sinking but found nothing except wreckage; Kyleclare had disintegrated in a massive cloud of brown smoke. Eighteen Irish lives were blasted into eternity with her.


The last Irish marine casualty of World War Two occurred on 2nd May 1945 when the Helwick fishing vessel Naomh Garbhan, working nine miles off Dungarvan, picked up a mine in her nets. It exploded killing three of the crew.
This article was first published in the winter 2002 edition of Iris na Mara Capt. Forde is author of The Long Watch published by New Island. He went to sea at the age of 15 and was Captain with the B & I Shipping line for 29 years before retiring in 1999.