WWI at sea off West Cork

The First World War at sea off West Cork

Edward J Bourke

The ferocity of the First World War evokes names like the Somme, Verdun, Paschendale and Mons and maybe Jutland or Coronel. It may therefore be a surprise to realise that the First World War equivalent of the battle of the Atlantic was fought vigorously of the Coast of West Cork. That such a significant front is all but forgotten is no surprise because the Irish rarely turned their eyes seaward except to judge the weather for agriculture. The main route for shipping from the USA for southern English ports passes the south coast making first landfall at Fastnet. From 1917 onward inbound vessels were met and escorted by warships from a point about 60 miles west of Fastnet. Convoys of multiple ships were rare, generally important merchant ships and troopships were escorted individually or in small numbers. During WW1 London was the premier port in England and so there was much more traffic around the south of Ireland than in the Second World War. Between 1940 and 1945 traffic was diverted away from London due to the blitz, aircraft and E boat attacks. The southern approaches were also more dangerous because of the absence of the treaty ports of Queenstown and Berehaven as well as German air and submarine bases in occupied France. Allied air cover during the Second World War forced German submarines far out into the Atlantic. Submarines were very small with limited range and unreliable machinery. Most attacks were by gunfire as torpedoes were scarce and troublesome. The defending vessels were often slower than the surfaced submarines and carried only a couple of depth charges. In total two submarines, five warships and 65 allied merchant vessels were sunk “SW of Ireland” which broadly means within fifty miles of Fastnet. Almost twice that number were attacked and damaged. Until 1917 German submarines obeyed the cruiser rules stopping and identifying ships before they warned the crews before opening fire. When merchant ships were ordered to ram submarines, guns were put aboard merchant ships and Q ships or trap ships joined the battle the cruiser rules were abandoned.

The events off Cork were brought to life for me when I was offered an album of photographs from South Africa. Bishop Frederick Offen who had joined the Navy as a 19 year old in 1915 had taken them from the deck of the Zinnia. He served on the Zinnia a Flower class sloop not to be confused with the more famous corvettes of the second world war but a class of 73 vessels built for antisubmarine work 25 years earlier. The logbooks of the Zinnia that survive in the public records office at Kew in London tell the whole story in terse official entries. The photographs were taken under trying circumstances in action. Their quality is limited due to distance, haze and camera (a box brownie) but their dramatic content makes them unique.

1916

SS Malmanger sinking

SS Malmanger sinking

Though the photographs include the sloop HMS Bluebelland a shore view of where Casement landed the whole of Easter week is covered by the phrase ” Saturday 22 April challenged darkened ship, no reply, fired four rounds, SS Quebia of London, signalled back no one hurt (The significance of this is that the Easter rising broke out on Monday 24th April and Sir Roger Casement had been arrested after landing from German submarine the previous night. The gunrunning ship the Aud had been expected because of radio intelligence and was captured by HMSBluebelland was scuttled at the entrance to Cork harbour.) Though theZinnia was with the Bluebell and Lord Hardige in Tralee Bay there is no mention of the interception of the Aud on 21st April. However another darkened ship was challenged on 28th April but turned out to be the Irish Lights tender. This showed that there was considerable apprehension that further aid and reinforcements could be en route from Germany for the 1916 Rising.

There are several illustrations of survivors being taken from open boats; these were the lucky ones because some 8,000 lives were lost from nearly 700 ships. In the earlier stages ships were stopped by the submarines and bombs placed aboard. After the arrival of the ram on sight order and the Q ships called trap ship by the Germans most vessels were sunk without warning by torpedo. Many of the Q ships were fitted out at Queenstown hence the name. A series of photos show the Malmanger sinking of Baltimore following a long tow from Fastnet where the tanker was torpedoed. Six other ships are seen sinking, one with the propellers still turning. Another is of the Q ship Farnborough which had halted when challenged by a submarine off Fastnet and after a crew deliberately remained behind to trap the submarine they attacked and sunk the sub and were left in a sinking condition themselves. TheFarnborough was towed into Berehaven and beached. The story of the Lusitania is well known but less so that of the Arabic which was sunk further off the Cork coast and for some was a more proximate cause of bringing the United states into the First World War.

