MV Kerlogue, neutral Irish ship

The MV Kerlogue

by Marie-Claire McGann

The MV Kerlogue, was the smallest of three ships belonging to the Wexford Steamship Company.  She was built in 1939, just prior to the outbreak of the war.  Intended for coastal work, she was a mere 142 feet long, and able to carry up to 335 tons, but at that, her freeboard loaded was less than one foot.  Between her maiden voyage up until 1945 she experienced, being attacked by the allies, who allegedly mistook her for a French or Italian ship; being damaged by an acoustic mine; to saving friend and foe alike.  Through this, she continued to act as a cargo ship.  Sailing as a neutral, with the tricolour and EIRE painted large on her sides and deck, out of convoy, with full navigation lights.

Perhaps the most striking factor one thinks of when dwelling on all of the Kerlogue’s activities during these war years are not just great the number of lives she saved but that she saved lives from either side – highlighting Ireland’s neutrality during the war, and thus, making her actions thoroughly humane ones.

On the 2nd April 1941, German bombers attacked a British convoy.  A crippled collier, the Wild Rose of Liverpool was left behind.  The Kerlogue at the time was under the command of Captain Samuel Owens of Carrickfergus and was on passage from Wexford to Cardiff.  Seeing distress rockets she immediately altered course went to the aid of the Wild Rose.  Due to the bomb attack, her engines were disabled and her two lifeboats were unable to be launched.  Captain Owens took the English crew of twelve on board.  The Kerlogue took the Wild Rose in tow and beached her on Rosslare strand on the Wexford coast.  When the salvage case was heard in Dublin, Justice Conor Maguire stated that: “The master of the Kerlogue had shown enterprise and courage on the occasion”.

The 23rd October 1943 proved a trying time for the little ship.  On passage from Port Talbot to Lisbon the Kerlogue was attacked about 130miles South of Ireland by two unidentified planes.  We now know that they were Mosquito RAF planes.  Captain Fortune had both legs fractured.  Second officer Samuel Owens had severe shrapnel fragments embedded in his chest and Second Engineer James Carthy sustained a gaping back wound, to name but a few.  It was Chief officer Denis Valencie who then took command.  The twenty-minute attack not only seriously affected the crew, (Captain Fortune relied on crutches and suffered from wounds he received for the rest of his life) but also the ship. The entire bridge was destroyed, both lifeboats broken along with her compass and radio transmitter and water was overwhelming the engine room.  Thankfully the pumps were able to keep the inflowing water under control and she slowly limped into Cork.  It was her cargo of coal, which saved her.  Shells, which ripped through her deck, lodged in the coal and did not reach her hull.  Remnants of cannon shells were later found and taken away for examination and were thus found to be of British origin.  Eamon de Valera on the 2nd December 1943 made the following statement in the Dáil:

“They [British] informed us that the attacking plane did not identify the ship as Irish and at the time of the attack Kerlogue was sailing off course…The British government for that reason will no accept responsibility for the attack but are prepared to make a payment ex-gratia to the injured men.”

The Kerlogue was repaired in Cork following her attack and Captain Thomas Donohue took command.  It was under his experienced captaincy (he also commanded the Lady Belle when bombed and the Irish Oak when torpedoed) that the Kerlogue made her greatest rescue.

On a routine passage on the 29th December 1943, whilst sailing back to Dublin from Lisbon the Kerlogue was repeatedly circled by a German bomber, (actually a long-range reconnaissance aircraft) signalling ‘SOS’ requesting for help from the small ship.  She altered her course to the planes request.  At 11am the Kerlogue reached a truly ‘appalling scene’, the aftermath of a naval battle. A large destroyer, the 2,688-ton Z27, and two 1,318-ton torpedo boats had been sunk; more than 700 men.   The sea all around was littered with flotsam, corpses in life jackets and desperate men on rafts or clinging to wreckage.

Chief officer Valencie of the Kerlogue paints the scene best:

“As rafts rose into view on the crests of the giant waves we could see men on them and others clinging to their sides.  At first we did not know whether they were allied or axis until somebody noticed the long ribbons trailing downwards from behind a seaman’s cap which denoted they were German Navy men.”

