Arms ship anchors raised after 96 years

There are plans to make final diving preparations today to raise the anchors of the Aud, the arms ship scuttled in Cork Harbour on Easter Saturday 1916.

The remnants of the wreck — which had a cargo of some 20,000 rifles, mostly captured Russian weapons, extensive ammunition, and 10 machine guns — now lie in about 30m of water off Cobh.

Captain Karl Spindler and his crew of 22 sailed from the Baltic port of Lubeck on Apr 9, 1916, with weapons for the Easter Rebellion.

The 1,000-tonne ship, initially named the Castro, was built for a British shipping company. It was seized by the Germans in the Kiel Canal at the start of the First World War and renamed Libau.

The Germans changed the name again to Aud Norge in the hope of passing it off as a Norwegian ship of similar appearance. Spindler’s orders were to deliver the cargo of weapons to Fenit, just over 9km from Tralee, between Holy Thursday and Easter Monday 1916.

After the Aud had set sail, however, Pádraig Pearse asked that the cargo not be landed before Easter Sunday.

Roger Casement, who was due to travel to Ireland by a more direct route on a submarine, was supposed to meet the Aud along with a pilot to guide the ship to Fenit Pier. He and two Irish colleagues left Wilhelmshaven on the U-20, one of the most modern German submarines, on Apr 11, 1916. It was the U-boat that sank the Lusitania off the Cork coast the previous May.

Valuable time was lost when the U-20 developed a mechanical fault and had to return to Heligoland, where Casement and his colleagues transferred to the U-19 under the command of Kapitånleutnant Raimund Weisbach, who had actually been the officer on the U-20 who fired the torpedo that sank the Luisitania.

Due to the U-boat delay, the Aud arrived in Tralee Bay ahead of the submarine on the afternoon of Thursday, Apr 20. The ship travelled about the bay looking for the arranged signal, but it never came.

The U-19 arrived in the early hours of the following morning. Casement and his two colleagues were left off on a small boat at about 2am to make their own way ashore. As they approached Banna Strand the boat capsized, throwing the men into the water. Casement was already ill — suffering from a recurrence of malaria — so the drenching was the last thing he needed. While his two colleagues headed to Tralee for help, he went into hiding in McKenna’s fort on an open hillside.

A British naval party from the Setter II, an armed trawler, boarded the Aud at around 5am.

With the help of some White Horse whiskey, Spindler convinced the boarding party that the Aud was a friendly Norwegian cargo ship. The British captain informed him they were looking for a German steamer that was due to land arms. This was enough to convince Spindler that he should not hang around Tralee Bay for too long.

He decided to make for Spain. It seemed that Murphy’s Law — anything that could go wrong, would go wrong — was in vogue in Tralee that week.

When Austin Stack, the local commander of the Irish Volunteers was informed that Casement was hiding in a fort, he went out looking for him in the ruins of Ballymacquin Castle a few miles from McKenna’s Fort, which was not a derelict building but a ring fort.

Casement had not come back to assist the rebellion but to stop it, because he had concluded that the Germans were not prepared to provide the necessary help. For instance, they were only providing 10 machine guns.

The Irish Volunteers had planned to contact the Aud by radio but the men sent from Dublin to seize a radio transmitter in Valentia took a wrong turn outside Killorglin on Good Friday night and drove off the end of a pier.

Three of them were drowned.

By then, the Aud had long fled Tralee Bay. Even if the volunteers had got hold of a transmitter, they would not have been able to contact the ship because it had no radio.

The Aud was intercepted by the British Navy off the coast of Cork and ordered to put in at Queenstown (now Cobh). As it entered Cork Harbour under escort on Holy Saturday morning, Spindler ordered his crew to don their German uniforms and run up a German flag. They took to a couple of lifeboats and set off explosives within the Aud.

The explosion ripped the side of the ship beneath the water line. “The Aud, as if drawn down by an invisible hand, sank with a loud hissing noise,” Spindler wrote.

In subsequent years, the wreck of the Aud was depth-charged to ensure it was no danger to shipping. But the anchors still remain as a relic of that historic venture.

They are due to be restored in Tralee and will go on display in Fenit, more than 96 years after those anchors should have been lowered at the port for the delivery of the weapons for the Easter Rebellion.

* Ryle Dwyer is author of Tans, Terror and Troubles: Kerry’s Real Fighting Story, 1913-1923, Mercier Press.

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