Castletownbere

The Harbour at Castletownbere became a major base for the war against submarines. It did not have the same infrastructure as Haulbowline but could accommodate colliers and facilitate coaling of the patrol vessels. The guns placed at several batteries on Bere Island provided protection against raiders. At Arnnakinna point a naval and military control centre was constructed in 1914. An anti submarine detection loop was fitted. It is not clear if this had only detection capability or whether electronically fires mines were incorporated. The loop was attached to a magnetometer on shore and would deflect when a craft crossed the loop. If a surface vessel was in sight then all was well but a deflection without a surface vessel implied an enemy submarine had crossed the detector. This would allow defensive measures be applied using depth charges or mines.

Airships and kite balloons were used with seaplanes to protect shipping by giving early warning of submarines in the vicinity. They could also attack submarines by bombs and guns. Aircraft could also spot mines and destroy them by gunfire. Airships had greater range than that of aeroplanes and provided better escort capability. The American airships were based from air stations in France and Britain such as Brest, Gujan, La Pallice, La Trinite and Castletownbere. Other stations were planned but the war ended before these were established. Berehaven was the only US air station outside of the France and was turned over to the Americans by the British on 26-4-1918 to provide kite balloons for attachment to destroyers. However the destroyers were based at Queenstown and practice was made with the balloons attached to trucks. HMS Flying Fox took over kite balloons in August 1918 and the operations were attached to the deployment of the American battleships Utah, Nevada and Oklahoma. The three battleships operated from Berehaven from August to October to protect allied convoys from attack by the German battlecruisers. The base was disestablished in February 1919

Fastnet lighthouse

The lighthouse had a telegraph to a shore station at Crookhaven for many years prior to the war and a telephone line was maintained during the war. The lighthouse service and lightships were supposed to be neutral but there are several instances of their reporting enemy submarines to patrol craft. Though there is no record of naval personnel being established on Fastnet there is no doubt but that it would have been a useful observation post.

Ship Tonnage Date Location  
Batoum 4054 19-6-1917 6 m S of Fastnet  
Miami 3672 22-6-1917 11m ESE of Fastnet  
Kioto 6182 11-7-1917 20 m SW of Fastnet  
Berwindvale 5242 16-3-1916 30 m W of Fastnet Saved
Minehaha 13712 7-9-1917 12 m SE of Fastnet  
Canadian 9309 5-4-1917 47 m NW of Fastnet  
Ghazee 5084 4-1-1917 2 m SSW of Galley Head  
Cliftonian 4303 6-1-1917 4 m SE of Galley Head  
Iceland 1501 3-7-1917 10 m SW of Galley Head  
Ludgate 3708 26-7-1917 2 m S of Galley Head  
Akassa 3919 13-8-1917 8 m SE of Galley Head  

Lusitania

Bodies and wreckage were washed ashore all along the south coast after the Lusitania was sunk. There were several sightings of submarines on the day of the Lusitania attack which cannot have been Schweiger’s U20 – the submarine which fired a single torpedo at the Lusitania. Patrol vessel no 47, a motor yacht, the Seagull, owned by the Shakelton family was lent to the Navy in September 1914. Though only 42 foot and 15 tons it was based in Baltimore as a patrol vessel. A letter dated 11-5-1915 describes an encounter between the yacht and a submarine. Cope, who may have commanded the yacht, wrote to his father a GWR stationmaster in Wolverhampton describing the encounter. ” We played a very active role in the last murder. We had been chasing an elusive submarine for several days without getting a glimpse of the bounder, in spite of being hot on his track. On Friday morning about 9.55 a.m. we saw a surfaced submarine. On sighting us about two or three miles off they made for us at top speed. They were greeted with a shot or two from my rifle, which must have had the effect of making them smile, so futile was it. From then on matters became exciting. They had the legs of us by about eight or nine knots (nearly twice our speed) but our handy little boat was able to hold her own. They succeeded in keeping the German vessel in sight for twenty minutes before the submarine submerged. The Seagull got into Baltimore at 11.15 and the signal about the sighting was broadcast by 12.00. The Seagull was built by Percy See at Fareham in Hampshire in 1911 and still sails on the river Shannon. This sighting off Cape Clear is quite a mystery since it would be 30 miles from the Old Head of Kinsale and therefore three hours journey from the Lusitania sinking at 2 p.m. The mystery is that the U 20 was coming from the East while this sighting was to the West. The signal to the MFA Helespont to proceed to Queenstown leaving the escort Scadaun to search for a submarine also points to a sighting other than U 20 being taken seriously.

