LOP 6 Howth Head

The Coastwatching Service in Howth, Co. Dublin: LOP 6, the Summit, Howth

Michael Kennedy (difp at iol.ie)
[paper delivered to the Howth Historical Society, February 2009]
For a PDF version of this page: click here

I: Introduction

May I begin by thanking you for the invitation to address the society this evening, as it is always a pleasure to talk about the coast watching service, Ireland’s frontline troops during the Second World War? Dermot Quinn’s invitation has given me the opportunity to undertake some new research into the role of the service on the east coast of Ireland by focusing on the records of the Look Out Post, the ruins of which until recently stood in the car park at the summit on Howth Head.

My talk has two sections. Firstly I’d like to look at Howth Head LOP in the general context of the Coast Watching Service and talk about what the service was and how the Howth post operated within that structure. Then I’d like to focus on the post in day-to-day operation during a particular period of the Second World War, a period usually ignored by historians of the Battle of the Atlantic. Most accounts of the conflict in Atlantic end in the summer of 1943 when through technology and combined naval and air power the Allies defeated the U-boat.

However I want to focus on a later period and that is the first months of 1945, the final months of the Second World War. In these months a renewed U-boat campaign began in the coastal waters around Britain and Ireland. That campaign brought German submarines into the Irish Sea for the first time and this led to increased Allied air and naval operations off the east coast of Ireland. Looking out east across thirty miles of sea towards Wales as well as southeast across Dublin Bay, the Kish bank and down the Irish Sea towards Wicklow Head, Howth Head lookout post was in a prime position to view this development in the war at sea. 

I should explain that one further reason for picking early 1945 is a practical one. The logbooks for the post only survive from 1943 to 1945. This precludes examination of one obvious area, and that is the role of the LOP in the air defence of Dublin during the period surrounding the North Strand bombing of May 1941.

II: LOP 6 in local geostrategic and Command level contexts

By the final year of the war the coastwatchers were a well-trained force with considerable active service experience. As local men employed in their own locality they knew the conditions to expect in the area and by early 1945 could be relied upon to supply an accurate picture of the events unfolding before them. With their binoculars, telescopes and telephones they sighted and reported the events unfolding around them through the Second World War. And do not forget that Ireland was on the frontline of that conflict from 3 September 1939 to 8 May 1945 and in the Battle of the Atlantic the coastwatchers witnessed the longest battle of the conflict being fought off Ireland’s shores.

Howth Head was LOP 6 in Number 1 District, which stretched from Ballagan Point in Louth to Kilmichael Point in north Wexford. In effect this was the coastal region of the Defence Force’s Eastern Command. Each post was operated by a group of eight men, one corporal and seven volunteers. It was enough to man three watches with a watch of two men off duty. The NCO in charge of Howth Head was Corporal John Rourke. From the records available and through the work of Tony Kinsella, we know that eight volunteers, the rank and file coast watchers who manned the post through the Second World War were Roger Austin, John Gallagher, Thomas MacLaughlin, Tom MacNally, Andy Moore, Paddy Moore, John Redmond and Tom Redmond. While the Gardaí at Howth could be relied upon to call the LOP on the Summit close to 11pm and 8am, the logbooks also show the regular but unpredictable visits of Corporal Rourke, the NCO in charge of the post, and his superior, the District Officer Captain Jordan made unscheduled visits at all hours which were essential to keeping the men on their toes and alert.

The men on Howth Head had by January 1945, like their colleagues in 82 other posts along the Irish coastline, kept a 24-hour watch seven days a week along the Irish coast since September 1939. They stretched from Ballagan Point in Louth to Malin Head in Donegal, divided into groups to make up 18 districts each district under the control of a Lieutenant or a Captain. Districts were grouped together to report to Reporting Centres at Command and later at Air Defence Sector level. They were primarily an invasion warning force, but they were in reality an air and marine observer corps who provided essential intelligence information to G2, the Military Intelligence Branch of the Defence Forces. Made up of former members of the inter-war Volunteer Force, the army reserve and those with marine experience who joined in 1939, the rank and file coastwatchers were equivalent to privates in the regular Defence Forces and the only promotion in the service was to Corporal, the NCO who headed each post.

