SUNDAY is the 70th anniversary of a remarkable episode in Irish maritime history. On the morning of Dec 29, 1943, a small, 142-foot-long Irish coaster, the MV Kerlogue, which was carrying a cargo of oranges from Lisbon to Dublin on behalf of the Wexford Steamship Company, steered towards the aftermath of a naval battle in the Bay of Biscay.
The battle had been over in minutes. Two Royal Navy cruisers had shelled a flotilla of German ships from distance, sinking a Narvik-class German destroyer and two torpedo boats. More than 700 Germans — some dead, others burnt and injured — were floundering in the ocean. The survivors clung to debris and upturned lifeboats in choppy, wintry seas.
A German warplane flew over the MV Kerlogue, dropping flares on its starboard side to alert it to the carnage nearby. The MV Kerlogue had reasons to disregard the plea. The Battle of the Atlantic was raging. People on land could see naval battles off the coasts of Cork, Kerry and Donegal. Dead bodies often washed up on Irish shores.
Ireland, or Éire, was neutral during the Second World War, but Irish merchant seamen were at peril: 149 men, of 800 on Irish ships, died, a higher fatality rate than in many combat units.
“Irish ships sometimes operated in convoy; sometimes they didn’t,” says Michael Kennedy, author of Guarding Neutral Ireland. “They were old ships, under a neutral state. Nobody really respects a neutral. The Allies didn’t want us in their convoys, although we straggled along with them; to the Germans, we were just another target to torpedo.
“Many of the Irish ships that went down were caught by torpedoes, because the Germans either went, ‘what the hell, sink them.’ Or they didn’t recognise what ‘EIRE’ written on the side of the ship meant.”
Months earlier, in October 1943, two unidentified planes had attacked the MV Kerlogue, 130 miles south of Ireland, even though it had sailed under lights, with an Irish flag, and had ‘EIRE’ painted in white letters on its deck and sides. For 25 minutes, cannon shells rained down on it. Several crew members were injured, including its captain, who fractured both his legs. The boat’s superstructure was destroyed, its lifeboats mangled. Water flowed into the engine room, but the pumps kept enough water at bay until the ship hobbled into Cork harbour.
Ironically, it was the boat’s cargo of British coal that saved it. The coal absorbed the cannon fire, and protected the hull. The flight logs of the planes, which were later identified as RAF Mosquitoes, are an example of the disorientation of a war: “Sighted and attacked, with cannon, 1,500-ton merchant vessel flying French flag and word ‘EMPO’ clearly discerned on starboard side — the word ‘France’ also on her bows. The vessel, which returned fire with cannon without effect, was left circling with smoke issuing from it.”
News of the botched attack reached the British war cabinet. It refused to accept responsibility, claiming the MV Kerlogue was off course. It did, however, sanction ex-gratia payments to the injured men.
When, two months after this attack, a patched-up MV Kerlogue responded to the Germans’ distress signal in the Bay of Biscay, its crew of 11 arrived at a horrific scene. It was 11am. For 10 hours, they hauled German bodies from the sea.
The Kerlogue bobbled in the heavy seas. Waves were as high as its masthead, which gave its crew a natural dropping mechanism for scooping men onto the boat with their bare hands and with grappling hooks. It was a harrowing chore. Dead men had to be thrown back overboard to make room.
Gary Roche, the father of Dick Roche, the former government minister and Fianna Fáil TD for Wicklow, was one of the Kerlogue’s crew members. He was blighted by nightmares from the episode.
“My father didn’t speak about it an awful lot,” says Dick. “It was a very painful memory for him. The thing that haunted him, he told me, was the men they had to leave in the water when Captain Tom Donoghue told them they had to head back. He very graphically described all the men, who were barely hanging onto life at that stage, and calling ‘comrade, comrade.’ I know that image stayed with him through his life.”
They had 168 Germans on the Kerlogue — in stores, along the alleyways, on the bridge, in the wheelhouse. There were 57 in the engine room, packed so tightly that the chief engineer was unable to move around to work the engines; he had to send signals across the engine room to the bedraggled Germans to carry out procedures.
Given the huge swells, the stability of the boat, which was low-lying, was challenged. “I remember, when I was a kid,” says Dick, “looking at photographs of the Kerlogue and asking, ‘Is that boat sinking?’ She was so deep in the water. It takes a lot of courage to cross the Bay of Biscay in winter in a tiny coaster.”
Spare clothes were given to the Germans. There was no doctor on board. Gary Roche administered first aid. “They ran out of gauze, so they had to use the gauze they used for greasing the engines,” says Dick. “They took it off the rolls and dipped it into seawater, which had salt in it that helped to ease the pain of the wounds.” The oranges were plundered to make hot drinks, to succour the wounded.
To avoid detection by Allied planes, the Germans had to be kept below deck during daylight.
There was a rumour, denied by Captain Donoghue, that the Germans tried to overpower the crew, and redirect the boat towards Brest or La Rochelle. “I’m just guessing here,” says Kennedy, “but it was a chance to get out of the war as well for the Germans. A U-boat later in the war — in 1945, the U-260 — was sunk off the coastline, near Courtmacsherry, and the men were told, ‘Sorry, lads, we hit a mine.’ But the officers said: ‘We hit something. The ship’s not badly damaged, but sink her, because if we go home the chances are we’ll be out on another patrol and we’ll be dead. The war’s nearly over. We’ll spend the rest of it in Ireland.’ Also, you have to take into account how exhausted the survivors were.”
The Kerlogue resisted radio calls from the British to land at Fishguard. By the time it reached Cork, four of the Germans had died.
Emergency services treated the survivors in Cobh, before moving them onto hospital, and to internment at the Curragh, Co Kildare.
Two of the Germans died while interned, and are buried at the German war cemetery in Glencree, Co Wicklow.
The Nazi German minister in Dublin, Dr Eduard Hempel, wrote a letter to Captain Donoghue, applauding him and his crew for their “exemplary deed, worthy of the great tradition of Irish gallantry and humanity,” and he sent a letter of thanks to the hospital matron at the Military Hospital, Cork Barracks.
A silver cup was also presented to Captain Donoghue, with the inscription ‘Bay of Biscay’.