Coast watchers on a headland overlooking the sea reported a surfaced submarine at 1.40 and made a report to Queenstown. But a submarine in close to land cannot have attacked the Lusitania because she was attacked from seaward. These observers were official coast watchers and so their report must be considered reliable.

Passengers aboard the Lusitania reported sighting a submarine on the Port side at 2.00 before the Lusitania made the turn toward land. They interpreted this as the captain taking evasive action. This is significant because chart information shows that the Lusitania was directly on course for Queenstown BEFORE the evasive change of course. The alteration in course was not therefore the turn for Queenstown as some writers have indicated. It was this evasive manoeuvre thought to avoid a mystery submarine that exposed the Lusitania to the U20. Captain Schweiger in U20 attacked from the starboard almost immediately afterward. Significantly the Admiralty removed questions 14 and 15 form the list of queries to be put to witnesses at Lord Mersey’s inquiry. These referred to submarine sightings and confirm that there was some unease about sightings unexplained by U20 movements.

Lookouts on the Lusitania say they saw two torpedoes but Captain Schweiger of U 20 fired only one. This is explained by the track of the torpedo being slightly away from the track of bubbles as observed from a height. Bubbles take several seconds to rise from the torpedo depth and therefore “strike” the ship well aft of the torpedo. Apart from U 20 and U30 to the North of Ireland en route to Germany, the next nearest German submarine activity was the sinking of a large number of trawlers between Aberdeen and Hartlepool. Even British submarines were considered but they only became active in the area later in the war. The nearest two recorded were training craft are logged as tied up at Pembroke and Devonport. Their logs survive at the Public Records Office at Kew. Fleet dispositions are not necessarily free from misleading information as the battleship HMS Audacious is listed though she had been sunk. Q ships were never listed. Altogether some seven sightings point to the existence of a mystery second submarine that cannot be explained. Conspiracy theorists believe that an unnamed British submarine was on location to ensure that the Lusitania was sunk.

Submarine engagement off Fastnet

A remarkable account by Lt P.F. Foster the American captain of submarine L2 found its way into the official records. He described UB 65 as sunk by its own torpedo during an attack on his submarine on 10 -7-1918. This encounter was at 51.07N, 9.42W just south of Cape clear. The evidence was somewhat circumstantial and this was confirmed when the submarine researcher Innes McCartney identified UB 65 by propeller shaft numbers located off the Pembroke coast. No survivors were reported for either incident and UB 65 failed to return to port.

Victoria cross for Gallantry

Lieutenant Frederick Parslow RNR was sixty when he won a posthumous Victoria Cross. On 4-7-1917 he was in command of the horse transport, Anglo Californian en route from Montreal to Avonmouth with 927 horses aboard when he encountered a U boat about ninety miles SW of Queenstown.

The Anglo Californian had been a 7533-ton nitrate carrier but was on charter to the Admiralty. She carried a crew of 150. The ship had been converted with stalls, fodder stores and a veterinary staff but was unarmed. When he saw the U boat, Parslow turned the Anglo Californian to starboard to present his stern to the u-boat and minimise the target for her guns. The ship put on full speed as she fled. After an hour the u-boat opened fire scoring hits on the hull and superstructure. Parslow continued to outmanoeuvre the U boat turning stern on whenever she tried to approach to obtain a beam shot. All the time the Anglo Californian transmitted SOS signals, giving her position. The U boat commander hoisted the signal abandon ship and Parslow decided to comply in order to save lives. By this time the signals had been received and the destroyers HMS Mentor and Miranda asked him to keep the submarine occupied until they arrived. Parslow put on speed again continuing to transmit. The U boat commenced heavy gunfire on the bridge and superstructure. Then she approached to within 50 feet of the Anglo Californian’s side and attacked anything that moved with rifle fire.

