Torpedoed ship sent to Ireland amid tensions

Today marks the 70th anniversary of sinking of Irish Oak. Historian Ryle Dwyer looks at the bad luck and controversy associated with that ill-fated ship

THIRTY-THREE survivors from the Irish Oak, which was sunk nine days earlier, were entertained at Leinster House on May 24, 1943. Ironically, this was the same day the Germans ordered all U-boats to be withdrawn from the Atlantic. The Battle of the Atlantic was over, but the bogus Allied complaints about Irish neutrality would intensify in the coming months.

The Irish Oak was one of two ships that the United States leased to Ireland under somewhat fraught circumstances in 1941. Frank Aiken, the minister for co-ordination of defensive measures, was sent to the US in Mar 1941 on a controversial mission to purchase arms and ships.

David Gray, the US minister to Ireland, urged the state department to ensure Aiken returned home thoroughly chastened, as Gray believed Aiken was pro-German. In a private letter to President Franklin D Roosevelt, Gray reported that James Dillon, the deputy leader of the Fine Gael described Aiken as having “a mind, halfway between that of a child and an ape”.

Aiken arrived in Washington on Mar 18, 1941, but was kept waiting for almost three full weeks before he got to meet the president, who treated him dismissively. He accused Aiken of being anti-British.

Shortly after the meeting began an aide entered the Oval Office and put a tablecloth and arranged cutlery on the president’s desk, but Aiken refused to take the none-too-subtle hint to leave. He had come too far and waited too long to be brushed off that easily. Aiken denied he was pro-Nazi, and the president suddenly jerked the tablecloth from the desk, sending the cutlery flying, and ending the meeting.

Aiken then toured the US and associated openly with some of Roosevelt’s bitterest political opponents. As a result Gray was instructed to tell Éamon de Valera that while the US would negotiate the transfer of a couple of ships, it would not deal with Aiken. Insulted by Gray’s attitude, the taoiseach was unwilling to negotiate with him for the ship.

Roosevelt was only trying to placate his Irish-American supporters. He publicly announced that the US would send $500,000 worth of medical supplies to Ireland.

“I’d hate like hell to think our nuisance value was only half a million dollars,” Aiken remarked to legendary pilot Charles Lindbergh, who was leading the opposition to the White House’s pro-British policies.

The Americans approached Robert Brennan, the Irish minister in Washington, with an offer of two impounded Italian vessels, but Dublin balked at this. Next, two American ships — the West Hematite and West Neris, which had lain idle in New Orleans for several years — were chartered to Irish Shipping Ltd. The two ships sailed from New Orleans en route to Ireland in Sep 1941.

The West Hematite, which was renamed the Irish Pine, made it to Ireland expeditiously and promptly began trading between the US and Ireland, until it was torpedoed by a U-boat on Nov 16, 1942, foundering within three minutes with the loss of all 33 of the crew.

The West Neris, which was renamed the Irish Oak, was in such poor condition it had to return for repairs several times before it could cross the Atlantic. It took it nine months to complete the journey from New Orleans to Dublin. The ship seemed plagued with bad luck.

On Oct 19, 1942, its captain Matthew Moran, 51, from Rosslare, fell from the gangway while boarding the ship in Dublin and received injuries from which he died four days later. While returning from Florida with a cargo of phosphates on May 14, 1943, the Irish Oak noticed that it was being shadowed a U-boat. Next morning at 8.40am it was torpedoed without warning about 800 miles (1,300km) from Cobh.

All 33 members of the crew managed to make it into lifeboats. The Irish Plane rescued them that evening. They were landed at Cobh on May 19.

Three of the survivors were from Cork — radio officer E F Whyte of Sunday’s Well, Cork; fireman J Kelly, of Margaret Place, Cork; and fourth engineer AJ O’Mahony of Railway St, Passage West. Tom Donohue of Dungarvan, second mate of the ship, went on to captain the MV Kerlogue, which rescued 164 German sailors in the Bay of Biscay some months later.

James Everett, the Labour deputy, brought up the sinking of the Irish Oak in the Dáil. He asked the taoiseach if the ship had warned a nearby British convoy of the presence of the submarine.

“It is not the business of our ships to give information to anybody,” de Valera replied.

The failure to inform the convoy led to questions in the British parliament. Douglas Savory, the Ulster Unionist member, called for all coal supplies to be cut off to the 26 counties in retaliation.

The following month Gray went to US for consultations. While there he tried to persuade Roosevelt and Churchill to formally ask for Irish bases, but the British and American military and naval authorities vetoed the idea, because de Valera was already secretly providing all the help they desired.

*Ryle Dwyer is author of Behind the Green Curtain: Ireland’s Phoney Neutrality During World War II

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