The physical location of the LOP is a factor we also need to consider. The post was sited 550 feet above sea level and faced due east. Its main windows faced directly out to sea and its secondary focus being South and North along the coast. One should also take account of the local geography – for example the Howth post could not directly see down into Howth Harbour and the member of the watch patrolling outside had restricted visibility to the north and northwest and southwest over Dublin when compared to the clear field of vision northeast, east and south east. Weather conditions are also important – how prone was the post to fog for example; how did its fare in the changing seasons and the hours of daylight available?

One should also factor in what one might call human frailties. By this I mean that the coast watchers were subject to the same foibles as you and I. For example, they suffered from the effects of tiredness, were not always fully alert, fell asleep on watches, drew of false conclusions and were working in conditions where they lacked general overall information on the forces they were observing. With regard to this last point, the Irish Defence Forces during the emergency, and in particular G2, were conscious that information regarding the most up-to-date military equipment and technologies was not available to them and intelligence suffered accordingly. Coastwatchers were also instructed to report only the most basic form of information structured to the set pattern outlined above.

The neighbouring posts were Rush nine miles to the north and Dalkey seven to the south across Dublin Bay. The post's own location covered the approaches to Dublin Bay. But with the effective closing of the Irish Sea to marine traffic following the laying of a minefield from the Wexford coast to Wales in May 1940, Howth Head saw little other than routine local marine traffic until the end of the war. Occasionally the post recorded an Irish Shipping vessel passing the Kish and a handful of times during the final months of the war Marine Service Motor Torpedo Boats and the patrol vessel Muirchú were sighted. The vast majority of incidents recorded in the post logbook referred to air activity and observations and is therefore not surprising that the primary role of Howth Head LOP was with regard to the air defence of Dublin.

III: The Air Defence of Dublin

Howth Head was the North Eastern limit of the no-fly zone over Dublin city a rough rectangle from Howth Head south to Dalkey, west to Tallaght, north to Collinstown airport and back to Howth Head. Aircraft inside this zone could be and were fired upon without warning by the anti-aircraft guns in the vicinity – their targets included American, German and British aircraft, as well as a handful of friendly fire incidents directed at Irish military and civil aircraft. Unlike their colleagues in Rosslare and in Donegal, there is no record of these guns scoring hits on incoming aircraft.

Located with the lookout post on Howth Head were a sound locator, a searchlight and a light anti-aircraft gun, most likely a heavy machine gun. Dublin’s air defence during the Second World War was extremely basic and well below strength. Searchlights at Howth, Clontarf, Ringsend, Blackrock and Dalkey working with sound locators on Howth Head and Sorrento Park in Dalkey would to identify aircraft and work in conjunction with batteries of heavy medium and light anti-aircraft guns to defend the city. An air attack on Dublin was expected from the east with incoming aircraft using the River Liffey as a landmark to position before attacking the strategic locations of Dublin Port with its oil storage tanks, the General Post Office, Government Buildings and the Telephone Exchange in the city centre as well as Defence Forces GHQ at Parkgate Street. All these facilities were located along the line of the Liffey. The incoming aircraft were expected to be lined up on their bombing run by the time they entered Dublin Bay and the heavy guns - two at Clontarf and four at Ringsend could engage targets up to 6½ miles away, that is to say approximately the eastern end of the no-fly zone over the city marked by a line between Howth Head and Dalkey.

So within this context the LOP on Howth head had a very important strategic role in defence of Dublin city. The system was undoubtedly primitive, but working with posts along the east coast and as far southwest as Brownstown Head in Waterford, Howth Head reported all air traffic to Air Defence Command and ultimately, once a countrywide reporting structure was in place, to Air Defence Command's Eastern Sector where aircraft were plotted. The night of the North Strand bombing of 30-31 May 1941 saw the system operate with considerable success, the major failing being that the phone system connecting LOPs to ADC in Dublin Castle was overloaded and temporarily collapsed.