Parslow had died in the hail of fire having no protection on an unarmoured bridge. He had to break cover to see what was happening and he had been hit by a shell. His son had lain flat on deck steering with the remains of the wheel. After three hours in action the two destroyers arrived and the submarine escaped by diving. The Anglo Californian arrived at Queenstown the next day in the charge of young Fred Parslow. As medals were not awarded to the merchant Navy in 1917 the VC was gazetted only after the rules had changed on 24-5-1919. Young Frederick Parslow continued at sea with the Nitrate producers steamship company and was lost on 14-3-1938 when the 5,456 ton Anglo Australiandisappeared without trace off the Azores. She carried nitrate for Vancouver via the Panama canal.

Baltimore fishing

Baltimore played an important commercial part in the First World War. The British diet was severely deficient in fat and oils, which are essential to the adsorption of B vitamins. Fishing supplied a significant source of oil in the diet. Trainloads of fish were landed at Baltimore. The steam trawling fleet had been converted to war duties and employed on minesweeping and anti submarine patrols leaving fishing to small inshore craft. During the mackerel season as many as six trainloads of fish were reported leaving Baltimore. Attacks on local fishing craft occurred late in the war

The scientific report for fisheries branch for war years reported that the Germans made no attempt to molest Irish fishing boats until 3-5-1917 when the crew of a submarine destroyed seven boats off Baltimore. These were so small that they escape mention in the list of vessels lost due to enemy action. The fishermen landed safely. This was luck because others were not so fortunate. On 31-5-1917 a submarine shelled and sank a fishing boat from Ardeer co Galway off the Skird rocks and there were no survivors. On 30-4-1917 the Geraldine and St Ibar were sunk off Howth with the loss of five lives. The last attack was on 30-5-1918 when twelve boats were sunk 12 miles SSW of Kilkeel without loss of life. The Flahavan brothers from Rosscarberry were accosted by German submarine and instructed to throw their long lines overboard but retained their newest line. One of them was shot in the leg when being ordered to halt. They were accused of feeding the British. There is no date recorded for this story. In September 1918 a notice was published in the papers inviting Irish fishermen to enrol in the RNVR to avenge the atrocities committed against their fellow fishermen.

Salvage

When a ship was torpedoed every effort was made to save the ship. The captain had standing instructions to make full speed toward the nearest sandy beach where the ship could be driven ashore without damage. Salvage ships were equipped and stationed around the coast carrying pumps and salvage patches. The firm that covered the south coast was T.H. Ensor of Passage west. In a company brochure after the war he mentions 25 ships salvaged and towed to repair yards. When shipping was at a premium this is an enormous contribution greater even than construction of a new ship because the scarce metal was saved as well as the bulk of the construction effort.

Q ships

As the German submarines gained the upper hand the Royal Navy devised a cunning trap for submarines that surfaced to attack a ship. They armed an innocuous vessel with concealed heavy guns as well as the light stern gun normally carried. The vessels were loaded with a cargo of timber or barrels so that they would remain afloat even when damaged. In addition to a “normal” crew they carried a large complement of gunners. The ex-collier Loderer otherwise HMS Farnborough, alias Q.5, a tramp steamer of 3207-gross tons built in 1904, was fitted out at Devonport with all the devices of a Q-ship and armed with five 12-pounder guns variously concealed by a ‘steering house’ aft, hinged flaps on the main deck, and dummy ‘cabins’ on the upper deck. She also mounted a 6-pounder hidden at either end of the bridge and a Maxim placed amidships. The captain was Gordon Campbell commanding a crew of 70 officers and men. When en route to join Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly’s command at Queenstown, Loderer was quietly renamed Farnborough. On 22 March 1916 Farnborough accounted for the fourth Q-ship U-boat kill of the war by sinking Käpitan-Leutnant Guntzel’s U.68 in the English channel. Her next attack took place on 17 February 1917 at 51.34N 11.23 W about 20 miles off Fastnet, when at 9:45 a.m. Campbell, following proscribed Q-ship tactics, turned into the track of an enemy torpedo so as to allow it to hit Q.5 aft by the engine-room bulkhead. The ‘panic party’ made a convincing departure in boats as the ship began to settle by the stern. Campbell and the guns’ crews, meanwhile, lay prone in their hiding places on the upper deck as the barely submerged U-boat,U.83 commanded by Hoppe, closed to within twenty yards. At 10:05 the submarine broke surface 300 yards off the port bow, but in a position where none of Q.5’s guns could bear. Gradually, however, the submarine passed down the port side with the intention of securing the ship’s papers from the ‘crew’ in the boats. As U.83 motored abeam of Q.5, Campbell could see that she was fully surfaced, with the conning tower open and Hoppe on the bridge. At 10:10 he gave the order to open fire. The guns’ crews got off forty-five rounds at point blank range, nearly all of which hit. U.83 sank with the loss of all hands but one officer and a seaman. Q.5 in sinking condition was taken in tow by the destroyerNarwhal and the sloop Buttercup and eventually beached at Berehaven. She was salvaged by Ensor of Passage West and resumed trading after the war

