Articles, Maritime History, Vessels

Irish Oak – torpedoed mid-Atlantic

The SS Irish Oak sailing under a neutral flag was sunk in mid-Atlantic by a (then) unidentified submarine on 15 May 1943.  There were allegations that she warned a convoy of the presence of a U-boat and complaints that she had not.  This sinking became an issue in the general election of June 1943; it led to diplomatic exchanges between the United States and Ireland; questions were raised in the House of Commons; there was a dispute between U-boat commanders in Germany.

Sunk by U-Boat U-607 in North Atlantic, 15th May 1943  Crew rescued by S.S. IRISH PLANE

Sunk by U-Boat U-607 in North Atlantic, 15th May 1943 Crew rescued by S.S. IRISH PLANE

Sunk by U-Boat U-607 in North Atlantic, 15th May 1943


Ireland had very few ships at the outbreak of World War II.  The United States instructed its ships not to enter the ‘war zone’.    Frank Aiken negotiated the bareboat chartering of two oil-burning steamships from the United States Maritime Commission’s reserve fleet.  The West Neris was renamed Irish Oak.  It was chartered by Irish Shipping and managed by the Limerick Steamship Company.   It was a dangerous time for Irish ships.  Eric Jones, who would captain the Irish Oak was captain of the Luimneach when she was sunk by U-46 on 4 September 1940.

West Neris

Southwestern Shipbuilding, San Pedro, was organized in 1918 to build cargo ships for the United States Shipping Board.  Following the war effort, it was leased to Bethlehem Steel in 1921 as a repair yard. The West Neris was delivered in December 1919.  As with the other ships from the yard, she displaced 5,589 tons; she was 125.1m long and 16.6m wide.

The West Neris had been laid up in New Orleans.  It had been neglected. There were many engine problems. She was renamed Irish Oak and sailed from New Orleans in October 1941. More problems were encountered.  Two of the crew were hospitalised: an engineer, O’Keefe of Dún Laoghaire was severely burned in a boiler room blow-back.  The Chief Engineer, R. Marsh of Dublin, suffered heart attack.  She called to St John for a grain cargo.  She remained for four months, while efforts were made to repair her engines.  Eventually she had to be towed to Boston.   The voyage to Dublin took nine months! She berthed in Dublin on 6 July 1942.

Encounter with U-650

The U-boats lost the battle of the Atlantic on 24 May 1943.  On that day, Admiral Dönitz ordered their withdrawal.   41 U-boats had been lost that month, “Black May”,  for 50 allied merchant ships.  A few days prior to their withdrawal, on 15 May 1943, the Irish Oak was lost.

The Irish Oak, with a cargo of 8,000 tons of  phosphate fertiliser was en route from Tampa, Florida to Dublin.  Smoke from an allied convoy was seen in the distance.  In general, Irish ships sailed out of convoy.  She reduced her speed.  Then, at 2.23pm a U-boat, U-650, came alongside.  There was no contact or exchange.  This continued all afternoon.  At nightfall, the Irish Oak turned on her lights, as a neutral should.  The U-boat, apparently satisfied that she was neutral departed.

The Irish Oak would be chided for not warning the convoy that there was a U-boat about.  Others would complain that there was a warning and that the Irish Oak was travelling in the convoy. As the U-boat was lower in the water she might have been unaware of the convoy, to transmit would have told the U-boat that there was a convoy nearby.  It would also have been a violation of her status as a neutral and would have provided an excuse for the U-boat to attack her.   During World War I, on 28 March 1917, the South Arklow Lightvessel Guillemot had warned of a U-boat.  The UC-65 surfaced and ordered the crew into their lifeboat and sank the Guillemot.


U-650 had departed during the night.   As dawn broke, next morning, at 8:19am two torpedoes hit the Irish Oak.   At the time, it was not known which submarine fired those torpedoes.  Its periscope remained visible as lifeboats were lowered.   The submarine waited until the lifeboats were well clear before firing a coup de grace at 9:31am.  The Irish Oak lies at latitude 47°51′ north, longitude: 025°53′ west, almost mid-way between Newfoundland and Ireland.  The Irish Plane, the Irish Rose and the Irish Ash responded to the SOS.  The survivors were located by the Irish Plane at 4:20pm.  They landed at Cobh on 19 May.

British reaction

At the time, it was not known which submarine sank the Irish Oak.  The survivors knew that it was not the U-650.  It was rumoured that it was an American submarine in retribution for failing to warn the convoy.  In the view of some “it served them right”.

In the House of Commons, Sir William Davidson called for a formal protest because the Irish Oak had not warned the convoy.  Professor Douglas Savory called for an end of coal exports to Ireland.

No official action was taken.  The reality was that Britain was dependant on Irish food exports.  Paul Emyrs-Evans revealed that the convoy knew about the U-boat!

Labour party reaction

An alternative rumour was encouraged by the Labour Party (Ireland).  When the sinking was discussed in Dáil Éireann, they focused on the possibility that a warning had been transmitted and demanded to know the nationality of the captain.

William (Bill) Norton Would the Taoiseach state the nationality of the master of the ship?

Éamon de Valera: I do not know it.

James Hickey: I think the Taoiseach should take a deep interest in finding out the nationality of the captains of our ships.

William Davin: Is the Taoiseach aware that a recommendation was submitted that Irish nationals should get preference for these ships?

(Norton, Hickey and Davin were of the labour party)

Luke Duffy, secretary of the Labour party said “… government was guilty of duplicity and near belligerency behind a facade of neutrality.  They had placed foreign nationals on the bridge of Irish ships …”

Although the Labour party increased its representation, Éamon de Valera remained in power.

American reaction

At the time, it was not know which submarine fired the torpedo at the Irish Oak, other than it was not the U-650.   Irish Shipping was negotiating a lease of the SS Wolverine from the United States.  The United States State department intervened asking why the Irish had not protested to Germany for the sinking.

The Irish replied that they protested other sinkings when the attacker was known.  They referred to the attack on the MV Kerlogue by two unidentified aircraft.  Initially denied by the British, but admitted when shell fragments of British manufacture were found.

No further ships were leased to or sold to Ireland.

German reaction

It was not until after the war that we learn that another U-boat, the U-607 which sank the Irish Oak.  This action and the report by U-607 were not well received.  They claimed that the Irish Oak was a Q-ship of, with false Irish markings, sailing without lights.  On this voyage, U-607 also claimed to have sunk 156,000 tons of shipping.  Berlin know that was a wild exaggeration.


U-607 was sunk on 13 July 1943 by an RAF Sunderland

A new Irish Oak was acquired in 1949.  It would be immortalised in Frank McCourt’s book “’Tis ”. Bill Norton would complain that it was to be British built.

Irish ships clearly marked and fully lit sailed out of convoy.   They always answered SOS calls for assistance.  They rescued 521 men; however 20% of Irish seamen were lost.

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