So it is predominantly air-traffic that I will talk about tonight. The LOP had a commanding view of traffic to and from Collinstown, now Dublin, airport nine miles west north west and also from the Air Corps base at Baldonnell to the south west of Dublin. Indeed daily Air Corps patrols along the east coast and the daily Aer Lingus return flight to England, to Liverpool and Manchester, are routine entries in the post logbook. But the logbook presents a puzzle at this point. Here are two scenarios. Is it possible that, perhaps possibly if a dignitary were on board, or material of sensitive nature was being transported, the post logged a single Aer Lingus Douglas DC-3 being joined in flight and escorted shortly after takeoff by an Air Corps biplane. For example at 1142 on the morning of 5 January 1945 the LOP logged one Douglas DC3 six miles northwest of the post flying east at 4,000 feet being escorted by an Air Corps biplane four miles northwest of the post at a higher altitude. If so it looks like the Air Corps fighter escorted the Aer Lingus plane to the limits of Irish airspace because the post also regularly logged a returning Air Corps biplane shortly after the Aer Lingus aircraft had passed. I can’t say for certain, but possibly these were amongst the last flights of the Aer Corps three remaining Gloster Gladiators, which were finally struck off charge on 31 March 1945. However the Howth Head logbook records Irish biplanes flying in and out of Collinstown through April and May 1945, so presumably these are Aer Lingus’ de Havillands. So perhaps rather than escorted flights what the LOP was observing was two Aer Lingus flights taking off in close proximity to each other and flying together out over the Irish Sea. There are no 100% identifiable reports in the period I have examined of any of the sixteen Hurricanes that the Air Corps had on charge on 31 March 1945, though scores of low-wing, single-engined, single tailed monoplanes are reported passing the post. Perhaps one would have expected Hurricanes to escort important flights rather than the slower antiquated Gladiators. Which returns me to the likelihood of the aircraft being Aer Lingus de Havilland biplanes. Presumably recourse to a timetable might answer this conundrum – however it shows the limits of the LOP logbook.

IV Analysing Coast Watching Service reports

Examining reports from a variety of posts along the coast shows the coastwatchers as a force that, despite differences of ability between posts, was capable and consistent in its operations and, despite various failings and the low level of technology available to them, a force that accredited itself favourably. Reports of incidents from posts tally not only with reports from neighbouring posts but also with reports from the belligerent forces that the coast watchers were observing. In fact the British often used coast watching service reports being radioed by Command Headquarters to Dublin to monitor the activity of their own aircraft.

When analysing reports from the LOPs it is best to follow a similar approach to that of military intelligence. Individual incidents reported by coastwatchers eachprovide interesting episodes, but they do not illustrate anything more than that specific incident. Incident reports were phoned to Command level reporting centres in a standard format across the Coast Watching Service network. To give you some examples: Volunteers T. Redmond and R. Moore reported to Marine Sector at 1629 on New Year’s Day 1945 that they had ‘Seen one LIBERATOR monoplane 6 miles EAST of post flying SOUTH altitude 2000 feet Nationality British Visibility Moderate.’ Early the following morning their colleagues T. McLaughlin and F Gallagher reported at 0304 ‘Aircraft heard five miles NORTH EAST of post moving SOUTH altitude and nationality unknown Visibility Moderate.’ The day watch of 2 January, F Redmond and T McNally, reported at 0957 ‘8 Low Wing Single Tailed Twin Engined monoplanes 7 miles NORTH EAST of post moving SOUTH EAST altering course 6 miles SOUTH EAST and returning NORTH EAST heights from 2000 to 3000’. It sounds like aircraft training, but the precise aircraft type is not clear. Such reports need to be pieced together to provide a general narrative and analysis over a period of time.

The tendency when reading LOP logbooks is to concentrate on the peculiar and unusual. For example, at 1401 on 23 February the LOP reported:

One Wellington and One Anson 4 miles north-east moving south. The Anson was looping the loop over the Wellington. Altitude 3000 4000 feet. Nationality British. Aircraft altered course 6 miles south-east and flew north at 4000 to 7000 feet. Visibility good.

While I am sure these reports brought a smile, what G2 actually wanted were broad brushstrokes covering daily and weekly events, patterns, sequences, repetitions and also periods of negative information where little happens as all were important in building up a picture of tendencies in any particular location. And I would ask you to bear this in mind through the paper.