In March 1917 almost all of Q.5’s crew followed Gordon Campbell to his next command, another converted collier, formerly the Vittoria renamedPargust, which was fitted out with improved equipment and armament, including a 4-inch gun. The decoy Pargust went to sea in May and on 7 June, when at 51.50N, 11.50 W about 30 miles from Fastnet, she was torpedoed at close range by Käpitan-Leutnant Rose’s UC.29. The ‘Panic party’, complete with a stuffed parrot in a cage, took to the boats in the usual way and rowed along Pargust’s starboard side hoping the U-boat, which was only showing her periscope, would follow. She did and at 8:36 after surfacing, Campbell opened fire. Thirty-eight shells were fired and as the U-boat tried to get under way she blew up and sank. Pargust was towed into Queenstown next day and later paid off at Plymouth. Two Victoria Crosses were awarded to the ship under Rule Thirteen, with Lieutenant Stuart being selected by ballot as the representative officer and Seaman William Williams as the representative rating. Campbell received promotion to Captain and a Bar to his D.S.O., and Pitcher was awarded one of eight D.S.Ms. Pargust’s crew, with very few exceptions, followed Campbell into DUNRAVEN and took part in the V.C. action with UC.71 on 8 August 1917. This action showed the caution with which submarines began to approach targets. The cruiser rules had been made obsolete when merchant ships were armed and ordered to ram submarines and the Q ships made all warnings excessively dangerous. The Q ship campaign was over because the trap secret was known and the service was wound down

SS Kish

SS Kish

April 1917

1 April Took over convoy of Oriana from HMS Daffodil and HMS Parthian,then took oiler Boxleaf from HMS Delphinium.

6 March Manchester Millar to HMS Poppy and HMS Daffodil

7 March SS Poncras to HMS Crocus

16 April convoyed Hochen Newton and oiler Aral

17 April convoyed SS Kish, SS Cairndul, Kish Torpedoed, sighted sub and attacked at full speed with depth charges, SS Irishman convoyed

18 April Sighted sub, used hydrophones, picked up survivors of Rhydween which capsized and sank.

25 April took over oiler Treck from HMS Bluebell

26 April took over convoy of Haverford from HMS Bluebell, coaling

30 April Passed floating wreckage SS Lakonia.

References

 

  • U Boat alley Roy Stokes, Compuwreck ISBN 0954918606
  • Danger Zone, Edward Keeble Chatterton, Rich & Cowan, London 1934
  • Shipwrecks of the Irish Coast Volume 3, Edward J Bourke, ISBN 0952302721
  • British Ships lost at sea due to enemy action, Patrick Stephens, ISBN 1852601345
  • Galway and the Great War
  • My Mystery Ships Gordon Campbell, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1928
  • Aud, Xander Clayton, Clayton, 2007.


Edward J Bourke

One thought on “WWI at sea off West Cork

  1. Lynette Dailey

    Very interesting reading. My grandfather was a salvage diver during the Great War and worked on ships Oriana, Manora and destroyer Mystic in the waters around Cushendon Ireland. Left a list of salvage ships but unfortunately no information.

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