Lieutenant-Commander Jaochim Quedenfelt who was the senior German officer rescued, described:

“The little ship bravely moving through the enormous waves to pick up more and more of my comrades”

For at least ten solid hours until well after the light gave up on them the crew from the Kerlogue pulled men unto their boat.  Bearing in mind the size of the Irish ship being a mere 142 feet long and a third of the size of her peers it is a remarkable feat of achievement for her to have saved 168 men (later 164 to arrive in Ireland as four died on board.)  There was no doctor on board but the crew of the Kerlogue gave the men first aid treatment to the best of their ability.  Frank Forde, in his book ‘the Long Watch’ notes that:

“…Cabins, storerooms and alleyways were soon packed with shivering, soaked and sodden men; others were placed in the engine room where it became so crowded that Chief engineer Eric Giggins could not move around to attend his machinery, and so by signs – as none spoke English – he got the survivors to move the instruments he could not reach…”

Quedenfelt requested that the ship travel to La Rochelle or Brest to land his men, however the Kerlogue refused and headed back to Ireland.  A notable factor was that the German Lieutenant-Commander did not force to be landed in France – and he so easily could have done considering the Germans numbers in comparison with the modest number of Irish crewmen.

Captain Donohue headed to Cork.  He should have gone to Fishguard.  Land’s End radio in Cornwall was broadcasting instructions to the Kerlogue to go Fishguard.  Due to the survivors’ bad state of health and few supplies, Cork proved to be the better option, as it was nearer.

The media barely seemed to get hold of the story – the Cork Examiner on Monday 3rd January 1944 printed a small paragraph on the rescue – but it was merely the statement the Government Information Bureau released.  The Germans proved very grateful and notable – sending a letter of thanks to the matron of the Cork hospital who cared for the German wounded.

After an exhausting trip the Kerlogue finally made its way back to Dublin on the 5th January 1944.  A letter from the German ambassador, Dr. Hempel, was delivered to Captain Donohue in which he expressed his thanks most beautifully:

“…To you and your crew my profound gratitude as well as my high appreciation of unhesitating valiant spirit which has prompted you to perform this exemplary deed, worthy of the great tradition of Irish gallantry and humanity…”

A silver cup was later presented to Captain Donohue with the words ‘Bay of Biscay’ engraved upon it.

The rescued Germans remained at the Curragh Internment Camp until the war was over.  Two of them, Petty Officer Helmut Weiss and Lieutenant Braatz, are buried in the German War Cemetery at Glencree, County Wicklow.

During the war, there were never more than 800 men serving on Irish ships.  149 of them lost their lives.  Many more were seriously wounded.  Few combat units had such a casualty rate.  While others were engaged in the business of war, these brightly lit and clearly painted ships plied the sea.  They were a reminder of another way of life.

In general, convoys did not stop, for even their own in the water, for fear of being torpedoed themselves.  However, these ships, with EIRE and the tricolour, the Kerlogue being one, thankfully did.

Speaking in Seanad Éireann on 27 April 1994, Senator Roche said:

“My late father was a seaman with the Wexford Steamship Company. He served the nation, like so many young men, through dangerous times in the war years. In every sense he and his colleagues put their lives on the line day after day, in ships which today would not be licensed to go on the high seas, to bring supplies to this nation. Many of his colleagues and friends and many people from Wexford and around the coast paid the ultimate price in serving this nation by losing their lives. The ships were so rickety, old and derelict that we would not go to sea in them today. Yet, these brave, perhaps foolhardy, men crossed the Atlantic, went to the Mediterranean and North African coast and kept Ireland supplied with vital provisions. My father’s ship, the Kerlogue, was involved in one of the great rescues of the war. One of the proudest possessions I have is a decoration awarded to him and other members of the crew for rescuing German sailors in the Bay of Biscay in December 1943, when they hauled hundreds of young men from the water and carried them, under threat from the RAF and the Royal Navy, to safety in Cork.

To commemorate this rescue, on 27th May 1994, six German Naval ships visited Dun Laoghaire.  There was a ceremony in the Old Mariners’ Church attended by President Mary Robinson.  Later some of the German survivors presented Richard Roche, member of the crew of the Kerlogue, with a painting of the rescue.

The Long Watch, Captain Frank Forde, isbn 1 902602 42 0
Oireachtas Debates, Seanad Éireann 27 April, 1994.

Additional material held in the National Maritime Museum, Dun Laoghaire.