It is a question of first establishing, by grouping and linking individual incident reports, what could be regarded as a normal and then piecing together the changing sequence of events from subsequent incidents. We will see below that certain events could be expected by the coastwatchers on duty to occur daily at set times and once this pattern of normal activity was established then it was possible to place unexpected and unusual events within this context until new trends were established and patterns of the belligerents’ activities and intentions emerged. A Daily Reports Summary taking incidents from all 83 Coast Watching Service LOP reports over the preceding 24 hours was circulated every 24 hours by G2 to senior  military officers, the Minister for Defence and to the Department of External Affairs. Reports for a given period were pieced together and plotted to show air activity off the east coast. What I hope this shows is that the individual reports each LOP phoned in to their respective reporting centre were accumulated and analysed. The final step  was known as the Command Intelligence Summary, a monthly report from the Intelligence Officer in each Command sent to the Director of Military Intelligence. While this might seem an example of military bureaucracy, what I would like to emphasise is that the men who served at Howth Head LOP were part of a large information gathering operation that stretched around the Irish coast and played a critical role in the defence and foreign policy of wartime Ireland. This may not have been apparent to the men on Howth Head, they were simply reporting on events locally as they saw them, and this was the same all across the service. But what is apparent in retrospect and from examining military and diplomatic records in Britain and the United States, is that these reports from the Coast Watching Service could find their way by top-secret channels to London and Washington and that the coast watchers were only a few steps removed from one of the most sensitive areas of Irish foreign policy during the second world war and that is Ireland’s covert military co-operation with the Allies under the veil of official neutrality.

V LOP 6 January to May 1945

Now turn to the post itself and place it in context before examining and analysing just what the coast watchers upon Summit of Howth Head saw and reported as the Second World War entered its final months in Europe.

Each post had a specific daily routine. Howth was no different. The post operated three watches: midnight to 8 AM; 8 AM to 4 PM; and 4 PM to midnight. Weather reports were submitted to Air Defence Command towards the end of the evening and night watches – after nightfall and at dawn. The morning watch tested and checked the post’s telephone and its clock with Air Defence Command. These checks were critical as the post’s communications equipment had to be synchronised and in working order if its reports were to have any value to Air Defence Command and to Military Intelligence. The post also submitted a report to the Marine Service Sub-depot in Portobello Barracks in Dublin, today’s Cathal Brugha Barracks. This report covered the daily activities of the post regarding personnel and establishment matters and subjects covered included leave requirements, training, provision of uniform and kit, medical inspections, and the report announced any visitors to the post. The afternoon watch inspected the nearby anti-aircraft battery – a searchlight, sound locator and light anti-aircraft gun and its various associated hutments, barbed wire fences and warning signs. However by 1945 that post had been mothballed as German air attacks on Dublin were now thought unlikely. Earlier, in 1944, ADC informed its men not to fire on Allied aircraft.

Reporting routine activity was the most taxing task facing Howth Head LOP in early January 1945. Standard day time observations were of Aer Lingus and Air Corps aircraft on the flightpath to and from Dublin airport passing three to six miles to the north from east and west and aircraft three to six miles offshore passing north and south. The aircraft flying south split between those that continued along the Irish coastline down past the LOPs at Bray Head and Wicklow Head or those who, using the Kish lightship as a waypoint, routed northeast. Traffic out of Collinstown tailed off after 4pm and when the final incoming flights ended near 6pm the evening and night watches recorded vastly reduced air traffic on the northern and southerly routes, though a large proportion of these flights evidently also used the Kish to the south of Dublin and the Rockabill light to the north of as waypoints, flying around Dublin to the east and then moving north again – a route first confirmed in 1941.

However G2 had learned from Admiralty sources that a new U-boat campaign was likely in the first weeks of the New Year. U-boats were en-route to the Irish Sea and sunk two British merchant ships off Holyhead on 11 January. 11 January was a quiet day at Howth Head. The Aer Lingus DC3 had made its return trip, Air Corps aircraft on patrol were logged and the only remarkable event was that the Sub-Depot had inquired about which men were to go for a dental inspection. However G2 sources intercepted reports of the sinkings off Holyhead and further learned that the in the hours after the attack the Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead mail boat had sailed with extreme precautions and without lights. In fact 30 minutes out of Holyhead the danger from U-boats was so acute that using the excuse of engine failure it returned to port. As the mail boat returned passengers on the vessel saw a flotilla of motor torpedo boats leaving Holyhead and later heard explosions from depth charges.

At 0935 on the morning of 15 January Howth logged three heavy explosions an estimated 30 miles southeast of the post and at 1240 heard heavy explosions an estimated 35 miles north of the post. There were also sightings of groups of three to five British fighter aircraft training off Howth, coming from the north 6-7 miles offshore, flying south towards the Kish and then sweeping back east and northeast. But noticeable amidst all of this was a sharp rise in the amount of air activity passing approximately north-south and south-north along the Irish Sea seven to ten miles from shore, routes which suggested the passing flights were anti-submarine patrols. These flights continued the following day with ten Sunderland flying boats sighted on similar routes during daylight hours and a destroyer sighted 25 miles east moving south at dusk.

While the night watch was quiet, 17 January saw the Allied operations off Howth continue as 15 Group and 19 Group of RAF Coastal Command began intensive patrols over the Irish Sea to counter the new U-boat threat in the area. This was an area of the Irish Sea into which U-boats had not previously dared to penetrate. The counterattack air deployment was seen by coastwatchers whose reports to G2 showed heavy air activity along the east and south to the east coast of Ireland on the 17th and 18th of January, with flares and gunfire reported during darkness.

On 17 January a Coastal Command aircraft sighted a moving oil slick, a sign of submarine activity, in the Irish Sea east of Skerries. That day Howth Head LOP reported many similar Coastal Command flights from mid-morning when at 1033 a Liberator, a favourite Coastal Command very long range aircraft, was sighted five miles to the south east flying north east low over the sea at 1,000 feet. It was followed a quarter of an hour later by a Sunderland flying boat at 500 feet following a similar route. That night Howth reported bright white flares to the north and south of the post. The following afternoon two frigates were sighted manoeuvring six to eight miles to the north-east during a period of continual air patrolling which suggested strongly that the U-boat threat remained real and present in the Irish Sea. It may also have been that the presence of a ‘large boat like a liner’ sighted ten miles north-east at 2043, fully illuminated moving south, probably a hospital ship, was the reason for this increased activity as air and naval assets sought to clear a path for the vessel, a second presumed hospital ship being sighted moving south ten miles off shore on the evening of 20 January.

These operations greatly worried Colonel Dan Bryan, the head of G2. He wrote to Minister for Defence Oscar Traynor and the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces General Dan McKenna as well as to the head of the Naval Service and the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs that

the increase in aerial and naval activity off the east coast indicates the presence of a German submarine or submarines in the Irish Sea. These are the first instances of such activity against shipping, known to this branch, near the Irish coast. If such activities continue they will again direct attention to the question of the Irish ports.

The Allied counter-attack in the Irish Sea continued. In the encounter off Skerries, sono-buoys were dropped and naval vessels combed the area, but with no results. Signals intelligence suggested that up to five U-boats were now operating in the Irish Sea. The Royal Navy feared that they could have very serious effect on British anti-submarine forces training off Liverpool. Following a report that Hitler ordered the intensification of the U-boat war, the commander-in-chief of the Western approaches, Admiral Sir Max Horton, instructed Coastal Command aircrews to pay particular attention to areas of the Irish Sea were U-boats when being hunted sought cover by bottoming in suitable declivities on the seabed. These areas include the seabed of Howth and off Anglesey.

The frigates first sighted by Howth Head on 18 January remained off the Irish coast through 19 January and while identifiable Coastal Command activity was slight the presence of the naval vessels indicated a continued danger from U-boats. Expecting the arrival of the Irish Shipping vessel Irish Larch at dusk that afternoon, Port Control instructed Howth Head to keep a sharp look out for the vessel and report her when she was within sight. She was duly reported at 2230, three miles southeast, safely entering Dublin Bay.

The last ten days of January saw no let up in anti-submarine operations off Howth. In a period of good weather and clear visibility, the post noting on the morning of 22 January that the Welsh Mountains were visible, the Sunderlands and Liberators of Coastal Command kept up regular patrols. In one crowded report at 1340 on 22 January Howth reported a departing an Air Lingus DC3 from Dublin airport, sighted at 2000 feet, six miles to the northwest, whilst ten miles to the east out to sea a Liberator and two Sunderlands flew low level anti-submarine patrols at 500 feet. Further east still on the horizon the post logged ‘six warships’ manoeuvring and tracking west towards Ireland. An hour and a half after the initial sighting the naval group was ten miles east south east of Howth. A destroyer from the group was reported dropping two depth charges and later as night fell red flares were seen from the direction of the force. Luckily the clement weather had continued, with good visibility, light south winds and a calm sea and this allowed Howth Head to send in detailed reports of this action.

Naval forces sank U1051 and U1172 south of Anglesey in late January, but Royal Navy Signals Intelligence suggested six further vessels were en route to the Irish Sea. However for our subject, Howth Head LOP, the story was not so exciting. The weather changed for the worse on 23 January and with fog and rain reported. Fog reduced visibility and made aurally locating the direction of an aircraft more difficult. The post reported bright red flares to the east on 24 January, but in the murky conditions with reporting made more difficult by the phone going out of order, Howth was reduced to reporting events over a more localised region. However the steady stream of Liberators sighted over the following days indicated that the anti-submarine war was still on.

The picture is somewhat scattered for early February with the consistent theme being routine daytime patrols by Air Corps and RAF interspersed with periods of intense anti-submarine operations flown by Liberators and Sunderlands, with the usual daily Aer Lingus flight passing east and west to the north of the post. The transit of groups of three to seven aircraft from north to south along the Irish Sea during the evening was followed by fairly quiet nights. Unusual actions were such as at 2128 on 2 February when an aircraft identified by its navigation lights 8 miles northeast flying south at 3000 feet was signalled to by Morse code by a presumed naval vessel it flew over. On 8 February, during a period of poor and stormy weather the post was informed by Eastern Sector ‘to keep a lookout for an Anson which was lost on [a] flight between Northern Ireland and Wales.’ Ten days later, on 18 February, just after 6pm, a second incident was reported when ‘Air Defence [Command] notified [the] post that [a] plane was lost between here and Dundrum Bay’ on the east coast of Northern Ireland beside Newcastle. The watch at Howth was to ‘keep [a] look out for wreckage’. Visibility had closed in through the day as overcast skies gave way to fog, through which RAF Liberators flying at low level searched for traces of the missing aircraft.

But more often aircraft simply passed from north to south offshore singly or in groups with occasional aircraft flying south to the Kish and then routing east or northeast. The remainder of February was by and large routine. The main focus of air and naval activity remained off the Wexford coast, but in early March G2 recorded increased air activity along the east and south-east coast.

On 6 March the Irish Times and Irish Press carried a Reuters report that ‘U-boats are in the Irish Sea – the submarine war is on again day and night without pause.’ That morning the Gardaí at Howth rang the LOP to tell the coastwatchers that ‘a submarine had been seen four miles off Rockabill’ fourteen miles directly north of the post. A number of Liberators flew past Howth Head during the day, but a sign that operations were underway were explosions on the horizon twenty to thirty miles east of the post out to sea on 7 and 8 March. The Allied counter-attack the coastwatchers were observing included the largest operational effort ever flown in one day by American forces operating with coastal command. On 8 March an American liberator of 103 Squadron made radio contact with a submarine off Arklow. Two days later Oberleutnant Herman Bruder,   commanding U1058 reported to Admiral Donitz that there was Allied air activity all day in the middle of the Irish Sea. This was already apparent to Howth Head LOP, the post reporting regular flares and explosions in the same vicinity to Military Intelligence. These sightings died down mid-month, partially due to a deterioration in the weather.

On the morning of 25 March a Liberator of 110 Squadron made contact with a submarine 40 miles north-east of Howth. The following day another Liberator made visual contact with a U-boat off Cahore Point. A periscope and a v-shaped wake were sighted, but the disappeared before an attack could be made. That day Howth reported a large number of flares to the northeast and to the southeast, but there was no obvious changes or increase in military activity off the coast of Dublin.

To the Commander of American forces operating with Coastal Command the operational effort in March was the greatest ever expended in any month by aircraft of his wing both in the number of sorties and hours on patrol, but nonetheless, German submarines continued their offensive in coastal waters of Britain and Ireland with some success. Howth did not see a great deal of this later part of the spring 1945 offensive, poor visibility and the centre of operations being located out to sea further  south down the east coast of Ireland were the reasons.

April saw a further fall off in anti-submarine operations and was quite a contrast to January. For April reports from Howth showed two definite trends. First is the almost complete absence of anti-submarine operations by combined air and naval assets. Second is the continuation of heavy air traffic along the east coast of Ireland. Day and night show different patterns. The majority of aircraft reported between midnight and 0800, perhaps 2/3 of them, came along the coast from the North, flying south over the Rockabill light. They generally did not alter their routes to avoid Dublin. The opposite was the case for the aircraft transiting the Irish coast from the south, they flew up the coast and routed north east by the Kish. Indeed on the early morning of 19 April the LOP reported an aircraft circling over the Kish before getting its bearings and flying northeast.

Day reports for April were much more numerous and the month the day watch was the busiest and most important of the three watches at Howth Head. Its reports showed considerable air traffic, though an almost complete absence of marine traffic, off Howth. Aer Lingus daytime flights took place almost daily, as did a regular British biplane flight from Collinstown as commercial air traffic between Britain and Ireland recommenced in the aftermath of D-Day. The number of reported flights by Irish biplanes is greatly reduced, perhaps bearing out the assertion of the Chief of Staff that the Gloster Gladiators were phased out at the end of March 1945? As with night-time flights the day reports reinforce the role of the Kish lightship as navigation aid for the majority of aircraft transiting the east coast of Ireland. Of these aircraft the majority are unidentified ‘Low Wing, Twin Engine, Single Tailed monoplanes’, either flying singly or in groups of up to half a dozen., though poor visibility with fog mid-month again reduced the number of incidents reported. Except for the sustained passage of Liberators during the afternoon of 11 April there was no sign of sustained anti-submarine activity during the month, the majority of flights appearing to be routine coastal patrols or groups of aircraft training. Probably if logbooks for Dalkey and Bray LOPs for the same period were factored in it would be apparent if any of these aircraft were from Baldonnell and perhaps a greater number could be identified. A proportion of the aircraft flying from the south and passing northeast must be Irish Air Corps, but only one flight was seen to the south and heading south east. Perhaps the identification of these flights was made more difficult by the Dublin mountains in the background? For the record I should add that through April the evening watch from 1600 to 0000 was, with the exception of 18 and 25 April, quiet and unremarkable. 18 and 25 April were busy days for the day watch as they saw heavy air traffic past the post.

Despite the conflict winding down in Europe as Russian forces moved into the centre of Berlin, the level of military operations – training and transport flights – off Howth LOP continued as April gave way to May 1945. It was the same in the last week of the war. There are only two indications in the logbook that the war in Europe was ending – two messages to be on the look out for any German U-boats flying a black flag and seeking to surrender – these messages being phoned to all posts around the coast. In reality only the posts on the Inishowen Peninsula saw surrendering submarines as German U-boats were brought into Lough Foyle under escort. Despite the end of the war in May there was no immediate fall off in activity off Howth. The regular flights continued in the pattern of previous months. There was a noticeable increase in marine traffic with a cargo vessels and oil tankers taking to the waters of the Irish Sea in greater numbers.

Peacetime conditions saw the Defence Forces demobilise from their wartime strength. The Coast Watching Service was one of the first branches to be stood down. Colonel Bryan, Commander O’Muiris, the Head of the Naval Service and a number of senior officers in the Army argued the case with the Chief of Staff General Dan McKenna for keeping the Coast Watching Service in existence in peacetime in a reduced form and they also argued that the service would be a necessity in any future war. Despite the coastwatchers having performed the role of a coastguard in alerting the lifeboat service to incidents at sea on many occasions during the war and thus having a viable peacetime role in a country with no coastguard it was not to be.

Howth continued in operation until the end of the day watch on 19 June 1945. The men had been informed four days earlier by District Office Captain Jordan that they were ‘all men to have kit on post at 1400 on 19 June’. The post’s last observation, by Volunteer John Redmond, was at 1516 of an Aer Lingus DC3 coming in to land at Dublin airport. Perhaps in this there is something poignant in this for a new age of peaceful air travel in the post war years. But for LOP 6 it marked the end of the emergency after a watch of five and a half years. The telephone was dismantled and signed over into the custody of Private Lumsden of the Army Signal Corps and the coastwatchers melted back into civilian life.

VII: Conclusion

So what does all this tell us? I think I can draw a few short conclusions from the story of Howth LOP. First of all, we can see that Corporal Rourke and his men ran an efficient post and within the structures of the service they were part of played a confident and effective role. We know very little about how the Defence Forces operated during the emergency and more often than not we get Dad’s Army stories and inaccurate writing. In fact what was going on up on the Summit in Howth and being replicated along the coastline was a well thought out Irish response to an Irish problem. The state had no naval service in 1939, it had to monitor its coasts, how would it do this. The answer was through landward observation. Planned by Military Intelligence in conjunction with the general staff, the Coast Watching Service was set up in little over a year and its men were trained up from scratch. The post was well positioned, strategically located for air and marine observation and provided information of contemporary and, as I hope I have shown, historic value. We can use the LOP’s log to find out what the Second World War off Howth was like. The log shows us just how close the Second World War was to Ireland. Neutrality could not insulate Ireland from a conflict that took place around her shores and on the limits of her territory. The logbook of LOP 6 shows that the Second World War was taking place in the seas and skies off Dublin. The Second World War was not a conflict that took place remote from Ireland, it took place on our doorstep. We have forgotten this, or we possibly never realised it, and Howth LOP helps us remember that fact.